Finding My Forest Feet

The beautiful Lefini Reserve

The beautiful Lefini Reserve

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.

I wasn’t.

Me at the end of the second day, looking the part at least

Me at the end of the second day, looking the part at least

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.


  1. Darling, sorry things have gone tits up. Sometimes that happens and going home and licking wounds is right thing to do, sorry I only read this after writing you a gloomy email, you’ve certainly put my slight sundayitis into perspective, a loose mosquito is certainly no army ant. Many hugs and rocks for throwing at vultures xxxx

  2. We 29th-of-May-ers love a challenge Gill. Fab to read about yours (and all the other ones running alongside it). You’re more than equal to it. Be kind to yourself, and remember those wonderful words of advice given by Christopher Robin to Winnie the Pooh: “Promise me you?ll always remember: You?re braver than you believe, and stronger than you seem, and smarter than you think.”

  3. Gill, reading your account of such a gruelling and hellish trek, I can’t help but think how awesome you are for even getting through it. I’m sorry your other work hasn’t (yet) come through but don’t think of it as the end. It is a setback among many more that will come and you will find your way along another path. Life often turns out to be anything but orderly, linear or just as planned. But I’m sure things will work out even better as other doors open up for you. Hold onto your spirit and keep conquering (!) on!

  4. Not sure what to say.
    Maybe a bit of context to get me started.
    I have a close friend currently volunteering at a UN funded Refugee School in Kuala Lumpur. Bob is bright in the way you are, very fine grasp of detail and can usually see the whole board. I emailed a recent Guardian account of the desperate status of Rohinga migrants, commenting that the information and much else about for instance kids in Syria made the GE here in the UK seem little more than a hill of beans but that we ( people who believe independence is a path to greater democracy ) had to start somewhere. I remain of this view but Bob wrote back describing his disgust at the sheer cruelty of the Malaysian and Indonesian States towards their fellow human beings. His words made me think.
    I adore the work I am able to do in South Africa. It is I believe making a positive contribution albeit miniscule. I am surprised by the affection I feel for our Production Team of five 15-17 year olds. I am determined to carry on not just making our little film but also to get them onto the i ternet and to establish a local archive and community website. I am prepared to give alot of my time and don’t grudge spending my own ( and Smert’s ) money on the work.
    But essentially the work doesn’t cost me anything but my time and it gives me more than I put in as did Big Wide Talk. My raitionale for being a well resourced white woman is that I have some skills and they are welcome to make what they will with my inputs. There’s amutuality which I find both irresistable and energising. So I plough on.
    I think you are conflating the experience of extreme physical challenge with your capacity to succeed. They’re not the same thing if that isn’t teaching Granny to suck eggs. You’re of no use to anyone with an exhausted body and it isn’t a failure on your part to have undergone such a dangerous challenge and not sprung form the bushed beating your chest Tarzan style. I for one am just grateful you weren’t stretchered out. For fucks sake, Conquers.
    As I used to say to the control freaks in BWT, the best plans are the ones which change. You’ll need as much head space as you can find to redo whatever it is that’s gone’tits up’ . Physical exhaustion takes a lot of brain space even for someone with as much of it as you have.
    Well anyway, I know you’ll be bored by now. Have you read Scoop. If not do. Should make you laugh and feel as mighty as you are.
    Lots of love Jaimo.


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