Back in 2005 I happened by chance to catch an episode of Going Ape, a show on Animal Planet filmed at Mefou park on the work of Ape Action Africa. At the time the project was called Cameroon Wildlife Aid Fund (CWAF). The episode was the one in which Shufai arrives at the park and was utterly traumatised.  I was distraught watching that episode, but I was hooked and watched the rest of the series. The final show had a volunteer featuring in it, so I googled 'CWAF/Volunteer' and by the end of that day had applied to volunteer at the project. I did not think for one minute I would hear back or be selected to volunteer given my background was in law and I knew nothing about animals let alone primates.

However, a few weeks later I heard back from Caroline McLaney and had an interview, and to my utter astonishment I was offered a one-month place on the volunteer program, this was April 2005. October 2005 my adventure began. I couldn’t wait to get to Cameroon. I diligently packed everything in the volunteer handbook, had my nails done, yes that’s right I had my nails done and my hair cut! I was under no illusion what was waiting for me but for some reason I had my nails done. Rachel joked with me years later that when she saw me at the airport, she dismissed me as her volunteer as I looked too glamorous!!

I arrived in the middle of the night and went straight to the forest. I was shown to my room by Elissa who was volunteering also, and I set about putting my purple mosquito net up. The following morning, I woke up to what is now one of my favourite sounds - chimp hoots; the nursery group were awake and wanted their breakfast. I got up and dressed in all my new gear and headed to the kitchen, commonly know as the ‘Hilton’. There I met other volunteers Ian, Emily (who had arrived on the same flight as me) and Rachel. There was also a cameraman there who was filming the next series of 'Going Ape’ called Aiden, this was my family for the next 4 weeks. I enjoyed playing poker every evening and actually got quite good. I can recall that morning standing on the road outside the Hilton thinking I was so far away from my normal world, it was like nowhere I had ever been before, but it felt amazing.

In my 2nd week one of the chimps from Bertie's group had had his hand bitten and needed to have surgery to rectify the damage. Rachel asked me if I would help look after the chimp. I arrived at the room where she was with the chimp and was introduced to Goran. It was love at first sight, for me at least. Rachel said come in and sit down. Now Goran was around 6 or7-year-old male chimpanzee. I was thinking to myself, is she sure about this? Rachel must have seen my slight nerves and assured me Goran was a gentle chimp, so in I went, he ran to me and hugged me and showed me his wounded hand. I couldn’t believe how much trust he had in me within seconds of meeting me. I spent the next 3 weeks caring for Goran with Big Joe showing me which leaves to pick for Goran so he could make a nest. One day I was in with Goran when I saw something moving in the quarantine room, I went over to investigate followed by Goran who proceeded to have an epic meltdown as the ‘thing’ was indeed a huge black scorpion. I would be lying if I said I wasn’t slightly concerned but with the help of a large stick and a sour cream and onion Pringles tube matters were resolved quickly, said scorpion was later released.

Goran

It quickly came to leaving and returning home and although I missed my family I didn’t want to go. I felt in some small way I had made a difference to the animals I had cared for and I knew that Ape Action Africa would remain part of my world. I just wasn’t sure how I could help but be in the UK.

I returned to Cameroon in 2007 for another month stay and in 2010 became the volunteer co-ordinator. Between that time, I organised various fundraising events and even managed to talk my sister into a sponsored sky dive. I then became a trustee in 2019.

Vicky and partner Simon (also our friend and volunteer) at a fundraising ball for AAA.

That first trip to Cameroon changed who I was as a person and what I wanted to spend my time doing. Ape Action Africa has also given me the opportunity to meet some truly amazing people and create lifelong friendships. My daughter Florence is very lucky to have Rachel as her godmother and I cannot wait to take her to Cameroon to meet our forest family. The work we do at Ape Action Africa is so important in not only caring for the animals who are fortunate enough to make it to Mefou but also to protect those who are still where they belong, out in the wild.

Rachel named orphaned chimp Florence after her goddaughter

Victoria Luke

Banner image - our humans Vicky and Simon between their chimpanzee namesakes.

A huge thank you to Vicky and Simon for all they do for Ape Action Africa. We can't wait to meet Florence in the forest! And sincere thanks to all of our fantastic trustees and to all those volunteers who have devoted their time to help our cause over the last 25 years. We're so glad that you're part of our forest family!

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