Wild Spirit: Halfway Through Africa is a memoir of Annette Henderson’s life-changing
experience living and working in a remote mineral exploration camp in the mountainous
forest of North-Eastern Gabon in Equatorial Africa with her husband, Win, in 1975-76.
As independent adventure travellers, they had crossed the Sahara in their Kombivan, but
were prevented from continuing their trans-African crossing by border closures in Zaire,
a consequence of the Angolan War. Robbed of all their cash, they were stranded until a
chance meeting with a stranger offered them a way out. Doug Hunt, a New Zealand
geologist, needed a good builder to construct his mining camp at Belinga 600 kilometres
inland. As a master builder with wide experience, Win was an obvious choice. Doug
also saw an avenue to use Annette’s French language skills in the camp. The primeval
forest and abundant wildlife captured the Hendersons’ imaginations on first sight, and
they began their life at Belinga soon afterwards. Just three months after the Hendersons’
arrival, a colleague, Rodo, rescued an orphaned and injured baby gorilla whose mother
had been shot by village people. The traumatised infant’s future looked bleak on arrival.
Her flesh was cut to the bone at the hip as a result of being restrained, and the wound
was infected. Using sutures and a surgical needle from the first-aid kit, Win stitched the
wound, and he, Rodo and Annette became surrogate parents to the infant whom they
named Josie. Annette’s love of gorillas was born as she cared for Josie and watched her
recover over several weeks. Without proper facilities to care for her indefinitely, they
gave Josie into the care of a colleague’s family in the regional town. Her death soon
afterwards kindled Annette’s determination to become involved in some way with great
ape conservation. Later, the Hendersons and Rodo visited a research station where a
rehabilitation program for orphaned great apes was underway. There they interacted
with a group of captive-reared gorillas and chimpanzees on an island in the river, an
event that changed Annette’s life forever. Ikata, an eight-year-old black back gorilla,
embraced her at first sight, and groomed her waist-length hair. During this intense
episode of interspecies communication, Annette experienced her epiphany. She would
study for a degree in anthropology. Inspired by the examples of Jane Goodall, Dian
Fossey and Biruté Galdikas—the three famous researchers who studied great apes in the
wild—she hoped one day to follow in their footsteps.
My critical essay, Great Apes, Humans and Epiphanies: Profound Interspecies
Encounters, explores accounts by Jane Goodall, Dian Fossey and Biruté Galdikas of
their profound encounters with great apes in the field. I use the analytical framework of
Tony Rose, a psychologist and conservation activist, on profound interspecies events
(PIEs) to illuminate the experience of these researchers, as well as my own. Rose’s
research has shown that PIEs frequently transform the lives of those who undergo them.
Goodall, Fossey and Galdikas all became vigorous activists, albeit in different ways, in
pursuit of great ape conservation. I draw on secondary sources by biographers, a
primatologist and a literary scholar to provide further insights into the personal
transformations Goodall, Fossey and Galdikas underwent from scientists to conservation
activists, largely as a consequence of their close identification with the apes they
studied, and the threats to great ape survival that emerged during their fieldwork. My
essay demonstrates that profound interspecies encounters have the potential to be lifechanging.
My own PIE with Ikata remains the highlight of my life. My gorilla
encounters have defined my identity ever since, and have led directly to my current
involvement in great ape conservation.