We are in Uganda. It is lush, verdant, fertile and absolutely awesome! With such healthy rainfall here, there is a proportionately healthy presence of rainforest. And in the rainforests, there is an abundance of life! One of the more special species that resides in Uganda’s forests is the smaller cousin of the more commonly-regarded mountain gorilla. Unable to afford US$500 a head for the gorilla tracking, however, we decided on seeing chimpanzees instead. Sadly, no children are allowed on such trips, so the ‘Lighties’ had to stay behind at the Kanyiye Pabidi eco-tourism lodge, where we were staying.
So, early one morning last week, with long trousers tucked into socks (as warned to do, in case of vicious soldier ants), we headed out and along the road track that we had driven in on. The morning’s walk was to take up to four hours, with no guarantee of even seeing the chimps, but as we strode along the track, optimism sounding in every step, we just knew we would not be disappointed.
After a couple of kilometres along the dirt road, a hole appeared in the seemingly impenetrable green wall of the forest. It was our cue to enter this unique world of primary, unspoilt rainforest. Once my eyes adjusted to the darkness, I was surprised to find that it wasn’t so dark inside after all. Yes, it was thick bush and plants and trees grew at every level, but in Nature’s perfect way, every different living representation had its perfect place in which to survive in this busy and phenomenal ecosystem. Fortunately, set paths had been cleared to make our tracking that much easier.
With happy thumping hearts, we commenced our walk, absorbing every sound that was possible to be heard: more than anything, the birds constituted the main sounds of the forest. Constant songs, each talking to us in their own way, each trying to make its voice heard in the thick foliage.
We had literally walked a mere few minutes inside the forest, when Joshua our guide stopped, lifted his arm in a definitive gesture to Stop! and Be Quiet! He had seen something. Surely not a chimp? So quickly, so close to the road? This was too good to be true! My heart raced; I ached to see what was ahead of us on the path further along. A dark shape. Oh, my word! It was indeed a chimpanzee! It had seen us too, of course, so moved off into the forest. But it was soon followed by another and then another: Joshua had found us a small sub-group of chimps! It was breakfast time for these little guys, so they were on the move in search of berry-filled trees. We immediately headed off the track and into the thick, entwining branches towards this small community of chimpanzees. Fortunately, they are very vocal animals and in telling each other what was going on, they also told us where to find them! We tried our hardest not to disturb them too much, but it was difficult not to tread on the odd dried twig that snapped loudly underfoot. We soon stopped and stood in wonder as we came to an area dominated by one particularly large tree, whose extensive branches provided perfect chimp platforms. There before us, was a sub-group of about 12 chimpanzees, although it was difficult to see them clearly through the thick bush and even harder to get good shots of them with the camera. But somehow having to work so hard to catch sight of each one, made every individual sighting all the more precious. These small hairy “people” in the trees were extraordinary: so human in the way they looked around, picked berries, checked themselves for nits, scratched their face or arm or back, gestured to each other. And yet, the sharp reality of them as wild animals – still so far removed from us after all – was immediately apparent when we saw how they leapt from one branch to another, so agile, so balanced, so confident 20m above ground.
At one point, Big Max slipped down a muddy bank, which sent the alarmed group into a frenzy of ape-screams, frantic and hysterical. It sent chills through me to hear such a cacophony of intense screaming. We laughed nervously amongst ourselves, shocked but delighted to have witnessed such an extraordinary display of chimpanzee behaviour.
We were transfixed for the half hour we had watching the chimps. Sadly, they moved on, busy with another agenda for the day. But what a privilege it had been for the six of us and one of the highlights of our trip to date.