Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Chasing Chimps in Uganda

Dear Email subscribers, if you have problems with the photos, clicking on the blog title will take you to more pleasurable viewing. Thanks for checking in! Mary K. 
When I shot this photo, I saw only dark blurs in the dense jungle canopy. It wasn't until I downloaded and corrected the exposure that I knew this mama chimp was looking at us with disdain, and that her baby was equally unimpressed. Poor people! They must be so sad, not living here and not eating figs and other delicacies and being part of a chimp troop with undying allegiance to one another. I see the mama's expression as a judgement. From recent experience, she knows that visitors to the Uganda chimp sanctuary mean no harm.* But still. What are those strange creatures doing? There's nothing here for them.
Well, that's not true. There was something there for us. Perhaps she couldn't hear our accelerated heartbeats or our panting as we chased around on the jungle floor as the chimps flowed effortlessly in the canopy, mostly unseen. She didn't sense our wonder, our awe, when the entire troop of an estimated 25, began vocalizing, stunning us with surround sound. We stopped dead in our tracks, jaws agape, eyes roaming the canopy. 

What do chimps sound like? Here's a 15 second video-soundtrack recorded in the same place, but not the same time: Chimp sounds/video. It's similar to what we heard, but the crescendo that enveloped us rose like a giant wave that stopped at its crest, shimmered like crazy, then evaporated. This happened three times and each time we were immobilized with wonder. Enjoying chimp tracking as much as we did came as a surprise. 

Let's start at the beginning. A few days earlier, PK and I had seen gorillas. In the jungle. From about 10 feet away. Accompanied by nine Ugandans, several carrying rifles. An account with photos is here. We LOVED this. In fact, we didn't quite see the point of going for chimps as it meant getting up at 5:30 a.m. and driving for a couple hours and then...chimps? Not gorillas? That just goes to show we're not immune to the shallow/callow Western tourist gimme-more-bang-for-the-buck crap. As usual, our trusty volunteer tour guide—and so much more—Kara Blackmore, heard not our low whining but used her considerable eye beams to transmit this message: Why on earth would you want to miss anything Uganda has to offer?

And  so we were off, just the two of us, following one unarmed guide, along an easy path into the Budongo Forest  home to about 700-800 chimps and dominated by mahogany and ironwood trees. This la-de-da type hiking went on for about 20 minutes. Then the signs began to appear.

Fresh paw prints prove we're on the right track.

Fresh chimp poop excites our guide. They were just here!! He lifted his hand to signal us to be quiet, then whispered, "They're headed that way," he said, nodding into the pathless maze. "Are you ready?
With that, we made a sharp right turn straight into the jungle. So much for the la-de-da path. 
We're going through THAT??!!!

There they are! Whispers the guide.

Where? There? What?!!! The view looking up.

The view looking down. Yikes.
But then, as we moved, we began to catch some glimpses. 

Here's a little chimp texting on his cellphone. Just kidding.

Chimp with wild figs, a favorite food.

Our guide shows us the innards of a wild fig. One that the chimps
are not going to get.

There's one, getting outta here.
It must be said that this chimp chasing was a lot of fun and a good workout. After the first half hour or so of ambling along an easy trail, we ran RAN behind our guide though dense vines, around slippery creek banks, over soft grassy berms, and into places we would never have thought to venture if we weren't chasing a guide, chasing chimps. We liked this.
Here are a few, so near and yet so far.

The guide making chimp vocalizations. He also interpreted the chimp sounds. They were talking about crossing the road, apparently, as the road became the goal of our haste.
 Impressive guy, our guide. He really was.

I only fell once after tripping on a vine.
Thankfully, I landed on hands and knees in soft grass.
PK remained upright.

Our guide was correct about the chimps wanting to cross the road. We made it in plenty of time and got to see a dozen streaking across the red dirt to join the rest of their troop.

