Angus Gemmell sits on the forest floor with local trackers, observing bonobos in the forest canopy in the DRC. Photo: © Angus Gemmell
WildArk: What did it feel like to travel by boat in the Congo?
The journey felt like going down a time tunnel to the dawn of humanity. Metaphorically you felt like were are going back in time to where the bonobos are at the dawn of human consciousness.
Our boat was 15-20 meters long and comprised of just 3-4 logs lashed together, and it was not very manoeuverable. There were times when trying to navigate log jams in the narrower stretches was quite dangerous, and there were a couple of occasions when we nearly got stuck on some awkward spots.
WildArk: Are the Congolese good watermen/ women?
Yes, they have used rivers as their natural highways for centuries. Thankfully, the road structure is so poor that the logging trucks can’t get in and out very quickly, limiting deforestation. The Congolese take their small canoes fishing through the depths of the forest, and they have these huge floating groups of boats like a flotilla, or colourful floating market, moving up and down the river
WildArk: Few westerners have been here, did this add to the thrill of the adventure?
Yes, absolutely because it had been some time since ‘mzungus’ (white men) had been up there. In the aftermath of Rwanda’s genocide, the Hutus spilled across into the DRC destabilising Eastern Congo. That wave of unrest moved west to Kinshasa resulting in the over-throw of President Mobutu Sese Seko. It is still a fairly volatile place and there were a few times we felt we were in danger. Once, we were in a market and became surrounded by a gang that seemed ready to linch us. Thankfully some undercover policemen sensed the imminent danger and stepped in!
WildArk: What was it like to see bonobos in the wild for the first time?
I can still see them in my mind’s-eye, high in the canopy. We had just trekked through the forest pre-dawn. For 15 years, I had dreamt about being there in the wild, and I think the feeling I had was one of majestic wonder. They had this timelessness about them, and it was a curious feeling that, as much as we were looking through our binoculars at them, we were objects of their curiosity too. It was a feeling of being studied by another conscious being right on the cusp of a heightened consciousness, similar to that of humans.