When we suggested Aaron Hill try a safari to Odzala-Kokoua National Park in the remote jungles of the Congo, he jumped at the chance. An experienced safari-goer, Aaron has seen just about every corner of the African continent. He’s always in search of an adventure that challenges him and pushes the envelope of what a “typical” safari looks and feels like. Odzala fit the bill perfectly. Here, he shares with us what made his gorilla trekking journey there so unique and unforgettable—and offers his insights into the sort of traveler who might love the Congo as much as he did.
What is your travel history with Extraordinary Journeys?
I have been to Africa probably nine or ten times. Part of these trips were for volunteer work, building schools, or working at shelters. And I’ve usually bookended those trips with some sort of safari, 75 to 80 percent of which have been booked through Extraordinary Journeys. I've been extremely pleased with everywhere they've sent me.
Jenna, who puts together my trips now, has a good sense of the things I like and the things that I'm kind of looking for. I give her a rough ballpark of what I want to do that year, then she gives me two or three ideas, and we see what sticks.
I've been all over the continent—a lot of east Africa, a lot in southern and central Africa. Last year was my first venture into west Africa. Every time I go to Africa, I typically want to do at least one or two really different things. I like to try and branch out and do something new every time.
What did you know about the Congo before working with Extraordinary Journeys?
I knew a bit about the historical context and colonialism. But from a modern-day standpoint, I didn't know a whole lot. I had a rough idea of the geography, that it was rainforest and that that’s where the gorillas are. But beyond that, I didn't know a lot.
Did you have any concerns about traveling to Odzala prior to booking?
I did not. Although, I'm probably the wrong person to ask because one of the things I always stipulate when I write Jenna is, “please put me somewhere a little bit dangerous.”
I do think there are certain clientele that Odzala speaks to more than others, and I'm probably in that demographic.
When you hear the Congo, most people don't differentiate between the Congo and the DRC. Too many travelers hear “the Congo” and say, “I’m out.” And that’s a hard assumption to overcome.
My wife had reservations when I said “the Congo,” and I had to explain to her the difference. And she's a very smart woman!
These are two very, very different countries, even though they're next to each other.
I will say the Republic of the Congo is not dangerous at all. The DRC is a different story. But the Congo is probably one of the safest places I've ever been in Africa.
Did you have any assumptions about what your time at Odzala would be like? How did your actual experience compare?
I'll be honest, I didn't have any preconceived notions because I didn't really know much about it. I had no idea the size of [Odzala National Park]. It's roughly the size of the Netherlands which is a pretty substantially sized park in Africa, especially that part of Africa.
And I didn't really know how remote it was. Like I said, I've been to quite a few places on the continent, and I think my eight or nine days in the Republic of the Congo were some of the most remote I've ever felt, which is exactly what I'm looking for.
Whatever my preliminary expectations were, Odzala exceeded them by leaps and bounds.
Encountering a chimpanzee hunting party © Aaron Hill
What made you choose Odzala for a destination? And how did it compare to your other safaris?
My time at Odzala was incredibly unique, so it's not that hard for me to compare it to others.
With the traditional safari, you get in a Land Rover and just drive until you see animals, you communicate with other vehicles… With eastern African safaris, the landscapes are very, very open. It makes you think of the movie Out of Africa.
Southern African safaris are much more compact; the parks are smaller, and the vegetation is very different. Sometimes you’re driving the Land Rover through really heavy brush. That’s equally unique and cool, but they're very, very different.
The main attraction of the Odzala experience is obviously the lowland gorillas. You're very rarely in a vehicle driving anywhere. You might drive to a trailhead with your guide and tracker, then hack your way through pretty thick jungle to find the family [of gorillas]. It's an incredibly different experience than a regular safari, unlike any one that I'd ever been on. It was fabulous.
What else was particularly special about your stay in Odzala? What surprised you or exceeded your expectations?
For context, I also went to the DRC and Rwanda. And although I enjoyed my time in both of those places for different reasons, what stands out to me most about Odzala is, again, its remoteness. That’s what is so appealing. You really feel almost like you’re an explorer in the 1600s going through the jungle for the first time. For me, with the type of travel I enjoy, that's really appealing.
What really wasn’t appealing to me about gorilla trekking in Rwanda is that I felt very much like I was in a zoo. In Volcanoes National Park, the gorillas basically to come to a wall, and they sort of climb around, and you’re allowed within a couple hundred feet to observe them.
