Wednesday 14 October 2009

Where the Wild Bonobos Are- Bonobo Trekking

Yetee, Kokolopori, Congo DRC
October 14, 2009
Martin Bendeler, Bonobo Conservation Initiative Australia, Director and Founder

The morning Martin put on his jungle trousers and made mischief of one kind and another, the bonobos knew he was coming for them.* I like my anti-mosquito, anti-thorn, anti-leopard jungle trousers, but I completely ruin any chance of cutting a fashionable swathe through the Congo forest by tucking them into my socks. Very nerdy, but it keeps the fireants from getting up there and having their way with my appendages. I’m sure the bonobos won’t mind. Armed with an arsenal of cameras and defended by my jungle trousers, I wait in the pre-dawn darkness for the Vie Sauvage 4WD to pick me up and take me to where the bonobos of the Kala Kala group are waking up.

The bonobo (pan paniscus), also known as the pygmy or gracile chimpanzee, is a Great Ape and man’s closest animal relative, sharing almost 99% of our DNA. It differs from its common chimpanzee (pan troglodyte) cousin in more than its slimmer frame, darker face and center-part hairstyle. Where common chimps have been seen to systematically annihilate neighbouring chimp groups, bonobos dispel tension through orgies. Where common chimp males plot and scheme to become the alpha and violently dominate access to fertile females, bonobos have an alpha female who consolidates her position through lesbian sex with other powerful females. Bonobos have infinitely richer sex lives and, in captivity, leave common chimps in the dust in using symbol language to express themselves. Though our knowledge of bonobos is still in its infancy, and hampered by their isolation deep in the war-torn rainforests of Congo DRC, to know them even a little is to love them a lot.

It was my unrequited long-distance love affair with the bonobo that first brought me to this part of the world, back in 2005. At the time, the only people who were confident of being able to show me wild bonobos was the Washington DC- based Bonobo Conservation Initiative (BCI), who were about to send a boat on the week-long voyage up the Congo and Maringa river to the Kokolopori region. BCI have been active in this area since 2001, working with local NGO Vie Sauvage, and their conservation model involves training and paying for local people to track and observe specific bonobo groups while providing health, education and development assistance in exchange for bonobo conservation across the entire territory over which they have control. In a broken state like the Congo, it is only the local people that truly have the capacity to implement conservation policies. Linking their welfare to the welfare of the bonobos in their midst is an extremely effective and cost-efficient method of protecting large amounts of bonobo habitat. This year, this protection received official recognition and reinforcement when almost five thousand square kilometres of rainforest here was officially gazetted by the Congolese government as the Kokolopori Bonobo Reserve.

Witnessing the wonder of the bonobos in the wild at that time, I also saw first-hand the threats to their survival- logging companies were moving in, while the desperate poverty of the local people made bushmeat hunting ever more attractive. I left determined to do what I could to help. I have returned four years later, with medical supplies, a solar power generator and other equipment, to inspect the progress of the health clinics and schools here supported by donations from Indigo Foundation in Australia and the good people of Falls Church, Virginia in the US. And it would be rude of me to come all this way and not say hello to the local bonobos!

The last time I was here in Kokolopori, trackers had only just begun to protect the bonobos of the Kala Kala group in Yetee and they were still shy. Now, as I was trekking through the villagers’ cassava fields on the way into the jungle, I was told that they’d since become quite the exhibitionists…but I didn’t want to get my hopes up. I was being guided by Leonard, the most senior of all the trackers. Even during the dark war years he had maintained his observations, unpaid and unassisted. Since then, BCI had sent him to Congo Brazzaville and Uganda to enhance his skills through training in tracking gorillas and he was now in charge of their 11 teams of trackers across the entire bonobo habitat. He paused to show me bonobo food, various fruit and roots, some with medicinal properties (one of the trackers grabbed a root they called jungle Viagra, but with 10 kids already, I wasn't sure he needed any help). He told me of once seeing young bonobos dangling from a branch in a chain of five, like the children’s monkey game. And of watching a young bonobo walking behind an old one, impersonating its elderly gait.

We were now in the primary, untouched forest and Leonard was leading us to where the bonobos had settled down for the evening, the path marked by trackers the night before by a twisted twig here or a leaf placed on a log there.
Within an hour, we were directly beneath the nests of the bonobos, up in the canopy. They had woken up and our first sign of them was an intermittent drizzle of morning shit and piss. The tree above me shook and a shower of what I hoped was dislodged dew fell upon my head. Around me, from different angles, there was crashing in the canopy, branches bending, leaves shaking, but I couldn’t get a clear view of bonobos through the curtain of vines and branches, beyond a quick streak of black as they descended to the ground and moved off in the undergrowth.

For about 20 minutes we followed them through the foliage. While they moved through the safety of the upper canopy making as much noise and mess as they liked, on the ground they moved silently and smoothly, always about 10 metres in front of us, just out of camera shot, plucking and eating shoots and mushrooms as they went. The day was still cool, but we were being led a merry chase by the bonobos through every clinging vine and thorn. We eventually paused on a giant termite mound to catch our breath, and while I redid my bootlace I looked up….to find two bonobos had double-backed to watch/tease us before disappearing!

