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I guess it was 2002 when I first heard about Dzanga Sangha National Park. I was having a beer with Steve Anyon-Smith in Sydney and he told me about a wildlife doco he had seen about Bais - natural clearings - in the Congo, including Dzanga Bai. I was smitten. Sjef Ollers's trip report and the Sangha Lodge list were added incentives. Though it was not until November 2011 - 10 years later - that I got there.
I'd been corresponding with Rod Cassidy for several years about mammals and in 2009 he told me he'd opened a lodge in Dzanga Sangha. The prospect of visiting the park became a lot more realistic. But I wanted to come when I had a decent chunk of time and 3 months long service leave at the end of 2011 was the opportunity I'd been waiting for. Jean-Michel Bompar, bat and cetacean expert and fellow mammal enthusiast, was keen to come too, so 6 weeks after I floated the idea we were in Bangui setting off in a Landcruiser for the 13 hour drive to the lodge.
I arrived in Bangui on Saturday, via Nairobi, and had a day to kill. It is probably the most under-developed capital city I've ever seen. Evelyn, who works for Rod, met me at the airport and looked after me well: we went to a surprisingly good place for dinner. French food with an African atmosphere. A much better combination than the alternative.
Jean-Michel arrived the next afternoon. On a good day you can get to Sangha in 9 hours. November 2011 wasn't a good day. It was the tail end of the wet season and Rod said the road was worse than he'd ever seen it: the drive would take 13 hours. We set off at 3pm as soon as Jean-Michel landed. Twenty minutes later he took a photo of the amusingly named "Brigade des Bimbos" police checkpoint (the first of many pointless checkpoints en route). Perhaps they were sensitive about their name, as the alleged security risk wasn't apparent to us, but it took 90 minutes, a lecture, deleting the photos and a trip to Brigade HQ for cross-examination before they released Jean-Michel (at least the detour there produced some Straw-coloured Fruit Bats).
At 5pm we were on our way again. Until the next police checkpoint 20 minutes on past Les Bimbos. There are a lot of police checkpoints en route. At each you need to produce paperwork - some sort of permit to travel - for the journey to Sangha and there was some issue with ours (some changes had been made in biro to the car's registration number on the form as we took a different vehicle at the last minute). This was all the excuse they needed and that evening the police at each of the first 3 checkpoints took delight in delaying us for 30 minutes at each point while they quibbled over the paperwork and waited for some financial incentive to wave us through. But they did eventually once we'd coughed up the 6 or 7 euros they asked for.
We'd planned to spend the night at Boda, the only village en route with any accommodation and we got there a little after 10pm. There was surprisingly little wildlife on the road other than my first Lesser (Savannah) Cane Rat, sitting on the road about an hour before Boda. It stayed put for a good 15 seconds giving a great view before waddling off into the crops.
The hotel at Boda was 3 euros a night and overpriced at that. A pillow would have been nice, along with a gun to shoot next door's chickens. After a coffee at the Grand Cafe de Boda we were on the road again at 6.30 and arrived at the lodge 8 hours later. The long drive was punctuated by some Ba'Aka (pygmy) villages, including one with a roadside stall selling Moustached Monkey meat. We stopped for photos and the villages offered to catch us a live Pangolin and some other stuff when we returned (sadly we couldn't remember the village in the dark on the way back but I suspect we had been forgotten about).
The only living mammal was a squirrel - a Green Squirrel most probably - that JM saw cross the road. We arrived at the lodge at 14.30 to hear the President had decided - that day - to come visit too.
Sangha Lodge is just wonderful. Set on the banks of the Sangha, it has a hypnotising view of the mighty river and the rainforest. It is perfectly designed too: the rooms are comfortable without being over the top. And it was going to be home for the next 9 nights, so long has the President hadn't taken our room. He had. But Rod managed to shuffle a few people around, and move into his office to free up a room. So at 5pm we were having a beer on the deck looking for Black Hawk Bats over the river. It doesn't get much better than that (well it would have done if I had seen a Hawk Bat).
We spent the next 9 days trying to see as many mammals as we could, stopping to eat very well at the lodge, drink beer and give a fleeting glance to the more impressive birds. Nine days is longer than I have ever stayed in one place for mammal watching and it was good to have a little more time than usual here, time you need in a forest like this where the animals come steadily but slowly.
