On the edge of the Rwenzoris lies a mystical land of volcanic lakes, majestic peaks and dense jungle. Laura Griffith-Jones sets off to western Uganda to see the chimpanzees of Kibale. (This picture is by Andy Skillen. To see more of his images, click here.)
It was 5.30am as we slid along slimy mud tracks in a 4WD, deep in western Uganda’s impenetrable forests. The darkness was intense and the mist hovered forebodingly. “Is it going to rain?” I asked. “It is a rainforest!” laughed Bosco, our Journeys Discovering Africa driver. True. On arrival, we were introduced to our guide Rhona Assy, and soon we were following her on foot, trudging through the sodden jungle as the dawn broke and the fog began to lift, revealing mauve clouds filling an angry sky. Shards of gold shone between the branches, bedecking the forest floor in dappled light.
There in the midst of Kibale Forest National Park, bordering the Rwenzori Mountains, our ears resonated with the sound of birdsong — a chamber orchestra of melodies, whistles and chirrups from the treetop canopy. Being mid-May, it was as wet as wet can be. It had poured overnight and was threatening to do the same again. The paths were a maze of sludge. The air was damp and the musty perfume of dew, rotting wood and evergreen trees reminded me of childhood escapades in Scotland. We slithered over a dilapidated, lichen-covered bridge above a swamp. It felt treacherous, yet strangely enthralling.
The region is one of extraordinary scenic beauty. Our journey west from Entebbe had been magnificent: the landscape transformed from suburban to rural bliss, with papyrus, sugarcane, banana and emerald tea plantations unfolding as far as the eye could see. Then the Mountains of the Moon appeared in the distance, grey-blue and mysterious — and at last, the rainforest.
“This area is special for many reasons,” Stephen, our guide at Ndali Lodge, had said. “The dramatic skies and sunsets. The slightly unpredictable weather! It is the only place you can find more than 50 crater lakes. There are beautiful views of the Rwenzoris. The forests are home to many monkeys and 195 bird species. This is a kingdom so you could meet a king! You can learn how vanilla is grown,” he listed easily. “And you can go chimp tracking in Kibale.”
This, of course, is the reason most people come to this hidden corner, and why we were here. But rather than spend just two to three hours with these endangered primates, we had opted for the Chimpanzee Habituation Experience, which comprises a whole day following a family through the forest. It’s arduous but it enables you to gain a unique insight into the behaviour, routine and life of a chimp.
As we continued past the snagging tendrils and whipping branches, our nerves were on tenterhooks. We listened hard and scoured the canopy for signs of life. Meanwhile, Rhona enlightened us on Uganda’s primate capital: “This 795sq-km tropical rainforest is the natural habitat for 13 primate species and contains the highest primate density of any area on Earth. Two large communities of chimpanzees have been habituated — the Kanyantale-Kanyanchu and Buraiga groups — each with 80 members or more. The park is also home to more than 370 bird species and 250 types of butterfly.” Indeed, butterflies fluttered and spiralled upwards as we moved, like confetti. “About 5000 chimps call Uganda home, 1450 of which are here,” she resumed. “You can also see them at Budongo Forest, Kyambura Gorge, Semuliki National Park and Ngamba Island Chimpanzee Sanctuary – but Kibale is unsurpassed, as you have a 95 per cent chance of spotting them.”
I was beginning to consider how typical it would be if I were among the ill-fated five per cent, when, much to my amazement, we heard an explosion of shrieks and howls in the majestic canopy above us, and there they were — our closest cousins other than the bonobo, which resides only in the DRC. I felt a surge of intense elation. Chimps and humans share an astonishing 98.7 per cent of their DNA, yet it is impossible to conceive how akin to us they are until you come face to face with your first wild chimpanzee. The previous day, I had asked Stephen to describe his experience of this affinity. His thought-provoking words encapsulated it brilliantly: “My most memorable wildlife encounter was when I first saw a chimpanzee. Its face resembled those of old people in the village. I looked at my nails and they looked like its nails. Only the hair was different; otherwise, it was a human face. Then I saw its feet. And I thought — this is completely human! It grabbed leaves, eating, while all the time looking at me.”