Some other trackers had peeled off earlier to outflank the moving bonobo group and get to where they were headed- a tree in fruit- first. We followed quite leisurely until I looked up and saw a bonobo 15ms ahead a few metres up a tree just staring at me. Sometimes he scratched his head in reflection or confusion, sometimes slapping the trunk of the tree, perhaps in warning. Around me other bonobos frolicked in the trees above, some in groups of three or four, others relaxing alone. The one that was staring at me, a male adult, was approached by a little juvenile, scaling a nearby branch. The little one also looked at me briefly before reaching up to a higher branch from which he could dangle and spin in the air while jumping with both feet on the adult’s head, who endured it stoically, even reaching around to tossle the scamp’s hair.

A mother and baby daughter were in the fork of another tree, stripping leaves and eating them. A larger male swung over rambunctiously, leaves and branches flying, and the baby clung closer to its mother’s breast, but he was just passing by. I heard a cracking sound not far behind me, near a bamboo grove, and turned around to see that a bonobo had come down closer to my level by bending down a bamboo trunk, like a pole vaulter or a Chinese circus performer or the Cheshire Cat, to get a better look at me.

We humans love our opposable thumbs, but bonobos have the most awesome big toes- long and strong enough to wrap around a branch and let a full-grown adult just dangle, upside down. They make ours look like God’s leftovers. Anything and everything in grasping range- vines, branches, trunks- can be used to propel themselves, break a fall, or bridge between trees. They are perfectly at ease with the physics of the forest. More than that. You can tell it gives them great joy, as they casually pull out of a plummeting death dive by lazily grabbing a vine, or sail by a friend on a flexed branch.

In a nearby tree, I see a cluster of three young bonobos, like the proverbial wise monkeys. A female bends right over and thrusts her rear in the air. She waggles it a little but to no avail. She even puts her hand back and points to it. With two other bonobos nearby, surely at least one would get the picture? A young one was just above her looking back at me, but not even an Australian in the Congo jungle was strange enough to distract him from the waving, blooming, blossoming treat before him. He clambered over and with minimal introduction or foreplay, went to work, a foot on separate branches. The female somehow hooked a foot back behind her to press against the rump of the little chap on her- maybe making sure he didn't fall off while there or maybe just being romantic. I filmed it, and timed it later- easily the best 23 seconds of her bonobo life. The male celebrated by grabbing a couple of branches and aeroplaning about in the air, legs spread wide, spinning round and around in jubilation. The female maintained her position, ever hopeful, and the young male eventually sat beside her and absent-mindedly stroked her. Nearby, I could have sworn the other bonobo, a female, was also stroking herself. At 30 metres in the air, it gave new definition to the “Mile High Club”.

I’m just going to say it- they have splendid genitals. They are so distinctive, you wonder how any one could have ever mistaken bonobos for regular chimpanzees, as they once did. With their dark faces and black fur, sometimes its only the bright pink that lets you find them in the shadows of the jungle. The bonobo’s penis seems almost as flexible as the rest of his appendages, sometimes rising and waving without any discernible stimulation. And the glorious full bloom of the vulva is the size of a cabbage, though I am ashamed to compare it to something so drab and banal. They seem very pleased with their own gonads, spending a lot of time simply holding them with their fingers and admiring them, cleaning them and playing with them.

My brief was to take as much footage and photos as I could. Photographing bonobos isn’t easy. The layers of twigs and branches between you and them foil any auto-focus attempts. The light in the jungle is often too weak, or so strong that the bonobos are over-exposed, black silhouettes against the sky. A decent telephoto lens is required to get detail but the weak light means you need a steady hand or a tripod to avoid blur. With your lens pointed up at the canopy, condensation and dislodged rain can cloud the picture. And finally, the presence of bonobos is so exciting that you can very easily, like I did, go through 8gbs of memory cards very quickly. This was actually a relief for me, because it gave me an excuse to pull out the binoculars and just have the bonobos fill my entire vision, first as I craned my neck up, and then later as I just lay down on the jungle floor (last time we’d brought foldable picnic chairs but unfortunately, not this time).

I lost myself in them and for a short time I had travelled much further than the four-thousand miles to the Congolese jungle. The Kala Kala bonobos had been kind enough to accompany me four million years down our shared genetic bloodlines to show me a glimpse of our common essential nature. I suspended analysis and just let myself be with them, accepting the privilege. At a certain point, the morning light moved from pallid white to rich honey yellow and I’m taken aback to see what looks like quite a fierce male come into view, moving across a branch with purpose. Though it could have been the change in the light, the shadows of branches, his face was paler than normal and ripped with scars. I lose him as he enters thick foliage and leaves but almost immediately the area erupts in commotion, trees shaking and bonobos scattering. Then there is a squeal and Leonard tells me “That is the signal from the dominant male to move on. The group will start to find another feeding or resting place now.”

Was that the alpha male I had just seen, bossing about the group?
Until very recently, studying wild bonobos has been too hard- the Congo has been too unstable and dangerous and the bonobos too remote and inaccessible in the canopy. Most of our current knowledge of bonobos comes from zoos or from groups that had been lured from the jungle by sugar cane, and in this environment, the females band together to dominate the males.