There are four centres of mammal watching activity: Sangha lodge; Doli Lodge; Dzanga Bai; and Bai Hoku. Activities in the latter two areas are managed by the WWF and the national park. Each is dealt with below. Tourists are not allowed to stay overnight at either Bai Hoku or Dzanga Bai but through contacts Jean-Michel and I had with WWF we were able to arrange an overnight visit to both places.
There are various other tourist activities on offer, mainly with the Ba'Aka pygmies (you can go net hunting with them for Duikers for example). I wish we had had more time to do some of these. The Ba'Aka seem a very special group of people. Desperately poor, and treated as second class citizens by many other Africans, they know the forest like no one else and were a shy unassuming bunch and always ready to smile. The Ba'Aka staff at Sangha were awesome especially when we asked them to help catch mice in the forest. Trying to encourage the Ba'Aka guides to spot things for us was more of a challenge. I had the impression they saw lots that we didn't but they just didn't think to mention it.
Early one morning I saw my first Congo Clawless Otter cruise through the creek that separates the lodge from the end of the road.
At night, African Palm Civets were very common, especially when we found a fruiting tree - we counted 6 in the same tree one evening and saw them nearly every night. We also saw many Galagos of at least two flavours. A larger Galago with a bushy tail that I saw a few times in big trees was probably an Elegant Needle-Clawed Galago though I only got good views of this species around Doli Lodge. The much smaller species. that we saw a few times in vine thickets about 3-5 metres up, seem to be Thomas's Galago. (Both Demidorff's and Thomas's are in range and are very hard to differentiate when not in the hand, but they have different calls. Rod hears Thomas's calling all the time around the lodge but never Demidorff's). In any case it was hard to get decent views of either species. Pottos are also quite common and we saw a couple around the lodge.
Trips down the river are a good way to look for monkeys especially De Brazza's which never venture far from water. During a couple of hours one morning we saw Crowned Guenons and several groups of Putty-nosed Monkeys, plus a very good look at an African Giant Squirrel. We tried again in the late afternoon returning to camp with a spotlight and a beer. It was fun but the few things we saw were hard to get a good look at from a moving boat. We did manage to identify a Potto though.
We also visited a beautiful waterfall where Rod, with Sjef Ollers, had found Picathartes breeding and a Brush-tailed Porcupine. Rod has seen Pygmy Squirrels here too as well as bats in the caves behind the waterfall. We saw nothing during a quick visit - no squirrels and the bat caves were full of water.
We, the Ba'Aka and Rod's cat tried to catch small mammals. We had little success. The common Long-tailed mouse in the forest was either Hylomyscus alleni or H. walterverheyni (and Rod's cat caught one under our cabin) though the jury is still out on which species and I need to do a bit more investigation. We found one other species of what was a Praomys - Soft-furred Mouse species - that appears to be either Praomys miosnnei or P. petteri. We also found a White-toothed Shrew species which we will endeavour to identify.
There were many bats flying around but they were hard to catch. JM did catch the small bat patrolling the outside of the dining room which proved to be a Bates's Slit-faced Bat (Nycteris arge) though it didn't have the characteristic bifurcated tail which, according to Peter Taylor's Bat's of Central and Southern Africa, all Nycteridae have. This was a a little perplexing.
Bate's Slit-faced Bat and its mysterious tail
One afternoon the Ba'Aka caught a great little Golden Mole in the forest which has been identified as a Congo Golden Mole (Calcochloris leucorhinus cahni). I asked them to show the Mole to Rod but it was never seen again. It presumably ended up a delicacy on the Ba'Aka's menu that evening
Dzanga Bai is an hour's drive from the lodge, though it could be much quicker with a better, drier, road as its less than 20km away. Before visiting the Bai you must stop at the visitor's centre next to Doli Lodge to arrange a guide and a Ba'Aka tracker and the earliest this can be done is 6.30am. The Ba'Aka tracker was useful, the guide less so, especially our first - Olivier - who was without any value whatsoever. Its important that the park provides opportunities for local employment, just a pity that some of those employed have interest only in getting to the Bai fast so they can sleep. We visited for a full day, again for an afternoon and also arranged an overnight stay there through contacts in the WWF. Its a 1.8km walk from the parking area to the lookout tower, the first few hundred metres of which required wading through thigh deep water. If an Elephant blocked the route the Ba'Aka would chase it off with a few slaps of their machete on the water.
