Sunday, June 17, 2018

GOING FOR THE ONE Part 4 - Virtual Africa Office

“What a load of crap!” howled Douglas Adams as he threw open the lobby doors of the Empire Leicester Square. He’d just sat through 109 minutes of Congo, a jungle adventure story about a trained gorilla that’s taken back to the wild. I caught up with him at the after party, in the basement of the Royal College of Art on Kensington Gore. He and Storm Thorgerson were standing next to a scale model of a volcano spewing day-glow lava from its top. “Sorry if I was a bit vocal back there at the theatre,” said Douglas. He was an imposing man, both in stature and imagination. 

“No, you’re right,” I laughed, “the movie stank. I’m amazed you stayed until the end. But we did well out of it. The studio paid us for our radar image (even though it was in the public domain), used our literature in their set designs, and gave us the London premiere, which really boosted morale at the charity. Besides, the gorillas stand to earn a pile of dough from the on-pack video promotion, so…”

“So it’s good for something,” said Storm. 

“I thought your film of Arthur looked great up there on the big screen,” I said.

“I thought it was corny,” said Storm, casually surveying the room for familiar faces. “Hard to imagine I earned a masters here. It was a lot groovier back then.”

“Oh, by the way, Douglas,” I said, jingling my bourbon on the rocks, “I’ve got an appeal going out next week to coincide with the movie’s release.”

“Another one?” asked Douglas. “Don’t you ever tire of writing appeal letters?” I looked at him aghast. “Nothing wrong with them, as such,” continued Adams. “It’s just this tendency to continually put bandaids on the problem that bothers me. I mean, you put all that effort into asking for donations, but only ever raise enough to keep the gorillas safe for a few more months. What would it take to draw a line under the issue? I know some wealthy people. How much money do you need to make sure, as much as is humanly possible, the mountain gorillas are saved forever?"

“Now there’s a challenge,” I laughed. “Let’s see, the annual cost of gorilla protection is around a quarter of a million dollars.”

“So you need an interest-bearing lump sum to pay for that in perpetuity. How much is that?” 

“$5-6 million,” said Storm. 

”To save a species?” smiled Adams. “A bargain.”

“We should continue this conversation at my office,” I smiled. “The prospect of raising a sum large enough to ensure I never have to fundraise again is very appealing.”

A week later he visited our office in Primrose Hill, brought along Richard Harris, CTO of The Digital Village (TDV), an online entertainment company where Douglas was Chief Fantasist. We sat at a large round table in the basement next to a wall sized map of central Africa. 

“Tell me about your conservation work,” said Douglas. “How does $250,000 a year save gorillas?”

“Shipments of bananas,” I joked. “No, most of the money gets spent on anti-poaching patrols, equipment, salaries of the park rangers, and running the research facility.”

“Do you have researchers out there now?” asked Richard.

“Not at Karisoke. They were all evacuated. That’s twice in two years we’ve had to evacuative our American staff from Rwanda. And security in the region doesn’t look like it’s going to improve anytime soon.” 

“What you need is a digital hub,” said Richard, “an information resource that can be accessed from anywhere.” He looked at our network of desktop PCs, shook his head in dismay, then added, “And some Macs.”

“I should be able to get those donated,” said Douglas. “And I am happy to donate the proceeds from Hitchhiker. Theatre groups often stage amateur productions of it, and I’d be glad to send you those royalty cheques.” I smiled. “TDV, however, is heading into new territory in digital media, adapting Hitchhiker’s worlds into interactive forms. Meantime, I’m meeting people who are sitting on pots of money. You can be the parrot on my shoulder.” 

The next day he sent an email to Apple Computer:

We are planning to do a major TDV website with them and in the long term have even more ambitions plans - realtime gorilla tracking in virtual models of the Virungas on the Web. The Fund already has use of a satellite for transmitting data back from Africa. They desperately need equipment right at the moment, and I have been strongly advocating Apple to them.
- Email from Douglas Adams to Apple Computer

Apple donated a PowerMac 8500/120/16/2GB, Multiple Scan 1705 Display, Colour StyleWriter 2200, and a PowerBook 5300C/100 8/500 - about $8,000 worth of gear. 
PowerMac 8500

In Nicholas Negroponte’s book Being Digital he talks about an early prototype of a machine that pushed back at you, a force-feedback device. I wrote to him to ask if such a device might be used to support our anti-poaching efforts: plotting poaching activity on the 3D map we’d made from JPL’s data set of the gorilla habitat to determine the path of least resistance for the gorillas. 

