Knuckle-walking over London’s Tower Bridge in a gorilla suit is quite a novelty, I found today. How to describe it? Imagine almost as many people in gorilla suits as there are mountain gorillas on the planet (more than twice as many as there are Cross River Gorillas) – no, wait a minute, no need to imagine it – just look up the photos and videos of London’s annual Great Gorilla Run.
Described as the most entertaining charity event on the planet, there was a carnival atmosphere in the City when I arrived towing my gorilla suit in a wheeled bag (yes, I know I should have been collecting donations on the Tube dressed in it en route, but my biggest concern over doing this event was thermo-regulation – whenever I’ve used ape-suits I emerge bright red and drenched with sweat after only a short time, and so I aimed to spend the minimum time possible in faux-fur! Also, I have a policy of acting only in a species appropriate fashion when dressed as an ape, which is why I felt the need to knuckle-walk rather than run the 7km).
I slipped through the dancing fancy-dress gorillas and quickly attached a Year of the Gorilla banner onto the railings over-looking the crowd, then looked for somewhere to change. No handy telephone box beckoned a la Superman, so behind a marble pillar had to do – it was only minutes to go to the advertised start time. The inspiration for my outfit was the famous Victorian cartoon of Darwin’s head on an ape’s body, so in addition to the gorilla suit (provided when you sign up to the GGR), I’d acquired a pirate’s beard and a rubber ‘bald head’ like an old-style swimming cap.
I’d only tried out the costume the night before, and was disappointed to find that not only did it have an anatomically bizarre rubber chest-piece with breasts and no fur down to the groin, it had no feet. Everyone else was wearing running shoes, but that didn’t seem right so I opted for bare feet and had brought a bottle of black food-colouring from the cake decoration box in our kitchen to colour my toes. While some of the GO volunteers patted flour on my back (the suit is all black fur, but I fancied being a silverback), I made a mess all over the plaza blacking my feet (it is water soluble, so will soon wash away, honest!) and then I was off, knuckle-walking through the bipedal throng, barely able to see a thing through the tiny eye-slits in the mask.
Jillian Miller, CEO of the Gorilla Organisation, was making a speech with TV presenter Helen Skelton, so I knuckled onto the podium and gave a hug and a chest beat, then the rubber hit the tarmac and we were off.
Quadrupedalism is difficult for humans because of our inter-membral index (the ratio of arm-length to leg length) – other apes have longer arms than legs, but our long legs, so good for striding and running, just make our bum stick up in the air when on all fours. Conscious of this, I was trying to keep my legs crouched, taking my weight on the knuckles and swinging myself to one side or the other in a slightly side-ways gait. This worked OK for a few paces at a time, alternating with straightforward quadrupedal walking, but the limited vision was a problem. Mostly I was seeing bits of pavement, or looking up sideways to check for traffic.
Then out of the corner of the gorilla-mask’s eye, I noticed some impossibly long legs with no fur at all… two shapely models in hot-pants and high-heels were being photographed (for the Sunday Sport, I later found out – a paper with an unending fascination for the female form). Just as I took one by the hand and dragged her tri-pedally, my rubber bald-hat popped off and the photographer snapped away as these lovely leggy ladies struggled to stretch the rubber over a bearded gorillas head… I wonder if it made it into the paper?
Behaving like a gorilla can be a lot of fun on a sunny Saturday in London. It wasn’t too long before the other six hundred and twenty or so gorillas had overtaken me, and so for most of the course I had the street to myself. Hence, many tourists, passersby and one policewoman had their day enlivened by a Darwin-bearded gorilla. You have to be careful with kids – some can be reduced to tears if you approach (which rather defeats the object), but others you can hoist onto your back for a ride. Swinging from trees and railings, climbing into ice-cream vans, squeezing between courting couples, joining drinkers at out-door tables – the opportunities for fun are endless, and my only rules are that it must be within the gorilla’s behavioural repertoire and shouldn’t cause offense!
Being the last gorilla meant that as I made my way round the course, I rounded up the stewards as I went. One witnessed me head-butting a pillar on the embankment and kindly walked with me to warn of obstacles and make sure I didn’t take a wrong turning. I must confess I didn’t do the whole 7km on all fours, but I did do it all in character, so when I evolved a bipedal stance, it was with the kind of arm-swinging swagger I’ve seen gorillas do. The most painful part was knuckle-walking back over the Thames on the Millennium Bridge (which has a serrated steel surface like a cheese-grater). It was just over two hours when I crossed the finishing line – I’d missed the prize-giving for the best dressed gorilla, etc., but there was still someone there to hang a medal around my neck and hand me a banana, a bottle of water and a ‘Grumpy Gorilla’ bar (a fruity cereal snack by one of the sponsors www.grumpygorilla.co.uk).
I got a friend to photograph me hanging under the YoG banner, then removed the mask and emptied the sweat that had pooled in the rubber gorilla-hand gloves… apart from the not-so-bald pate, that was probably the point when I most resembled the Victorian cartoon. Usually I don’t like to be photographed half in a gorilla suit, but I noticed Sam of the Gorilla Organization being interviewed and he invited me to join him. I explained about the YoG and how the gorilla’s fate is tied to Africa’s tropical forests which are of global importance, and only then found that the film crew were also making a series for BBC World on climate change leading up to the Climate Convention in Copenhagen in December. They had not yet heard anyone speak of the role of tropical forests, so once again serendipity helped get this important message to a wider audience.
What are my lasting impressions? Well, aching muscles and blisters on my knuckles aside, I have to agree with Bill Oddie (who sadly was unwell and missed this year’s event) that the Great Gorilla Run is the most fun fund-raising event in the calendar. Regular readers of the YoG Blog may recall that I mentioned my intended participation a few weeks ago, hoping that curious browsers would find their way to my sponsorship page (http://my.artezglobal.com/personalPage.aspx?registrationID=281732&LangPref=en-CA ) where they’d be invited to pledge a ‘Darwin’ (the £10 note bears a portrait of Charles Darwin) but alarmingly, right up until last Monday only one person had done so. Once back in the office after the ‘State of the Gorilla’ Safari, I began firing off emails to all and sundry and to my immense relief, by Saturday the total pledged was £1,100 – just behind the top five fund-raisers. If you had intended to sponsor me, it is not too late – and one of the projects to benefit will be the fuel-efficient stoves that are listed in the YoG projects list. Over to you!! And many thanks in anticipation…