Monkeys are quite common and we saw Grey-cheeked Mangabeys and Crowned Guenons on the first morning, though our useless guide did not want to look for them saying first that they were too far away, and then, when we saw the trees moving close by, that they were hiding. But we stood our ground and got good views. We heard Putty-nosed Monkeys on other days. Blue Duikers are also common in the forest and we saw several.
The Bai is just spectacular and one of the best wildlife encounters I've ever had. As you approach you hear the trumpeting and snorts of the elephants echoing over the forest and it really is like something straight from Jurassic Park. The viewing tower is about 10 metres high with space for 20 or so people. Forest Elephants and Sitatunga seem omnipresent. There were between 40 and 110 Elephants in the Bai all of the time along with a handful of Sitatunga. Other species are harder to see. Watching and listening to the Elephants come and go and interact was superb. I'd imagined we'd see more diversity at the Bai and was disappointed only to see Elephants, a handful of ever-present Sitatunga, and a lone Buffalo once.
Buffalo are there about half of the time I suspect (we saw one at dawn after our overnight stay). Giant Forest and Red River Hogs and Bongos are much rarer visitors (perhaps once a week in the wet?) though they are much more common in the dry season. Andrea Turkalo, an American researcher we spoke to has been studying the Elephants in the Bai since 1990, and has recorded more than 4000 individual animals using the Bai! She told me a herd of Bongos was in the Bai every day for 6 weeks around March/April 2011. Squirrels are quite often seen in the trees behind the Bai though I am not sure which species.
Staying in the tower overnight was a real privilege. I was sure we'd see both a Giant Forest Hog and Red River Hogs though we saw neither despite me sleeping for less than 2 hours: it was a full moon but unfortunately was overcast until about 2am which didn't help spot stuff. We did see a Beecroft's Anomalure on a tree right next to the hide, as well as a small mouse - another Hylomyscus species - that spent a good deal of effort trying to get into the biscuit packet.
Bai Hoku is a gorilla research camp, an hour on from Dzanga Bai (and so two hours from Sangha Lodge). Its a terrible road - when it was in better shape it used to take less than half the time. The camp is on the border of secondary and primary rainforest and is home to an habituated family of Lowland Gorillas and a large troop of habituated Agile Mangabeys. Apart from Mangabey and Gorilla watching you are also able to arrange Ba'Aka guided walks through the forest that stop in at some of the small and medium sized Bais that are a mosaic in the forest (none is as impressive as Dzanga Bai). We visited three times. One our first trip we spent a wonderful hour with the Lowland Gorillas. They were very close to the camp - just 15 minutes - though can be much further. It was a much wilder experience than I had in Rwanda with the Mountain Gorillas. The Lowland Gorillas here seemed - at best - to tolerate us. Photographic opportunities (as was so often here) were limited because we were watching the animals in dense forest and were required to keep at least 7m from them.
After the Gorilla watching we went looking for habituated Agile Mangabeys. They too were just 10 minutes from the camp. The troop is very large (250 or so) and they spend a lot of their time on the ground.
We returned again twice to take Bai walks (la tour de saline) which last for 2 to 3 hours. There is potential to see Bongos, Red River Hogs and other good stuff on these. Although there is a greater concentration of large mammals at Dzanga Bai, you have an opportunity to cover more ground at Bai Hoku. We saw a few Forest Elephants and Sitatungas, along with several Forest Buffalo in the Bais on both walks.
We also saw the same group of Gorillas we'd seen during the gorilla tracking out in the Bai. It was wonderful to see them out in the open and foraging in the Bai.
A waterfall, next to the camp, doubles as camp shower. A colony of Noack's Roundleaf Bats (Hipposideros ruber) are roosting behind it and are easy to see.
Walking in the forest we saw a few Putty-nosed Monkeys and several squirrels which were hard to get good views of, though Jean-Michel got a clear look at a Fire-footed Rope Squirrel. Duikers are common in the forest in the evening and we saw several Blue Duiker at night and got fleeting glimpses of other animals in the day, at least two of which might have been Peter's Duikers though the views were too poor to be sure. At night - looking along the trail from camp to the first Bai - we got reasonable views of a Long-snouted Mongoose moving along the stream that runs into the Bai right next to camp. We heard Galagos and Hammer Bats too.
