In the Summer of 2010 I shall be going to Uganda as a research volunteer on the Semliki Chimpanzee Project. I will spend ten weeks following and studying the chimpanzees of Semliki Wildlife Reserve, learning the ropes as a fledgling chimpanzee chaser. This blog will chart the memorable animals, people and events that I encounter along the way and my experiences with the stars of the trip, the Semliki chimpanzees.

Tuesday, 1 January 2013

A New Adventure Awaits

A new year has just begun and I have a feeling that 2013 is going to be an exciting one.

Back in December, after weeks of anxious waiting and two truly terrifying interviews I received what is without a doubt the best answer machine message I have ever had in my life.

I was working in a shop in Bristol at the time in a temp job I'd found so I could afford to move to the area to chase wildlife film-making jobs.  Having had my second interview for a researcher position I'd applied for on a natural history series a couple of days previously I was a nervous wreck as I tried to focus on my work and avoid the temptation to dash to the storeroom and check my phone. Eventually the tension got to me and I found an excuse to get something from the stores and quickly check my phone whilst I was at it. I had one message.

I could barely bring myself to call voicemail, but worked up the courage and waited with baited breath to hear the message that followed. When the words "we would like to offer you the job" reached my ears I couldn't believe what I was hearing. I went back to work grinning like the Cheshire Cat but in a bit of a daze and it was only on my lunch break when I'd listened to the answer machine message five times in a row that it began to sink in. Having phoned back the Producer who'd left the message to confirm it was real and phoned my mum and sister to break the fantastic news I finally realised that, despite still having to pinch myself to check it wasn't a dream, I had actually done it. I had got my dream job! 

I spent the afternoon at work on cloud nine and I don't think anyone has ever done the washing up as happily as I did then. I was dancing around the kitchen as I worked, even after I realised that thanks to an unhelpfully placed window dividing the shop's cafe area and the kitchen, several customers could see my crazy dance moves!

I've spent the last few weeks becoming increasingly more excited to start my new job and getting my head round how unbelievably lucky I've been. I always knew that getting into wildlife film-making was going to be hard and although I kept telling myself that I would get a foot in the door eventually I certainly didn't expect to get a break this soon, or for it to be this big. I'll be working on a landmark six-part series being produced for BBC1 and the thought that I am going to get to spend the next couple of years working with some of the best people in the industry on a production this exciting still feels to good to be true. I can't wait to start and throw myself head-first into proving that they were right to give me this chance.

As this new chapter is about to begin I am sure that a very exciting year awaits. If you have enjoyed reading about my time chasing chimpanzees then watch this space, because I have a feeling that I'll be wanting to share my adventures of a new sort soon.

Friday, 26 October 2012

The Queen of Chimpanzee Chasers

Growing up I definitely wasn’t the type of girl to idolise popstars or other typical teen icons. Instead my heroes were a chimpanzee chaser and a naturalist.

Jane Goodall and David Attenborough have long inspired me and helped push me in the direction of my dreams, never more so than when I was lucky enough to meet Jane for the second time in my life earlier this month.

Having spent most of my childhood fascinated by primates it was only natural that I should find the story of a young woman who went to live among the chimpanzees on unknown shores an incredible and inspiring one. As a little girl I used to arrange my toy primates around the garden and pretend I was exploring a distant jungle like Jane, the Queen of Chimpanzee Chasers.

Copyright: CBS/Landov

Reading about Jane’s time with the chimpanzees of Gombe was what made me so determined to study chimpanzees in the wild, an ambition that eventually led to my time chasing chimpanzees in Semliki – an experience even more amazing than I’d ever imagined.

Having returned from my first (but hopefully not my last) chimpanzee chasing adventure I was lucky enough to be presented with the opportunity to hear Jane talk as part of a Personal Histories Project lecture at Cambridge University in April 2011 and of course I jumped at this chance (though not literally as I was on crutches due to a rugby injury at the time!)

While having a leg in cast made getting into the lecture theatre with its steep-stepped access a challenge, it did mean I was able to sit at the very front, just metres away from my chimpanzee-chasing idol. I spent the entire talk competely in awe of this woman who had done so much for the field of primatology; the woman who had forced us to redefine what we consider human, and who with her conservation work continues to challenge the way we look at the world around us.

