My Australia

My Australia: The gorilla whisperer turned Coles delivery driver

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Bruno Djakou cared for orphaned gorillas in his native Cameroon. Now he delivers groceries in Sydney’s Northern Beaches.

‘My Australia’ is a special SBS News series exploring cultural heritage and identity, and asking what it means to be Australian in 2018.

The Djakou family live at the bottom of a steep driveway and have a garden that borders a long stretch of creek. The cicadas are so loud, you can’t hear yourself speak.

Some mornings, Bruno Djakou goes out to listen to them from the deck, condensed milk coffee in hand.

The 38-year-old’s YouTube account features just two videos; snatches of the life he led before this one. Bruno is seen sitting in tall grass, being embraced by a gorilla with both arms; draping himself over the animal, piggybacking across the screen; and later, picking insects from its paw, only to have them licked from his fingers. 

Bruno Djakou interacting with a gorilla.
Bruno Djakou interacting with a gorilla.
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“We share like 99.8 per cent of the same genes,” Bruno, who now lives in Wheeler Heights, tells SBS News. “The only thing is, they can't talk.”

For years, he lived with the gorillas at a wildlife sanctuary tucked away in the Cameroonian jungle.

“When they trust you, you become like their mum or their dad,” he says. “They were like my babies.”

They were like my babies.

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Bruno Djakou working as a gorilla keeper.
Bruno Djakou working as a gorilla keeper.
 

As a boy, Bruno sought out animals wherever he could find them: dogs, cats, insects, birds. He drove his father mad trying to save lame pigeons and keep a flock in the roof. 

When he was seventeen, his uncle, who was involved with the wildlife sanctuary, brought him along to meet its latest resident, a baby gorilla.

A young Bruno with Gerry the gorilla.
A young Bruno with Gerry the gorilla.
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“That was Gerry,” Bruno remembers. “She was around six months old … traumatised because she witnessed her parents being killed.”

Bruno walked into her enclosure and Gerry immediately ran towards him, grabbing him around the leg and refusing to let go. He lived with her for three months, every hour of every day, in the same room. It was about building trust. Other workers at the sanctuary brought him food and fresh clothes.

“It was intense,” Bruno admits. “When I look back now, I think it must have been tough. But at the moment it was part of something special, part of a journey. I knew that she needed me, so I was there for her.”

Others joined Gerry; gorillas sold as pets after their parents had been killed for bushmeat, rescued by Cameroonian officials

Bruno Djakou worked with orphaned gorillas in Cameroon.
Bruno Djakou worked with orphaned gorillas in Cameroon.
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When Bruno’s now-wife Leah arrived from Australia in October 2006, he had become carer for six orphaned gorillas. 

“I suppose I was having a mid-life crisis,” 42-year-old Leah laughs. The former television director’s assistant became a conservation volunteer and flew to Cameroon to work with primates.

Leah volunteered at the sanctuary in 2006.
Leah volunteered at the sanctuary in 2006.
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“I remember walking up to see these gorillas, and Bruno was there, sitting with them. The interaction, it was like he was part of their family,” she says.  

Bruno spoke French, Leah spoke English, but they found a dictionary and made it work. Relationships between staff and volunteers were forbidden though, so they kept it a secret for the three months Leah spent there.

Just before she left, she became sick and was medically evacuated to Germany; the pair never said goodbye. After Leah returned to Australia, Bruno won an award that included an apprenticeship at Bristol Zoo. She flew to the UK to meet him.

There, they made a decision.

“We literally just said to each other, 'I think I want to marry you', and that was it,” Leah shrugs.

We literally just said to each other, 'I think I want to marry you'.

Nearly a year of separation followed while Bruno’s visa was being processed. He could only keep in touch via email every two weeks when he left the forest. When he finally arrived in Sydney, the couple married within weeks. 

Bruno and Leah on their wedding day.
Bruno and Leah on their wedding day.
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“We had a black and white theme because we were black and white,” says Leah. “Bruno wore a white jacket and I wore a black wedding dress, to symbolise our unity.”

When they celebrated their second wedding in Cameroon with Bruno’s family, he was determined to visit his gorillas, but the new management at the sanctuary refused. The couple snuck in the morning before they left, trekking through the forest. All of his gorillas recognised him.

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Bruno Djakou sneaks a visit with gorillas he used to care for.
Bruno Djakou sneaks a visit with gorillas he used to care for.

“I call them by their name, the way I used to call them, and they come,” Bruno says. “All the time, when they see me, they have that happy sound that they make, to let you know that they know you.”

These days, Bruno has a family of his own in Sydney. Now there's his son Neo, seven, and daughter Maya, five.

Bruno with wife Leah and their two children.
Bruno with wife Leah and their two children.
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“One of the reasons for me to move to Australia was I was ready to start a family, and them coming into my life is a blessing,” he says.

This month marks 10 years since Bruno arrived in Australia.

Leah says: “I can see people look at us sometimes and I think, ‘what are they looking at?’”

“I don't think people are looking at us because of Bruno and the colour of his skin. I think they legitimately look at us and think, ‘wow, I wonder how that happened.’”

Since settling in Australia, Bruno has worked in a warehouse, done nightshifts driving a milk truck and recently started doing online deliveries for Coles. At the weekend, when he has the time, he runs a mobile car valeting service – something he hopes will become a full-time business one day – and plays football with a group of friends.  

Bruno hopes to one day have his own car valeting business.
Bruno hopes to one day have his own car valeting business.
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“Everything is possible here,” Bruno says, “I’ve achieved things I never thought were possible. You just have to believe and work hard for it.”

I’ve achieved things I never thought were possible

Leah has another name for her husband: the animal and baby whisperer.

This summer holiday, their children and other local kids have been adventuring with packed lunches in the trees by the creek.

In September they will travel to Cameroon to meet the rest of Bruno’s family, including his first daughter who has remained there. The route is marked on a map in the kitchen; the seas they’ll cross, the airports they’ll fly to.

Bruno remembers his first journey to Australia. 

“When Leah and her mum picked me up from the airport,” he says, “we stopped at Manly. And when we were there, we saw dolphins.

“That was pretty special and I thought, 'maybe I brought some luck with me.'”

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