Gail Wensley: The Lifelong Explorer

Written By: Celeste Percy-Beauregard, JGI Canada Volunteer
Category: Our Champions

On Christmas Day of 2001, Gail Wensley’s husband placed a pair of hiking boots and a stack of travel brochures under the tree with the instructions, “Plan a trip to Africa: anytime, anywhere, for any length of time.” He could not have foreseen the extraordinary impact of his gift.

A lifelong adventurer with a love of nature and travel, Africa had been on Gail’s bucket list for years. But Gail also knew that she was not interested in a conventional tourist experience. Which is why, when she saw a headline in her local newspaper — “Jim Owens Launches Sixth Expedition to the Source of the Nile” – Gail jumped at the opportunity.

“I was a member of a 12-person team on a historical expedition,” Gail recalls. “It was a rigorous, 90-day, 695-mile trek from Bagamoyo on the Indian Ocean to Dodoma, in the center of Tanzania, then north to Mwanza on Lake Victoria. From Mwanza we were driven north to the Kenyan border then on to Jinja, Uganda, the source of the Nile River.”

Gail and her fellow explorers arrive in Mwanza, Tanzania.

Gail was so captivated by Tanzania’s beauty and culture, she returned to the country four months later to study the local language, Kiswahili, and volunteer with an NGO for the next five months. Gail returned to Tanzania six times over the next five years, each time with a purpose, whether it was to teach women how to spin cotton, volunteer with various organizations or visit her Tanzanian friends, who have since become part of her extended family.

“Before my first visit to Tanzania,” Gail says, “I was frequently reminiscing about my life during the forties and fifties, wishing things could be as simple and uncomplicated…Tanzania and its people has provided that again for me.”

It was Gail’s daughter who prompted interest in the Jane Goodall Institute when she made Gail a Chimp Guardian, allowing her to virtually adopt a chimpanzee named Nani. She also loaned Gail a much-loved copy of Dr. Goodall’s book Reasons for Hope.

Impressed by the scope of work undertaken by JGI and the results, Gail promptly became a generous donor and member of Jane’s Peak Society. She also read all of Dr. Goodall’s books. Then, in 2008, Gail found herself aboard a JGI boat on Lake Tanganika, headed for the Gombe Stream National Park where Jane’s extraordinary research began so many years ago.

Fate must have played a role in what happened next. While in Gombe, Gail had dinner with Jane’s son and several visiting interns. The upshot was her decision to volunteer with the Roots & Shoots program run by JGI Tanzania for five-and-a-half months. During her time in Dar es Salaam, Gail would join the Goodall family for Sunday dinners, where Jane held everyone captive with her stories and discussions were lively.

Visiting Jane at her home in Tanzania.

At 78, Gail, like her idol, shows no signs of slowing down, and has booked her second JGI Canada trip, this time to Uganda. And, after all these years, Gail will finally have the opportunity to meet Nani, the chimpanzee she has so generously supported since 2003, and who first introduced her to the Jane Goodall Institute.