Searching for a Dinosaur Named Mokele Mbembe in the Central African Forests of Lac Tele-Republic of Congo

May 2021: I have always been fascinated with Central Africa’s vast, ancient forests that are shrouded in mystery with tribes that continue to believe in superstitions and forest spirits such as the various pygmy tribes; Baaka, Mbuti, Aka and more. Additionally, many of these forests still teem with wildlife; gorillas, elephants, chimpanzees……..

The two Congo’s- Republic (RoC) and Democratic Republic (DRC) are where most of the rainforests of central Africa are located. It was for this reason that I decided to return to the Republic of Congo, a place I attempted to visit when I was 30 after my friends and I hired a motorized pirogue in Cameroon and traveled all day down the Sangha River to the RoC town of Bomassa to try and visit the Nouabale-Ndoki National Park only to be turned away by the park rangers because the park was evidently full and couldn’t accommodate un-announced tent visitors. Feeling rejected, we ended up traveling all the way back up the Sangha River to Lobeke National Park in Cameroon instead, where we saw all of the rainforest animals we could have hoped to see, which included a silverback gorilla that charged me.

Now it was time to return to the RoC and this time I needed an adventure unlike any other. I truly wanted to go off the grid and embark on an expeditionary type of trip. One place in the RoC really captured my imagination. A place I knew would not be easy to get to due to its sheer desolation; but it was too late. I was already hooked. The destination was Lac Tele, a mysterious and extremely remote lake formed by a meteorite deep in the abyssal zone of the Congolese old growth rainforest, where a dinosaur like creature-the Mokele-Mbembe is believed by the local tribes to live.

 

 

 

 

What is the Mokele-Mbembe?

The Mokele-Mbembe is reported to be some kind of swamp dwelling Sauropod as big as an elephant but with a long tail, huge teeth and a horn. It primarily lives in water and is most active at night and in early morning foraging on fruits and leaves. Even though it is not a carnivore it has a ferocious reputation as being territorial and is reported by local villagers to have killed humans on land and in their boats.

If the creature exists, it is less likely to be a surviving dinosaur and more likely to be a new species of giant reptile. Over the years there have been a concentration of sightings in and around the freshwater lake-Lac Tele. The lake is no secret and many adventurers and scientists over the last 100 years have been lured to Lac Tele in search of the elusive monster.

Where is Lac Tele 

Map showing the location of Lac Tele in Northern Republic of Congo

Of course, any self-respecting dinosaur creature that isn’t the Lochness Monster needs to live in a remote place that is extremely hard to get to. The Mobele-Mbembe lives in Lac Tele in Northern Congo, and it is no easy feat to reach this region. It involves days of travel just to get to the village where you must embark on an almost 40-mile hike to lac Tele. The only way to lac Tele is on foot. There are no rivers that flow into it and no seaplanes available in this part of Africa to fly to it.

The walk is not for the weary of heart. The trail is overgrown by thick old growth jungle and the trail is guarded by fierce bees, poisonous plants, biting ants and numerous other diseases such as Ebola and Malaria.

Map showing the location of Lac Tele in Northern Republic of Congo

Preparing for the Expedition

Planning for Lac Tele was not easy, and I almost gave up many times during the planning process because I just didn’t think the trip would be possible. I found a few Congolese travel agencies that advertised the trip, but the prices were outrageous, and I had my doubts if these companies had even been to lac Tele in the first place. The largest deterrent to planning the trip was the lack of available information. What little information did exist seemed to be contradictory. Plus, it seemed I could find no one that had actually been to Lac Tele.

One major challenge was trying to pinpoint the rainy season. The RoC seemed to have different rainy seasons depending on the region. I knew that the Lac Tele area was part of a large swamp forest prone to flooding and we needed to visit during the dry season for the trip to be possible. I found all kinds of contradicting information on the rainy season during my research. In fact, the month I planned on going, May, was considered the rainy season according to some reports I found.  I tried to reach out to the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), which helps manage conservation efforts for the Lac Tele Community Reserve, but I received no initial response. Eventually the WCS Director of the Lac Tele Reserve emailed me. Even though the Director had never been to lac Tele, he provided helpful information on the estimated costs of the expedition and most importantly he clarified the rainy season (September-January).  He also made it very clear that due to the inherent risks of this expedition, WCS did not support any tourist expeditions to lac Tele. This last bit of information, although a little worrisome, I confess made me want to go to Lac Tele even more.

After months of researching RoC and discussions with my co-traveler Shawn, we devised a tentative itinerary that we thought would get us to Lac Tele. Of course, this was all tentative, but every good expedition has a chance for failure. 

The most logical option to reach the Lac Tele region is to fly on the once per week Air Trans Congo flight from Brazzaville to Impfondo. The problem with this flight is that it can often be cancelled with little to no notice, and I had serious concerns about its reliability. The scheduled departure day of the week-Friday- also didn’t align with our itinerary since half of the team would be in Bangui, Central African Republic (CAR) on Friday.

