Dear Jane Goodall,
Greetings from Gombe National Park, which you brought to our attention not so long ago. I never thought I’d make it to this little sliver of mountain forest on the shores of Lake Tanganyika, but somehow, the fates landed me on the same beaches that you continue to walk ever since you first appeared in the pages of National Geographic.
I remember reading all about you in the magazine, I remember being inspired by you, one of the many millions of fans you have around the world.
We met a few years ago in Washington, D.C. at a JGI function. Of course you meet several thousands of new people every week, but for me to meet you was a great and unforgettable honor. We took a picture together and you signed my copy of your book. I was very touched, so thank you for that.
Of course I am enamored with your contribution to our knowledge of both chimpanzees and humanity at large, but I also respect you greatly because you are one of the few people in the world who actually travels more than I do (just barely, but you do actually travel more than I do by a few weeks per year).
I never thought I would ever get to travel in your footsteps, but then all too suddenly, I found myself on a slow wooden boat on Lake Tanganyika, trailing my hand in the water, shielding my face from the sun and spray and feeling the mountains were alive with your legacy.
I read your book, In the Shadow of Man (how could anyone not read your account?) and arriving in Gombe, I felt that I already knew the place intimately based on your descriptions. The vines, the mud, the waves on the shore and even the water cobras were all there, exactly as you described them.
Despite all of the warnings I was given about tracking chimps (“It’s really hard work!”, “You’ve gotta be in great shape”, “You may not find them!”), we had absolutely no trouble locating your beloved primates. In fact, I got all ready for an hours-long hike through the park, only to discover this particular group of chimpanzees had come right down to the shoreline. And so we took a boat, climbed out, and then walked a total of five minutes before I heard the rustle in the trees, followed by the symphony of frantic pant-hoots (exactly as you described and imitated to me in Washington, D.C.).
In the space of an hour, I watched ten chimpanzees engage in about every behavior possible: mating, fighting, sleeping, eating, and grooming. Best of all, I got to see little baby “Google” who is a direct descendant of the very first chimps you wrote about in the 1960s.
Let me tell you Jane, I have never had such cooperative models in my entire life. For the first twenty minutes of so, the chimpanzees remained high up in the trees, elusive in the shadows. And then, as if bored with teasing my camera, they all dropped down, ran past me, and then found a nice patch of sunlight and began lounging about, moving poses as I snapped my shutter, click, click, click.
And so I am sending you some photos of the chimpanzees you know so well. You named them of course, and you have been following them for ages, but for me, they were all so new and wondrous, I will be forever haunted (pleasantly) by their presence and that closeness I felt with such a close and dear species as these creatures of western Tanzania.
I send you my small thank you for your tireless work that you do with such gusto and thank you again for inspiring all of us through these animals in Gombe National Park.
A chimpanzee grin from Africa,