But some Congolese researchers tell me that in the wild, it is the alpha male that dominates, deciding when and where to eat and sleep. Another told me that the alpha female has a veto power. Are our closest animal relatives matriarchal or patriarchal? Does it depend on the environment and the personalities that each group finds itself in? Do different bonobo groups have different “cultures”?

With peace and stability returning to this part of the Congo DRC, and with bonobo ranges like Kokolopori Bonobo Reserve under the protection of BCI, Vie Sauvage and the local community, we have an historic opportunity to closely observe our primate cousins and let them teach us about themselves and, by extension, ourselves. Primate researcher Alex Georgiev from Harvard University recently spent 3 months in Kokolopori, and it is hoped more scientists will follow.

But peace brings its own challenges, as the splendid isolation of the bonobos is threatened not only by nosey researchers and ecotourists watching them have sex, but by deadly poachers, loggers and plantation developers. Some have even tried to score political points by opposing the creation of the Kokolopori Bonobo Reserve, calling on people to kill the bonobos there. The vast rainforest of the Congo Basin is one of the lungs of the earth. The other is the Amazon, where local people have been dispossessed of their traditional land at gunpoint, and an area larger than France has been deforested for timber, soy beans and beef. With this lesson in mind, the bonobos, already one of the rarest primates on earth, could be extinct within our lifetime, on our watch. Now, more than ever, the gentle bonobos and the people who protect them need your help.

Tax-deductible donations can be made in America at this address-

Tax-deductible donations can be made in Australia at this address-

*Acknowledgments and Apologies to Maurice Sendak for paraphrasing the introduction to his timeless children’s book, “Where the Wild Things Are”.= "The night Max wore his wolf suit and made mischief of one kind and another, his mother called him "Wild Thing!" and Max said "I'll eat you up!" so he was sent to bed without eating anything." Best intro of all time. Can't wait to see the movie.

All photos copyright Martin Bendeler

Sunday 11 October 2009

Surgery at the Bonobo Health Clinic

11/10/09, Kokolopori, Congo. 
Martin Bendeler , Bonobo Conservation Initiative Australia, Director and Founder

The rooster crowed outside my door at about 6.00am this morning and I tried to both ignore it and decide whether we should eat it before it could wake me up again tomorrow. Shortly after, there was a knock on my door. Dr Saidi had arrived to invite me to an appendectomy commencing shortly at the Bonobo Health Clinic (run by local conservation NGO Vie Sauvage and supported by the Bonobo Conservation Initiative, Indigo Foundation and the Kokolopori Falls Church Sister City Program). I had appendicitis when I was 13 and have never experienced anything so painful, before or since, so I had a personal investment in seeing this. 

I threw on some clothes and made my way over in the morning cool. Already some mothers were out, their babies in jackets, making morning fires. Girls were headed towards the forest to gather, large wicker baskets slung across their foreheads. Other girls were returning to their huts with firewood or water. Men slept. 

In the sparse room, where a few days earlier I had seen a baby born, sat Bebeesh Bikoma, 28, with her worried husband, Antoine Lokonga. She was stoically enduring what I knew to be immense pain. Bebeesh and Antoine are both primary school teachers, but Bebeesh was working in her house when the pain in her abdomen became so strong that it paralysed her right leg. She searched for antibiotics but the pain would not go away, so Antoine pulled her 37kms on a bicycle across cratered jungle roads from their village of Yalokengi to the Bonobo Health Clinic of Yalokele. This was her only option. The next nearest hospital was100kms away in Djolu, and even if she could have reached there, it would have cost much more than she or her family could afford. 

The delivery chair reclined and became an operating table (the stirrups discarded to a corner), and the table from Dr Saidi’s consulting room was carried in and covered with a table cloth and the necessary drugs and surgical instruments. The honeyed orange morning light came in through two paneless windows in the mudbrick wall and the large space where the steel roof hand not been sealed (perhaps deliberately for ventilation?). Tubs of water rested on the dirt floor and had been brought by women from the source of a spring, 3 kilometres away, and then purified. A large donated cistern was waiting in the nearest river port of Bifore, 50 kilometres away, but there was not the funds or the fuel to transport it to Kokolopori. I stepped out while the medical staff scrubbed up and prepared Bebeesh for surgery. 

When I returned, she was lying on the table, a blanket of sorts covering her abdomen except for the area of operation. Around her were Dr Saidi and three nurses- Eduard Limboto Losase, Nestor Baelonganoi and Albert Alukana (visiting from Yettee, where he oversees a dispensary)- who were administering a local anaesthetetic (lidocaine?). 

Before making the first incision, Dr Saidi raised his hand and made an impassioned prayer in Lingala, and during the operation he and the nurses sang hymns in beautiful harmony. Dr Saidi later told me he was both seeking God’s blessing and administering psychotherapy for the patient. After awhile Bebeesh begin to suck in air through her teeth, in pain, and ketamine was prepared as a painkiller. One of the nurses used the strap of his stopwatch as a tourniquet and made the injection. 

Given Bebeesh’s suffering, I felt guilty for my own congenital queasiness at the sight of blood, exacerbated by my lack of breakfast and my fasting from the day before (due to my stomach’s treachery), as I sat down next to her husband Antoine for a spell. He said he was nervous but grateful that his wife’s life was being saved. 

