Uganda and Rwanda have a bit of the classic savannah wildlife that East Africa is known for. However, the diversity and density hasn’t got anything on Tanzania and Kenya. What it does dominate in is apes and monkeys. Those who have ever played the board game articulate with me, and worn my wrath at misclassification of gibbons as monkeys should know the difference! Uganda is the home of two of the coolest apes around. Chimpanzees and Gorillas.
Fort Portal lies close to the majority of the Chimpanzees in Uganda that have been habituated – where through gradual exposure to humans, the learn to trust that humans do not pose a threat. Well a threat in an immediate sense, as we are the major cause of most of the population declines in these and other magnificent animals. Low season really is low season, and when I got off my matatu (mini-van) at the park gate, the visitors book for the preceeding week was sparsely filled with only a couple of visitors. This is for one of the leading sites to see the chimps in the wild, worldwide.
I was told to come back early in the morning (it was by this time late morning due to the tardiness of public transport) as it sometimes took hours to track the chimps down as they roamed the tropical rainforest. The afternoon was spent exploring the Bigodi wetland – a community project preserving a swamp with its inhabiting array of Black and White Colobus (meaning without thumbs), Red Colobus, and red tailed monkeys and diverse bird species. We came across some western entomologists (insect scientists) who were just settling in for an evening of being guinea pigs for biting mosquitos to assess habits of the local area. A decent commitment to science.
I found myself a local hotel, which was comfortable but basic. I have a new appreciation for what hotel has to constitute – no power, lighting my kerosene lamps, pit latrine, and shower was a bowl of cold water. Up at Dawn the next morning for what I hadn’t initially realised was ANZAC day in New Zealand and Australia. Some other people had materialised to see the chimps too – a few englishmen volunteering in the country, as well as a decked out chinese contingent with telephoto lenses that could have spied what insects were doing 200m away. Much to our and the guides’ amusement, one of the chinese photographers in his full jungle camo suit insisted on standing in a raging colony of vicious safari ants despite the warning from the guides. He would then proceed to stamp up and down trying to get rid of the ants rapidly ascending his legs, despite the much easier option of standing 2m away out of their path.
When not viewing some of the funnier behaviour from the supposedly advanced hominids we think we are, we did find a group of female and baby chimps lurking way up in the canopy 50m above us. Due to a lack of males and recent rains, they were hesitant to descend to ground level, instead hollering away to each other through the trees and brachiating from tree to tree. Watching them chow down on fig and other tree leaves, and build their nests was a pretty unique experience. The hour with them was soon over, and it was back to the camp, where we spied a few more black and white colobus monkeys, who make up about 15% of the Chimps’ diet.
I made it back to Kampala that night, ready for round 6 at the Rwandan embassy, where Iain and Stuart (the Scottish lads) were still killing time waiting for their permits. It seemed to be a common theme, with some american researchers also camped out there for a few weeks waiting for government beauracracu to do its thing. I also caught up with another New Zealander who was heading a similar trajectory south as me. He was on route south after spending some intense times working as a journalist in the Middle East, and travelling overland since then. New Zealand being New Zealand, we new a few people in common, and he had gone to a private intermediate boarding school that a lot of my friends had also attended. Given similarities of plans, we combined forces to head south after a successful trip to the embassy. After managing to bail down a flight of stairs at the bus station, whilst trying to avoid overpriced touts and busses that weren’t leaving for hours, I had to dismiss the 20+ locals that felt obliged to say “i’m sorry” for my fall, despite it being no fault of anyone other than me, and a slippery step. The road to Kibale in the south was long but decent, and after nightfall we were on a little boat across the inlets of Lake Bunyonyi.
A lake nestled in the hills of Southwestern Uganda, the quiet quaint lake is a perfect slice of paradise to enjoy some good local cuisine and a splash in the water without the risk of schistosomiasis (Bilharzia) – a worm infection caught be swimming in infected lakes, of which many in Africa are. We took a dugout canoe for a spin, which was heavy on the turning, and light on the straight paddling. Into a headwind, we found ourselves a local hill to climb and village to explore, giving great views over the lake and its surrounding terraced hillsides.