The original travel plan was for one of my co-travelers to hire a piloted Cessna Caravan from Chad to meet us in Bangui, and to fly us to the remote RoC town of Impfondo, the base in which to start an expedition to Lac Tele, located approximately 500 miles from Bangui. Then an English speaking guide, Rauchi who I hired in Brazzaville, would travel overland to meet us in Impfondo. Even though one member of the team, Shawn spoke French very well and Shawn had previously traveled extensively around RoC, the additional english speaking guide would help us by assisting with additional trip logistics and translation services. Our guide had never been to Lac Tele but we had only two weeks to make the trip possible and I figured a guide would help us to save time at police check points, with organizing vehicles, boats, and be a buffer between us and villagers when negotiating prices in the Lac Tele Reserve. The plan to hire the Cessna Caravan and fly from Bangui fell through however, when my co-traveler who graciously offered to finance the plane, developed a leg infection shortly before the trip which prevented him from being able to join the Lac Tele expedition.

So instead, three other travelers and I decided it would be safer to begin our trip in Brazzaville, the capitol of the Republic of Congo instead of trying to brave the overland route from Bangui though the lawless, and potentially rebel controlled border region of the CAR to Impfondo. Even though traveling from Bangui would have been the much shorter route, we just couldn’t justify the risk. 

The Three Day Overland Journey to Impfondo

Day 1: After flying from Bangui, CAR to Brazzaville the night before, we started our journey to Lac Tele early in the morning. Our guide, Arold and the owner of Fram, Safari Tours, Rachy, who decided to join us because he really had ambitious hopes for taking tourists to lac Tele in the future, met us early at the hotel-530am to take us to the bus station.  The bus departed less than full at approximately 0730 and travelled all day on mostly good roads to the town of Ouesso, which is one of the last modern towns before you enter into the remote jungle outpost regions of northern Congo.

Loading our Bush Bus, always a chaotic scene 

Photo of vehicle ferry crossing Sangha River

Day 2: After one night in Ouesso we departed early the next morning on a vehicle ferry that transported our bus across the Sangha River to Enyelle. The trip almost came to an early end, when Shawn missed the ferry because he was picked up by a local policeman for not wearing his covid mask in public. 

This was an obvious ploy to get a bribe since no one else in Ouesso or in RoC wore a mask. One of our guides, Rachy stayed back to find Shawn while the rest of us remained on the bus with Shawns backpack.  Shawn and Rachy were able to cross the Sangha River on a passenger ferry and race ahead in a taxi to meet us at a mandatory bus stop at a police checkpoint in Pokola. From here we were able to continue our journey and we traveled the rest of the day on dusty, dirt roads through the rainforest to the small village of Enyelle. Along the way we passed a gorilla and a forest buffalo on the side of the road.

Photo of Bushmeat, in this case a dead monkey on a motorbike, was not hard to come by in Enyelle

Video of my co-traveler Jimmie dancing/singing with a group of 30 Aka Pygmies, who were hathered outside of our restaraunt in the dark were quick to dance with him.

Enyelle was the classic Central African rainforest outpost town with Aka pygmies coming and going from the forest bringing with them all kinds of bush meat and other forest products like a plant that one man gestured to me would make the penis strong. The Bantu people that live in town and are farmers, trade manioc and other crops to the Aka for bush products. Enyelle was interesting and had the feeling of a frontier town in the middle of nowhere.

Photo of Monkey Stew

Day 3: The next morning, we swapped the bus for the bush truck. The remaining road to Impfondo was rougher and required a 4wd vehicle. Sadly, the vehicle also was not as spacious as the bus and needless to say nowhere near as comfortable.

Video showing the crowded conditions of the bush truck. Jimmie is trying to sleep. 

Photo of me on the bush truck covered in dirt 

Since we were traveling down dirt roads and the truck didn’t have windows, we were constantly enveloped by thick clouds of dust. We ended up very grimy by the end of the truck journey. The last time I remembered being that dirty was when I rode the iron ore train in Mauritania. But as uncomfortable as traveling in public transportation in this part of the world is, I wouldn’t have it any other way. Nothing beats this type of travel and to go to lac Tele, there really is no other way anyways.

Impfondo Arrival

We arrived in the bush truck to Impfondo around 2pm tired and covered in dust. We didn’t have much time in Impfondo. Our guides had already pre-arranged a vehicle to take us to Epena and a motorized pirogue to take us to Boha Village. Our first stop in Impfondo was the Pioneer Christian Hospital to meet the American doctor and his wife, a nurse, who I had been corresponding with before leaving for Africa. They started the hospital and had been working in the area for a few decades treating local people with ailments ranging from malaria to leprosy. I just hoped they wouldn’t need to treat us for anything by the end of this trip. It was good to meet them, and they provided us a lot of insight into the region.

After visiting the Pioneer Christian Hospital, we went to the market to purchase rice, potatoes, noodles and other items for our expedition. Right as we arrived at the market area, we observed an interesting scene of two drunken pygmies fighting. Some of the locals were gathered around watching with interest. As the fighting intensified, a much larger Bantu man walked over exchanged some words with one of the pygmies and then threw him over his shoulder and walked off down the street effectively ending the fight leaving the spectators to cheer and laugh.

Over the course of the next two hours at the market, we purchased about 100USD worth of provisions that we imagined would feed us and an estimated 4-5 porters/guides for the expedition. Once we completed our purchases, we were off on the 2.5-hour drive to Epena along an old broken road that Brazilians had made.

We arrived after dark to Epena and went straight to the WCS office where the director of the Lac Tele Reserve was surprised to see us, since we didn’t announce our arrival in advance. I explained to the director what our plans were, and he allowed us to camp in the WCS grounds for the night. After setting up camp we joined the WCS director for a beer at a local bar.