Negroponte had founded the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Media Lab, in Cambridge, MA, one of America’s foremost research facilities. The Media Lab was a perfect partner for the conservation education centre we planned to build somewhere between Bwindi and Virunga (the two remaining Mountain gorilla habitats are only 35 kilometres apart). Such a facility would be an ideal naming opportunity for the donor to Douglas’s once-and-for-all fund. 
Wiesner Building, MIT Media Lab

My letter prompted an invitation in November 1995. The Media Lab’s Building E15, a.k.a. the Wiesner Building, was designed by I.M. Pei. On the outside it resembled a shiny new gift box, or the packaging to a futuristic games console. Inside the four-storey building was a warren of studios and workshops. Prof Michael Hawley, who studied under Marvin Minsky, gave me a tour of the facility. Things that Think, Toys of Tomorrow, and GO expeditions were all projects he was working on at the time.

He showed me a large room that had been entirely blacked out and was lighted only by LEDs. “Nike are sponsoring this project,” said Hawley. I can’t remember what they were doing in there, but the venue reminded me of being backstage at the Pink Floyd concert.

“This is a haptic device,” said Hawley, grasping a shiny metal pen attached to a mechanical arm, “the technology you asked about in our letter to my boss. It takes advantage of my sense of touch to simulate objects, applying forces, vibrations, or motions to my hand. Here, give it a try.” Floating inflexibly next to the device was an invisible cube. I could feel its presence by moving the pen over its surface, or knocking it against it. Magic!

“Come, let me show you something else you might like,” he said, leading me down the corridor to another workshop. “A couple friends have built a holography research group.” Suspended from the ceiling were some interesting full colour holographic portraits, sharp and beautiful. On an optical bench full of lasers was a holo-video system. “Not exactly Princess Leia beamed from R2D2,” laughed Hawley. “Have you thought about making a hologram of a silverback?” 

“Wow,” I gasped. “That would be amazing.”

“There’s a lot of equipment involved,” smiled Hawley. “How would gorillas react to having lasers in their midst? Also, the silverback would have to stay perfectly still, if only for an instant. Any movement by more than a millionth of a meter is enough to ruin your hologram.”

“We could create a soft mockup of the equipment and give them a few weeks to get used to it,” I said. “Then, when we’re sure it’s ok , we introduce the real equipment, shoot our hologram.”

“Ok, here’s what we can offer you,” said Hawley. “At the Media Lab your charity will enjoy the same privileges as our corporate sponsors. That’s a benefit worth $100,000 a year. You can look in on any of the technologies we’re developing and see what suits your conservation efforts.” 

Sunday, June 10, 2018

GOING FOR THE ONE Part 3 - Shine On You Crazy Diamond

Storm Thorgerson, whom I met in October 1994, cared little about gorillas, though he liked me. After seeing a science documentary he produced for Equinox on TV, an examination of the Hubble constant called The Rubber Universe, I contacted him. I was a huge fan of his work, had been since his days with Hipgnosis, an art design group that created surrealistic album cover art for some of my favourite bands in the 1970s, including Genesis, Led Zeppelin, and Pink Floyd. No doubt, he could make a compelling film about the convergence of space technology and gorilla conservation.

Storm's seminal design for Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon
“Never encountered a Hipgnosis groupie before,” said Storm when we met. It was a bright, brisk Autumn day. Close to my office and his studio, Primates Restaurant in Chalk Farm, with its subtle jungle theme, posters of great apes on the walls, and menus illustrated with primate species, was the perfect venue. We were seated at a window-side table bathed in sunlight.

“You opened the door to great music for me,” I said, unfolding my napkin on my lap. “Back when I was building my record collection, ‘Designed by Hipgnosis’ was a hallmark for eclectic vinyl.”

“Quite a stroke of luck,” said Storm as he studied the menu, “having a restaurant in the neighbourhood that promotes your cause.”

“Try the lamb shank, it’s their speciality.”

“Do they serve monkey?” asked Storm. 

“No,” I laughed, “but the gorillas do get a cut of the profits. The owner’s a big supporter of the charity.”