Relatively quickly, Eduard presented me with the offending appendix- looking like a thin, sinister, raw sausage covered with mustard. A nurse with a stethoscope checked Bebeesh regularly to ensure there were no complications. While Dr Saidi sutured the incision, he spoke with me about the challenges of rural health in impoverished communities. “As you can see, we are saving lives on dirt floors, delivery chairs and with glassless windows. You are lucky- today, this is our 150th operation in the past 18 months- appendixes, Caesarian sections, hernias, ovarian cysts, tumours, prostates. We are grateful to our partners abroad- Indigo, Falls Church, BCI- who have provided the gowns, gloves, anaesthetics and other equipment for this operation. But we are still challenged by the basic conditions. In terms of medicines, our greatest needs are for anti-malarials, anti-biotics and anti-worm tablets.” 

With nine stitches and around 45 minutes, Bebeesh’s life was saved. Such a simple thing as appendicitis, as common here as it is in the West, kills horribly and almost certainly if not surgically treated. I would have died 20 years ago had I been born here and there was no clinic. Imagine walking into your suburban shopping mall, cocking your finger and thumb into an imaginary gun, and symbolically shooting dead every third or fourth person you see. Such is life and loss here in the absence of medical care. 

Four men carried Bebeesh from the operating theatre to the basic internment building, chickens scattering before them, where Bebeesh’s mother, brother and children waited. They would stay there and look after her for the next 5-7 days while she recovered. Bebeesh’s younger brother, Fidel, is a member of Vie Sauvage’s tracking/anti-poaching team in Yetee, monitoring and guarding a group of bonobos and their range. Saving his sister’s life is probably the most powerful example of the spirit behind Vie Sauvage and BCI’s motto- “Salisa bonobo , mpe bonobo akosalisa yo.” Help the bonobo and the bonobo will help you. 

Tax-deductible donations can be made in America at this address- 

Tax-deductible donations can be made in Australia at this address- 

Thursday 8 October 2009

Bonobo Health Clinic- Saving Lives, New Life

KokoloporiCongo DRC, 8/10/09
Martin Bendeler, Bonobo Conservation Initiative Australia, Director and Founder

I have returned to Kokolopori, Congo, after four years. The last time, I came as an ecotourist wanting to see wild bonobos before I turned 30. Now I come as a Director of Bonobo Conservation Initiative Australia (BCIA) and as a representative of Indigo Foundation (IF) and Kokolopori Falls Church Sister City Program (KFCSCP) to evaluate the health program they have established since I was last here, and to get a better idea of the needs, challenges and priorities of the communities who protect the bonobo habitat. Publish Post

This region, deep in the green heart of the Congo Basin and peopled by some of the world’s poorest, is rich in bonobos. BCI found that the most effective and efficient means of conserving bonobos was to work in cooperation with the forest people who shared and controlled their habitat. Medical assistance had been part of this approach, but on a relatively small and ad-hoc scale until my fellow directors of BCIA- Philip Strickland, Dr Luke Bennett and Angus Gemmell made their own long voyage to Kokolopori with BCI to establish a medicine dispensary and anti-malarial program, generously funded by Indigo Foundation.

The momentum generated by the program engaged the substantial hearts and minds of the people of Falls Church, Virginia, who established the KFCSCP and significantly expanded the scope and capacity of the bonobo clinic. Three years on, from nothing, I find there is now a doctor, four nurses, 10 midwives and a pharmacy, saving lives and winning hearts and making a tangible connection between the welfare of the community and the welfare of the bonobos and their forests. All this in perhaps the most isolated place in the world, far from electricity, running water, mobile phones (or even beer and Coca Cola!), where the roads out have been destroyed by years of war and criminal neglect and where the river journey to urban markets can take weeks.

My arrival has been made possible by Aviation Sans Frontieres France, who have recently recommenced heavily subsidized flights for NGOs between Kisangani and a basic airfield in Djolu (70kms by 4WD from Kokolopori). I have flown in with Albert Lotana Lokasola, the President of Vie Sauvage, the NGO managing the conservation and community development program here, and with nearly 600kgs of medical supplies, mosquito nets, educational materials, a large solar generator and a satellite phone/modem, generously donated by IF and KFCSCP and coordinated by BCI and Vie Sauvage.

After a delicious breakfast of Kokolopori coffee, freshly squeezed pineapple juice, an omelette and avocado (all local), I stroll over from the Vie Sauvage guest house to the Bonobo Clinic. What I remembered as an empty field now has three large buildings- one containing consulting rooms and a delivery ward, another for longer-term patients and their families, and an extension of this still under construction.

I sit in the consulting room with Dr Saidi and find we have arrived just in time. 18 year old Nadine Bawambo has walked here from the nearby village of Yaliseko because her 8 month old son, Ntoto, has malaria, bronchitis and anemia. The pharmacy had run out of quinine, antibiotics and iron pills but we had brought fresh supplies on our flight. And a mosquito net for the bubba. In the Delivery Room stood Marie Bochi Bolamba, 32 years old, mother of six, leaning against the wall with contractions and working hard on her seventh. There was also a delivery table with stirrups, four midwives gossiping with each other, and not much else.

The hospital was an 8-roomed building with a thatched roof and a central corridor. On one side were the patients and on the other were their families, with their cooking fires and utensils. In the first room was little 6 year old Alexandra Eyan Mbula with severe diarrhea.