The director was new, and he confessed that he was still learning about the reserve. He did warn us however that we needed to be very delicate in our interactions with the villagers in Boha village when organizing the trek to Lac Tele. This was something that I was aware of when researching for the trip. I had heard of reports from travelers that made it to Boha village only to be denied permission to enter the forest or charged insanely high prices. I also read that villagers treated the Mokele-Mbembe with spiritual like reverence and we needed to be careful to avoid disrespecting their beliefs in anyway.

Boat Trip to Boha Village

Video of the bird that woke me up in the morning outside my tent to try and mate with me.

Photo of the Lac Tele Reserve map posted in the WCS HQ. Our route was by boat from Epena to Boha, then back to Epena and onward to Mboua village enroute back to Ouesso. 

Day 4: The next day, I was awakened early in the morning by this weird sound. It was getting louder outside my tent. When I opened my tent, this bizarre looking bird was roaming around, and it seemed to have no fear of humans. In fact, as we were packing up our tents, the creature appeared to try and mate with me.

Epena was the end of the road. For now, on the only way to get around was by boat through the vast network of swamps and by foot. We registered with the reserve in the morning, paid our entrance fees of 15,000 CFA/day/person and paired with an accompanying park ranger, who came with an Ak-47 (10,000 CFA/day). The ranger had never been to lac Tele before, and we later discovered from the villagers in Boha that they have never allowed WCS rangers to visit lac Tele. Once the reserve formalities were finished, we departed via our motorized pirogue for the 5-hour journey to Boha village, with two motors that I requested in case one motor broke down-which unfortunately is an all-too-common phenomenon in Africa. We passed through waterways with brown waters, swamps, scattered villages, random huts and families fishing or traveling by dugout canoe.

Photo of a family fishing in the Lac Tele Reserve

Boha Village

Boha village consists of three different villages of approximately 300-400 people of Bantu origin. The village is very traditional and does not have any electricity or cell phone reception. The people of Boha village believe they are the traditional caretakers of the Lac Tele Forest and they believe they have a special if not spiritual connection to the Mokele-Mbembe.

Photo of one of our tents posted up in front of the chiefs house

We arrived at Boha Village and immediately the villagers came to the waterfront to meet us. We were quickly greeted by one of the village chiefs and several adults helped us carry our bags and the plastic chairs we used in the boat to the house of a man we were told was the chief. 

It was never really clear to me if there was one chief or a council of chiefs in Boha village. It quickly became clear that we had a lot of arrangements to make with the village before entering the forest, if we would even be allowed to enter the forest. So, we set up our tents in front of the chief’s house.

Photo of Ruth showing the village kids their polaroid photos

We went to task, along with our guides discussing the logistics of the trip to lac Tele with the chief.  However, our planning was constantly being disrupted by visits from the village children or by side discussions from curious villagers. No less than a hundred village kids gathered around our tents to giggle at us. I brought out my polaroid camera and took photos of the kids, which was a huge hit with them. 

Since I was limited in film, I would photograph the kids together and give each photo to the biggest kid in the group to avoid any fights. While we explored the village, swam in the river with the kids, the guides continued the trip planning discussions with the chief.  Every 30 minutes or so, one of our guides would deliver new shocking news regarding our trip ranging from; we do not have enough food, we need more porters, we need to pay more, and the most shocking news of all-we need to carry all of our water because there isn’t a lot of water on the trail. This was not what I expected. In my research for the trip, I had read reports and even the WCS Director had told us that we would be walking along a thin strip of land surrounded by swamp water through the forest. I expected plentiful water and swimming every afternoon once we reached camp. It turns out that we were way of the mark on this assumption. This was not good news, but we came too far to turn back.

We expected to hire approx. 4-5 porters. We brought enough food with this in mind. Now we were informed that we had to hire more porters to carry our water and purchase additional food which we would need to feed the additional porters. The total number of people in our team now excluding us and our guides was 12 people. The porters also insisted on eating manioc and meat. This the chief said was essential for providing them sufficient energy in the forest. Our food the chief said was inferior. The chief asked us to rent a gun so the villagers could hunt for bush meat. We weren’t big fans of this idea. The chief had previously told Shawn that the village hunts gorillas because it is their custom. With the thought of the villagers using a gun that we rented to hunt gorillas or other endangered species, and potentially endangering us with stray bullets, in the most delicate manner possible without offending the chief, we opted not to rent the gun. Instead of renting the gun, we settled on agreeing to buy sardines from a nearby village. The chief, Shawn and our guide would go to a nearby village that has canned sardines and purchase them early in the morning. We ended up buying 70 USD of additional sardines and manioc for the porters. The chief also mentioned the team would supplement their protein intake by fishing in lac Tele and by spear hunting in the forest. Everyone now seemed to be in agreement with our plan.

Photo of village kids presenting to me a gift of captured birds

Later on, that night one of the village children somehow managed to slice their hand wide open with a machete. The villagers came to retrieve us to ask us for medicine and to stitch the child’s wound. With our very limited medical supplies, we weren’t able to do much to help the child. The wound looked very serious and despite this the adults nearby looked unconcerned. Shawn with his medical background helped bandage the child’s hand and provided him some pain killers. We also provided some money to the parents of the child to take him to Epena the next day so that he could see a doctor. It was heart breaking that we couldn’t do more for the child.