“I should warn you, I don’t believe in charity,” sniffed Storm. “If the gorillas need saving then it’s up to governments to pay for it. That’s why I pay taxes.” 

Storm Thorgerson at DFGF's London office, 1998
“I understand, but this has been a grim year for us. No one was prepared for what happened in Rwanda. What if I told you that when the genocide began, the space shuttle Endeavour was orbiting overhead, scanning the gorilla habit with an imaging radar?”

“Is this the film you want me to make?” asked Storm.

“Absolutely! I think the spectrum of hope and despair embodied in that epic moment should somehow be documented.”

I told him how Arthur C. Clarke had persuaded NASA to include the gorilla habitat in not one but two space shuttle missions, and then, journeying outside Sri Lanka for the first time in years, he joined me at Spaceport USA in Florida for the second shuttle launch, which was scrubbed at the very last second. “I’m a big fan of Clarke’s,” said Storm, digging into his lamb shank. “The cover for Zeppelin’s ‘Presence’ was inspired by his monolith in 2001: A Space Odyssey. But how do you propose we film an event that’s already happened?”

“Good point,” I said. “I’m working on that…”

The following Saturday, at around six o’clock in the evening, my home phone rang. It was Storm. “Is it true you’ve never seen the Floyd in concert?” 

“Never,” I said.

“Well, there’s an access all areas pass waiting for you at the stage door. If you hurry, you might just make the opening number.” 

The Pink Floyd were giving their final performance of The Division Bell tour at Earl’s Court, where they had so far performed 13 nights straight. The gig was mind-blowing, even without drugs. Backstage at the band party after the show, I felt like I was in the high-fidelity first-class traveling set. 

“What’s the point of having a dream team if you’re not prepared to fucking listen to them?” snapped Storm over the phone to me. It was five months later and we were making a short film together, a message from Arthur C. Clarke to be shown at the London premiere of Congo. It wasn’t the Gorillas From Space film I’d envisioned us making, but there wasn’t money for that.

With Clarke’s greeting from Sri Lanka in the can, Storm now wanted to shoot closeups of his books and I was objecting to the additional cost. But he refused to back down. He’d been mansplaining his artistic visions to music industry morons for decades, he was hardly going to yield to a neophyte like me. Besides, Storm was my hero. “Alright!” I said, “we’ll do it your way.”

The next morning, I hauled a stack of Arthur’s science fiction paperbacks down to King Studios in Soho, found him at the controls of a 35 millimetre rostrum camera, which had been designed to animate the inanimate. Quietly, between sips of tea, he arranged the books side by side on a table beneath the camera, then slowly panned the lens diagonally over them, capturing every tear and dog-eared corner. He told a different story than what was written in those books.

His studio in Belsize Park was just a short walk from my office, and I often visited. I spent as much time watching him work as I had studying his album covers when I was a teenager. His rock and roll stories and mordant sense of humour were an antidote to the terrible things happening in my world.

Apologies to Yes for stealing both the title and artwork of their album 'Going For The One', which Storm Thorgerson designed

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Sunday, June 3, 2018

GOING FOR THE ONE Part 2 - Gorillas From Space

It has been said that the most valuable prize the Apollo astronauts brought home was the famous photograph of our beautiful blue world, like a fragile X-mas tree ornament hanging in the empty blackness of space. It taught us to respect and cherish our home planet, and to care for its natural heritage.

    Orbiting satellites - the tools of the space age - now allow us to study the surface of our planet in detail which has never been possible from the ground. We can observe the growth of crops, deforestation, pollution and many other processes that are impacting the environment.

    To give one dramatic example, radar carried on the Space Shuttle has produced the first detailed maps of the habitat of the mountain gorillas in Africa - a feat previously impossible, because, as Dian Fossey’s famous book title indicated, gorillas live in a mist which only radar waves can penetrate. The new maps allow rangers, equipped with hand held GPS (Global Positioning Systems), which also depend on satellites, to locate themselves accurately, and to protect the few hundred remaining gorillas from the poachers who have mercilessly exterminated them.