Next was 77 year old Papa Otto Bokongi, who’d had a huge cyst removed from his prostate. Unable to urinate for five days, he had searched desperately for help, including from local shamans, before walking the 35 kilometers along jungle tracks to the Bonobo Clinic. Dr Saidi had operated to drain the cyst and old Papa Otto’s relief was palpable.

Another who’s excruciating pain had been relieved was Jolie Ngochuka Mbongi, 22, who’d had her appendix removed and had been there for a week, recuperating with her baby and grandmother by her side. Everyone’s recovery was slowed by malaria and malnutrition.

In the last room was sad 18 year old Ruine Bayamba, who had walked 15 kilometeres (7 hours) from her village of Lopori with labour complications, had had a caesarean section, but her baby had died. She sat quiet and sad, comforted by her mother.

As we walked out of the dark hut into the tropical glare, Nurse Nestor rushed over with news that Marie’s baby was peeking out from behind the stage curtains. We arrived in the Delivery Room to find the midwives, aged between Brigitte Bombolo Bolimo’s 32 and old Mama Gertrude Kolobaka’s “about 50 to you, young whippersnapper!”, had sprung into choregraphed action.

Dr Saidi explained that it had been a difficult birth because Marie was malnourished but her baby girl was healthy and beautiful and named Martine in my honour. He said, “I have been a doctor for 31 years and worked here for the past 2, far from my children, because I love my country and the people need me here. People would definitely die if we weren’t here. We do great things with the little we have, but we need your continued support.”

Tax-deductible donations can be made in America at this address-

Tax-deductible donations can be made in Australia at this address- 

Monday 1 October 2007

Gazing into the Bonobo Mirror (Australian Geographic Oct 2007)

By Angus Gemmell (Bonobo Conservation Initiative Australia, Director and Founder)

"Congo". The very word, spoken as if with a drumbeat at the back of the tongue, conjures foreboding. A vast jungle, an impenetrable wilderness, where the only avenues of open space and light are the web of waterways that drain a basin the size of western Europe. This is the land vividly engrossed into the world's imagination by Joseph Conrad as the "Heart of Darkness". True it is that over the last century and a half no where else on the planet has seen more unceasing human suffering.
On top of the rapacious brutalities inflicted by the Belgian colonialists, promptly followed by the tyrannies of President Mobutu's reign, the Democratic Republic of Congo was ravaged between 1996 to 2002 by what was dubbed Africa's World War. It's one of modern times' most neglected facts that an estimated 4 million Congolese perished in those years as a result of the war waged by six African nations.
How striking then that amid what seems a black hole of tragedy there lives one of the most peaceful, gregarious, intelligent and cohesive of species. That this species, the bonobo, also happens to be the closest living relative to humanity, makes their existence in this great dark realm of human agony all the more of an improbable oasis of light.
Surprised? You may be excused for never having heard of the bonobo. Their habitat is so remote, and the Congo so savaged by successive wars, that only a few of the hardiest scientists have had the tenacity to study them at length and attempt to bring them to the world's attention. Barely a handful of film crews have ever recorded their startling behaviour in the wild.
That bonobos frequently walk bipedally -- they stand four and a half feet tall -- use an endless variety of sexual pleasure as a way of avoiding conflict, have the intelligence and language capacity of a 3yr old human child, are largely matriarchal and display a capacity for nurturing that would be the envy of any mother, should be enough to make us take notice. Along with the chimpanzee they share 98.6% of the same DNA as humanity. They provide a vastly different model however for human heritage than the more volatile and violent chimpanzee. Scientists speculate that perhaps it was from a time such as bonobos now enjoy that we acquired our sense of morality as well as capacities for love and idealism. It's high time we paid our closest and most endangered cousin the respect they deserve, lest they, and the lessons they can teach us about our own origins, disappear altogether. The bonobo identity crisis has persisted far too long.
I owe my interest in bonobos to having some 16 years ago come across the explanations of an Australian biologist, Jeremy Griffith, on the human condition. Since then, and having had a stint in Washington DC working for the Bonobo Conservation Initiative (BCI) in 2001, I have harboured a longing to spend time with bonobos in the wild, and to observe and film their remarkable behaviour. At last, in the current window of peace in the Congo, the opportunity to embark on a 1,500km expedition up river has arisen, and with it with the hope of reaching the BCI's research and conservation centre in a region known as Kokolopori.
On board are two Australian friends, Dr Luke Bennett and Phil Strickland SC, as well as the American Executive Director of BCI, Michael Hurley. The native Congolese contingent consists of the BCI's extremely capable director in the Congo, Bianco, as well as the BCI's trusty river guide, Le Blanc -- "the white" -- so named for his piercing green eyes set in an African face. His eyes would frequently aflame an even greater colour when fuming with his pet disdain for the vagaries of the many bureaucrats we encounter along the way, each wanting their own wedge of cash for our "safe passage".

