A bumpy road takes us from Guiglo to Taï, passing several settlements cut out in the dense forest. After spending a night at the nuns in this pleasant town close to the border with Liberia, we arrange a motorbike to take us to Djiroutou in the south of the park. It gives us a first impression of the park that was established a World Heritage Site back in 1982 because of its extensive flora and fauna. Most of the rainforest of Ivory Coast and its bordering countries is gone, cut down and replaced by plantations for cacao, fruit and other food products. Taï National Park in the far west, is one of the last pockets of primary rainforest, and is home to five endangered species. Fortunately, we have found a capable rider, and he steers his motorbike through deep ruts in the unpaved road, through pools of water, muddy sections, over steep hills and through small villages. The road we ride on is a red ribbon meandering through a luminescent green carpet, and by the time we arrive at the end of the scenic road, we are already happy with the views we have seen on the way. Shortly before, on a particularly steep section of the track, the driver tried to accelerate, thus catapulting his bike upwards, sending us backwards on the road. Fortunately, we come away with only scratches.
The staff at the ecotel take good care of us, and after a dark night at the very edge of the jungle, we are up early for the 5km hike to the Chimpanzee Camp after we cross the river marking the limits of Taï National Park in a pirogue. The hike is easy, and we feel continuously dwarfed by the giant trees whose canopy lies high above us. After lunch, we are off for a hike that will take us to the summit of Nienokoué. The trail is easy to follow, and sometimes, we have to walk around the huge tree trunks of the fromager tree. We pass a small stream, and then head up a hill, until we finally emerge from the dense forest all around us. Suddenly, the landscape opens up, and every step we take up the steeply sloping huge granite slabs of rock, the views get better, until we reach the highest viewpoint. We now finally see what the forest looks like from above, not below. Just to know that there are elephants, pygmy hippopotamus, and many other animals walking around this vast stretch of primary rainforest that stretches to the horizon in all directions - knowing it is very unlikely we will see any one of them. After walking back to our camp, we have an early sleep: our wake-up is foreseen at 4:15 the next morning. The entire night, the sounds of the jungle come from the pitch dark night around our elevated, open hut. Our recurring thought is: will we see the chimpanzees tomorrow? Our guide has told us that, even though the group is closely monitored, they sometimes cross the river, and exit the park. No one to stop them. We can only hope this will not happen now.
The next morning, our first sighting is a green mamba, one of the most dangerous snakes of Africa. We spot it very close to camp, at the spot where we have to clean the soles of our shoes. Is it a telling sign of destiny? Should we have stayed in camp instead of continuing? Those questions only come afterwards, when it is too late. For now, we are dying to see the chimpanzees, and our guide says he knows where the chimps have slept: the reason we are up early is because we will catch them before they start moving. Our torches are vital: we are not walking trails now, but right through the rainforest, over branches, crossing streams, through ditches, climbing over roots of what must be enormous fromager trees. And then, just when our guide gets excited and we start hearing the first screams of the chimpanzees, fate strikes a blow that will change everything. My partner puts her foot in a hole between two roots, it gets blocked while she falls forward. She hears a snap, but the guide and I observe that she can move her toes and her foot, so we assume it must be a problem with her tendon and not a broken ankle. In any case, she is in deep pain, and she stumbles with us to where the chimps are waking up. The spectacle around us is incredible: chimps shrieking, laughing and yelling, hammering on the tree trunks, coming down the 60m tall trees like falling fruit, running past us, black dots moving at great speed. There are an estimated 80 of them in this group, and our guide recognizes them and knows their names, even though there is hardly enough light to see them. After the excitement of the chimp show, we realize we have something more urgent at hand: how to get my companion back to camp? The guide gives her two branches, which she uses as crutches, and leaning on my shoulder for extra support, we move through the rainforest. I cannot help but think of the daunting task ahead: getting back to the main road, another 5k - but there simply is no alternative to walking. At the same time, the urge to see more of the chimps. Back in camp, the guides discuss between them, and it is decided that one of them will go in search of the chimps with me, while the other will leave a little later with the unfortunate travel companion who is now given a hand-made cane to lean on. Given her handicap, we estimate we will soon catch up to help her get out of the rainforest. It is incredible how my guide finds the chimpanzees, walking at a steady pace through the thick vegetation, listening in, asking me if I can already smell the primates. Then, he uses one of the big buttresses of the enormous trees to communicate with one of the researchers who is tracking the chimps, and before we know it, we are surrounded by the black mammals. A group of them walks over a tree trunk spanning a stream - for us, it takes much more time to cross the water, making me feel clumsy. We follow one of the primates, and observe him from up close while he uses a stone to break open nuts. He also slams the roots of a big tree to communicate with the others. A lot of screaming, of shrieks, of frenzy, of speed, but also the peace of a solitary chimp sitting on the ground, looking around, observing his immediate surroundings. I could have stayed here for hours, but we need to catch up with the rest of the party, so we hike back to camp. Instead of leaving right away and catch up with the others, we have to wait for another group of people to arrive, and I am not allowed to walk back to the ecotel by myself. With every passing minute, I get more impatient and frustrated. Communication is not possible here. Even when the others arrive, they still have to discuss some things, and we lose even more time. Once on the way, we walk fast, but our wait has been too long to catch up. Our motorbike rider brings us back to Taï. After a wait for the ambulance, and a long ride back to Abidjan, we learn that her fibula is broken, and are on our way back home the next day. I will be back to continue my journey through Ivory Coast; unfortunately, we will miss out on the other incredible sights of Taï National Park.
Personal travel impressions both in words and images from Djiroutou Taï National Park (). Clicking on the pictures enlarges them and enables you to send the picture as a free e-card or download it for personal use, for instance, on your weblog. Or click on the map above to visit more places close to Djiroutou Taï National Park.
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