I left Jane’s talk more determined than ever to pursue a career revealing Nature’s incredible stories to the world and the proud owner of a copy of one of Jane’s books bearing her thumbprint. A wrist injury meant that Jane couldn’t sign anything, but I for one thought that the thumbprint of the Queen of Chimpanzee Chasers was a pretty unique and incredible gift.

Having treasured my book bearing Jane’s thumprint for over a year I found myself clutching it to my chest as I raced up five flights of stairs this October. I was volunteering at the Wildscreen Film Festival in Bristol where Jane had just given a talk and was desperate for a chance to speak to Jane and ask her to sign my book. I had just ten minutes to spare between clearing up at the venue I was working in and setting up for the next event and so sprinted to the building where Jane was signing books and up the seemingly never-ending staircase. 

I think mainly because I looked so out of breath and anxious to talk to her Jane was kind enough to patiently listen to me nervously blurt out something about having studied chimpanzees at Semliki while she offered to add something to my book. I was so pleased to get to talk to her and in such a hurry to get back to work that I thanked Jane and left without getting a look at what she’d written. It was only later that day having finished work that I managed to get a proper look at the message Jane had written next to her thumbprint. When I did it made me cry.

To have someone who had I had idolised since I was a little girl write such an inspirational message to me was very touching and a huge motivation. I certainly intend to follow the wise words of the Queen of Chimpanzee Chasers.

Friday, 20 July 2012

A New Challenge

It’s now over two years since I set off on my first chimpanzee chasing adventure. Having fulfilled my childhood dream to see chimpanzees in the wild (hopefully not for the last time) I am now taking on a challenge of a different nature.

One day aged seven I decided to borrow our family camcorder and sit for over an hour filming the action at our bird table (an impressive feat for an inherently hyperactive child!) This was my first taste of wildlife film-making and it gave me an appreciation of both the joys and the many drawbacks of filming animals (most of the time nothing happens, your arms ache from holding the camera, you get cold and your bum goes numb). Numb bum or not I decided that one day I was going to produce the wildlife documentaries that I loved so much.

To this day I still dream of being a wildlife film-maker and it is this dream that I am now relentlessly chasing with the same energy I devoted to chasing chimpanzees in Semliki. Like keeping up with those elusive apes over rivers, up mountains and through the undergrowth, I’m sure this chase will not be easy. However, just as it was worth every second of the pursuit for some incredible encounters with the chimpanzees in Semliki, I am sure my hard work now will be worth it in the end.

I am currently looking for any opportunities of work experience in wildlife film-making, so if you’re reading this and think you may be able to help me, or know anyone else you could, please do have a look at my CV by clicking on the photo below. Any help with my latest adventure would be much appreciated.

Friday, 29 April 2011

A World Away

It has now been over 6 months since I left Semliki behind, and as I busy myself studying for finals the hushed libraries and overworked students of Cambridge seem a world away from the cries of hornbills and the hoots of the chimpanzees.

I try not to dwell too long on thoughts of Semliki as I have other things that currently require my concentration, but depsite this I am often aware of a longing to be back in Uganda. As I sit behind desks with piles of books and papers surrounding me I think of how much I'd rather be sat on the decking outside my tent in Semliki, looking out across the patchwork forest and rolling mountains, miles away from the stress of exams and the need to plan my future.

When I chance upon a writing competition being run by the BBC Wildlife Magazine it is therefore with no hesitation that I decide to write about the chimpanzees of Semliki and what was perhaps my most memorable experience with them during my time as a chimpanzee chaser.

