Three Notes from Semliki

Non-scientific field notes from a chimp tracker

Photo by Tengyart on Unsplash

Semliki Note #1 — Data

Up early with the bats in a soft rain, I’m walking down a steep path to the climate station we’ve set up at the river. The forest is silent except for some restless insects and one or two birds.

I raise the kerosene lantern high to take the readings of temperature and humidity. Droplets of water hiss as they strike the glass.

Back up the hill, I shrug my way into the kitchen area and set the lantern down. A deck of cards in order by suits and an empty gin bottle sit on the table.

Not my doing.

I detect the odor of cigarette smoke. Looking around the camp I see a rectangle of yellow light. Simon, smoking in bed. No doubt he’s staring at the ceiling of his tent and worrying about the construction budget.

Flipping through the project logbook I note it’s been three months to the day since I’ve seen the chimpanzees. We’re in the midst of a drought. When the rains come, the trees will bear fruit, and when there is enough fruit the chimps will gather in numbers large enough to soothe their fear of the unknown, and they will let me see them.

I have been telling myself this every day for at least two months. Every day it sounds less rational and more desperate.

In the meantime, there’s nothing to do but continue going to the forest. The chimps see me, even if I don’t see them. It’s helping, even if the data don’t show it. Which is why every morning I put on my boots and, after logging the climate data and packing a lunch, I walk the forest trails until nightfall, noting nests and knuckle prints and the occasional call.

Maybe it’s fatigue.

Maybe it’s because this reserve is located near the equator and the sun comes up over the same notch in the hills every morning. 

Whatever it is, after days and weeks of walking the same trails over and over with the same null result, I am beginning to wonder if time is even passing.

Glancing through the logbook one last time — perhaps seeking to convince myself that this morning I am, in fact, starting a new day — I see I failed to record the night I stopped dreaming about sex and instead started dreaming about simply being hugged by someone I love.


Photo by the author. Semliki Valley Wildlife Reserve, 1998

Semiliki Note # 2 — Rainy Season

The rains have come, but the trees have not yet fruited. The chimpanzees remain elusive.

Not satisfied with pouring down from the sky and blowing in through the windows, rainwater seeps up from the ground and through the floor of my tent.

In the forest, searching for the chimps, I try not to touch the tree trunks because the slightest contact releases water droplets clinging to the undersides of the leaves. Despite my efforts, I’m constantly slipping in the mud and ooze of the trail and lurching into the trees, soaking myself further.

On top of that, our palm-trunk bridges are washed out more often than not, so the choices are either wade the creeks or force ourway through the dripping, ant-snarled vegetation in search of a shallower place to cross.

There is no way to get less wet, let alone dry.

Today, wading down the trail, I break branches unnecessarily and swat the biting flies more viciously than usual, as if this violence will somehow atone for killing the lizard that surprised me in my tent last night. His head and tail were a bright, cobalt blue, and his body and legs were a delicate silvery white.

He was harmless and beautiful.

I was dozing when he dropped from who-knows-where to the table beside my cot, landing inches from my face.

I snatched up an empty Sprite bottle and crushed his head between the green bottle glass and the hardwood tabletop.

His body fell, twitching, to the mud-soaked mats on the tent floor.

I stood and watched his final, inverted quiverings, my guilty conscience searching for a way to make it his fault.


Photo by Srikanth Peetha on Unsplash

Semliki Note #3 — Combs

On the higher parts of the trail, where the water is shallow, I can see yesterday’s current engraved in the sand through water as still and clear as museum glass.

The bridge at the first river crossing is washed out, so I wade.

The water has receded and the river, though higher than my rubber boots, is below my knees. Water wicks up my socks and through the thin, high-tech fabric of my quick-drying pants, wetting them above the river’s reach.

After regaining the trail on the other side, I hike for hours through the forest, seeing black and white hornbills and colobus monkeys, but no chimpanzees.

While I hike I daydream of sending my brother letters on the insides of envelopes ripped carefully apart at the seams.

I imagine writing in ink a shade darker than the bewildering confidentiality pattern so that the text is next to impossible to decipher and reading gives way to approximating. I imagine he answers me in the same manner and that our correspondence, characterized by genial unintelligibility, lasts for years.

Coming to a trail junction I turn uphill and walk out of the forest onto a sun-kilned hillside where I sit down and remove my boots and socks.

Looking through pant legs made translucent by moisture I see my leg hair has been slicked down and neatly parted, as if the water was made of hundreds of tiny combs.


© Copyright 2021 by Jim Latham