When you’re flying in a freight plane and your airline ticket reads “Groom Travelling with Gorilla”, you know it isn’t going to be a typical journey! For me, my trip to France to film the transfer of a Western Lowland Gorilla to Australia was a trip of a lifetime.
As a Media Officer for Taronga Zoo, I help coordinate media activities at Taronga, including working with a very talented team to research and organise the Wild Life at the Zoo program. My job has taken me to the foothills of the snowy mountains to film critically endangered Corroboree Frogs, camping out in country Victoria to release tiny woodland birds, but never did I think I would be travelling to France to bring back a Western Lowland Gorilla.
I arrived in Poitiers, the biggest town closest to the French primate park on a freezing cold winter night with a suitcase full of thermals. Of course, when I checked into my hotel and mentioned that I was here to make a documentary about gorillas and would be taking one home with me to Sydney I was met with some very strange looks. I am pretty sure they thought I was one crazy Australian girl!
La Vallee des Singes or Valley of the Monkeys, the birth place of ‘Kibali’, the adolescent gorilla who would be making the journey back to Sydney with me, was set in the middle of the French countryside. It was also closed for the winter, so although the trip was surreal enough, on my first day, I found myself wandering around as if in my own winter primate wonderland.
It didn’t take long to realise why Kibali, was selected as ‘the chosen one’ to lead Taronga’s breeding program into the future. First impressions...he is seriously handsome! OK, I know that sounds weird, but Kibali is just one of those animals that on first sight you can’t help but marvel at his physique, gentle eyes and from the way his keepers spoke about him, you knew he was just one special gorilla.
The keepers at La Vallee Des Singes reminded me a lot of Taronga keepers, except of course with French accents. They managed their gorilla group just like we did back in Sydney which was made up of infants, adolescents, breeding females and a Silverback, Kibali’s father 'Yaounde'. He was one impressive gorilla. At first Yaounde didn’t like our camera (and the weird fluffy hat the sound guy was wearing), and thumped the wall to let us know he was the boss, but he soon realised we were no threat. Although the thump was impressive, it showed us he was a fantastic leader with strong protective instincts and Kibali obviously had a very good role model to learn from. It also showed us that Yaounde had good fashion sense too, the fluffy hat was banned after that.
The next couple of days flew by with the keepers getting Kibali used to his transport crate and getting the last permits for him to leave France. Kibali by nature, is a very gentle gorilla and initially seeing strange people with cameras, combined with the nervous energy of the human primates as his departure date got closer, in turn made him nervous. So to tell Kibali’s story we had to get creative with keepers wearing tiny cameras on their chests. We also hid cameras on window ledges overlooking his quarantine space and our handycam certainly came in handy!
After an exhausting two days in France, it was time to go. Kibali walked in to his transport crate without having to be darted, he’d obviously read the script. Then we were on our way to the airport, travelling through the French wintery countryside with a gorilla in tow!
Kibali was accompanied by Jean Pascal, a senior staff member from La Vallee des Singes. Flying freight, we checked our luggage through including tonnes of lettuce, fruits, peanuts, mineral water and yoghurt to keep our precious cargo happy.
The aircrew were of course intrigued by their hairy passenger and kept joking they were carrying a VIG, Very Important Gorilla.
The trip to Sydney involved stops at Delhi to refuel, a layover and change of planes in Hong Kong and finally, after a couple of days in transit, our arrival in Australia. It was obviously Kibali’s first flight and the longest trip Frenchman, Jean Pascal had ever made. The whole time, despite little sleep, JP chatted and reassured Kibali, and fed him his favourite treats. I was the annoying person pointing a camera in their faces, asking questions and documenting the journey (I apologise for the wobblecam).
A few observations:
- Delhi was cold, I didn’t expect that. It also had a really earthy smell thanks to dung fires burning around the city.
- A warehouse in Hong Kong is just like a warehouse in Sydney, except for the frisson of excitement because it happened to be Chinese New Year.
- Regardless of the nationality, almost everyone will instantly name a gorilla “King Kong’.
- After a while the pungent smell of gorilla starts to smell quite sweet, and;
- An 11 year old blackback gorilla is an excellent travel partner.
Not once did Kibali make a peep. He also got some shut eye (something myself and JP longed for) and it wasn’t until the end, when we were all ready for the journey to finish, that he let us know by tapping his crate and touching JP’s hand that he was ready to get out and see where he was.
To say this was a trip of a lifetime was an understatement. To share it with a remarkable primate keeper, Jean Pascal was a privilege. And to be given the opportunity and responsibility to help to tell Kibali’s story, the very handsome future of Taronga’s breeding program for Western Lowland Gorillas was something I will cherish forever.