Below is the piece that I produced describing this wonderful encounter. I hope that you enjoy it:

The Eyes Have It
Ignoring the thorns that hooked into my shirt and my already-lacerated skin, I fought to get closer to the creatures that had spent the past few hours leading me on a tantalising trail through the forest. By following the sound of snapping branches and the occasional glimpse of black outlines in the interwoven canopy overhead, I was able to clamber and crawl through the thick vegetation after my quarry, working hard to keep up with them as they moved above me with frustrating ease.
Suddenly the noises emerging from the treetops stopped. It seemed that the animals I was pursuing had come to rest in a tree whose trunk stood several metres in front of me. I stopped and crouched low, my pulse racing. For a few minutes nothing happened. The noises of the forest slowly filled the space around me – chirping cicadas, the harsh calls of hornbills and the gentle rustling of branches swaying in the wind. As I waited amongst the tangled vines and sun-dappled buttresses I tried to ignore the burning ache in my thighs and the occasional stabs of pain from the tsetse flies enjoying the taste of my blood. All of my attention was focussed on the gnarled tree in front of me.
After what seemed an age, my eyes were drawn towards movement near the top of the tree. To my delight a leathery grey foot and then a dark, muscular body began to descend the trunk towards my hiding spot. My heart pounded against my ribcage as the creature reached the base of the tree and calmly and deliberately turned to face me. After years of dreaming, months of planning and a long and eventful journey to the Semliki Wildlife Reserve in Uganda, I was finally staring directly into the penetrating eyes of a wild chimpanzee.
As a second, and then a third, chimpanzee slowly and steadily descended in front of me I thought of how lucky I was to see such incredible creatures in their natural habitat. I have been fascinated by animals since childhood, but for a reason I can’t fully explain, primates, and particularly chimpanzees, have always held a special interest for me. As a young girl I used to drag my precious toy monkey around our garden pretending that I was following in the footsteps of Jane Goodall, chasing after ghostly chimpanzees in some far off forest full of exotic wildlife.
As each of the chimpanzees turned to briefly face me my thoughts strayed back along the path that had taken me from my childhood fascination to this incredible encounter. My love of natural history had led me to study Zoology at university and from there to volunteer as a researcher at a chimpanzee project in Uganda. Months of preparation had finally landed me in Uganda’s capital, Kampala, from where I proceeded to travel along bumpy dirt roads, up rolling hills and across snaking rivers to Semliki. I had been crammed like a sardine into dilapidated buses along with locals, luggage and the odd live chicken. I had inhaled vast quantities of dust and diesel fumes on the backs of motorbikes and through the open windows of cars and buses that served as ‘air conditioning’. I had been stranded at the side of bustling Ugandan streets as I waited for lifts to the next stop on my journey; and I had felt a mixture of fear and amazement as I was driven down the incredible, sheer, winding roads of the stunning Rift Valley.
Once in Semliki, I had spent many hours, of many weeks chasing the ever-elusive chimpanzees, up steep escarpments, over churning rivers, through the viciously-barbed forest undergrowth and over large expanses of savannah with its slicing grass and blistering heat, dodging forest elephants and venomous snakes along the way.
Yet now that I was here returning the gaze of the animal that had brought me to Uganda, all thoughts of this toil faded away. Every second of effort catching up with the incredible apes and every step on the trail taken by the young girl playing in the woods to this precious moment had been worth it. Here I was looking into the eyes of an animal that was separated from me by just a few sections of DNA, an animal that I had been mesmerised by for as long as I could remember. And it was every bit as incredible as I had dreamed it would be.

Monday, 29 November 2010

A few favourites

Here are a just a few of my favourite photos from my time in Semliki. If you wish to see more of my Semliki photos visit the Picasa album via the link at the top of the page.

Monday, 20 September 2010

The end of an amazing adventure

After two nights spent in Entebbe growing increasingly impatient for the time of my homeward flight to arrive and the long, uncomfortable plane journey itself, I have finally arrived back on British soil. I landed at Heathrow Airport early this morning and after making my way through the necessary security checks and collecting my travel-worn backpack I donned my chimpanzee-chasing hat and gratefully walked through the departure gates into the waiting arms of my sorely-missed mum and sister.

Having since reached the home that I have been half a world away from for nearly eleven weeks I now write this from the comfort of my room, surrounded by my, as yet unpacked, bags and with my head filled with wonderful memories of Uganda. After a truly incredible, but thoroughly exhausting, chimpanzee chasing adventure it is good to be home.

