Uganda: Kibale National Forest and Chimpanzees

Our next journey took us on an all day ride (again very bumpy and dusty) to Kibale Forest National Park, a lush tropical rainforest, believed to have the highest density of primates in Africa. It is home to 13 primate species including Chimpanzees, the rare red Colobus and l’Hoest’s monkeys.
Ivan, our Ugandan guide, has made our long drives interesting and educating as we have been learning about the local traditions, cultures, politics and social habits (he likes to talk about local women a lot too :)). Ivan is a very westernized individual, passionate about his country but also fascinated by the western culture. He knows everything about America (although he’s never been outside of Eastern Africa), dresses like an American (jeans, polo shirt, keen sandals or Nike shoes that he finds on the second-hand market), and can talk about american baseball, basketball, movies or music. His dream would be to go to the US some day. At any rate, he’s been eager to have us try some of the local fare and we have tasted different roadside foods including kassava chips (potato-like chips made by locals on an outside fire), rolex (chapatti rolled around an omelet) and jackfruit.
As we were going through some villages on our way to Kibale, we stopped on the side of the road and bought a large jackfruit from a family. We also gave them some chocolate (our best French choco) for the kids which we suspected was their first taste ever of cocoa-candy. Ivan helped us negotiate and translate as none of the family members spoke English. Kids were smiling and friendly despite a clear lack of basics.
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On the way to Kibale- Above: “boda-boda” drivers looking for passengers. Below: drying coffee beans.
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Not the same Hilton hotel we are used to!
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Above: Ivan negotiating our jackfruit. Below: Sylvie with the kids from the jackfruit family.
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Further done the road we saw many “banana bikes”even pushed by kids in some cases on some very steep hills going a long way to try to sell them at the market.
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Typical rural scene where the woman (above) is doing all the farm work while the men “plan”
We arrived at Chimp’s Nest, our digs for the next 2 nights, around 5pm and had a nice dinner that included some of our jackfruit for dessert. Jackfruit’s consistency is like a lychee but to us tasted like a cross between apple and melon. Very yummy but you have to take it in moderation or you may find yourself on the throne all day.
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The stars of the show in Kibale forest are the chimpanzees, 3 groups of which have been habituated to human contact. We had booked a chimpanzee habituation experience for the next day, so we got up at 5am and showed up at the center for a 6:30am departure. James was able to rent rubber boots but none of them fit Sylvie’s feet. Our ranger guide, Harriet, was waiting along with a Swiss couple, Nanet and Elaine. Harriet was eager to get going and so we started hiking in the forest without any briefing or information about what to expect. She seemed to be in a foul mood and told us to keep quiet as we were hiking so she could hear and track the chimps. We hiked for over an hour and a half in silence on a muddy slippery trail up and down the forest terrain (and even off trail at times). Although we had very good weather that day for our hike, it had been raining over the last 4 days which made the conditions for hiking not ideal.
After many stops and re-routing, backtracking and off-trailing, Harriet finally located the first group of chimps. We were quite  surprised at how close we were able to get, even being able to snack and talk at a normal voice level in front of them.  The chimps were at ease, grooming each other and lazing about on fallen tree trunks.
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All of a sudden, they went crazy with some running around pulling branches down, beating their hands on trees, and all of them screaming & hooting. We all froze not knowing what to do, watching Harriet for any clues (we still didn’t know do’s and don’ts to this point).  Harriet continued to sip her hot beverage and eat bread while this chaos went on. Things quieted down and the chimps all moved into the jungle with us in pursuit. This trekking and finding went on all day till we came to a stream with deep mud on its banks. Harriet went across first and deposited her daypack and AK47 on the other side, then took our daypacks from us. Harriet then said she would piggyback everyone across! James, having rubber boots, took Sylvie first. Sylvie literally jumped off from the bank onto James’ back, almost sending them both into mud & stream. As James came to the other side of the stream, he sank deeper and deeper into the mud up to his knees and Sylvie had to get off. It took some effort to extract his feet (and boots) from the mud, especially with his left boot completely filled with muddy water. Then Harriet ported Elaine and Nanet across, each time teetering on the brink of disaster of both going into the muddy stream.  We all had a good laugh.
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Harriet would have tracked all day if Sylvie hadn’t told her we’d had enough, especially since the terrain was very swampy. We headed out of the jungle and finally out on a road where we were picked up by our drivers and rinsed off back at the chimp center. We were sore and very tired, but had an memorable experience. We also very much enjoyed Nanet and Elaine’s company on the trek.  This was one of the highlights of our Ugandan safari.
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Harriet (above), not a bit tired trekking all day
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Ivan, helping James wash his feet. Now that’s service!
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