I love the park’s work in protecting the gorillas, but I felt like I could have been anywhere.
As for the DRC, it’s a larger country, but with a population of over 81 million, it’s much more populated than the Congo which has a population of just over 5 million. In the DRC, there's a lot more degradation to the jungles. When we walked to the gorillas in the DRC, it was a two-hour trek. For the first hour and 20 minutes or so, you walk through open fields where people are actively farming. It doesn’t quite give you the sense that you’re in the middle of nowhere. The experience in the DRC didn't feel as authentic or as romantic as Odzala.
The accommodations in Odzala are also pretty inherently unique. There are three main base camps. One is called Ngaga, and that’s where the gorillas are.
Another is called Longo which is near the bais. They're sort of open estuaries and swamps. And that was one of the most unique places I've ever stayed. At Longo, you’d go out with your guide and your tracker for 10 hours a day and literally hike through waist-deep water. You’d see forest elephants and forest buffalo and hippos. It was truly amazing but not for the faint of heart. You’ve definitely got to be in relatively good shape to do something like that. It’s inherently unique. I've never been anywhere like it.
I would also say the staff and the guides were amazing. I’ve been to lodges all over Africa, and I think those were arguably the best guides I've ever had. Every guide I had there was certainly in the top five to ten percent of guides I've had all over the continent.
All that to say I would go to Odzala again in a heartbeat.
What sort of traveler would you recommend Odzala to? Who might not care for it?
It's probably not for the elderly. I've been on plenty of safaris in Southern Africa and Eastern Africa where you'll see couples that are in their seventies. Odzala, on the other hand, probably won’t be the most appealing to travelers looking for a Land Rover and a sundowner. It’s a very physical place. You're out hacking through the jungle. It’s buggy, and it's hot. If you're not physically fit enough for that or prepared for that, I think you'd be really disappointed.
Odzala is ideal for someone who is pretty adventurous, wants to see something really unique, and has a distinct passion for specific animals and environment and really wants to see them in their natural element.
For someone who wants to get engrossed in what the bush or the jungles of Africa are like, I would hands-down say Odzala is the number-one place to go.
How would you advise fellow travelers who are interested in a safari to Odzala?
Do your research, and educate yourself. Find answers to questions you might have or reservations you might have.
I take trips like these pretty seriously. I do about a month every year of international travel like this, and I start planning a good six to eight months in advance.
If you're going to use Extraordinary Journeys, use them. Any trip of this magnitude is not cheap. If you’re spending that amount of money, take advantage of their knowledge, that's what they're there for!
All of the specialists that book your trips have been to the places they're telling you to go. So don't be bashful. I mean, I'm sure I drive Jenna nuts sometimes! I’ll send her a list of questions, and she's always on the ball and gets right back to me.
Where would you like to safari next?
In August of next year, I'm going to swim in the open ocean with humpback whales in Tonga. In the South Pacific.
And then the year after that will definitely be Africa. I can never go more than two years without being in Africa. It makes me crazy.
Discover Odzala for Yourself
If Aaron’s adventures in the jungles of Odzala have sparked your imagination, this might be the perfect “unconventional” safari experience for you. If you have a do-anything spirit and crave fresh, new encounters with Africa, we can plan a gorilla trekking safari to the Congo for you, too.
Check out our Last Jungle — Exploring Odzala itinerary for some inspiration on how we could design the ideal safari to the Congo unique to you! You can also read more about traveling to the Congo here and here.
Plan Your Remote Jungle Adventure Today!
Ready to start planning your own incredible gorilla-trekking journey through the jungles of Africa? We make the process stress-free and enjoyable. Call or email us today to explore your best options for a safari holiday you’ll never forget!
Then, start packing that suitcase because we’ve got all the details covered.
About Aaron Hill
Aaron Hill is a professional dog trainer and behaviorist in Los Angeles. His company Pets in The City is a dog walking, boarding and training business with a focus on training with positive reinforcement.
Aaron’s background as a trainer began eleven years ago at the prestigious Karen Pryor Academy, where he’s one of the few graduates to obtain a perfect graduating score. Aaron has since trained thousands of dogs in Los Angeles using positive reinforcement and instilling leading industry practices for clients to carry forward.
Aaron also travels the world working with animals, including researching leopards in Namibia, releasing turtles in Costa Rica and studying gorillas in the Republic of the Congo. But his favorite place is at home, surrounded by pups.