Staying overnight in the camp was a lot of fun. A British phd student had been living there or nearly two years and Saturday night was social night. It was a memorable to sit with her and 20 pygmies watching a cheesy break dancing movie "Step up to the Streets 2" on a laptop in the middle of the forest, hearing the Ba'Aka cheer and laugh through the movie. An elephant came into camp that night to eat the soap and generally be a nuisance. It passed within a metre of my cabin though I didn't hear it. So be cautious walking at night.
The long muddy drive to and from camp was also quite good. We stopped quite often to move fallen trees and heard monkeys one time in three. We saw Moustached, Putty-nosed and Grey-cheeked Mangabeys. On our second drive into camp we saw a pair of Gorillas on the road - about 5km before the camp - that were not from an habituated family. And at about midday a Bay Duiker jumped in front of the car though I was ferreting through my bag looking for a book so missed it. Damnation!
Doli Lodge is about half an hour from Sangha Lodge. It looks quite nice and is a little more convenient for trips to Dzanga Bai etc. However, I very much doubt whether they are as focused on birds or mammals as Rod is in Sangha. We walked the roads between the lodge, the visitor's centre and the WWF offices and guest house by day and night a couple of times.
Several people told me that De Brazza's Monkeys were common in the forest in the early morning (they are around Sangha too but best seen from the river). I looked twice without success. We saw a Red-legged Sun Squirrel early one morning. It then started to rain which wasn't much good for monkey spotting. Our walk came to an abrupt end when we almost trod on a sleeping Elephant. It was lying - flat out - in the forest just 3m from us, its ears flapping as it snored. During a second morning walk one of the Ba'Aka guides found me to say he had found some De Brazza's Monkeys just off of the road. I heard and saw movement in the trees and heard what I assume was them calling but could not see the animals (apparently they can remain motionless for 8 hours when the mood takes them).
There were many opinions about the best way to see De Brazza's among the locals. One said there is some swamp forest along the road on the other side of Bayanga where they are common. Others recommended looking for them from a pirogue down the river where you could also look at Bayanga's resident pod of Hippos.
During two spotlighting walks (one in light rain) we saw several Elegant Needle-Clawed Galagos and got some nice views, a few Pottos and a single Palm Civet on both nights. Rod had seen Servaline Genet, Beecroft's Anomalure and a Long-tailed Pangolin around the lodge.
One evening we were summoned to the lodge kitchen where a bat was flying around. Four of us tried to catch it using our shirts and aprons for 5 hilarious minutes. When we finally grabbed it, it turned out to be a Hairy-faced Slit-faced Bat: quite similar looking to the Arge's Slit-faced Bat we'd caught at Sangha Lodge, but with bicuspid teeth and a yellow nose and tragus (along with the sort of bifurcated tail we'd read that Arge's Slit-faced Bat is meant to have.
Hairy-faced Slit-faced Bat
During our trip we repeatedly ran into two German scientists: twin brothers trying to photograph as much biodiversity as possible during a 3 week stay. They saw similar species to us in many places but around the lodge they said they had seen a Linsang in the trees next to the WWF guest house and photographed a Western Tree Hyrax and a small Galago too.
Sangha Lodge and Dzanga Sangha park are truly wonderful places. They lived up to my expectations even if they were a little different to what I expected - the lack of Bongos and Red River Hogs was a disappointment but not enough of one to detract from the trip. I miss the river, the Ba'Aka, and the animals as well as having a beer with Rod and swapping mammal stories. I am looking forward to getting back - in the dry season - as soon as I can.
1. Lowland Gorilla We got to the habituated group at Bai Hoku within 15 minutes of leaving camp on our gorilla trek. We saw two non-habituated gorillas on the road the next day (about 5km before Bai Hoku) and saw again the habituated group out in the Bai that morning during a Bai walk.
2. Guereza Colobus One of the rarer primates around the forest, we saw a couple very near Sangha Lodge early one morning.
3. Agile Mangabey We got to the habituated group at Bai Hoku within 10 minutes of leaving camp. We saw a couple more animals during one of the Bai walks out of Bai Hoku.