We also have on board a couple of cooks, two assistant helmsmen, and a young stow away who leaps into the baggage area just as we push off. When confronted and pressed to leave he audaciously produces a tattered student card as incontrovertible proof of his entitlement to join our journey. Suitably taken aback by this youthful brazenness, we agree to let him stay on. After all, we decide, we'd each of us in younger times flashed a student card for all sorts of dubious purposes.
We set off at dusk from the bustling river port of Mbandaka. Our three pirogues, better described as hollowed-out logs, are lashed together and bound with vine and frayed rope. We are punting against the flow of the mighty Congo River -- the most voluminous river in the world after the Amazon -- and known locally as "the river that swallows all rivers". In places the river is so wide that one bank is not visible from the other. The outboards drone like a swarm of wild bees as they strain against the current, and start propelling our foray slowly but persistently into the oceanic depths. Their humming envelopes our movement and cocoons us -- as if in a sound capsule -- from the immensity of the forest that wades and plunges an escarpment of foliage along the river's edge. As we motor continuously for 7 days and nights I feel a notion of piercing into the heart of nature. Our pace, no faster than a light jog, seems entirely appropriate for such a journey -- any faster would be too much of a rude incursion into the timelessness of this wild expanse.
The movement of the boat through the haze of heat and draping humidity creates some cool relief. We have visitors to our vessel, some welcome, some not so. Drifts of butterflies, in a kaleidoscope of electric blues and greens, or flutters of butter gold, pay haphazard visits to our unlikely presence. I wonder whether the ubiquitous sand flies have enough stamina to keep up with our patient probing up river. I spot some of the little blighters coasting on the cushion of air in front of the pirogues, like dolphins in the bow wave of a tanker, and coat my legs and arms in a sheen of RID. Horse flies the size of cicadas buzz and dive-bomb us like messerschmitts. We each have a sleeping mat under the tarpaulin rig, and keeping our respective spaces free of biting or stinging critters takes vigilance. I notice that Phil has acquired an accomplice in his quest for a bug free zone. A large praying mantis has taken lodgings in the exterior folds of his mozzie net, and has already chomped a few march flies.
We are the first westerners in a long time to journey this stretch of river, and we must seem an apparition to many of the fishing villagers. We receive a mixture of responses, most friendly and some baffled, as well as a few angry gesticulations clearly telling us to get the hell away. From notches at the foot of the tumbling crags of dense jungle -- almost imperceptible nooks and crannies in the great walls that flank our every day -- we see a sporadic gleam of smiling teeth and a palm raised in friendly wave with a welcoming cry of "Mboti". Luke has taken to giving a military salute to these friendly faces, and chuckles heartily at the mimicked salutes he receives in reply. It gives our little bustle upstream an air of bumbling mercenaries on a not so covert mission.

Small floating islands formed by a mass of long grass are making their journey downstream. Some of these "grass bergs" are replete with a small tree or two and birdlife, no doubt attracted by the plethora of insects taking refuge on their flight across the wide river. Avoiding their stealthy descent at night is a minefield, and at times we slice headlong into them with a hefty brush of the long grass along the flanks of the pirogues. Le Blanc curses loudly in his native Lingala as he reverses us out and clears the propellers of any weed. Our meals are cooked on coals placed upon sand towards the bow. Along with our stores of rice and the local staple -- cassava -- we purchase large fish along the way. Goats and chickens from villages also find their way into our cooking pot.
Toiletry matters in such tight confines are not for the prudish. We try to synchronise our bowel movements so that "dropping the kids off at the pool" doesn't involve too many stops. We plunge into the river and take turns, pants dropped, clinging to the stern of the pirogues. Fish here obviously have a ravenous appetite, for I notice my efforts are vigorously devoured -- in thrashing piranha style -- only 5 metres down stream. I just hope they're not the same swimmers that will end up on our dinner plate later that afternoon. The cycle of life should enjoy a more tranquil pace!
Each evening, as the equatorial sun falls perpendicular to the horizon and the last of twilight rapidly fades, the forest yields bursts of fragrances, pockets of sheer olfactory delight. If green had a smell this would be it. We savour the lush foliage in our nostrils, the evening sigh from the verdant depths exhaling after the heat of day. Onward we punt, into the darkness, ever outflanked by the omnipresent cliffs that at times in a side channel allow only a narrowed vault of starry sky. The walls of forest make us feel as if we're journeying down a time tunnel, further and further away from the superficial preoccupations of human affairs to what is primal, magnetic and fresh from the blueprint of life. The cresting wave of trees to our left and right gradually narrows, as if funnelling us back through the ages, drawing us nearer down the eons of time to the bonobos in their rainforest haven -- to a metaphorical dawn of humanity -- and aiming for our disembarking point where the river becomes a 10m wide stream. Wafts of cooking smoke from tiny clearings at times drift over us. We see a few thatched huts, and imagine the family gathered close around their humble fire that flickers like a lantern on the shore. The thought of them in a tight fraternity against the immensity of the jungle pressing from all sides is heart warming.
On the fifth night the moon is surrounded by volcanic eruptions of thundercloud, distant atomic mushrooms sheering into the night and detonating flashes 270 degrees around our vessel. They loom and boom nearer then shy away to do battle on another front.
The constellation of Orion, the great celestial hunter, strides each night above us. As the river meanders tightly back on itself Orion appears to lurch in leaping circling bounds, stalking the left bank one minute, and the right only minutes later. Under his gaze our helmsmen alternate shifts on the bow with hand torches wielded into the darkness like lighthouse spokes, searching for the odd mid-river snag upon which we are in danger of marooning ourselves. At times the presence of a snag is detected by a change in ripples on the river surface, faintly illuminated by the silver dressing of half moonlight.

