The first time I ever walked properly in the Congo Basin rainforest was two years ago. I felt like a huge, clumsy elephant – although that’s a terrible metaphor because elephants are actually pretty competent at walking through the forests here and just smash apart anything that gets in their path. But I got my head and my arms and my legs stuck on bushes and twisted under branches and sucked into boggy marsh, and army ants kept running up my trousers and biting me, and I kept getting lost because I was dreadfully slow and always at the back of the group. I was hideously unfit at the time – I’d been working night shifts for two years to fund my way through the masters I studied for by day. Three months after I returned from Congo that year my left lung stopped working for six weeks, for no real reason the doctors could determine other than complete exhaustion. In 2014 I got fitter. I ran and I swam and I lifted weights. I had two functioning lungs. When I returned to Congo in January this year the people of Gbagbali – my favourite Mbendjele camp along the Sangha River – commented that when I first came to visit them I walked very slowly in the forest, but now they could see that I am much faster. I was pleased. I thought I was prepared.
The Lefini Reserve is in the south of Congo-Brazzaville – it’s a hilly savannah-forest complex where I was accompanying a researcher from Imperial and a team of ecoguards to map signs of wildlife populations and evidence of hunting activity. I have never in my life been more completely unprepared for the extremes of the terrain. From the marsh we crossed at the beginning where I messed up where to put my feet at every step to the long uphill hikes in the blazing midday sun to the swathes of grass and brush as high as my head or more that lashed against my skin as we hacked our way through, every step was a challenge. Each night when we made camp it was as much as my aching, shaky, dehydrated body could do to pitch my tent and force down some smoked fish and manioc (cooked by my incredibly kind and caring companions – I may not have made it through were it not for them). Perhaps normally I could have laughed it all off, but I was sad about other things going on in my life, which circled round my skull as I walked like so many vultures. When we made it back to our origin point after four days I wish I could say I felt an enormous sense of achievement. It was, I think, the most physically demanding thing I’ve ever done – and I’ve hiked a fair few enormous mountains in my time. But I picked up my emails and some of the other work I’m supposed to be doing in Congo had suddenly gone tits up (as stuff in Congo tends to), and all of the embarrassment and exhaustion and heartbreak and disappointment hit me like a wave. I sat on a ridge overlooking the beautiful Lefini River and I cried and cried.
Sometimes it’s time to power on through and keep on hiking. But sometimes it’s time to admit that you’re not, in fact, the female Ray Mears. Sometimes it’s time to return to Brazzaville, lick your (physical and mental) wounds and nurse your injured pride with beer and chips. As they say here, c’est ça, le terrain.