The Chimp Factor
Sometimes when I look at this picture I laugh. It was taken not long before I joined Sky News as a presenter.
Of course, once you were sat in front of the camera in your mid-tone jacket and nicely accented jewellery everyone was inclined to think that your past was peppered with nothing more testing than a bit of reporting on the local rag and a string of celebrity interviews. They were wrong.
The photograph was taken in 1988, in the jungles of The Gambia where I was reporting with the late (and very much lamented) photographer Steve Bent for the Daily Mail. We were there to cover illegal animal hunting and trafficking from West Africa to Europe and the US.
Our first stop was Banjul, the countries capital, where we landed in order to travel to meet anthropologist Jane Goodall’s protege, who did for chimpanzees what Diane Fossey did for Gorillas. She lived in their habitat and was responsible for saving the lives of many threatened animals.
We stayed in her camp for 10 days while I interviewed her and Steve took the photographs. I don’t think I have ever had that many vaccinations – nor have I left any country with bigger or worst mosquito bites. The jungle was noisier than a traffic jam in central Bangkok and moving around the bush involved carrying wads of US dollars in case we needed to buy our way out of any sticky situations. Jane her self, had suffered cerebral malaria and several attacks on her encampment. We were completely isolated.
We travelled on to Sierra Leone. That was slightly better (although the country descended into hell with a decade) because we found a hotel. But the story was much more dangerous since we had to track down the animal hunters who tore these chimps out of their troops by any means possible. Steve got the most amazing pictures at considerable risk. Some of them were deemed too unsavoury to publish.
Still, Steve and I we keen to move on to Liberia. This country – now led by the amazing Ellen Sirleaf Johnson – was, at the time, considered to be one of the most dangerous on the African continent. The newsdesk finally, unnerved by a three-day loss of contact (there were no mobile phones) when the country suffered a nationwide loss of electrical power, pulled us out and we headed back to London.
I joined Sky News not long after. My colleague from the Mail on Sunday, Jo Sheldon, joined with me. We were part of a handful of reporters who came from newspapers to the then ground-breaking broadcaster and it was hard going at the time. Learning to adjust to an on-air job from print journalism was not easy. Inevitably, there was a great deal of emphasis on how you looked. Too much, sometimes.
For a period I had to forget the past and concentrate on the future. But every once and a while I allowed my self a chuckle over this photo. Years of presenting lay ahead before I was back in the thick of it….the Korean Labour Unrest riots to be precise. By then I had moved past the jokes about big hair and coloured jackets. Not so difficult when your main accessory for the trip was a gas mask.