January 22, 2008. Swiss Air flight 277.
Over North Africa.
My first day in Malabo
Today I got punched in the mouth by a monkey. It was a drill, actually, the largest primate species on Bioko Island. A hunting orphan, he'd been welded into a rebar cage behind a small café. I leaned in too close to get a photo, and he tore up my mouth with one jab. It served me right. The café's owner had recently died. There are no zoos around to take drills, and because they're an endangered species, they can't be exported without major paperwork. I have a feeling this drill may end up being eaten.
On day three, after a three-hour ride on an oil company boat, a Zodiac ferried us to shore. The group split up, with Ian and me going to a makeshift camp along Playa Tortuga, or Turtle Beach. It was more remote than the other beach camp, so we figured our odds would be better for primates there. We were wrong.
The rain forest is always a dark place, but here it was extra dark, with thick clouds constantly looming. This place gets 11 meters of rain per year. And the primates? They'd been heavily hunted, and while good densities remain of seven different species, all are frightened and quickly run away. Ian's camera couldn't handle the dark, and he turned to other subjects after a few days. My new Nikon could shoot in the gloom, but couldn't make monkeys sit still. They screamed out alarm calls and crashed away from branch to branch faster than I could run after them.
In case of "bad monkeys," I'd brought plan B: a portable photo studio including lights, a small generator, and a backdrop. I'd also brought some glass and silicon caulk in order to make an aquarium or two. The idea was to gather up the little stuff (frogs, lizards, fish, bugs) and do detail shots of them in nice light. I'd do anything to keep from being skunked.
Every day was a sweat-filled struggle to find things to shoot. To keep intestinal worms at bay, we'd drink iodine-laced water that tasted like a swimming pool. Sometimes a guide and I would hike all day looking for monkeys, always to no avail—but at least we were trying. Another time, we swam to get into a coastal bat cave. You had to go at low tide, and even then you had waves hitting you above the waist. One day there were sea turtles hatching on the beach, which beat the hell out of having to shoot our camp dinner again—always sardines and cubed Spam.