4. Moustached Monkey One of the commoner primates apparently though we only saw one group (on the road to Bai Hoku). This monkey was commonly for sale as bush meat along the road from Bangui.
5. Putty-nosed Monkey The most commonly seen and heard monkey and we saw them well in every area.
6. Crowned Guenon We saw these several times, around the lodge and on the road to Bai Hoku, as well as at Dzanga Bai. They were often in the company of other monkeys.
8. Potto. Quite common close to both Sangha and Doli Lodges.
9. Thomas's Galago. We saw several small galagos close to Sangha Lodge leaping around dense vegetation a few metres above the ground. Rod thought - on the basis of the calls he heard every night - that they were all Thomas's Galagos around the lodge (rather than the very similar Demidorff's).
10. Elegant Needle Clawed Galago. We saw several of these near the WWF guest house (next to Doli Lodge). Presumably this is the larger galago we saw more distantly near Sangha Lodge.
11. Straw Coloured Fruit Bat. Not a species I made any effort to see, but a few were flying around the Gendarmerie HQ which helped pass the time while Jean-Michel was being questioned.
[12. Hammer Bat. I may have seen this species near Sangha Lodge but just as I got onto the bat I was attacked by ants and lost it. Jean-Michel heard one calling in the middle of the night while we were at Bai Hoku.]
13. Noack's Round-leafed Bat. Easily seen and caught in their roost behind the waterfall at Bai Hoku.
14. Bate's Slit-faced Bat. We caught one that was patrolling the outside of the dining room at Sangha Lodge.
15. Hairy-faced Slit-faced Bat. We caught one in the kitchen at Doli Lodge.
16. Congo Golden Mole. The Ba'Aka at Sangha Lodge caught one of these great animals in the forest - one of my best mammals on the trip.
17. Crocidura Shrew sp. We caught a couple in the forest behind the lodge. Not sure if we will ever be able to identify the species.
18. Lady Burton's Rope Squirrel. One sunny morning these were everywhere around Sangha Lodge, with a very distinctive and repetitive call. But only for one morning.
19. Fire-footed Rope Squirrel. Jean-Michel saw one of these while we were looking for another (I think different) squirrel we had just seen on one of the Bai walks out of Bai Hoku.
21. Green Bush Squirrel. Jean-Michel saw one cross the road in the mid morning a couple of hours past Boda on the drive from Bangui to Sangha.
22. African Giant Squirrel. Great views of an animal during a river trip from Sangha Lodge.
23. Beecroft's Anomalure. Rod has seen these around Sangha and Doli Lodges. We didn't but saw one on a tree right next to the Dzanga Bai hide at 9pm (facing the Bai the tree was on the left of the hide).
24. Lesser Cane Rat. Very nice views of an animal sitting on the middle of the road about 2 hours before Boda at around 8.30pm.
25. African Woodmouse sp (Hylomyscus alleni or H. walterverheyni). One hylomyscus species was very common around the lodge and we saw a few including one caught by Rod's cat and another at night in the tower at Dzanga Bai. Expert opinion is that they were either of these species but its not possible to know which.
26. Soft-furred Mouse Species (Praomysámiosnnei or P. petteri). We caught one other mouse species noticeably greyer than the more abundant rufous species. Again people more expert than me believe it was one of two Praomys species but it isn't possible to know which from our photos.
27. Congo Clawless Otter. I was sitting on the steps up to the lodge at 6.30 am drinking a coffee when an otter cruised past and out into the river. There were already people crossing the creek to the lodge so its well worth putting in a few hours in the morning looking for this species.
28. Long-snouted Mongoose. This was another of the best mammals of the trip, largely because I hadn't expected at all to see one. We spotted eye shine along the little creek that leads into the bai nearest Bai Hoku camp and followed the animal for a minute or so as it foraged along the creek. Kathryn, the gorilla researcher, who had been living in the camp for nearly 2 years said she had seen one once sniffing around camp.
29. African Palm Civet. These great animals were surprisingly common. We saw several most nights while spotlighting around Sangha Lodge and one or two near Doli Lodge.
30. Forest Buffalo. This sub-species, strikingly different looking to the Savannah Buffalo, was less commonly seen than I had expected. We saw just one at Dzanga Bai for half an hour at dawn, and a few both times we took the bai walk out of Bai Hoku.