I am sure it will not take long for me to start missing Semliki, and that when I return to university and get stuck back into my studies I will pine for the cool, dark, peacefulness of the forest and the excitement of chasing chimpanzees as I sit bent over books with the stress of essay deadlines upon me. However, for now, I am simply glad to be back among the comforts of home and to see the family and friends who I have been absent from for so long.

With my first chimpanzee chasing adventure having come to an end my Journal is complete, and so I shall leave you here with the hope that you have enjoyed reading about my experiences as much as I have enjoyed writing them.

However, whilst my accounts of this Ugandan adventure have now reached their conclusion, you may want to keep an eye out for the return of this newly-fledged chimpanzee chaser in the not-too-distant future, as I have a feeling that this first foray into the world of chimpanzee chasing will not be my last!

Written on Friday 17th September

A sad goodbye

My last week here in Semliki sped by at an incredible pace. It turned out that my last encounter with the chimpanzees was indeed the exhilarating time spent with them on Thursday evening and Friday morning – as good a final sighting as I could have hoped for.

Despite the absence of the chimpanzees, my final few days here have been wonderful ones. The forest was as enchanting as ever and still teemed with fascinating wildlife, even if its Great Ape inhabitants proved elusive. My last forest visits were spent filled with a bittersweet feeling as I trod the now familiar trails - excited at the thought of home and the family and friends that I shall return to there, but reluctant for my first chimpanzee-chasing adventure to come to an end.

I spent my last day in the forest desperately trying to imprint every image that flashed across my wandering eyes on my memory - not wanting to forget the view of the sun-drenched savannah stretching beyond the patchwork forest to the impressive slopes of the Rwenzoris; nor the image of the sun seeping through the canopy to illuminated the leaf-strewn trail, or the inquisitive gaze of a red-tailed monkey as it peered down through the leaves at me. I didn’t want a single memory of the forest to be lost, and so concentrated intensely in the attempt to take in my incredible surroundings for the final time during yesterday’s forest visit.

Though part of me didn’t want yesterday to end it inevitably did, and so it was with mixed feelings that I stepped out from the shade of the towering trees into the scorching sunshine and trudged up the slope into camp for the last time of this trip.

It was a feeling of sadness that first gripped me as I left the forest. I thought back over some of the amazing experiences I have had there – the elephant encounters; the hours of wading through the twisting river; the climbing and the views over the forest achieved from the treetops; and the sightings of slender serpents, iridescently-spotted guineafowl, playful monkeys and the many other wonderful creatures that the forest houses. Then of course there was the excitement of chimpanzee chasing and the joy of the incredible hours spent with the fascinating apes when we succeeded in catching up with them.

However, whilst I am reluctant to leave Semliki behind, butterflies flutter excitedly within me when my thoughts turn to home. I cannot wait to return to my much-missed family and friends and to share with them the stories, memories and photographs that I will take back with me. I also look forward to the flushing, fly-free toilets, piping hot power showers and other such luxuries that home will bring, and my stomach growls in anticipation when I think of the delicious home-cooked meals that await me.
I therefore felt ready to leave Semliki and keen to get to Entebbe, my final stop before the flight home, as we loaded the car and said our goodbyes this morning. Whilst sad to leave the collection of savannah-surrounded tents that has been my home for the past ten weeks and Edson and the other staff who have made my stay so enjoyable behind, I am now eager to return home.

As the thatched roofs of camp disappeared from view this morning I looked back over my time in Semliki and thought of the many incredible memories I shall return with. Semliki is a place that has made a big impression on me, and I am sure that my dreams shall often turn to the gently swaying savannah grass and the imposing Rwenzori backdrop that I have looked upon so often these past ten weeks when I am tucked up in my bed at home.

I feel that my first experience of field research gained here in Uganda has taught me a lot, and the course that my investigations have taken means that I leave with many new questions buzzing in my head that I would hate to leave unanswered. I would certainly love to come back to Semliki and to be able to put the lessons I have learned to good use and to hunt for the answers to those questions that now so intrigue me.

I therefore sincerely hope that this goodbye is not for good, and that one day I shall return to the stunning scenery, wonderful people and fascinating wildlife that Semliki is home to for another chimpanzee chasing adventure.

Written on Tuesday 14th September