Reflections From Gombe - Bill Wallauer
"Everything Prof did was fascinating to me and I was instantly hooked."
by Bill Wallauer
In looking back at my time in Gombe National Park I'm filled with a wide range of feelings. Gombe is a place of extremes, both physically and mentally. Some of my favorite memories and most joyful moments occurred within the 30-square mile borders of the park. Some of the most difficult times I've known were there as well. Through the lives of the chimps, I've experienced the full range of emotions life has to offer; the joy of birth, fascinations and frustrations of growing up, development of camaraderie and strife with peers, the pain of disease and injury, and ultimately, the inevitable process of aging and death. I owe Gombe, Jane, the Tanzanian field assistance, and indeed the chimps, a deep debt of gratitude for allowing me to spend most of my career in this amazing place.
I will never forget the first time I set foot on the shores of Gombe. I wonder if it is the same for Jane? The 2-hour boat ride along the lakeshore offers a beautiful view of the park, but gives you nothing of the true feel for the hidden secrets and wonders inside the forest; so there was a true since of arrival when our small boat edged to shore and I jump onto the pebbly beach. It was an overwhelming moment for me as the rush of forest air drifted down the steep slopes and filled my nostrils. The calls of unfamiliar birds and the forms of plant species I had never seen before emphasized to me that I was outsider, a visitor to a world of infinite mystery. Little did I know at the time that for the next 13 years, I would call Gombe home.
How lucky I was that Prof, an adult male chimp, arrived on the beach a short time later. I was forever changed in the moment I looked into his eyes. It was one of those moments in life that seem unreal, even now. Was I really there? Is this really happening? I have never been one to be star-struck, but being in the presence of a wild chimpanzee was absolutely mind-blowing. Prof sat for a while eating beautiful yellow flowers, then walked from the shoreline into the forest. I followed him tentatively as he led me first up a small cliff then up the hillside above Jane’s house. Everything he did was fascinating to me and I was instantly hooked. As the sun dropped beneath the Congolese horizon, Prof climbed a tree, deftly constructed a nest, and lay down to sleep. I sat nearby for some time, my mind swimming with a thousand thoughts feelings and emotions. I was experiencing pure unadulterated elation, happiness beyond description.
How many more times that feeling was repeated through my years at Gombe I can no longer count. I guess that is why I stayed for so long. Even after spending years and years following chimps and observing the life cycle of the forest, I am constantly surprised, amazed, and awed when I am in Gombe. We are now celebrating the 50th anniversary of Jane’s first arrival in Gombe. This is a celebration of what Gombe means to so many of us, a celebration of the chimps for what they have taught us about ourselves, and a celebration of Jane Goodall and her ability to empower each and every one of us to help her on her mission to make the world a better place for all living beings. Happy Anniversary Jane!
Photo by Kristin Mosher