If you are looking for authenticity and exuberant nature, where you can immerse yourself in the daily life of wild animals, you must visit Guinea-Bissau, a wonderful West African country that is only four hours away from Europe. How? By flying, direct from Lisbon to the country’s capital, Bissau, and then heading south to the Natural Park of the Cantanhez Forests, on the border with Guinea.
It’s not easy to get there, but after all, aren’t the greatest sanctuaries of natural life usually protected by thousand-year-old trees and dense forests the best guardians of the temple of wildlife?
The journey from Bissau is long, about 250 kilometers, but especially the final part of the journey is hard and on a very bad road that is only passable during the dry season (from October to May/June) and by those who really want to get to know this destination.
And which destination is this? Cantanhez, the sanctuary of the chimpanzees of Guinea Bissau and the last sub-humid forest patch in northern West Africa.
On arrival here, we find the village of Djemberem where there is a sustainable tourism project that welcomes the rare visitors who come to this area. The houses are of typical local construction: a couple of bungalows and a “passage house” that accommodates larger groups, served by a common space where they share wonderful meals made by the women of the village, and a decamped area where at night the fire is lit on colder nights and the magical traditional dances are accompanied by drums and illuminated by the light of the flames of the fire.
While we have dinner and get ready to rest, the natural park staff leave for the forest to identify where the chimpanzees will make their beds for the night. At half-past four in the morning we are woken up and, after a quick breakfast, we drive close to the identified place, park and leave in a row, in absolute silence, behind the guide who leads us through the night and knows by heart the way and the dangers in the darkness.
We can’t see anything, we only feel the breathing of those accompanying us, the hands and movements of those ahead of us and those behind us. The only noise of our passage is the sound of branches snapping under our feet and, sometimes, the nervous laughter of those who go with obvious fear towards the unknown.
After a 40-minute walk, you can only see shadows from the trees and feel the grass touching your feet. At a certain point, we stop by order of the park guard. Silence is imperative and we wait for the first signs of daybreak to appear on the horizon. It is at this moment that the miracle of wildlife showing all its magnificence in the middle of the African forest begins.
Before we see them, we hear the chimpanzees very close to us. They begin to make sounds that we sense are first coming from the top of the trees and then down on the ground. They are excitedly communicating with each other. Then we hear them beating energetically on the ground, a noise identical to the beating of drums, in a huge clatter that leaves us completely astonished.
The spectacle is unique and divine. We naturally remain still and silent, stunned to see life happening in a pure and wild way right in front of us, without being noticed or showing any signs of constituting the slightest threat.
There are several chimpanzees living in this community in the forests of Cantanhez and, thanks to the local community guards, we can follow their daily life in a way that is already rare in excursions into the wild world. Entering their home and above all sharing their territory in an anonymous and harmless way.
In Cantanhez the forest is wonderfully abundant and dense. Here there are trees that 10 people with their arms wide open are not enough to embrace. This is where these chimpanzees live, primates that are the closest living relatives of humans, in full communion with nature. Here they live protected from man, who often insists on commercializing them and from the so-called development that insists on threatening their habitat in so many parts of the world.
Despite the hardness of the journey, it is a unique experience not to be missed by those who do not want to give up experiencing the most authentic aspects of the wild world in an exclusive and sustainable tourism context. More information here.