Gorillas and Witch Doctors

Posted on February 4, 2014


Saying the climb down Mount Ngakah was difficult is an understatement. By the time we schlepped back to camp it was almost 3pm. I was absolutely starving and ready to collapse.

Lord knows how my legs didn’t buckle in the shower as the ice cold water fell over me. The boys headed for the river for a plunge and although tempted I was concerned about what parasites might be lurking in there, so I declined as I didn’t really want to come back from Africa with “friends”. As I scrubbed up ready to start preparing lunch, they bounded back full of beans and exclaimed it was time to head off for one last excursion.

I panicked for a nano second as I heard the rumble of my stomach and wondered how long until my next meal.

“Does it involve any more trekking?” I asked timidly. Thankfully what followed was a more than happy distraction.

Off we trotted through the forest to a clearing. As we stood on the banks of the river we starred across to see another bank with a viewing platform jutting out a small way. A short while later two little fat balls of fluff bounced their way towards us on the opposite platform to show us just who was boss.

These orphaned gorillas (Yengo and Owando not related) have been living at the sanctuary run by the Damien Aspinall Foundation since they were babies. Their mothers were killed by poachers and poor little Yengo had to have a shot gun pellet pulled out of his face. After being rescued, Tarzan had to take them into his home until they could be placed at this gorilla orphanage.

Their play fighting was a joy to watch and mimicked some of the actions of professional wrestlers. I’m sure I saw a head lock; a slam and one of those moves where the opponent is pinned to the floor for a count of ten. My camera shutter went into overdrive. It was a magical experience to watch. This could well be the way forward for ape conservation. A chance to enjoy the animals but with water between them and us to prevent disease transfer.

After lunch, we lay sprawled out on three sofas under the banda near the kitchen, talking and laughing. We were then joined by one of the staff who began to tell what sounded like a highly interesting story in French judging by the wide-eyed expression, raised eyebrows and exclamations coming from Tarzan and the Brit.

Patiently I waited for the translation. “So in a nut shell what happened?” I asked after the 45-minute tale ended.

“There is no nut shell,” replied Tarzan. “It’s a pretty long and complicated story.”

So here’s my shortened version knocked into a few paragraphs:

Last year a French couple came to camp to do the same trek we had just completed. They were middle aged – say around 50-something. Half way through trekking through the savannah the husband turned to the guide and said that he didn’t want to go any further as he was tired. He had no water with him, no hat, no sunscreen. What a fool! The guide was reluctant to leave him behind insisting they stick together. But his hand was forced and he gave up after he refused to move on. The guide told him to stay put and placed him under a tree in the shade. Now I know how long that walk takes to the mountain, to go up it and back down. Not to mention rest time at the summit and taking in the spectacular scenery. No prizes for guessing what happened when the wife and the guide returned to the tree. That’s right the damn fool had gonna ‘walkabout’ as the Ozzies say.

He probably thought it would be a piece of cake to walk back to camp. The savannah is vast and it is easy to get disorientated unless you have done the route hundreds of times, and even then there is no guarantee finding your way.

Needless to say a panic ensued as they could not find him. The guide retraced his steps, found the man’s tracks but then they disappeared and he was left scratching his head.

When nightfall came and the next day arrived the alarm bells were sounded. Being a French national, President Sassou of Congo was informed and then the French embassy got involved. It was a major shit storm. The military were called in and briefed to look for a body as people believed there was no way in hell he’d be able to survive without food or water. A helicopter search and rescue made three sweeps of the area. To no avail. HIs family flew over from France, his wife was beside herself. Then the Congolese people decided to take matters into their own hands. They went to visit several witch doctors.

The first witch doctor they consulted said he needed clothes or something from the man on the day he went missing to be able to connect with him. They couldn’t provide this. The second witch doctor in another village said the same thing. Then finally they found a witch doctor who agreed to help.

He was brought to camp where he danced around a fire for several days and was paid $800 for information. He told officials that the man had been taken to another “dimension” and was no longer in this world. The Bateke (local tribe) are convinced that the man was a scorceror and that he was trying to call a ‘Siren’ when he went missing and that she took him to another world and where it was difficult to bring him back.

After what was quite frankly a lot of bull, the man was found down river by one of the eco-guards (with no real help from Voodoo Ray) severely dehydrated, burnt and delusional. But government officials were convinced the witch doctor had saved everyone’s bacon.

The stress and trouble the guide endured was enormous, he could have lost his job. He is an experienced man who has never lost a soul; all because some arrogant twat can’t follow instructions. As if it to add insult to injury the French man offered him $200 for the trouble he caused, which the guide refused. An almighty grovelling apology and major frickin contribution to the project would have been more appropriate for starters. His three and a half day ‘walkabout to another dimension’ cost hundreds of thousands of dollars in manpower and a diplomatic crisis. Thankfully the guide is still in his post and is now able to talk about it with relief rather than with regret.