Onward to Chimpanzee Country
After a safari filled day in Murchison Falls National Park, we departed our lodge to Chimpanzee country. It was a long day of traveling in the Land Cruisers but the scenery was spectacular along the way and we moved into cooler temperatures as we climbed elevation. Along the way we passed through many banana plantations and tea plantations. Banana and tea leaves are two of the biggest exports for Uganda and a major source of employment for the people.
Because it rained the night before, we faced some pretty daunting road conditions. Outside of the cities most roads are dirt so when it rains it makes for a muddy mess. It was no challenge to our Land Cruiser and guide who handled it as no big deal and would help direct the other drivers on how to maneuver. It certainly made for a bumpy ride.
The tea plantations are vast along rolling hills and are absolutely beautiful. Harvesting of the tea leaves is a manual process and the laborers are paid by the volume of tea leaves picked daily which seem simple but the only leaves that are picked are at the very top of the plant. There are different grades of tea leaves which matters when it comes to exporting. The tea plants are bushes and will live for about 20 years. There are hidden paths throughout the tea fields to allow the laborers to harvest the tea leaves. Based on what our guide told us, the laborer are given a wage but also receive shelter as part of their compensation.
Banana plantations are found across the country and especially on this drive south. Most people have their own banana plants to feed their families as well. The banana and plantain industry is huge for Uganda with harvesting taking place year-round.
Primate Lodge in Kibale Forest
After a long day of travel, we arrived at our lodging for the evening in Kibale Forest National Park. We stayed at the Primate Lodge which is an eco-lodge and we stayed in one of the forest cottages. The cottages were private and spacious with a spacious bathroom and all run on solar power. Power would go off around 11 pm and come back on around 5 am. I’d definitely recommend staying here. I forgot to mention that they have a great onsite restaurant and bar and a 5 minute walk to where the chimpanzee trekking starts.
The next morning after a delicious breakfast we walked down to the guide post where everyone is gathering to hear a briefing on what to expect and the ground rules to follow while trekking the chimpanzees. One of the biggest ground rules is not to imitate any mannerism or sounds of the chimpanzees as this could lead to an unintended consequence. We were reminded by our guides to stuff our pant legs into our socks to avoid the risk of fire ants crawling up our legs. After gathering some water for the trip, we set out to find the chimpanzees in groups of six and each guide went in different directions as many chimpanzee families habituated there.
I should also mention that these chimpanzees have gone through a process called habituation which requires three years of interaction with humans to acclimate the chimpanzee to our presence and not sense danger. So although the chimpanzees are wild, there has been some precautions taken. In addition, in the unlikely case we came across a chimpanzee that had not been habituated that posed a danger to us, our guide did carry a gun just in case. Chimpanzees also share more than 98% of the same DNA as human and can live up to 60 years.
We were lucky to find a mother and child within 15 minutes of starting the trek. The child eventually started to come down to check us out. In the early hours of the trek, the chimpanzees stayed up in the trees grooming each other and socializing. We saw about 10 different chimpanzees way up in the trees. I was pretty happy with this exploration and wondered why we weren’t heading back to the guide post… then the chimpanzees started to climb down the trees and head to their favorite places to feast. You don’t realize the strength and presence of the chimpanzee until you see it on the ground in action. They were quite big and all muscle. One started to run and slapped the palm of its hand on a tree which echoed throughout the forest… a little scary but normal behavior.
Now that the chimpanzees were on the ground, each group began to trek separate chimpanzees which was exhilarating and hard to keep up as you battled lush vegetation and crossing small creeks. It seems that each chimpanzee has its favorite place to hang out and eat which the guides know. The chimpanzees didn’t seem too interested in us and just did their normal business. The one below was an alpha male and was quite photogenic for us.
As we were making our way back to the guide post, we came across another specie of chimpanzee just relaxing and hanging out. This one was quite round.
The next one we came across wanted to do a photo shoot and gave us some great photographs. Notice how big its hands and feet are. These chimps were quite impressive.
The morning was quite the adventure trekking chimpanzees and lived up to the expectations. A big thanks to our guide, Richard, for educating us and understanding the chimpanzees’ behavior for the ultimate experience. Below is a picture of (L to R) Bruce, Jean, Richard, Robin, and me when we finished the trek.
Uganda continues to impress and educate me. Learning about the tea and banana industry was quite interesting, not to mention the panoramic views of these plantations. One of the main reasons we picked this tour was for the chimpanzees and the experience did not disappoint. The Ugandans take great care of their wildlife and keep a nice balance with tourism and the animals’ welfare.