Being a hopefully not too sentimental re-telling of my experience watching wild chimpanzees in Gombe. Part 1.
The chimpanzees of Gombe Stream National Park are world famous due to the pioneering work of Jane Goodall, who discovered much of what we know about the behaviour of our wild cousins during her research there. Of course Jane (one of my heroes) was criticised (by losers) for the way she conducted her research because she tended to anthropomorphise the chimps. She gave them names and what seemed to be human characteristics and (shocking) formed close relationships with some of them. Well, here’s the deal, I don’t think anyone who has actually seen the chimps could deny that they are quite a lot like us. When Darwin first published On the Origin of Species (bit of a meh title, by the way, for possibly the most revolutionary book ever written – Yep, bible included, take that religion) there was a lot of ‘Hmm, so we’re quite similar to chimpanzees are we, Charlie? Speak for yourself!’ And feel free to say the same thing to me. I won’t be listening, but, feel free.
The story of when I went to see the chimps is actually a bit of a saga and involved everything from sickness and life-threatening moments to massive, heart-thudding, tear-jerking highs. Have I whetted your appetite a bit? Good. Because this will take a bit of telling, and I’m not doing it all now. Because, you know, I’ve got two jobs. And a life. But first...the chimps themselves.
It was actually our third day in Gombe that we actually saw the chimps. We awoke, already emotionally and physically drained from the day before (wait and see!) and this was it, our last chance to see the chimpanzees. If we didn’t see them today, we would have to come away, and drive all the way home without experiencing what we had come for. My family are inveterate safari-goers. For me there is no greater thrill than finally, after hours of searching, with only the odd impala or zebra in sight, seeing something so exciting that it makes my heart wall up in my throat and my fingertips tingle. Usually it’s something big and toothy. I’m shallow like that. And this was more than that. There was no bouncy vehicle to take us everywhere around the national park. We’d had to trek and hike for hours the previous day through forest so thick it had been a hands and knees job some of the time. We saw no likelihood of it being different today, and so set off, hope fluttering under our skins, but outwardly pretending that it didn’t matter a bit.
“Even if we don’t see them today it’s been a lovely trip.”
“Yeah, it’s such a beautiful place.”
“I’ve probably had enough excitement to last a life...”
There it was. Just there a few metres away on the path in front. Bigger than expected and with a rolling, dragging gait, it gentled a fruit from a tree as it went past. A chimp. The guide told us immediately who she was, how old, who her family were. We followed her deeper into the forest.
“Is that her? No!”
“It’s another one! Look there’s two!”
The ‘Shhhh’ wasn’t necessary. None of us spoke above the sound of our own breathing and the tiny beep of Dad’s digital camera seemed indecent. The guide imitated a low pant-hoot and, after a short pause, was answered with a similar cry from somewhere in the trees up ahead. We saw two more chimps climbing along the forest floor as we hurried on trying to be quicker and quieter all the time.
“They are sisters,” muttered our guide (I don’t remember his name) and something about the way they brushed shoulders as they went along and eventually sat down to groom each other made my sister and I exchange glances.
Well that will have to be it for today, I'm afraid. Part 2, hopefully tomorrow.