Although my weekend trekking with chimpanzees in Kibali Forest with my brother ended up being one of the most magical encounters I’ve ever had, it very nearly didn’t happen at all…
Miraculously, he arrived in Uganda without too many hitches (well, he got interrogated by customs over his lapsed South African visa, charged a fine and then spent an hour and a half at the airport as he hadn’t written down the number of the taxi driver).
On Friday morning we boarded a coach to Fort Portal. We bought our tickets and refreshments and boarded the bus in Kampala’s bustling city centre. So far, so good. We listened to music, read our books and waited patiently for departure. But nearly two hours later, the bus was still in the depot. We were hot and irritable and I’d forgotten how frustratingly unreliable Ugandan public transport is. My brother seemed dubious we would ever leave the depot and I was starting to agree with him. The coach companies, I’ve learnt, insist on waiting until every seat has been filled before departing which is exasperating when you’re on a busy schedule and used to the marginally more efficient TFL.
After a 5+ hour uncomfortable bus ride, which my brother described as ‘like being on a roller coaster’ (not great, when you’re a professional golfer who needs to protect his back from any further strain or injury), we arrived in Fort Portal. We grabbed some food at ‘The Duchess’ hotel, run by a friendly Dutch lady and serving delicious snacks like Korean beef salad in sesame seeds and teriyaki sauce… a welcome treat after 3 months in Uganda eating mostly rice, matoke, poscha and beans. After a quick rest, we hopped in a private hire to our accommodation, a delightful forest lodge called ‘Chimp’s Nest’. We got a warm welcome from ‘Innocent’, the lodge manager who introduced himself as ‘Innocent! Until proven guilty!’ – we laughed awkwardly, not quite knowing what to make of this introduction. It’s not the first unusual name I’ve come across in Uganda – I’ve met a chap called ‘Perfect’ (quite a lot to live up to), a girl called ‘Smile’ (whose contagious grin made her name easy to remember) and my colleague at work is called ‘Immaculate’. It makes English names sound pretty dull and unimaginative in comparison.
But back to our weekend in Kibale… After a good night’s sleep in the forest, surrounded by the chatter of monkeys and bickering of birds, we woke on Saturday morning to find out cottage was covered in a swarm of black butterflies. Now I like butterflies normally, they’re pretty and fluttery and romantic. But when there’s a swarm of them descending on you like locusts and manically dive-bombing into your face like bats out of hell, they quickly become an annoyance. We flapped our way out of the cloud of evil, winged insects and walked up to the lodge’s restaurant for breakfast. We spent the morning on a guided tour around the swamplands before our afternoon chimp trek began and were treated to a great opportunity to photograph a Columbus Monkey acrobatically leaping from one tree to another:
Our local guide led us around the swamplands, where several species of monkeys played in the trees and families worked the fields. We shared a boda boda back to our lodge for a quick lunch before going to the tourist office where the chimpanzee trek leaves from. We were fortunate enough to be joined by just one other tourist, who happened to be a bearded Zooologist from Israel. How convenient. The guide looked a little less impressed by his detailed accounts of the flora fauna and scientific observations of each fungi, tree formation and piece of animal faeces we passed.
Our first sighting came just 10 minutes or so into the trek. We squinted and strained to make our a black shadow perched high in the tree tops, which our guide assured us was a chimpanzee. The trekking permits cost $150 per person, so I was a little underwhelmed by our first sighting. We had low expectations to start with, after speaking to a couple of German Doctors who had trekked the afternoon before and been unable to see much. But our expectations were more than surpassed as the day went on.
Another hour in and feeling weary, we found ourselves in the middle of a large group of females and babies. It’s hard to articulate just what a magical experience this was. I’m not an emotional person particularly but I was almost moved to tears. The babies clung to the mother’s backs, whilst others larked around in the branches or played on the ground just a few metres away. There were so many of them that I didn’t quite know where to point my camera or focus my attention. It wasn’t long before they became skittish and went on the move, with us and our guide following in hot pursuit.
Another hour or so later, after leaving the group of females and youngsters in peace, we came across an adult male sitting high in a tree. We sat quietly gazing at him and after a while, he rewarded us for our patience and scrambled down the tree trunk in search of food. For the next 45 minutes or so, we tracked his every move – he’d climb a tree, pick some fruit, fart, throw the discarded fruit he did’t want at us and then climb back down and eat his spoils right in front of us. I never imagined that we’d get so close to them nor that their behaviour would be quite so fascinating.
It was beguiling to watch him hunt for food, skilfully abseil down trees and then relax in our company with his fist of fruit, completely unfazed by our presence (apart from when I momentarily got too close and he decided to lunge at me).
All in all, I’m sure my brother would agree that it was well worth the long, stressful trip to spend a few precious hours in the company of these magnificent creatures.