* Chimpanzee populations are threatened in Uganda, and elsewhere, mostly from deforestation and poaching. Chimps get caught in snares meant for other animals and lose limbs or life from infection.

Note: When I started this series of Africa-travel posts, I mentioned that three of the most memorable days of my life occurred there. The chimp-tracking day was one of them. But wait! It was just the start of an incredible day, all facilitated by TIA Adventures.  We were finished with chimps by 10 a.m. and then Pete Meredith, TIA owner, drove us over yet another red dirt road into the great unknown. Smiling, he was.
Pete Meredith of TIA Adventures. 

For a comparison between chimp and gorilla tracking, keep reading.

There are several spots to track gorillas and chimps in East Africa. I can only address the places we visited, both in Uganda.


Location: Biwindi Impenetrable Forest in southeastern Uganda near Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo                
Driving distance from Kampala: at least 16 hours        
Cost:  $500 per person (not a typo)        
Guides: One head guide, three more assistant guides with either a machete to chop a path or a rifle to protect us, or both, a porter for each tourist, plus three additional trackers ahead in the forest.
Guarantee of seeing gorillas: None
Length of trip: We were lucky as we ran into our gorillas a half hour from the road. Some tourists walk up to eight hours and never see a gorilla.
Starting time: Show up by 7:30 a.m. for briefing, start soon thereafter
Difficulty: The terrain is steep and there are no set trails. The more physically fit you are, the better.
What to wear: Long pants, boots or hiking shoes with socks pulled over pant legs. Bring rain gear.
Where to stay: There are many places to stay. We were at the Silverback Lodge in Buhoma which was, oddly, about 32 miles from where tracking began. The drive over truly hideous roads took THREE hours. We had to get up at 4:30 a.m. We could have done our tracking a short distance from our lodging, but got booked into a more distant starting place. There was no changing locale on permits purchased months in advance.
Fun meter: 10 (including the long, difficult but spectacular drive)


Location: Budongo Forest just outside Murchison Falls National Park
Distance from Kampala:  at least 3 hours
Cost:  $50 per person
Guides: one per group
Guarantee of seeing chimps: None, but likely
Length of trip: If chimps aren't seen by 11 a.m., tracking is called off.
Starting time: Same as gorilla tracking
Difficulty: Easy, unless you choose to go off the trail. The terrain isn't steep, but the forest floor, in places, is a tangle of roots and vines.
What to wear: Same as gorilla tracking
Where to stay: Again many places, but the Murchison River Lodge is highly recommended. It's about a hour's drive from the Budongo Forest.
Fun meter: 10


  1. I've been learning about the origins of human singing/vocalization as a group, preceding the spoken word, apparently. I absolutely loved reading your description of what that would sound like in the jungle forest. Anthropologists theorize that our ancestors used this communal noise as a means to scare larger predators (lions) off their prey. It could account for the fact that those ancestors rather suddenly (in evolutionary terms) became much smarter, bigger and stronger--more protein in their diet. When we sing together we sound really big. I remember devouring everything I could get my hands on by Jane Goodall when I first discovered her writing about chimps. My bucket list includes seeing the Japanese snow monkeys and the mating ballet/opera of the Japanese crane, which is also dancing on the edge of extinction. After a trip like the one to Africa you must be making plans for your next adventure in order to counteract the post-thrill of Uganda. So. Where you going next?

  2. hi grace - sadly, we have no for-sure travel plans, except maybe to new orleans for the jazz fest in the spring. we've also tossed around the idea of going to spain for a couple weeks.
    you would love the chimp experience. anyone would. i had no idea i would be so overcome when the "singing" began all at once, and ended as suddenly. i've experienced that with frogs, too, who are in full chorus but when you get too close, they "disappear." the africa trip shifted something for me. i hope to go back. the only thing wrong with our trip is that we didn't have enough time. we should have spent at least a couple more days in gorilla territory. how about you? anything in the planning stages?
    we may go out to a movie and dinner tomorrow! that's about as exciting as it gets right now. sigh.