We woke up before sunrise in anticipation of our chimpanzee tracking expedition in Kibale Forest. A candle lit breakfast awaited us in the dining room of the lodge and we ate facing the crater lake, watching the sun rise as we sipped our coffee.
Kibale forest is home to the greatest number of chimps in Eastern Africa. There are also 13 other primate species, 4 of which are nocturnal. The ride from the lodge to the Forest took about an hour and passed through tea plantations, and crater lakes that sat still in the morning light as thick as skin on warm milk.
A $200 walk through a forest is an enormous amount of money but for the chance to see chimps in the wild it is money well spent. With two guides and a couple of Dutch travellers we set off at 8 am, trousers tucked into socks, rain jackets on and plenty of water in our possession. I walked through thick sludgy mud, camera in hand, across twisted roots, careful not to trip and land in an undignified and muddy heap on the path. Tracking it certainly was as we stopped at intervals to listen for the call of chimps or to observe knuckle prints, still fresh in the mud. Chimps sleep in nests, a different one each night and they feed predominantly on figs so we walked head up looking skywards for any dark shadows or moving shapes in the trees.
(this is a baboon.)
(these are the tracks of Chimp Knuckles. We knew we were on the right track!)
(Twisted and creeping tree root.)
(these are the figs that are sucked and then thrown on the ground by the feeding chimps.)
The sounds in the forest, as we walked in silence, were a cacophony of bird and monkey calls and as the heat took over from the coolness of the early morning the air became filled with the fresh but sticky scent of figs, warm mud and life pulsating all around us, Butterflies darted about, stopping on moist leaves, red berries and the odd splash of colour in the form of a flower. Suddenly our guides told us to look up and there almost 50 metres above us were 10 chimps, some grooming on a branch, but most happily eating figs and throwing down the remnants below as we dodged the fat fruits like soggy pelants. We hoped and prayed that at least one would come down, at least a bit closer to us, but since they were happily feeding and were still cool up high in the trees there was no reason to come down and put on a show for a few tourists eager to see them up close. Unlike monkeys, chimps cannot jump and despite being able to swing happily between branches they come down to walk, or run from one tree to another. The closest we got to them was when we had to move aside quickly to avoid the splash from their pee. And pee they did! They suck fig juice most of the day so there is a lot of liquid to dispose of and any unsuspecting person below would find his or her shoulder or even head wet from chimp pee. After waiting some time in vain for them to come down we left for another corner of the forest where there were reports, via the guide’s walky-talky of other chimps in trees. We found two large males contentedly sitting as high as they could sucking figs and enjoying the view.
After 3 and a half hours of walking, tracking and craning our necks we knew that this was as good as it was going to get. I think that the lions of Ishasha used up all of our luck for this week. The glimpse I got of the chimps was enough to make us want to return for another try, another time.
It was back to the lodge for a last languorous lunch before the 4 hour drive back to the dusty world of Kampala.
As if we hadn’t had enough road drama for one trip we had one more bad experience on the way home. Driving with our driver through the dark about 2 hours from Kampala we hit and killed a dog. Almost immediately myself, Trooper and Princess burst into tears and by the time we sse stopped at a police block, minutes later, the back seat of the car was a scene of misery.
I didn’t think it would be possible to bond our family even further but this trip has tightened the bonds between us like moving up a notch on a belt. It has been a trip of memories, extraordinary sightings, disaster and joy. The adventure will continue as we plan to spend the eve of December 31st in a tent on the Delta of Murchison falls, a place where animals roam wild and we will sleep amongst them with nothing between us but a thin sheet of nylon.