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A drumbeat all its own

Years ago, my brief was to find the enigmatic bonobo and I had a month to do it. Armed with an eye-wateringly expensive zoom lens, I plunged into one of the most species-rich environments on earth.

I should have left the lens in the shop. The Congo is a visual feast, but no place for amateur photographers. You get arrested for photographing in town, the white sky defies auto exposure and the forest’s deep greens suck the light out of every image.

And all that biodiversity! Well, if you don’t know your plants, don’t expect to tick too many species in the deep forest. Once you’re away from the river, every bird and monkey is a silhouette about 4 f-stops out of reach. This is why scarce forest clearings, baies, are heaven-sent for tourists.  The forest is hostile: hot, wet, dark and ruled by ants.

The big ones really bite.  One sweaty afternoon, having found bonobo ‘nests’ but no bonobos, I was dispirited, dehydrated and not thinking in French, when the cry of  ‘Fourmis! Fourmis!’ came down the line. Evolution has magically equipped army ants to bite through trousers.

That hurt, but it wasn’t personal. Unlike the tiny red bleeders that ate my biltong.  For weeks I’d hoarded a packet of Woolworths finest; insurance against theinevitable intestinal apocalypse. They’d gone through my backpack, through the plastic pack and through my emergency rations.

Women play the starring roles in my bonobo diary, as they have in primatology for decades.  Gay Reinartz of the Zoological Society of Milwaukee captained our expedition to Salonga National Park, battling bureaucrats and forest with equal vigour. Claudine Andre, bonobo champion extraordinaire, let me get close enough to a bonobo to know that we are connected.

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