Animistic Rituals for Protection in the Forest

The chief explained that we would need to conduct a ceremonial ritual the next morning and that we would leave after 12pm once the ritual is complete. The ceremony was necessary it was explained to ensure that we followed the traditions of the village to enter the forest.  Without following the traditions, we wouldn’t have the protection of the village ancestors and forest spirits such as the Mokele-mbembe. Judging by the churches in the village, the people seemed to follow a hybrid religion that I have seen often around the world-a mix of ancestral animistic beliefs with that of Christianity, Hinduism, Buddhism or Islam. In the morning, we were instructed to carry the plastic chairs that we brought with us from Epena to a grove of trees in the village. There we sat in a row facing the tribal council of village chiefs. The chiefs sat before us wearing tattered western t-shirts and shorts and holding 8-foot-long spears. Situated behind us and to our sides were 30-40 other villagers.

Photo of our porters and us standing before the Boha Tribal Council during the forest ritual

Day 5: The ceremony began with the chiefs taking turns speaking in the Bomitaba language, which no one in our party even our Congolese guides could speak. Shawn on occasion would hear a French word that was mixed into their native language along with their intonations and non-verbal’s, which he could occasionally translate. During the next hour, we went through the time-honored tradition of presenting a gift of alcohol and money to the tribal council. We did this in three different locations in the village, which we were told represents the three different villages that consist of Boha. The chiefs then asked our porters and the chief who had joined our party to Lac Tele for information on the logistics and fees we were paying for our trip. At this point the villagers became more involved and some commotion followed. I half expected for the tribal council to possibly revoke our permission to enter the forest at this point. We were all on our best behavior despite not fully understanding what was going on.

The tribal council then spoke among themselves as if to vote for our approval to enter the forest. When the council shifted gears to discussing the rules of the forest, which the chief in our group translated in French to Shawn and our guides, we were relieved to know we had been approved to enter the forest. 

Rules of the Forest

The council announced some of the forest rules to us. I have a feeling there were many more not covered at the time. We were told that breaking the rules could result in paying a fine or maybe even the loss of our lives.  These were some of the rules of the forest that were declared:

 

  • No fighting in the forest 
  • While hiking there will be two men with spears. One will lead the front of the group and the other will bring up the rear. At no time are we allowed to pass the spears. At camp the spears will be planted at the trail entrances, and we are not allowed to pass them at any time. 
  • No fetishes or good luck charms were allowed into Lac Tele. We were instructed to leave these behind. Supposedly a Japanese man entered the lake with a fetish on his neck. Once he entered the lake the fetish disappeared. Then upon his return to Japan he died, supposedly for breaking this rule.
  • Lastly, we were not allowed to bring any of the water from lac tele with us to the outside of the forest.

At the end of the ritual one of the chiefs lit a fire and explained that it was his job to stay back in the village to ensure that the fire remained lit. He explained that as long as the fire remains lit, we will remain safe inside of the forest.

Departure Into the Forest-Abyssal Zone 

At approx. 1pm we were finally ready. We filtered water for the hike and set off walking through the manioc fields and then we were swallowed by the canopy of the great Congolese rainforest where we would remain for the next 5 days.

The trail was barely visible and was overgrown with branches, vines, and vegetation making it difficult to follow at times. The villagers established a blistering pace from the beginning and we struggled to keep up with them while trying to stay on the trail and avoid tripping over the many trail hazards. We wore hiking boots, quick dry pants and long sleeve shirts to protect us from thorns, poisonous plants, biting ants and even poisonous snakes if any were encountered. The villagers meanwhile wore flip flops, torn shorts and shirts and barely carried anything of their own into the jungle. We carried water containers with 5 plus liters of water, while the villagers barely carried any water for themselves. I carried a handheld GPS device that not only could track our progress but lead us back to the village our to our last waypoints if we became lost. I could also send and receive satellite messages from my wife our send out a SOS during an emergency with our exact GPS coordinates. The villagers carried the map of the forest and the path to lac Tele ingrained into their memory.

Photo of one porter walking through the overgrown trail that we hiked on for 5 days 

We hiked about 5 miles the first day and arrived at a campsite swarming with bees. This campsite we were told was the last place we would be able to obtain water until 3 pm the following day. This was problematic because the pool of water was exceptionally muddy and would be impossible to filter without clogging the filter.

The Decision to Place Our Trust and Lives into the Hands of the Villagers

Photo of my boots in camp covered in bees. The bees were attracted to the salt in our sweat and clothing. When they felt threatened they would release their painful stingers into your skin. They also had a habit of crawling up your shirt or down your pants and stinging you in the more tender areas of the body.  

At first glance our campsite didn’t appear to be a campsite. It was more of a slight widening of the trail with some evidence of a recent fire in the middle.  The porters placed the spears at the beginning and end of the trail outside the campsite and we were scolded on a few occasions for trying to venture passed the spears to go to the bathroom. The stinging bees were relentless and swarmed occasionally stinging us. I kept thinking about the possibility of any one of us developing anaphylaxis from being stung too many times. Thankfully no one had a bee allergy. Nonetheless, I set up my tent and waited out the bees which would magically disappear as soon as the sun set.

Photo of a typical campsite in the rainforest. Our guide would cook our only meal of the day at night typically of rice with butter, potatoes, onions. We would sleep in tents and the villagers would lay fresh leaves on the ground and sleep out in the open. Luckily it didn’t rain while we were in the forest. 