When you spend a whole day with a troop of chimps, you witness the different stages of their daily routine, from their morning hunt and their lunch to their siesta and their nest building before nightfall. You are also likely to observe some comic, if scary, moments. We certainly did. At one point, mid-morning, we were striding along following the chimp cacophony, when suddenly Rhona gestured to us to halt. “The Vice President is flirting,” she explained. Looking across, we saw a male chimp reclining at the base of a tree trunk, seductively plucking leaves from the trees for his damsel and revealing his manhood in a bid to woo her. Impressive efforts, we thought. However, this spectacle did not last long as a second male, ‘the President’, exploded from the undergrowth, furiously chasing his adversary away to prove his dominance. The disgruntled Vice narrowly missed my friends as he tore past us into the thicket, leaving our spines tingling.
Suddenly, the entire forest was vibrating with the sound of drumming. The bombastic President, seemingly to exercise his power, began to thump the buttress roots of a vast fig tree with his gigantic hand. A hysterical chorus of whooping followed the racket as the troop took off, tearing at branches as they went. “They are hunting for breakfast,” our guide whispered. “We must keep up!” So off we went, our hearts in our mouths. It was difficult, and in this case impossible, to move as quickly as them and soon we’d lost the blighters. Pausing, Rhona hushed us while she listened for calls. Chimpanzees often hunt in groups of about 10. Sometimes they eat antelope, small monkeys, insects and, rather shockingly, even chimpanzees from other families. As we waited with our ears open and eyes peeled, I looked at my feet and saw safari ants marching, army-like, among the decaying leaves and rotting, algae-cloaked logs. We had tucked our trousers into our socks, hoping that would suffice, but I dreaded using the bush loo later.
Soon another outburst of commotion broke out and we were on our way again, thorny branches flinging back in our faces as we fought through the tangled forest, pretending to be as agile as apes. With a stab of fear, I recalled being told that Kibale is home to an elusive herd of forest elephant. The thought of a wild pachyderm blasting out of the woods towards us filled me with terror. I decided then and there that, although an encounter would undoubtedly make a great story, I did not wish to see one.
Eventually, we spotted them again. “Shall we have lunch now before they move on?” Rhona suggested. So we sat on our tree-stump stools, cautiously keeping one eye on the safari ants still parading around our feet and the other on the chimpanzees overhead. While we ate our wraps hungrily, they plucked ticks from one another and munched on red, orange and green figs, the skins gently thudding to the ground around us. All of a sudden, the heavens opened and water poured down from the sky. Or was it water? To our horror, we realised that a chimp was giving us a ‘warm shower’. It was almost enough to put me off my food.
Observing the chimps’ behaviour was mesmerising and exhilarating. It would be eerily silent one moment and then with no warning the whole forest would be alive with shrieking. In this way, our lunch was rudely disrupted and we were soon rushing after our energetic cousins again. Once, Rhona stopped and pointed into the bushes, whispering, “Cosa,” and pointing at a young male not a metre away. He had his legs crossed as if he were posing in a yoga lesson, and we watched him in awe until he became bored of us and sauntered away into the undergrowth.
We enjoyed a similar experience later on, when we stumbled across another chimp lazing on his side, with his head resting on one hand and his ankles crossed. I gazed at this incredible creature, his fingers, toes and feet no different from mine. My reverie was interrupted by ‘noises off’. We followed the distant cries, wearily traversing a precarious, long wooden bridge beneath towering, creeper-choked trees laced with glistening spider webs. Yellow and turquoise butterflies flitted away as we trod carefully onwards. Nearby, a mother chimp with a tiny baby clinging to her climbed a very tall fig tree to reach the huge bunches of colourful fruit at the top. Other chimpanzees swung from branch to branch like acrobats.