I am particularly pleased to have been associated with the efforts of the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund of the UK in this enterprise, which may seem ironic in view of Rwanda’s horrendous human tragedy. Yet, when men are behaving worse than beasts, perhaps there is some hope for our species, if some of its members are prepared, against almost impossible odds, to protect these harmless, gentle cousins of ours.
- Arthur C. Clarke, August 1994 

Arthur C. Clarke owned the first computer I ever saw, a Commodore PET 2001. It had a small trapezoid-shaped monitor fixed on top of a white box, an integrated keyboard, and a cassette recorder for mass data. Blue text scrolled across the screen giving us the exact position of Venus at that moment. “Meet Junior HAL,” said Clarke. He’d named his PC after the sentient computer controlling the Jupiter bound spacecraft in the film 2001: A Space Odyssey, which he co-wrote with Stanley Kubrick. Indeed, many of the PET’s design features were inspired by 2001. 

I was sixteen years old, visiting my parents in Sri Lanka during a break from boarding school, and had used the pretext of an astronomical problem I was struggling with (Sidereal Time) to look up my childhood idol’s phone number (in the book), give him a call (which he answered himself), and invite myself around to his house (the very same day). 

“Right,” said Clarke, “let’s see if Junior HAL knows what he’s talking about.” We stepped outside on to a terrace. The array of satellite dishes in his yard was impressive for the day; Clarke probably had the best privately-owned comms system in the world in 1979. He was, after all, the godfather of comms, a Space Race utopian who in 1945 dreamed up the idea of the communications satellite.

He picked up his Celestron C8 telescope and moved it to the centre of the terrace, which was dazzling in the midday equatorial sunshine. “These terracotta tiles were laid in line with the celestial equator. Makes it easier to position the telescope.” He punched in Venus’s coordinates. The telescope’s built-in motor drive hummed and the instrument swivelled to a new position. “Here, see for yourself,” said Clarke. I peered into the eyepiece and, sure enough, Venus was dead centre, quarter phase, like an earthenware teacup. “The motor drive will stay locked on the planet’s position for days,” smiled Clarke. “Now lets see if we can find Venus with the naked eye.”

With Arthur C. Clarke at Kennedy Space Centre, August 1994
Fifteen years later, and 9,000 kilometres away, at my office in Primrose Hill, I was trying to cope with the eleventh-hour news that the gorillas had been dropped by NASA from its Mission to Planet Earth, three months before launch day. The space shuttle Endeavour was due to launch with a spaceborne imaging radar on board, which would have given us a rare glimpse through the mist of the gorilla habitat. We had been gearing up for a tremendous PR coup for the gorillas. Then a letter arrived from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in California, revoking our participation.

The mountain gorilla habitat from space
I called my old friend in Sri Lanka. If anyone could countermand a space agency decision, Arthur C. Clarke could. “Gorillas from space?” he laughed. “I’d love to help. Wildlife conservation is a cause close to my heart.” He sent a fax to his most senior contact at JPL, saying, “I hope it can be re-instated - it would be wonderful publicity for JPL/Nasa!”

The strategy paid off. We were reinstated. Endeavour launched at 7:05 am on April 9, 1994. Once the spacecraft was in orbit we were able to follow its progress via hourly reports sent by the shuttle crew to a NASA newsgroup on the Internet. And then, as planned, on its 58th orbit of Earth, flying belly-up with its payload door open, Endeavour aimed the radar-imaging equipment at the Virunga Volcanoes and acquired the first ‘data set’ of the gorilla habitat. 

Astronaut Rich Clifford, who was on board at the time, recalls how the imaging radar could “see” through the obscuration, the gorillas in the mist.

“Delighted Endeavour is doing its thing!” wrote Clarke. 

Arthur C. Clarke's fax to JPL

Original caption released by NASA/JPL with the above Iimage:
This is a false-color composite of Central Africa, showing the Virunga volcano chain along the borders of Rwanda, Zaire and Uganda. This area is home to the endangered mountain gorillas. The image was acquired on October 3, 1994, on orbit 58 of the space shuttle Endeavour by the Spaceborne Imaging Radar-C/X-band Synthetic Aperture Radar (SIR-C/X-SAR). In this image red is the L-band (horizontally transmitted, vertically received) polarization; green is the C-band (horizontally transmitted and received) polarization; and blue is the C-band (horizontally transmitted and received) polarization. The area is centered at about 2.4 degrees south latitude and 30.8 degrees east longitude. The image covers an area 56 kilometers by 70 kilometers (35 miles by 43 miles).