The most important thing we realized after hiking on the first day is that we sweat a lot and we drank more water than anticipated.  Knowing that we needed to hike approx. 20 miles the following day and that we needed more water, we decided to boil some of the muddy water at our campsite.  At this point in the journey with our water concerns weighing heavily on my mind, I seriously considered turning back. We didn’t have enough water to make it the whole 20 miles. The porters were using our water wastefully for cooking and I had nightmarish visions of hiking all day deeper into the forest only to arrive extremely dehydrated and without water, if the water the chief promised wasn’t there. We all went to bed that night feeling demoralized.

We brought our water concerns to our guides and to the chief. I explained that we need to find a better source of water. The chief insisted that we could get clear water the following day around 2pm and that we had enough water with the porters to last us until then.

We had concerns about the chief’s claims of water. It had been over a year since he had been on this path. Was the water really clear? Was it even there at all? I know from experience that tribal people in remote parts of the world possess a survivalist mentality. They are culturally and physiologically adapted to their harsh climates and terrains and because of this they may push matters to the edge with little concern. But we were not adapted to this place and the edge for them could be the end for us.   

We had to make a decision. Do we turn back and play it safe?  But what about our goal of reaching Lac Tele which I’ve been planning for months, or do we keep moving forward and trust the chief?  I thought about all of the times I was in a similar situation with other tribal people in extreme far-flung places of the world. I always learned to place my trust in the tribe, and I followed their instructions to survive. In the past this worked out for me despite my fears and so I believed we could trust the chief and be ok.  But just in case, I tried to have a backup plan available. Our plan was to send a runner, one of the villagers who is strong and agile to Lac Tele to get us water if for whatever reason water was not available ahead as planned.

Photo of the Shawn and I filtering water from the gravity filter.

Photo of the our filtered water that was always a dark yellow color. 

Day 6: The next morning we hiked 28 miles with a soldier like mentality of accomplishing our mission.  I scratched my eye on a branch extending out over the trail as they often did. Despite our very known and vocalized water worries, we observed a porter dumping out a water container on the trail. We were beyond shocked by this and immediately asked why. The porter’s response was,” there is water up ahead”.  Luckily as the chief predicted water did await us. Right as our own water supplies began to run dry, we arrived at a few standing pools of yellowish water- slightly on the muddy side-but much clearer than the water we encountered earlier on the trail.  We still had at least a day of hiking to get to Lac Tele, so we filled every water container we had. I had at least 6 liters carrying capacity for water in my various containers.

Save the Best for Last-The Swamp Forest

Photo of the the swamp forest  

Day 7: On our third day of walking, we were beat. The previous day we walked about 20 or so miles and we were dehydrated. Shawns sister, Ruth was feeling sick, and I scratched my eye pretty bad. We knew we were getting closer to the lake from my GPS tracker and per the chief, but we were receiving conflicting reports on how long it would take us to get to lac Tele. We heard we would arrive anywhere between 10am to sometime in the afternoon. We soon found out why the arrival estimations fluctuated so much. Up until now the trail was dry and on firm ground.

As we approached within 5 kilometers of the lake, the trail gave way to a trail-less swamp forest with a mess of tangled roots, pools of mud and quicksand.  In the beginning, we started hiking together but soon we learned that this would be impossible. Anyone in front or behind you more than 50 feet dissapeared into the forest. Soon Jimmie and I found ourselves alone in the forest. There was no one around to guide us and no sign of the others. Our water was almost out and even though we were sorrounded by water it was all mud. Like a ghost, one of the porters suddenly appeared in front of us and gestured for us to follow. He carried a heavy pack and wore flip flops, which he already had to  sow back together once with metal wiring when they broke.  We had boots and carried day packs yet we could barely keep up with him as we constantly sank into the mud or quicksand. Once when I sank into quicksand I had to pull myself out with the walking stick the chief made for me to keep from sinking deeper.

My biggest worry was breaking a leg or coming across a venemous snake as we were constantly grabbing on to trees, vines and stepping in between logs without a chance to first inspect for snakes. We were all sopping with sweat and exhausted. This was by far the hardest part of the trek. The porter, now leading us, would go ahead, disappear for a while in the forest only to reappear and wait for us. On occasion when I sank up to my waste in the mud, I would hurl out an obscenity and the porter would find humor in this. After about three hours of suffering through the swamp, the porter started to motion for us to be quiet. I wasn’t sure why. Then suddenly the hellish forest gave way to the most magnificent sight of the whole trip-Lac Tele. We finally arrived!  As we kept walking closer all of the porters were waiting at the lake, and all were gesturing to us of the custom to keep quiet and approach the lake with respect. I never did receive a good explanation for this custom.

Lac Tele-Why Did I just Hike 40 some Miles to get to a lake?

Photo of  lac Tele with a few of us swimming in the lake

Words can’t describe the relief I felt when I finally laid eyes on lac tele. The trophy of reaching the long-awaited lac tele had been reached, a place that so few other foreigners had ever been to. Despite my many concerns that we wouldn’t actually reach it, we finally arrived. The small clearing in the forest on the lake shore wasn’t impressive and needed to be groomed with machete to clear room for our tents. And the bees began to swarm and bite. But I didn’t care about any of this. I dropped my pack, shed my sweaty clothes and jumped into the magical lake. As I walked into the lake, I asked a porter about crocodiles, and he laughed. I’m not sure if this meant the lake was safe or not but at this moment I didn’t care. I went in. I noticed how warm the lake was right away and as I walked out a hundred feet, the lake’s depth only went as high as my chest. The bottom of the lake was muddy and full of debris.