31. Sitatunga. There were 5 or 6 in Dzanga Bai most of the time. We spotted a couple on each of the bai walks.
32. Blue Duiker. The commonest duiker in the forest and particularly easy to see (and get good views of) at night around Bai Hoku camp. Otherwise just shadowy glimpses of animals mainly on the walks to and from Dzanga Bai.
[33. Peter's Duiker. We may have seen this species once or twice around Bai Hoku. But I can't be sure.]
34. Bay Duiker. Jean-Michel saw this species leap in front of our car as we were driving out of Bai Hoku at about 11am.
35. Forest Elephant. Generally anything from 40 to over a hundred in Dzanga Bai, we also saw a couple of animals during walks to and from the Bai, along with a few others on the bai circuit at Bai Hoku. At times they are common around Sangha Lodge though happily not when we were there (their presence would have been something worse than ants to worry about when spotlighting). We heard a couple around Doli Lodge and almost stepped on a sleeping one.
[36.Western Tree Hyrax. We heard this species every night at Sangha Lodge with their ridiculously loud call, but they were never close enough to search for. In any case they seem notoriously hard to see. The German scientists saw one near Doli Lodge however.]
Stuff I missed
The trouble - or perhaps the joy - of Sangha is that the mammal list is so interesting but so many species have been seen only very occasionally. It takes time. And there is a lot of forest to explore. Some of the species I thought I had a good to reasonable chance of seeing but missed were:
De Brazza's Monkey. I really should have seen this and was below a tree an animal was sitting in. With another day at Sangha focused on this I'm sure I would have seen one.
Bongo. Not seeing a Bongo was the biggest disappointment of the trip. They hadn't been seen at the Bai since October 28, 9 days before we arrived and so far as I know they hadn't been seen during our stay. Occasionally seen on the road or the trails, Dzanga Bai is the best place to look. They are much more common in the dry season there.
Red River Hog. The second biggest disappointment of the trip. These are fabulous pigs and I felt sure we would see some during our night at Dzanga Bai (the German brothers saw a sounder of 20 or so come in after dark a few nights before we stayed there). Again easier to see in the dry season I think.
Giant Forest Hog. Another species I thought we would see during our night at Dzanga Bai. The Germans photographed one at dusk on the edge of the Bai. But this species might be easier to see in Uganda and Kenya I suspect.
Hammer Bat. Jean-Michel heard one but we didn't see one of these spectacular bats.
Black Hawk Bat. An interesting species that Rod sees frequently hawking over the river at dusk. I kept looking but didn't see one. Rod said they were common in Bayanga but somehow I never managed to get there to look at night.
Duikers. I was a little disappointed at the lack of Duiker species. We saw several Blue Duikers and Jean-Michel saw a Bay Duiker. But it would have been nice to have seen a Peters or a Black-fronted Duiker (perhaps we did but we didn't get good enough views to be sure of many of the Duikers we saw).
Western Tree Hyrax. A frustrating species because you hear their loud cries all the night around Sangha Lodge but Rod has never seen one. A friend of his saw one on the road into the lodge however, and the Germans saw what they thought was one in a tree near Doli Lodge.
Servaline Genet. I really should have seen one of these. They are supposed to be quite common around Doli Lodge in particular.
Tree Pangolin. These seem to be the commonest Pangolin in the area and I'd hoped the Ba'Aka could have found one even if I couldn't.
Allen's Galago. Not a species I had thought we'd see but the Germans saw what they thought was this species at night in Bai Hoku. They are a ground feeder and confined to primary forest with an open under-storey so would be unlikely around Sangha or Doli Lodges.
Other People's Trip Reports
Dzanga Sangha, 2012: Coke, Som and Cokie Smith, 10 days & 36 species including Long-tailed Pangolin and Bongos.
Dzanga Sangha, 2012: Carmen and Torbj÷rn Lundqvist, 11 days & 28 species including Bongos and Lord Derby's Anomalure.Dzanga Sangha and NouabalÚ-Ndoki, 2010: Sjef Ollers, 3 weeks and 23+ species including Lowland Gorilla, Brush-tailed Porcupine and Red River Hog. Dzanga Sanga (2010): A report in Spanish with nice pictures. Part 2 is here. Not a report as such, but the Sangha Lodge website is nice to drool over. And here is the mammal list for Sangha (as at April 2011). Wow.