Making Friends in the Forest

After all of the ups and downs of my first few days things were starting to get interesting and I was settling into camp life. My contact had arrived so I could now do something constructive with my time and I was put to work producing their latest edition of newsletter.

It’s quite a challenge trying to produce a professional printed document when you’re in the middle of the Congolese jungle with a client whose first language is French, the internet only works at a pace too slow even to collect email, but, at least they have a very old version of InDesign which is more than I expected.

Close-up crab.

My abode is a nice wooden cabin in the forest, there are three beds – four mattresses – but I’m the only person so I’ve got it all to myself. There’s no glass in the windows just a grill and where the walls meet the roof there’s a gap so insects, lizards etc., come and go as they please. I’ve not been sleeping too well as I’m bitten to buggery and they start itching when I’m in my clammy bed during the humid night. When I first climb under the mosquito net its warm, I just lie there, then as I start to fall asleep, I get hot and sweaty, as the night passes it gets cooler so I’m woken because I’m cold. I’d bought a fitted bed sheet for the trip to Cameroon, my technique is to use it like a sleeping bag, shove my feet in one corner and my head in another then wrap around, imagine an open sarcophagus sleeping bag. For some reason this doesn’t seem to work here as well as it did in the tent so I’m now using the sheet in the traditional manner. I’ve got my trusty Uniclo ultralight quilted jacket compressed into its handy carry bag for a pillow and my own mosquito net as a sheet. At the point when the temperature drops my jacket is unpacked and becomes a blanket. In between bouts of trying not to scratch I’m usually fussing with my jacket/net combo then just as I start to slumber my internal clock goes off and it’s time to rise. The other morning was quite nice because I was woken dead on 6.30am by the chimpanzees kicking off on their nearby island. I’m deploying my supply of antihistamines to help and tonight I’ve also switched mattresses in pursuit of a comfortable night.

Dereck the alpha male.

The previous nights change of mattress was positive in terms of comfort but unproductive regards increased sleep time, so last night I approached the issue from the opposite direction. Keep the jacket as a pillow, push the mosquito net to one side and get dressed for bed. Limitations on the size and weight of my back-pack requires everything to be multi-functional so it’s time that v-neck from Primarni stepped up to the plate. Tonight my jumper would be my pyjama top complimented by swimming shorts. Somehow, this seems to work but I’m not so sure sartorially although bat and batty tell me otherwise – I think they’re just joking though.

Tina and her baby, Tchula.

I’m learning that you have to share everything in Africa. Your tent with lizards, the bedroom with bats, your food with flies and your blood with mosquitoes. Most mornings I take a shower after first removing any leaves or twigs from the tray, today, what I thought was a thick twig turned out to be a 10cm (3.94 inches) long millipede. Normally, there’s a couple of grasshoppers that perform their ablutions at the same time as me, they always borrow some shower gel, but don’t use much so I don’t mind. As with most things there’s the exception to the rule and in this instance it seems to be the ants, they’re just take, take, take. If you drop a small crumb on the table they’re straight on it, loads of the little buggers come from nowhere and form an orderly queue to get a chunk. I suppose I’d be a tad unsociable too if everyone kept treading on me and never apologising, either that or it’s some sort of short-guy syndrome.

I thought I’d go for an afternoon stroll and see what I could capture with my camera. Not far outside the sanctuary along the sandy track I found three dung beetles kicking off over… yes, some dung. I’m standing in the middle of the track when a Landcruiser pulls up. Out jumps a young man in flip-flops and broad-rimmed hat, accompanied by his wife and young child. He introduces himself with a firm handshake then joins me studying the beetles. The contest for crap finally yields a winner and the couple move the defeated from the road and pass on by.

Palm nut vulture.

I’m introduced to the couple formally a little while later, they’re visiting for a couple of days which is well handy for two reasons. Firstly, the person I’ve been working with returns to Pointe Noire tomorrow so I haven’t a clue what I’m going to be doing with myself. Secondly, I only get to go out of camp when it doesn’t cost man hours or fuel. When paying tourists go out I get to tag along, obviously without cost to the sanctuary. They are old friends of the boss and experienced jungle people so full of fascinating forest facts. We take a long boat ride into the forest then the husband and I kayak back down river to the camp. Half way down we spot some fresh elephant tracks in the muddy riverbank and land in hot pursuit. He turns and calmly says ‘If I say run, run’. He heads off with machete in hand and I follow with camera. We walk for a minute or so then stop to listen. Almost in a whisper he tells me he’s going for a fag and to stay there and take some photos. I’ve learnt before that, actually, there’s very little to photograph in a forest as the wildlife is hiding and trees are boring. So while I patiently wait for something interesting to pass by and smile for my camera I consider the possibilities… the elephant we were tracking, leopard perhaps or gorilla? No, if you’re going to get mauled to death I’ve been told a highly territorial chimpanzee is pretty good. Their preferred method of attack is to rip your testicles off then shove a finger up your bum and try to pull out your intestines. I waddle back to the kayak with hands between my legs and firmly clenched buttocks. Safely back in camp we have a spot of lunch then head back downstream catching sight of a couple of vultures and a buffalo.

Buffalo runs for cover.