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Meeting Cameroon’s Gorillas

“Would you like to go to the Cameroon in West Africa to meet gorillas?”

I run a hotel in London, so this isn’t a conventional question to be posed and whilst I have been asked to placate difficult guests I hardly expected nor feel equipped to confront these particular beasts.  However, as we have been supporting the Born Free Foundation over the past year, they felt it was high time I saw something of their work for real. But Cameroon? I don’t know anything about the place and my response is hesitant, I am then told International supermodel Rachel Hunter will be leading the trip at which point my bag is mentally packed and I am on my way.May 15th

A gruesome 4.30am start and we are off to Heathrow.  Embarrassment from the outset as my suitcase is bigger and heavier than Rachel Hunter’s and we struggle to get it into the vehicle.  How could I have possibly packed more than a supermodel?  Probably my paranoiac bulk buying of insect repellents that led to Boots Piccadilly’s best sales day ever last week.

There are ten of us in total including Rachel, her manager, Born Free’s head of PR, a GMTV film crew and two photographers. After a late departing flight to Paris we are gruffly summoned over the tannoy as we weave our way through the ludicrous transfer process at Charles de Gaulle. We make it but only just and fly for 6 hours to Douala, the chief commercial centre and port at which the Wouri River enters the Atlantic Ocean. As we make our descent the most striking first impression is the vivid green colouring.  Miles of dense rainforest and snaking rivers immediately eradicate perceptions of barren dry land. I have been sat next to a Cameroonian girl for the duration of the flight and struggled to communicate in my dreadful French. She is returning home on a holiday to visit her parents for the first time in years and on seeing the land below turns to me with a tear rolling down her cheek and says “ I’m just so happy”.  Our landing is remarkably smooth despite the weed infested runway and as a ‘VIP’ party we are bypassed from the usual entry and baggage procedures straight into hotel vehicles.

The journey into Douala town centre is quick and the relative luxury and security of the hotel prompts a debate as to whether we stay the entire week or take up our pre-planned accommodation at a more basic inn nearer the Gorilla sanctuary we will be spending much of our time at. In the course of an hour the Manager of the hotel is told we are staying one, four, two and then one night such was the anxiety and subsequent braveness of this group of explorers possibly fuelled by the onset of gin and tonics.

From my bedroom window Douala appears a strange mixture of fast and slow. Taxis race back and forth sounding their horns to alert passers by that they are free for hire. A cigarette stall appears to be a focus point for meeting and talking whilst a park bench under a tree by the roadside is the resting place for two old men. They seem to sit and contemplate the world without speaking or moving for hours and well into darkness.

Before dinner, Ian Redmond, Born Free’s respected and very knowledgeable gorilla expert tells us a little of what we will see tomorrow. Rachel appears nervous but excited by her planned close encounter with a gorilla. Ian says one of them has a habit of fixing her jaws on men’s crotches as a  way of testing them and I shuffle uncomfortably at the prospect but not as half as much as the GMTV cameraman who will be confronting this animal first thing tomorrow morning.
Mosquito’s prevail at early evening and I soak myself in spray unfortunately including my tongue which renders dinner fortunately tasteless.

Things look up all of a sudden, my mobile has a signal.May 16th

What a start. A blister has appeared on my arm. I’ve got caught something dreadful, the sprays were useless and I’m going to die. I go to breakfast feeling depressed and see the buffet smothered in flies and drink coffee that would certainly clear those weeds on the airport tarmac.

Ian Redmond takes me to one side as the groups ‘hotel expert’ and tells me the hotel shop is selling ivory products in contravention of Cameroon law. I promise to take it up with the manager.

Our journey to Limbe is magical. In two land cruisers we bump through towns and villages rich in every African cliché you would expect to see.  People carrying heavy loads on their heads, bustling markets, life evolving around the roadside, Arsenal and Liverpool soccer shirts and the amazing colours of costume and uniform, especially the immaculate school kids. The stunning scenery reveals how beautiful a country it is and yet the occasional logging lorry that passes with a tree so vast, probably dating back to Medieval times, demonstrates the threat to that beauty and the natural home to the creatures we are shortly to encounter.

I show Ian my blister and he sucks through his teeth like a cash hungry plumber and struggles to say anything reassuring.  I did tell my wife I love her before I left I’m sure.