The dark area at the top of the image is Lake Kivu, which forms the border between Zaire (to the right) and Rwanda (to the left). In the center of the image is the steep cone of Nyiragongo volcano, rising 3,465 meters (11,369 feet) high, with its central crater now occupied by a lava lake. To the left are three volcanoes, Mount Karisimbi, rising 4,500 meters (14,800 feet) high; Mount Sabinyo, rising 3,600 meters (12,000 feet) high; and Mount Muhavura, rising 4,100 meters (13,500 feet) high. To their right is Nyamuragira volcano, which is 3,053 meters (10,017 feet) tall, with radiating lava flows dating from the 1950s to the late 1980s. These active volcanoes constitute a hazard to the towns of Goma, Zaire and the nearby Rwandan refugee camps, located on the shore of Lake Kivu at the top left. This radar image highlights subtle differences in the vegetation of the region. The green patch to the center left of the image in the foothills of Karisimbi is a bamboo forest where the mountain gorillas live. The vegetation types in this area are an important factor in the habitat of mountain gorillas. Researchers at Rutgers University in New Jersey and the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund in London will use this data to produce vegetation maps of the area to aid in their studies of the last 650 mountain gorillas in the world. The faint lines above the bamboo forest are the result of agricultural terracing by the people who live in the region.

Spaceborne Imaging Radar-C and X-Synthetic Aperture Radar (SIR-C/X-SAR) is part of NASA's Mission to Planet Earth. The radars illuminate Earth with microwaves, allowing detailed observations at any time, regardless of weather or sunlight conditions. SIR-C/X-SAR uses three microwave wavelengths: L-band (24 cm), C-band (6 cm) and X-band (3 cm). The multi-frequency data will be used by the international scientific community to better understand the global environment and how it is changing. The SIR-C/X-SAR data, complemented by aircraft and ground studies, will give scientists clearer insights into those environmental changes which are caused by nature and those changes which are induced by human activity.

SIR-C was developed by NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory. X-SAR was developed by the Dornier and Alenia Spazio companies for the German space agency, Deutsche Agentur fuer Raumfahrtangelegenheiten (DARA), and the Italian space agency, Agenzia Spaziale Italiana (ASI), with the Deutsche Forschungsanstalt fuer Luft und Raumfahrt e.V. (DLR), the major partner in science, operations and data processing of X-SAR.

When Paramount Pictures were in the early stages of adapting Michael Crichton’s Congo, they sent associate producer Mike Backes to the Remote Sensing Center at Rutgers University in New Jersey to see the 3D digital map of the gorilla habitat we were developing. After meeting the director of our research centre in Rwanda, he said to me, “That guy looks like he could pull an arrowhead out of his leg with his teeth.”

Mike Backes captured the zeitgeist of the New Media Age. He wore chic rimless eyeglasses, black silk shirts, and sported an ultra hip chrome dome that glowed with extraordinary brain power. I saw all of his movies and played all of his video games. When he appeared on the cover of Wired, I began reading the magazine religiously, carried issues around for months - coffee-stained tokens of the times, as meaningful to me as a Vonnegut novel or a Zeppelin album. 

Backes, who co-wrote the movie Rising Sun with Michael Crichton and supervised display graphics on Jurassic Park, promised to tap his friend and collaborator for a donation. One evening, while I was relaxing at home with my wife Jillian in our north London council flat, the phone rang. My teenage step-daughter Imogen, who had an extension in her room, answered. “Er, Greg,” she said, standing at the living room door with an irrepressible grin on her face, “it’s Michael Crichton on the phone.” 

He had called to pledge a $25,000 donation to protect Mt Tshiaberimu, a remote ecosystem in an isolated part of Virunga National Park in Zaire. Just 60 km2 in size, the mountain forest was home to a tiny population of gorillas, thought to be a unique sub-species, that had all but been forgotten by conservationists. This appealed to Crichton, who funded the project for the next 4 years, during which time the gorilla population grew from 16 to 21. 

Saturday, May 26, 2018

GOING FOR THE ONE Part 1 - Don't Panic

The polar jet stream can be cruel on the Pacific Northwest, like a prison guard with a hose. Rain falls endlessly, transforming the rugged landscape into a giant water feature. It was April 1997 and I was staying at the Edgewater, an elegant hunting lodge on stilts in Seattle’s inner harbour. Elliott Bay was humming with maritime activity - impossible to see or hear through the torrential downpour, but I could feel it in the force of the waves against the wooden stilts below my room. 

