Rare | Central African Republic

The mother of all bais

Last month, Will Jones travelled across the border from the Republic of Congo to Sangha Lodge in Dzanga Sangha Special Reserve in CAR. Highlights include spending time with Rod and Tamar Cassidy, visiting the ‘mother of all bais’, and accompanying the Ba’aka net hunters on an excursion into the forest.   

For the more dedicated and adventurous of travellers to the Congo forest basin, one of the apex moments is a visit to the Dzanga Bai, in the Central African Republic. A local Ba’aka word, ‘bai’ means ‘forest clearing with water’, and Dzanga is the mother of all bais. As I discovered, it’s an experience best combined with another less understood apex moment: spending time with the Ba’aka and the net hunters of the forest.

Together with the Financial Times David Pilling, I travelled last month up the Sangha river by boat from Nouabalé-Ndoki in ROC, touching briefly into Cameroon and then into CAR, before finally completing a journey that I’ve been meaning to take since I first met Rod Cassidy in 2014, at a bar in Cape Town. At the time, Rod and his partner Tamar had already been running Sangha Lodge for five years and I was entranced by the stories of a lodge at what sounded like the end of the world. Bordering the Dzangha Sangha National Reserve on the eastern banks of the sleepy Sangha River, the lodge was, and still is, one of the remotest on the continent today.

It is a battle well worth the fight. My two apex moments happened over two consecutive days. The first was a walk through the forest to the Dzangha Bai, where we must have seen over 100 elephant feeding on the rich earthy salts and minerals of this forest clearing. You can see elephant, bongo and gorilla in this same bai, a rare combination. The Dzanga Bai is the largest of its kind and is something of a mecca for travellers of the utterly remote. The meditative state you reach when there for a whole day is intoxicating, often totally free of thought.

The other less obvious apex moment was sitting in the back of a pick-up with 15 Ba’aka as we made our way along dirt village tracks into the forest to forage and hunt small wildlife with nets, a traditional method. The sense of joy and warmth of the small band of hunters made my soul soar. It reminded me very much of the times I’ve spent with the Wahadzabe of northern Tanzania. I understand Daudi Peterson — who works closely with Wahadzabe — cried after visiting these close cultures on both sides of the Congo basin forests. I now know why.

Will will be returning to Sangha Lodge in the near future and hopes to spend a week on a longer forest hunt with the Ba’aka. If that and the opportunity to combine the experience at Dzanga Sangha Special Reserve with a trip to the Republic of Congo’s Ndoki and Odzala sounds just the ticket, please do get in touch with either Will Jones or Kyle de Nobrega.

All images except lodge shot © Will Jones | Lodge shot courtesy Sangha Lodge

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