PASSPORT: HELEN ATTWATER

The nurse-cum-author recalls life in Africa setting up an orphanage for gorillas, the subject of her debut book

My partner Mark and I returned from the gorilla orphanage we'd founded in Africa, seven years previously, in 1995. It was an emotional upheaval to leave. We were based in the Congo, which is not really a tourist spot, and I don't think I would go back unless I was involved in a project with the gorillas again.

I've got 10 stamps in my passport for Congo and about four long-term, two-year visas. When I took my first six-week visitor's visa, I never thought about how long we would stay. I did not know that the project would snowball and take away the option of leaving.

A British passport helped a great deal during the civil war as the state was pro-British and anti-French. The police would ask to see your passport to see what nationality you were. Once we were stopped and had our car confiscated. Apparently, it had the wrong registration on it. We had a chimp in the back and had to walk all the way back to camp carrying it in our arms. We didn't get the car back until two months later.

Despite the seven years we spent in Africa Mark and I never travelled around the country. We were working all the time and when we did get leave we just wanted to return to the UK, to a cooler climate and to good medical treatment.

I have one stamp for Uganda, too. It's a lovely country but not as remote as Congo. It has an infrastructure and tourists, and seemed tame by comparison. It was a pleasant but quite a low-key experience.

We worked with the Congolese government in confiscating infant apes from hunters. Proceedings were somewhat bureaucratic, a hangover from French colonial times. The officials were pedantic, but never unpleasant. Our co-workers approached the idea of a gorilla orphanage from a different cultural perspective at first but once they'd got used to it they showed an amazing amount of dedication including, at points during the civil war, risking their lives to come to work.

There were two epidemics among the apes at the orphanage. The outbreaks of polio and viral pneumonia meant we lost a lot of them. Then a member of staff died of cancer and later the country went into a civil war. But, at the end, after we had rescued all these animals from poachers, nursed them and returned a number of them to the wild, the struggle was worth it.

Helen Attwater's book 'My Gorilla Journey: Living with the Orphans of the Rainforest' is published by Sidgwick & Jackson on 7 May, price pounds 16.99.

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