“Front desk? Hi, this is Mr Cummings in Room 330. Any messages? I’m expecting an important call.” Of course there were no messages. The phone would have rung. The red light on my phone would be flashing. I hadn’t left my room since I arrived, not even to eat. I’d been holed up in the Edgewater for days, waiting for someone at Microsoft to return my calls. 

I grabbed a Rolling Rock from the mini bar, sat down in a soft chair in front of the gas fireplace, flipped open my donated PowerBook, and logged onto my donated AOL account. The computer screeched and groaned interminably like the death throws of a Japanese movie monster, then said, “You’ve got mail!

It was an email from Douglas Adams, author of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, to Dr Nathan Myhrvold, Chief Technology Officer of the Microsoft Corporation: 

You remember the conversation we had about gorilla conservation, and the plan to put together a once and for all fund to ensure (as far as is humanly possible) their future survival? The author of that plan, Greg Cummings, is flying over to the west coast very shortly, and I wonder if you could find the time to see him... He’s a good guy and I’m sure you’d enjoy talking to him, and if there’s any way you could help us further the plan we’d be grateful.
- Email from Douglas Adams to Nathan Myhrvold

Though a week old, I’d marked it as “unread” to remind me of my mission. It was never answered, but I’d booked my flight on the strength of it anyway. Nathan was bound to schedule me a meeting. How could he turn down an introduction from the inventor of the Infinite Improbability Drive?

You’ve got mail!” It was from Mike Backes, a New Media guru in Hollywood, and a good friend: “Nathan was in a spectacularly pissy mood today. I tried valiantly to pitch him, but he was having none of it. I think the guy’s a bit overextended…” 

Shutting my PowerBook, I slowly rose to my feet, and walked to the window. Visibility was zero. I imagined a ship hidden in the dense fog carrying a mysterious cargo, a creature more beastly than anything the public had ever seen, his great side heaving as he breathed, shackled below decks in the hold. Hominids were a big part of my imagination and drive, philanthropists and gorillas alike. I played the role of double agent, commingling with Homo while covertly pushing Gorilla’s hidden agenda. Since the first time I laid eyes on the big fellas, in September 1992, I’d been under their spell. 

Photographing mountain gorillas in Virunga Park, Zaire in 1996
Gorilla trekking tests the limits even of the most able bodied and brave, let alone an out-of-shape fundraiser from London. Wheezing and gasping as I struggled over giant stinging nettles up the steep slopes of a volcano in the pouring rain, while African soldiers skulked nearby in the forest, I asked myself if a face to face encounter was really necessary. I mean, there were enough films, documentaries, and books about these big, charismatic, endangered great apes that could safely be studied from a comfy couch. 

Leading me over the giant stinging nettles was wildlife photographer Bob Campbell. In the late 1960s National Geographic magazine had sent him to photograph Dian Fossey, an American anthropologist studying mountain gorillas in Rwanda. This was his first time back since filming her posthumous biopic, Gorillas in the Mist. “I’m curious to see if any of the silverbacks in Group 5 recognize me by my hiking gear,” he said softly, “which I’ve worn every time I’ve visited.”

“Silverbacks, plural?” I gasped. “I thought it was just one silverback per group, you know, the alpha male.”

Bob smiled. “Group 5 has four silverbacks: Pablo, Shinda, Cantsbe, and Ziz. Ziz is in charge. Wait till you see the size of him.”

Weighing over 200 kilos and standing nearly two metres tall, Ziz was - knuckles down - the largest silverback that ever lived. We observed him for an hour as he played games with his young and occasionally warded his females from Pablo, Shinda, and Canstbe, with breast-beats and grunts. He paid no attention to us. Meantime, Effie, the group’s matriarch, who was helping a new mother wean her infant, glanced at me with dark, cognizant eyes. No other animal has ever looked at me with such presence of mind.

My first encounter with wild gorillas was life-changing, like a month at an ashram in Rishikesh, or dropping acid in the Sistine Chapel, and it inspired many more gorilla treks. A gorilla man was born. 

Sadly Ziz and Effie did not survive the next two years; he died of pneumonia and she of old age. Then, on April 6th, 1994, the plane flying the presidents of Rwanda and Burundi back from peace talks in Arusha was shot out of the sky over Kigali. Rwanda’s simmering civil war then erupted into widespread tribal massacres. Over the next hundred days, Hutu vigilantes would mercilessly hack to death 800,000 Tutsi men, women, and children. In the aftermath of the Rwandan Genocide few gorillas would die naturally. 