Jimmie and I stood in the lake for about an hour. It was 1pm and we had been hiking since 6am. There still was no sign of the others. I began to become concerned about them and so did one of the guides who was with us. Luckily Shawn and Ruth emerged, although exhausted and beaten from the swamp. We had all made it to lac Tele. As excited about this as I was, I knew it was too early to celebrate. As they say most mountain climbing fatalities occur on the way down. We still had to hike all the way back to Boha village.

Photo of one of our porters fishing in Lac Tele

The best part of Lac Tele was the incredible sunset which was easily visible over the lake. I looked out over the lake and wondered how many countless species existed in the lake and surrounding forest that are completely unknown to science. 

Fisherman at sunset  

Campfire Stories About Mokele Mbembe

Photo of our campsite on lac Tele while the chief told stories of Mokele mbembe around the campfire.  

We looked out over Lak tele for the Mekele Mbembe but there was no sight of anything remotely close to a Lochness monster with a hump protruding from the water. At night I asked the chief if he could tell us some stories about the Mokele mbembe. He stated that he could and that the stories of Mokele mbembe must be told around the campfire. 

The night sky was alight with a canvass of stars, and I imagined our bonfire was just a small speck of light in the vast dark forest that surrounded us. This created the perfect setting to listen to campfire stories about a mysterious magical dinosaur. I asked the chief to explain what Mokele mbembe looks like. He spoke among the other porters and after some deliberation he explained that no one in the group has seen one. He explained that only the older generation has seen one. He did say however that even though they haven’t seen one they believe it still exists and that when they are in the lake, they can feel it watching them. I asked them where it lived. The chief responded that it lives in the deepest parts of the middle of the lake. This he said is where they don’t like to go.

I asked the chief where the pygmies were. Shawn and I expected to see Aka pygmies living in Boha village but there were only Bantu people.  This started some discussions among the group again. Then he answered that sometime ago the pygmies did live in the area, but they hunted one of the Mokele mbembes. They divided the meat up among the tribe and most ate some of the meat. Afterwards all those that ate from the meat died and the remaining pygmies left the forest and have not returned out of fear.

I wondered if we missed the window of seeing the Mokele Mbembe. Maybe some are still alive but likely if there ever were any, they were gone by now.  I later found out that the 80s was a good time to go on an expedition looking for one.

After the trip, I discovered that a 85-year-old missionary doctor, who is connected to a friend of mine from Minnesota, spent almost 40 years in the RoC, including the region of Lac Tele. He spent time in Boha village in the early 80s but he didn’t go to lac Tele. A village chief during that time showed him a place in the jungle where the mokele mbembe tracks coud be found. He observed enormous reptilian footsteps in the mud and took a polaroid photo of them. The villagers at the time told him that the Mokele mbembe was numerous and would go to Lac Tele as well as to other areas in the swamp forests.

Also in the 80s, this same missionary doctor helped two different scientific expeditions visit Lac Tele. He didn’t join them, but he worked closely with the expedition team to help them reach the lake. Both teams made it to the lake and reported seeing Mokele mbembe. In one expedition grainy night photos were taken but were not conclusive evidence. The second expedition took video footage and had a terrifying encounter with the beast in a pirogue. However, the footage was not recorded because the Lense cap was not removed.

 

That night we didn’t see the Mokele mbembe but as the chief was telling stories by the campfire, I did see something mysterious that I couldn’t explain. A bright light too big and too bright to be a lightning bug appeared over the lake and zig zagged too quickly to be anything of insect origin. Then as soon as it appeared it was gone.

Exploring the lake

Photo of a fisherman gliding across lac tele  

Day 8: The lake in the morning was serene and beautiful.  Some of the porters took us out in dugout canoes, which were flimsy and always on the verge of tipping over and they showed us that they were what any Congolese person that lives in this part of the world is-a natural born stand up paddle boarder. Everyone from child to elderly women seem to have an uncanny ability to stand up on a pirogue and effortlessly paddle along with a huge wooden oar.  We paddled into a few swamp inlets where lily pads choked the water. A giant spider fell on Jimmies lap. Then we went to a fishing hut where fisherman from the village come to stay and fish for a few weeks before returning to Boha village. The fish of lake Tele are heavily prized because they are believed to have medicinal qualities. We found out that earlier in the morning one of our porters saw a gorilla on the lake shore. We were hoping to see a gorilla since there are reported to be 100,000 of them in these forests. Gorillas are a popular meat for the local people throughout Congo because the people believe that when they eat a gorilla, they absorb the strength of the animal. The villagers all claim they are common in the forests.

 

 

Photo of Jimmie and I traveling around Lac Tele in the pirogue

Photo of me in the pirogue on lac Tele

On our second day in the forest, we walked across a fresh gorilla bed, which the chief claimed was used only an hour or so before we arrived. On the lake, we saw a lot of random monkeys screeching at us from the treetops, but we didn’t see any large mammals. The lake is known for its large pythons, but I wasn’t fortunate to catch a glimpse of these either. I regret not offering to pay one of the porters to find one for me. I have a feeling they would have succeeded.

Photo of our pirogue on Lac tele

Photo of the front of our boat on the shore of lac Tele

The Long Torturous Walk Back

It was the time we all dreaded. We knew we had to head back, and the worst part of the return would be the walk through the dreaded swamp forest. This time I made sure to keep the whole group together. Our guides stayed with us, and I even offered a porter a tip to ensure that he stayed with us to avoid a repeat of being left alone in the forest which had momentarily happened to us the day before.

