Sitting beneath the steamy and thickly forested canopy of Uganda’s Bwindi’s Impenetrable Forest in close proximity of a group of wild mountain gorillas, Graham Cooke is spellbound.
It is March 2005; just over a decade after Graham returned from the South Luangwa Valley in Zambia where he had released the two leopards Boycat and Poepface into the wild. On leave from the safari lodge in the South African lowveld where he works as a game ranger, Graham and the small group of tourists are lucky; they encounter the family of eight gorillas known as Group M within an hour of climbing the rather steep mountain slope.
Marvelling at the slow movements of the gentle forest giants and humbled by their tolerance and acceptance of their human visitors, Graham is overwhelmed by a similar sort of connection as to the one he shared with his leopard cubs and, suddenly feeling the fervent desire to bond with a wild animal once more, he decides there and then to attempt to befriend a large troop of wary Chacma baboons he knows back home in South Africa.
Having come across the troop in the Gowrie area of Djuma Game Reserve only fleetingly, catching sight of innumerable dark-grey shadows that vanished into the thick bush like ghosts upon the sound of human approach, Graham heads off into the bush a few days after coming home intent on finding out what he can about the elusive baboons.
But the baboons are not easily found. And when Graham does unexpectedly stumble upon them, the 54 members of the Gowrie Gang waste no time to get away, crashing into the undergrowth where they remain a mystery. Only with infinite patience and respect, Graham eventually manages to come within first 300 and then 50 meters, sitting with his back turned toward the troop in a bid to allow them to get used to his nearby presence.
And so begin the mind games; a mental check board between two very different primates who meet on an ancient playground deep in the heart of the reserve. Only many months later, after painstaking attempts to bridge the distance between himself and the troop, Graham manages to move in closer, shouldering indignant grunts and stabbing stares from the top-ranking male. But then, during one single incident, the troop finally start showing the first signs of accepting Graham into their midst.
And so he gains an insight into the lives of the alpha male, Grey; a hard ruler, respected for his power and position. And Gandalph, the thinker; a much lower ranking, but infinitely wise and gentle adult male, who is the first animal to unlock the door to allow Graham a glimpse into the baboons’ secret lives.
But if Gandalph provided the passageway, it was Shirley Hurley, the highest ranking female who initiated direct contact. And then, like a theatre curtain slowly rising to reveal an opulent stage production, Graham is shown a spectacle of dynamics that play themselves out through the Gowrie Gang’s most prominent members; Shirley Hurley’s daughter or sister Half-tail, the Twisted Sisters; Miss pschyco and Mrs Spock, Hewey and Lewey, Gawdy and Twopac, Jigga, Tankman, Evelyn and Squirt; each revealing their unique personalities as they slowly begin to offer Graham their trust.
Over a period of six years, armed with a film and still camera, Graham integrates himself into the troop, recording triumphs and tragedies on 90 tapes of video footage. Moving through the bush with the baboons in an area inhabited by African elephants, lions, leopards and hyenas, Graham becomes part of their lives, depending on similar survival strategies that these intelligent primates adopt to survive as they face the daily challenges that a bush setting provides.
The Gowrie Gang is a heart-warming story of the special connection between a man and a group of primates that are often ridiculed, disrespected and even vilified as vermin. Set against the background of the South African lowveld, it is an emotive, humorous and at times heart-breaking account that continues the adventures of Graham where My Life with Leopards left off.
Fransje van Riel was born in Holland but moved to the East Sussex countryside, where she attended high school in the small village of Forest Row. Upon her return to The Netherlands, she embarked on a career in the airline industry, which saw her flying to all corners of the world, including East Africa and which rekindled a childhood passion for nature and wild animals. Unable to resist Africa's beckoning calls, Fransje eventually resigned as Royal cabin attendant for KLM to settle in South Africa, where she pursued a career in writing.After covering numerous travel and wildlife related sto...
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