We had been in the jungle for eight hours by now and I must admit that my mind was beginning to digress to the open-air massage platform and spectacular infinity pool at Ndali Lodge, when again we were waved to a halt. About 15 metres ahead of us on the path lay a group of four chimpanzees. They seemed utterly relaxed, happily picking fleas from one another’s thick black fur and munching them idly as if they were raisins. One temporarily gazed at us, pensive, with the face of a wise old man, before rolling over, stretching out as if on a chaise longue and drifting off into the land of nod.
Red-tailed monkeys scampered in the treetops above and Rhona pointed out a huge structure in the branches… “A chimpanzee nest,” she told us. “They normally build a new one every day, or even if they do go back to an old nest, they will put new leaves down — like new sheets! It is risky, though, as maybe snakes have gone in there during the day.” This was the joy of the habituation experience, I thought to myself: the privilege of spending a whole day in the life of a family of chimpanzees.
The smell of rain was unexpectedly thick on the air, soon accompanied by the whisper of droplets sweeping through the rustling trees. In the blink of an eye, the chimps had taken off into the bushes in search of shelter. They must have felt the same as us — that perhaps it was time to call it a day.
A lodge with a story
Owned by the Prices and Sturdys, Ndali Lodge is set in the Ndali-Kasenda Crater Lakes region near Kibale Forest National Park. The families’ involvement in Uganda dates back to 1922 when the Englishman Major Trevor Price pioneered tea planting here.
In 1972, Idi Amin confiscated the estate and the Major returned to England only to die five years later. In 1994, President Yoweri Museveni invited dispossessed landowners to reclaim their property, so the Major’s son, Captain Mark Price, took over and built Ndali Lodge on a fabulous viewpoint overlooking the Nyinambuga Crater Lake. It opened in 1996. He passed away but his son Aubrey, who lives there with his wife Clare, now runs the lodge.
Today part of the profit from every visitor goes to Ndali Local Development & Education Ventures. The community is important to them, so it supports three primary schools as well as running a sponsorship programme for deserving children in the area.
Ndali is tranquil, charming and eccentric. The rooms are spacious and old-fashioned, with four-poster beds, candelabra, tea lights and baths with a view. Two oversized but sentimental mongrels called Polly and Sybil keep watch by night and you are treated to delicious food for the entirety of your stay. The infinity pool overlooks two crater lakes and the snow-capped Rwenzoris.
• Getting there The writer flew to Entebbe with South African Airways, from where it’s a five- to six-hour drive to Kibale Forest National Park. The easiest way to arrange your trip is through a tour operator such as Journeys Discovering Africa, http://www.journeysdiscoveringafrica.com/ which will organise everything, including a driver-guide, accommodation and activities.
• Where to stay The writer stayed at the idyllic Ndali Lodge in the Ndali-Kasenda Crater Lakes region, near Kibale. For more suggestions, visit ugandawildlife.org.
• Chimp tracking You can choose between the Primates Walk (two to three hours, US$150) and the Chimpanzee Habituation Experience (full day, US$220). Both are amazing, but the latter gives you an insight into a day in the life of a chimp.
• What to do Go on a nature walk in the Bigodi Wetlands or a night-time exploration. A hike in the nearby crater lakes region is also scenic and you can visit some community-run honey and weaving projects. If you are staying at Ndali Lodge, do the plantation walk; you will learn about growing matoke, bananas, cardamom, figs, avocados and vanilla, as well as spotting other plants and birds along the way.
• When to go Chimpanzee tracking is possible all year round, but the best time is when it’s dry (December to February or June to July).
• Health Visit your local GP or travel clinic in advance of your trip. You need a Yellow Fever Certificate in order to enter the country.
• Read on Footprint Uganda Handbook (3rd Edition) by Lizzie Williams.