We loaded up on filtered water from Lac Tele. The return trip through the swamp forest, albeit still brutal wasn’t as bad as the first trip. We were better trained on where to step and not to step. I sank fewer times up to my waist, but I did still manage to get my boots wet. We hiked for another few hours until we came to an open area surrounded by huge trees that the chief proclaimed would make a good campsite for the night. The chief explained that we only had one day left of food for the porters and that this was a problem. We shared our rice and noodles with the porters, but this was still not enough to feed 12 people.

Throughout the trip, the villagers would ask us for medicine for their pain. Our park ranger was now having stomach problems and he was asking for anti-diarrheal meds. Our guide Arold was having skin rashes, so we gave him antihistamines. My advice for anyone else that visits lac Tele is to bring alot of medicine.

If there ever was a night when we needed a good night of sleep it was on this night. The next day we had 20 plus miles of walking through the jungle, and we knew we were going to be dehydrated since it was too hard to carry all the water we needed. Even if the porters carry the water for us, they are hard to find on the trail and they will probably dump water to avoid carrying it as they had done before.  As we were going to bed, we could hear the raucous sounds of a group of chimpanzees nearby. Since it never rained and it was cooler to do so, I never put my rain tarp over my tent. This also allowed me to fall asleep at night while staring up at the stars through the forest canopy overhead. While I was falling asleep, the loud thud of a falling tree resonated through the forest sending the chimpanzees back into a frenzy. This was the exotic and magical Africa that I love.

Day 9: Sleep wasn’t easy to come by. In the middle of the night, the chief and some porters awakened us with laughing and the loud cutting of wood with their machetes. They managed to spear a bush antelope in the forest, which they also did a few nights before. Now they were going to cook it over the fire and eat it for breakfast.  They also found a beehive which was rich in wild honey. They filled up a 1-liter water bottle with delicious honey, which I tried in the morning. This was our revenge on the bees for stinging us all week.

Shawn and a few others saw the chimps early in the morning with the chief and one of the porters who is an expert tracker.  Then we broke camp at 6am and began our 20 mile plus hike.  After a few hours we stopped to filter water at the last remaining water spot.  This was stressful as the chief was pressuring us to hurry so that we could keep our schedule. To ensure that the porters wouldn’t dump our water, Shawn carried a huge jug that contained at least 3 gallons of filtered water in his backpack. The chief was not happy with this. He argued with the porters that it was their job to carry the water for us.  The chief expressed his concern that Shawn would overexert himself. But Shawn was not going to risk running out of water and for good reason since the porters had demonstrated a poor track record thus far.

Photo of our group collapsed in exhaustion somewhere along the trail. We would take ten minute breaks every 3-4 hours in between mad dashes through the forest. 

The day was proving to be long and hard-definitely one of the hardest single days of hiking that I have endured in my lifetime. The chief anticipated we would arrive in Boha village around 7pm but we had to walk fast. We walked as we often did at a blistering pace. This was dangerous as we became more tired. Careful attention was required to avoid tripping, twisting an ankle or breaking something while hiking in the forest. The chances of an accident became more likely as we grew tired. The whole group was excited to get to Boha village. We were excited to leave the discomforts of the forest behind and the porters were excited to return to their families and food.   We had our sights set on the village even though we knew it was going to destroy us to get there.

Breaking the Custom of Entering the Village at Night

As we neared delirium towards the end of the day, and we became spread out from one another, I heard the guide and the chief bickering loudly. By now one of the porters had agreed to take Shawn’s giant water jug and stay nearby so Shawn could drink freely from it. The other porters began to carry some of our day packs. There was talk that the chief was not happy about us entering the village after night. Evidently there is a custom that non-villagers cannot enter the village at night. Our plan, which we thought was acceptable, was to arrive at the village and depart by our boat to Epena at night. Our guides claimed the boatman was waiting for us at Boha village and was ready to go at a moment’s notice. We all hoped to return to Brazzaville as soon as possible to catch our departing flights home or to other places in Africa. But it began to become more evident that this plan was going to be problematic. We didn’t want to create problems, so we discussed camping in the forest an hour or two away from the village, but it was too late for this idea.  The porter with my tent was long gone ahead of the group and no one was going to catch up with him and the other porters were not happy about a night spent in the forest with little food.

We finally arrived at the village at dusk. The village was dark with no electricity but as soon as word of our arrival spread many of the villagers and especially the children came up to greet and cheer for us. The feeling of accomplishing our goal was a mixed one of euphoria and sheer exhaustion to the brink of feeling sick. I had started coming down with a cold which didn’t help matters. Even though we were on the verge of collapse, some of us still hoped to depart by boat to Epena. However, the village tribal council had other plans. Our late arrival did cause a lot of contention among some in the village and the chief that guided us into the forest explained that we had been summoned to the ritual spot to stand before the village council. We could barely walk or stand.  We dumped our packs and returned to the same ritual spot where we stood before the council just five days before. We wanted to sit but our guides advised to stand in order to show our respect since the tone of things seemed to become rather serious. After 20 minutes of standing around and waiting, we were told that we would not go before the village council tonight but tomorrow morning instead at 6am. We were also told we could not leave tonight as our guide had discussed. We were effectively held captive.

Photo of Shawn and I being sentenced before the tribal council 

Day 10: After a night of sleep, we felt much better in the morning. A lightning storm for the first time on the trip threatened us in the near distance. At sunrise we were summoned with our plastic chairs to go before the tribal council to determine our penalty for entering the village at night.