The river is narrowing now and the current hastening, and the tiers of every green conceivable, relieved now and then by a splash of purple flowers in the crown of a tree, verge closer against us. Night navigation is increasingly difficult. We are awoken regularly by an abrupt crash and the sound of branches snapping as our vessel slams into riverside jungle. From each such mishap we collect a host of new insect life, awakening the next morning to also see spiders of all shapes and colours spinning webs across our quarters.
At last, and after narrowly avoiding a series of treacherous log-jams in the final stretches, we receive a rapturous welcome from the Kokolopori villagers. They'd made the trek through jungle to our disembarking point, and perhaps had been waiting for days for our arrival. Somehow word had been transmitted up river by "bush telegraph" -- villages still relay messages in this region through the beating of drums. The crowd of about 70 men, women and children, are each allocated a load of varying size. The heaviest (including partly full 44-gallon drums) are allocated to the older women who bear the burden like Nepalese porters with a strap over their foreheads.
We make an hour's march through lightly undulating rain forest, pleasantly free of dense undergrowth, and another few kilometres along a track to the village of Yalokole. The BCI, with the assistance of a grant I'd applied for from the Australian Great Ape Survival Project in 2003, have built a centre which forms the node for bonobo education and community development here. Glad to have made our destination, and full of keen anticipation to finally be in the land of bonobos, we turn in for an early night's rest in readiness for a 4am start with the trackers.
It's first light, and there -- high on the limbs of one of the emergent giants that fan like an umbrella over the canopy -- we see them. The bonobos -- part of a clan of 20 -- are rousing themselves from slumber in one of their favourite fruit trees. Phil, Luke and I, each covered in a sheen of sweat from our forest march on the heels of fleet footed trackers, can barely suppress our excitement. We talk in hushed tones and gaze through binoculars as the bonobos languidly munch on their forest treats no more than an arm's length away.
Their food rich habitat is one of the primary reasons bonobos enjoy an existence largely free of angst and competition. With such an abundance of fruits, nuts and edible plants the bonobos have all the more time and peace of mind to devote to socialising, grooming, play, or just rest and relaxation. The bonobos' diet is supplemented by invertebrates such as large insects, and occasionally small vertebrates they chance upon, such as the tiny forest duiker -- a miniature antelope. Unlike chimpanzees, which are known to hunt as a pack to kill monkeys and even other chimpanzees from neighbouring clans, the bonobos share their forest harmoniously with both other primates and adjacent bonobo groups. Scientists have even observed a bonobo female grooming a young red colobus monkey.
As the sun climbs higher and the morning mist dissipates, the bonobos start moving on, but not before we witness two females embrace face to face and acrobatically rub their vulvas together. Their sexual contact is brief, lasting no more than 10 seconds, and seems almost as perfunctory as a kiss on the cheek hello. One of the females then turns and presents to a nearby male and they mate missionary style for an equally short period. Having thus paid their reassuring morning greetings the bonobos move off swiftly through the canopy, and we fall in step behind our trackers trying to follow underneath them.

The bonobos have a remarkable penchant for indulging in sexual pleasures in nearly every conceivable combination, position and situation. You name it, and chances are the bonobos both enjoy it, and what's more make use of that enjoyment for their social cohesion. Solo masturbation, female on female genital rubbing, male to male rump rubbing, group orgies, upside down sex, aqua sex ... the variety is as rich as the bonobos own evident capacity for imagination. The only sex that is taboo is mother and son, and as an additional buffer against incest females leave for a neighbouring group upon reaching fertility.
No doubt the evidence of such hyper-sexuality in our closest relative is confronting to the more religiously dogmatic and institutionalised views of sex that our own species has variously constrained itself with. But before anyone suggests that we all nude up, get down and do "the bonobo way", consideration should be given to the fact that bonobo and human sexuality, while related, do have certain distinct differences. For instance, juveniles innocently engage in every aspect of bonobo sexuality. Paedophiles however are motivated by a corruptive and predatory intention completely absent in bonobos. Yet some paedophiles have attempted pointing to bonobos as justification for their own behaviour. In this example there lies at least one difference, and danger, in completely and blindly equating bonobo sex life with our own.
A lot of bonobo sexuality may also be described as "make up sex before you need to make up". Instead of fighting over a favourite fruit tree, as chimpanzees would, bonobos may prefer to have an orgy first to settle any tension in the ranks, before sharing the fruit in peace. In early 2000 I spent a couple of weeks with Japanese bonobo researchers at Kyoto University, including the founding pioneer of bonobo study in the wild, Dr Takoyoshi Kano. The Japanese showed me some unforgettable and rare footage of two bonobo groups chancing upon each other in a clearing. Each group initially, and warily, faced each other off from a distance of about 20 metres. There was then some bluster from some of the males in each group, who rushed forward dragging branches in bluff charges before retreating. The lead 3 or 4 females in each group then slowly made their way to the centre of the clearing. They met briefly, wrapped arms around each other and rubbed vulvas together. The males soon after joined their fray and the two groups blended in an orgy before each going its separate way again in peace. As we follow our trackers under the bonobos I speculate with Phil and Luke what it would be like trying to get Al Qaeda and the Bush Administration to engage in such sexual dispute resolution. Interesting thought, but obviously not quite that simple!
Our trackers' salaries are paid by the BCI through a local environmental organisation Vie Sauvage -- a marvellous example of grass roots community conservation in action. A total of 36 trackers are currently employed - six trackers for each of the six groups of bonobos presently under observation in the Kokolopori region. The BCI -- unlike a lot of the large powerhouse conservation entities run more like multi-national corporations where funds are soaked up in office salaries -- is all about empowering the local people to take an interest in preserving the bonobos and their habitat.

