Who invented the idea of a zoo? Whoever it was, I’m certain that they did so with the intent to replicate Congo. More specifically, the Epulu village in Ituri province.
Last weekend, Chelsie, Brandon, and I ventured out into the jungle for a brief visit with our friend, Joel. Fellow muzungu and cartographer extraordinaire, Joel lives six hours north in the Okapi Wildlife Reserve.
Somewhat of an outdoors enthusiast, I’m familiar with the woods. I’ve spent time in the Wisconsin wilderness, marveling at the deciduous trees and their color-changing leaves. I’ve wandered among the great, towering redwoods of California. I’ve been caught in showers of the Costa Rican rainforest. Never before, though, has this outdoorsy girl seen anything like Ituri. It’s a dense, tropical, rolling region of lush rainforest barely penetrated by civilization. The beauty of this place left me speechless most of the weekend, awed at God’s vast imagination to create such unrivaled flora and fauna.
I’ll spare you the minute details about the trip, sharing just two of my favorite memories:
- Visiting the Okapi Wildlife Reserve—the only natural habitat for this mystical creature which boasts the body structure of a horse, backside of a zebra, and tongue of a giraffe. Truly an extraordinary animal, the Okapi is native only t o Congo and sadly, is endangered. The natural predator of okapi are leopards. Even more dangerous, however, are the poachers willing to go to extreme measures to secure the pelt of this rare creature. The reserve exists to protect okapi, in their native environment, from poachers and leopards alike. As the only visitors to this reserve, we were able to not only see them, but the park rangers invited us to walk alongside these docile creatures and pet them.
- Trekking through the jungle. No doubt our hiking group resembled a circus train on parade. We were a sordid mashup, but oddly united with one goal. Our trek was led by a father-son Pygmy duo, field experts whose sustenance is hunted in this very forest (they traversed barefoot wearing minimal clothing, but well equipped with machetes to blaze the trail). Following the Pygmy duo, Michel—forest ranger—served as our protection (he donned full army attire and carried an AK47 lest we run into leopards, poachers, or rebels). Our lineup continued with the four wuzungu, copiously documenting our adventure. Next came Joel’s closest friend, Duga, born and raised in Epulu. The caboose of our circus train was Tembo (Swahili: elephant), local Pygmy and friend of Joel with a gift for tracking elephants.
More grueling than any one day on the Inca Trail, our hike through this jungle lasted 5 hours and left me more exhausted than a half-marathon. But it was completely worth it. Along the way we encountered, saw traces of, and heard noises from numerous animals including: forest elephants, chimpanzees, red-tail monkeys, bats, exotic birds, lizards, and fire ants.
My account is not embellished. Have you ever seen the Planet Earth DVD series? Do you recall the feature on forests? Filmed largely in the Ituri forest, it portrays (much more accurately than my feeble attempt) an inkling of the wonders here in Congo.