"Over breakfast I stumbled upon an ad in the Guardian newspaper that read “Gorilla project. Administrator required. Gabon.” I was living in Oxford at the time and didn't apply straight away, because it didn’t make any sense. I didn't even know where Gabon was. But something compelled me to phone. The guy on the other end said “I was just about to close the job because we had no applicants. Come and see me.” So I went for an interview and I’m not sure how I pulled it off, but I did. Two weeks later I was on my way to care for sixteen orphaned lowland gorillas.
I landed in Libreville and was given a case with a combination lock which was full of cash and some instructions. I felt like James Bond! I bought various bits and pieces and flew across the country to Franceville. There I was met by a woman called Liz Pearson, who was running the conservation project. She was this tough wiry woman from Wichita, who incessantly smoked fags and drank beer. We got in an old beaten up Land Rover and drove to the end of the road. At the end of the road we drove another 4 hours across the savannah. When we got to the Mpassa River, we boarded a small tin boat and went three and half hours up river until we reached the camp.
There was nothing that could have prepared me for the surreal experience of meeting the gorillas for the first time. They suddenly appeared out of the forest, they lived freely in a great big stretch of forest across the river from our camp. I sat down and very quickly the sixteen gorillas, aged two to nine, came up to me. They grabbed my hand and held it up to their noses. You know, they got good teeth on them, and I was thinking “This is very weird!” They were working out what gender I was! The males all ran off and all the females sat around, batting their eyelashes at me. And then, one by one, the males would come up and playfully slap me. These young orphaned gorillas, aged two to nine, had no role models, they were delinquents. It was like an orphanage with no teachers, it was just chaos. They’d spin around in circles until they were dizzy, run with their eyes shut until they’d hit a tree or trip over a root, and then they’d roll around laughing, I’m talking fits of vibrating laughter. Gorillas are mad little things.
My favorite time was early in the morning. I would sit at the bottom of the tree where they were sleeping and watch them wake up. You’d see an arm flop out, they would stretch, fart. Just like us. Then they would clamber down the tree, pee, and find something to eat, like shoots of wild ginger. They would be very sweet in the mornings, they’d come over and rest their head on your knee. Then they would play games of hide and seek, chase each other, eat more, siesta, mess around and then come three or four, they’d find a site to build a nest, which they do every day in a new location, right at the top of the trees. This observing went on day after day, until one day, one of the gorillas started to turn on me. He was coming to sexual maturity and his hits were starting to hurt. I tried to convince him that his women were of no interest to me but we weren’t communicating very well, for obvious reasons. So I left two months before the end of my two year contract, before things got ugly.
Around the same time, Gabon’s president signed a decree turning eleven percent of Gabon’s land into thirteen protected national parks. I started working with the Wildlife Conservation Society on what was called “mission de la sensibilisation.” Someone had to go around the remote communities to explain what was going on. So I teamed up with Hughes Obiang Poitovin, a white witch doctor, Pierre Akendengue, legendary father of traditional Gabonese music, Annie Flore Battchiellilys, the equivalent of Gabon’s Madonna, Duncan Bridgeman from 1 Giant Leap, and Ivan Lantos, a Hungarian Ethnomusicologist. We travelled more than 5000 kilometers to get the word out to the people living around the parks and began recording Gabon’s incredibly diverse traditional music, dance and rituals.
We’d arrive unannounced and before we could even set up our kit, the villagers would start singing their heads off. Of the fifty ethnic groups around Gabon each has community has their own particular way of singing. Gabonese music is the original trance! I was suddenly exposed to the country’s culture and it was just as impressive as the wildlife I’d discovered through my conservation work. I made a film and produced a double cd, one with traditional field recordings, and one of hybrid music composed with international musicians based on Gabonese rhythms, melodies, and instrumentation. National Geographic picked it all up and made me a National Geographic Explorer.
A few years later, whilst curating an exhibition that was to mark Gabon’s fiftieth year of independence, I heard that Warner Brothers were looking for locations for a new Tarzan movie. When they showed up, I swept them up in a National Parks vehicle and flew them to the most beautiful rain forest sites. Imagine flying over two hundred and fifty thousand square kilometers of untouched pristine forests, it looks like broccoli from above, and then seeing these insane waterfalls and black rivers that perfectly reflect the sky and trees. The director was so moved he actually rewrote the script to include what he had seen. They ended up filming most of Tarzan in cavernous studios in Watford, but they came to Gabon to shoot the backgrounds. We spent six weeks filming in insanely remote circumstances with the most complex camera rigs ever made. When they patch it all together, they’ll have one hundred and sixty degree plates!
Juggling Hollywood producers and tribal elders in the same day. Simply delicious. The chief was clear. Without his blessing, no frame in the film would come out right. When we were done, he summoned the village to give their benediction by dancing around me, singing their hearts out. The chief and I held hands as we walked to the car. Before letting me go, he looked openly into my eyes and posed a question: What is better, to have watches and no time or no watches and all the time in the world? He’s got a point."