Photo of the tribal council trying to determine our punishment

In what seemed like typical POW fashion, we were lined up in our plastic chairs before the village council who sat in their traditional African wooden stools facing us with 6-foot spears by their side. The fire that was lit to protect us before we left was still lit. The villagers came and now 50 or so people stood to all sides of us. We were lined up along with our porters and the chief who guided us. It appeared we were all on trial. Arguments began to break out between villagers, our porters and the council.  Voices were raised and shouting was exchanged back and forth. Even though most words were in Bomitaba  occasionally French was spoken and Shawn translated. It seemed the village council and many villagers were not happy with us entering the village at night and they wanted us to pay a hefty penalty. Now some of our porters dressed in their finest clean clothes after a week in the forest, stood beside us and spoke in defiance to the other villagers. They defended us by saying we ran out of food and the decision to return the night before was done so in their interest and that Shawn’s sister, Ruth was also sick and that we needed to leave the forest for her sake.  A few others in the audience were not satisfied. One group of men drinking some kind of homemade moonshine seemed very offended. This back and forth went on for an hour when one of our porters who I think is a candidate for one of the next chief positions stood up and like a Baptist minister dominated the venue with an en-spirited and theatrical oratory. He impressively spoke to the council and the villagers for ten minutes.  After he finished the whole village clapped and cheered. Whatever he said seemed to work and our guides informed us that our penalty was not going to be much. We would only pay about 50 US dollars total. We were also informed that we needed to pay the porters for 6 days of work instead of 5 because this was the initial agreement. I guess the council initially asked for a much higher settlement but the chief and porters argued to lessen it.  Once we had the greenlight to leave, we weren’t going to waste any time. We quickly presented our fine to the council, packed up our belongings and said our goodbyes to the village.  We were finally off to Epena with our boat. A few Boha villagers who needed to go to Epena came with us along with a whole lot of fish from lac Tele that was going to be sold elsewhere.

Our stay in Boha village was stressful at times, but we all really enjoyed the kids and I will miss the kids of Boha village. 

Return to Brazzaville

After 5 hours of sitting on our motorized pirogue, we returned to Epena. We immediately headed off to find cold fantas and food while our guides organized our return trip to Ouesso the following day. We set up camp at the WCS HQ grounds.

Day 11: The next morning we set off at 5am on a different and smaller motorized pirogue to the small pygmy village of Mboua on the northern end of the lac Tele Reserve. Instead of taking a 3 day bus ride back to Brazzaville from Impfondo, our guides came up with a great plan to cut two days of bus travel from our itinerary by taking a boat to Mboua, a more direct and adventerous path to Ouesso instead. The boat trip was going to take us approx 10 hours to complete and the last part would lead us through a narrow channel the French built in the 60’s. The doctor in Impfondo told me he had been on the channel and that it was barely the width of the boat at times with jungle branches and vines blocking the path at times.  Again I insisted on hiring two motors since I had too many experiences of breaking down in the past.

Photo of our group crossing through the narrow french channel through the rainforest

This part of the trip proved that we weren’t out of the risk zone yet. The pirogue was flimsy and seemed to almost tip over at times. The French channel was barely a stream, which cut through the jungle. The jungle however seemed determined to reclaim its territory from the channel. I kept wondering if the channel would be blocked by a fallen tree making us return to Epena. Somehow every time a tree appeared to block the way, or the channel was blocked by vegetation, someone had carved a small path through.  This wasn’t the work of the govt. It turns out the locals who depend on the channel to travel back and forth are the ones who take responsibility for its upkeep.  There were few people living along the channel, but we would occasionally pass voodoo looking houses carved out of banyan trees resembling something from the Pirates of the Caribbean. We passed entire families standing and paddling their pirogues looking for fish or bushmeat. Luckily, we brought two motors because both motors had complications and we had to switch between them numerous times.

Photo of the shattered windshield of our taxi

Upon reaching the small jungle outpost of Mboua, which is so small it isn’t even on the map, we met our prearranged taxi that our guides had ordered from Ouesso to meet us. The taxi driver brought a local pygmy man to show him the way to Mboua since he had never been there before.

We entered the car and the driver in the rickety old Congolese taxi with a broken windshield that he could barely see through raced off down the bicycle lane sized dirt logging roads and immediately decimated some poor villager’s chicken. His driving was erratic, sending pygmy children darting off into the bushes and we had to demand that he slow down especially after he almost lost control and went off road. After two hours of driving down old logging roads through the jungle, we arrived at the Sangha River. The car ferry had stopped operating for the night at 4pm and we raced over to catch the passenger ferry which likely would also stop operating soon. We hopped on and traveled over to Ouesso-first semi modern town in almost two weeks. We bought our bus tickets for the next morning and checked in to an air-conditioned hotel with a restaurant and cold drinks.

Day 12: The next morning we traveled all day to Brazzaville, where our only goal at that point was to secure our covid tests and onward departure flights.

Day 13: With our last day in Brazzaville, we went to the largest rapids in the world- Livingston Falls-located on the Congo River. This place did not disappoint. I left my large camera in my hotel room which was a mistake because this place was mind-blowing. The rapids are easily class 6-impassible to expert rafters and kayakers. They are miles wide across the enormous Congo River and continue down the river for 10 plus miles. There are no breaks in the rapids and at times some of them appear to be 10 feet plus tall.

Video of me sitting on the edge of the largest rapids in the world-easily a class 6 rapids. 

3 + 12 =

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