Dian Fossey with gorillas - photo Bob Campbell

Thursday, May 24, 2018

GOING FOR THE ONE - Introduction

In the summer of 1998, I asked Bill Gates to donate $35 million to save the endangered Mountain gorilla. Getting there took three years, standing on the shoulders of giants, and a business plan forged in the white heat of the Internet revolution. Douglas Adams made all the introductions, opened the doors to the titans of tech. I was the parrot on his shoulder. How could we fail with such an A-list of advocates and advisors as Eckart Wintzen, who donated $50,000 to prepare the plan; Ian Charles Stewart, who honed it to a standard that suited the mindset of the Microsoft CEO; and Mike Backes who travelled around the world in eight days asking our gorilla gurus to commit to camera why these great apes needed to be saved? This is the story of how, with instinct, serendipity, and a stack of celebrity endorsements, a self-taught fundraiser pitched an eight figure appeal to the world’s richest man, and failed.

Over the summer I’ll be blogging a serialization of my gorilla memoirette, ending on August 12th, the 20th anniversary of my pitch to the Gates Foundation. Follow me to this seminal moment, and beyond, to glean wonderful insights into big gift fundraising and endangered gorillas.

August 12
Part 12 - My DNA

Friday, October 20, 2017

One More Spin Around the Sun

Another year, another chronospatial trajectory: 24,000 miles.

A year ago, I flew from Los Cabos to Ottawa, saw in Halloween at Liam’s house (one helluva party, nephew), then took a bus to New York City. A fortnight later, I returned to Kenya for an indefinite stay, or as long as I could get away with it. I ran a backpackers hostel out of Joe Bennie’s oceanfront villa and spent the rest of my time either at Driftwood or Fishing Club, getting tanked with the locals. I wrote a lot, too, in this drinking village with a fishing problem. 

The emotional journey was a roller coaster. When I left Cabo at the end of October I believed I was saying farewell to my father for the very last time. He’d suffered a stroke and an infection. “It’s probably the last time you’ll see me,” he said when I hugged and kissed him goodbye. “I sure as hell hope so!” he added.

A month later, I was eating focaccia at Rosada restaurant in Malindi when in walked Roberta Romeo, a Sicilian goddess of rare charm and beauty. It all happened so quickly, like Appalonia and Michael in The Godfather: “Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday; Michael, andiamo... BOOM!”

“Careful,” said Barry, when he saw the two of us together at Driftwood, “she’s Sicilian, she’ll cut your throat.”

“No,” said Roberta, flashing me a gap-toothed smile, “I smash on your face.” And so began our whirlwind romance, which lasted through the New Year until the money ran out.  Roberta returned to Sicily while I stayed on in Kenya for a bit, prevaricating about my future. But we couldn’t bear being apart and six weeks later we were reunited on Vancouver Island. We’ve been there ever since, putting down roots and building a future. Last month we got married.

I now understand how Fifties Cinema let curvy Italian brunettes like Lollobrigida and Loren steal the limelight from curvy American blondes like Munro and Mansfield. It’s all in their attitude. When my mambo-Italiano bombshell wife spouts forth her hilarious one-liners peppered with pithy Sicilian maledictions, it can sometimes feel like I’m living in a hit sitcom. Pass the pasta!

Then, in April, the money ran out. So, I decided to return to Canada.

I’ve grown up fast. I did not expect to start a whole new life in my fifties. Repatriating to my home and native land after thirty three years an émigré was in itself a stretch. It helped that just six weeks later I landed such a sweet job: fundraising for Providence Farm. It's been a while since I had a steady job. And now to start the blindingly bureaucratic procedure of sponsoring Roberta so she can freely live and work in Canada, too. Vaffanqulo!

“Am I glad to see you,” said my dad, when Roberta and I stopped by his care home on the way in from the airport. We had just arrived in Los Cabos. Though still bedridden, he’s in pretty good health. And his mind is sound. “Welcome to the family,” he told Roberta.

It’s a year to the day since I left Los Cabos. So, in a manner of speaking, I’ve made ends meet, book-ended my chronospatial trajectory. Wonder where serendipity will take me next? Hold on!