Through developing initiatives such as health clinics and food and education programmes, the BCI -- for a small organisation -- punches well above its weight. Through the tireless efforts of its founder and President, Sally Coxe, together with Michael´s natural flair for making things happen in Africa's trying conditions, the BCI is striving to ensure the survival of bonobos in the Kokolopori forest and elsewhere. There may be as few as 5,000 to 15,000 bonobos left, and the greatest concentration of these remaining populations appears to be in Kokolopori.
While we witness first hand the results of the BCI's work to be positive and tangible, there is much still to be accomplished. At the village Luke, Phil, Michael and I take turns speaking through an interpreter to a packed public meeting with eight chiefs and around 200 villagers. We try to address their concerns that they should continue to benefit from any help coming to the area, not just bonobos. We realise that more vital work and funds are needed to build on the community participation in bonobo conservation already so admirably set in motion by the BCI.
We spend a full week with the trackers. We observe, absorb and film the bonobos, at times only a dozen or so metres away. Each of us are moved, not from just our own watching, but the feeling also of being watched curiously by another conscious being. When a bonobo, from short range, looks you in the eye it is like holding up a mirror to humanity's own collective past. You are pervaded with the notion of not just knowing, but of somehow being known ... a connection, a commune however tenuous, with our own heritage -- a common ancestor 7 million years old -- and a sacred contract of trust once known between humans and the natural world that now largely lies breached and barely remembered.
One day, the bonobos having proved too fast to keep up with, Phil startles me with a tap on the shoulder while we're resting for lunch. I turn to see him pointing excitedly to a movement in the undergrowth no more than 15 metres away. We'd stopped tracking for 10 minutes or so, and an adult bonobo had returned as if to check on us. What makes Phil's sighting all the more striking was that the bonobo was walking past on two legs in waist high undergrowth, looking over his shoulder directly at Phil. So stunned and incredulous was he that initially Phil couldn't speak. He explains later that his first thought was that the bonobo was one of our trackers walking off into the forest to take a leak.
The frequent preference of bonobos for upright locomotion is yet another of their amazing attributes. It used to be thought that humans only began to walk upright when we left the forests for the savannah. Increased knowledge of bonobos extinguished that theory. The angle and alignment of the bonobo hip structure matches almost exactly that of our own two million year old ancestor, Australopithecus afarensis.
Perhaps of even greater significance to the essence of bonobo society than their sexual proclivities and bipedal capacity is the tenderness with which they nurture their young. Juveniles, even once weaned, will sometimes continue suckling until the age of six. Bonobo males remain deferential to their mothers for life, and derive their rank from where mum sits in the hierarchy.

On the second day tracking we see the bonobos halt for a midday rest and feed in a nut tree. Luke, Phil and I, necks aching from straining upwards all day, lie down on the spongy forest floor 20 metres directly and unobscured beneath a group of 17 bonobos. Periodically we have to dodge as the bonobos rain down small branches, half-chewed nuts, or the occasional and well aimed piss from their lofty perch. For a whole two hours we lie there, transfixed by their tranquillity. Three mothers are in a tight bundle together, quietly and intimately grooming their infants, regardless of which infant belongs to which mother. What must be in the mind of those infants, in such a press of maternalism and being tended to by not just one mother but effectively all of them? The feelings of togetherness, warmth and security, and -- dare I say it -- love, those infants feel must be immense. No wonder bonobo society, soaked in such nurturing, is matriarchal.
Sadly the day arrives when we must leave our bonobo haven. We wave farewell to the gathering of villagers on the riverside. Once more we are afloat in our trusty pirogues, this time going with the flow of water, back down the river of man -- out of the time tunnel -- to resume once again our modern day lives.
We have a full moon now to guide our night-time stretches. By its light on the third night I am sitting on the bow, head brimming like the water around me with the wonder of the experiences of the past few weeks. A poem comes to mind and I recite it out loud, though not so loud that those back in the mozzie nets hear me and think I've lost my marbles.
It's from T. S. Eliot's "4 Quartets":
We shall not cease from exploration
and the end of all our exploring
will be to arrive where we started
and know the place for the first time.
Through the unknown, unremembered gate
when the last of earth left to discover
is that which was the beginning.
At the source of the longest river
the voice of the hidden water fall
and the children in the apple-tree
not known, because not looked for
but heard, half heard, in the stillness
between two waves of the sea.
The bonobo. The children in the apple tree indeed. And the river that swallows all rivers, the mighty Congo, is bearing us onwards ... onwards from what feels to us a source of light rather than a heart of darkness.
And ahead on the river the rapids, swamps, cataracts and whirlpools, all metaphorically being borne with hope by humanity for that potential destination -- one day -- of an oceanic maturity.