The intense heat and humidity are more apparent out of town and we arrive at Limbe Wildlife Centre drained but excited.  Peter Jenkins, the American founder of the sanctuary takes us on a tour of this former zoo and shows us the grotesque cages the animals were originally kept in.   Hunting, habitat loss, trade in infants and disease have put apes and particularly gorillas at enormous risk.  The most visible by product are orphaned youngsters. Most die, but some survive and there are now twelve here at Limbe.

Rachel makes her first brave steps into a cage housing Twiggy the six year old Western Lowland rescued as a pet in Nigeria. A lame left arm leaves her looking vulnerable and shy but she clearly feels safe with Rachel and there interaction is immensely moving.  Other gorillas watch with interest from their vantage points nearby and Rachel is heard to shriek “Is he masturbating?” and yes one of the males was making the most of Rachel’s visit.

I go wandering and discover a small enclosure housing four adorable baby chimpanzees and call one of the photographers over to see. I hear a scream as he reels back from the electric fence and stare at the £700 of broken lens lying on the floor. Oh dear.

Back at the hotel I am disturbed in my room by one of our party once again seeking the ‘hotel expert’. She says there are mouse droppings on her bed and should she complain?  She pulls back my bedspread and I think either this is the most peculiar chat-up scenario or she is genuinely spooked and wants to know if it’s common to every room rather like a turn-down chocolate on the pillow. I go to the lobby with her and the sole receptionist is unmoved by her dilemma and I therefore try my French “Beaucoup de merrde sur la lit” and get a further shrug of the shoulders.  She does finally get her room changed but as I was next door I am now looking under the bed at the walls for any rodent entry points.

Dinner is interrupted by a power cut and we illuminate our path back to the hotel with our mobile telephones.  A spider the size of a hand scurries across the reception floor and I am convinced it leaves mouse sized shit all over people’s beds.  Further trauma when I realise I have brushed my teeth with tap water and I have forgotten my malaria tablet. Fatigue nevertheless kicks in and I sleep well.May 17th

What a morning.  Rachel has gone to play with Twiggy so Ian takes me to meet some of the other gorillas. He places his face against their cage and they prowl over individually and chew his beard and hair. They seem so comfortable with him and whilst your first reaction is to be terrified particularly as they beat their chests, they are engagingly calm, gentle and bemused. I proffer my hand for the first time and the black leather glove fingers touch mine creating the most exhilarating sensation. I scratch their backs and tickle their necks. The older and bigger beasts pull away the young for their turn and I am in heaven.

It begins to rain and very heavily. We take a drive through dense bush to see first hand the peninsula that the sanctuary wants to acquire to relocate the gorillas to.  The journey is precarious and on steep, wet tracks we occasionally confront traffic that shows little regard for anyone else.  The site is beautiful and we all hunger for the day the animals can move there for both space and safety.

Whilst we wait for our jeeps a local man sells us bottles of beer and coke which he opens with his teeth and I make a mental note of taking back as an idea for our head barman in London.May 18th

Rachel goes to a local school to learn about the conservation education programme being taught to Cameroon children.  Her manager and I have been invited to meet the four baby chimpanzees and thus we have the most enchanting half an hour of being clambered all over by these playful and mischievous apes. Laces are undone, pockets explored and trousers pulled downwards all of which you excuse because they are genuinely affectionate and eerily human.  We don’t want to leave and they won’t let us go but our journey must continue, so with adrenaline racing and blood rushing to the head we say farewell to these wonderful four.  Born Free want a picture or Rachel and I for their scrapbook so we pose in De Vere T-shirts in front of a large male gorilla.  I feel sorry for Rachel having to pose with this ugly beast and the gorilla too, but they are both very gracious and we get our shot. Rachel then leaps up and runs off which I think a little off but turning around I see our primate friend is once again doing a ‘Leslie Grantham’ so I too sprint off.  We board the jeeps for a return drive to Douala and our fellow passengers are to be pitied. Half an hour with the Chimps and we have not been spared reminders of their proximity to us. I had one sitting on my head and I guess the smell of shampoo has long gone to be replaced by the stronger stench of faeces. With the windows wide open we talk very little and dream of hot showers.

We take dinner outside and the most intense thunder storm breaks. The area repeatedly turns a pinkish colour as the lightning cracks through the night sky and we retire to the bar for cover. Someone relates a story about an encounter with a 28 foot tapeworm and with that delightful thought in mind I left for bed.

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