Queen Elizabeth National Park, Uganda
|UWA Ranger, chimpanzee tracking|
Ten years ago, chimpanzee tracking activities for tourists were a relatively niche experience. Thanks to television documentaries and public recognition given to the work of primatologists like Dr. Jane Goodall; locations such as Gombe Stream, in Tanzania and Kibale Forest, in Uganda, have become popular destinations for guided primate experiences.
By comparison, commercial gorilla encounters were already well established in the Virunga Volcanoes, Rwanda and Bwindi Impenetrable Forest, Uganda due to the 1988 film Gorillas In The Mist telling the story of Dr. Dian Fossey.
But, the most iconic moment of all was in episode 12 of the 1979 series, Life On Earth. When David Attenborough gave that famous piece to camera, while sitting among mountain gorillas in Rwanda. Those few minutes of film have perhaps done more for gorilla conservation and garnering goodwill for conservation issues in general, than any other, before or since.
David Attenborough with gorillas in 1979
While leading an expedition through Rwanda and into Uganda, I became aware of a small community of chimpanzee which, through geography and human encroachment, had become isolated in a riparian gorge.
We'd completed our mountain treks in the Rwenzori and had made camp at Mweya in Queen Elizabeth National Park, for a few days of rest and safari. The adjacent lodge had an elevated view over the Kazinga channel. So, after our game drives, we'd frequented the terrace for coffee and biscuits. We'd seen lion, defassa waterbuck, hippo and the ubiquitous Uganda kob in their natural environment. But not much in the way of behaviour.
|Mweya overlooking the Kasinga Channel|
I asked a few more questions about Kyambura and was able to book my group onto an afternoon's chimpanzee tracking for just $25 each. Which was a bargain compared to advertised prices at the more mainstream locations. So, with a promise that guides would be waiting, the following day we boarded our coaster bus for the ride across to the opposite side of the national park.
The meeting point was a thatched shelter next to a platform with an impressive vista over the gorge. Nobody was there. It was so quiet, I thought we might have the wrong location. We were just a little early. I encouraged the group to take a few pictures while we waited. Sure enough, our Ranger guide, wearing the the forest green UWA uniform and carrying an AK-47, arrived on foot with two assistants.
On the gorge floor a slim unvegetated earth trail snaked though the trees. Overhead a crash of leaves. Our guide identified a vervet monkey as it put some distance between us. We soon came upon the first of several river crossings. The water not particularly wide, three metres or so. Neither was it fast flowing, it appeared still but not stagnant. A fallen tree was the first bridge. It's girth large and dry enough for a uneventful walk across, although I took care to put my camera away in its waterproof bag.
A little further on we could all hear crashing in the undergrowth some way ahead. The ranger and one of the assistants went on to investigate, while we waited. A loud trumpet broke the tranquility, followed by more breaking of vegetation.
They returned. "Elephant. But they're heading away from where we are going. We'll continue."
Deeper into the gorge, the trail varied between dry and slippery mud depending upon how close we were to the overflow of the river. Then just ahead, a dark form, partly hidden by leaves. The ranger pointed, securing our attention, as whispers and intake of breath flowed through the group. We had found the chimps. Some words of advice were given as to how we should present ourselves and to keep a minimum distance in order to protect the chimps from communicable diseases. We walked forward, slowly, not stalking, deliberately advertising our presence.
I was then aware that there were many chimps lounging in the greenery, on the ground and branches. One sat while being groomed by another. A young sub-adult curled itself into a ball and rolled around. Then they lay on its back, arms and legs akimbo, looking up to the canopy. It was an amazing and joyful sight, we took photos and watched with delight.
Over to the edge of the group, sat an adult male, delicately chewing individual leaves from a stem. I commented on his apparent separation to the ranger, who confirmed that this male had mounted a unsuccessful challenge to the alpha and was now keeping his head down out of trouble. Still on the trail and keeping the proper distance, the guide said we may approach a little further.
"Since his fight with the alpha, this one has become more timid. But right now he's relaxed."
Without looking directly into his eyes, to avoid being perceived as a challenge, I sat down onto my heels. I looked sideways and the chimp looked back, the dappled light twinkling in his eyes as he continued to chew his leaves. It wasn't quite Attenborough rolling around with the gorillas, but it was a tender moment.
We retraced our steps in the opposite direction, back towards the others in our group. Then, above and behind us a sudden screech. As our heads turned, the atmosphere suddenly changed. The air was filled with loud vocalisations, whoops, scream and cries. Branches whipped and cracked, leaves crashed together and fell to the ground. The chimps leapt and darted from tree to tree, with lightning agility.
"They've seen the red-tailed monkey. Over there!"
The ranger pointed to a flash of red ochre zig zagging away from us. The monkey had come too close to the chimp clan and they were giving chase with intent. Chimps are known to be omnivores and hunt other primates for meat. This really was nature in all its manifestations. Then, as suddenly as it had begun, the whooping stopped and the chimps settled in the branches.
"He's got away."
"That's one lucky monkey." I replied. It was such a incredible display of behaviour, yet still, I was just a bit glad that he had escaped, for today. Our group expressed similar sentiments.
Then, from above, something small landed beside us. Then again, this time hitting one of us on the shoulder.
"What's that?" someone asked. More items seemingly falling from above.
Having failed in their hunt, the chimps were now chewing on tree fruit and spitting the piths out. More fruit rained down, this time unchewed. Were they deliberately throwing it at us? Either for fun or because they'd had enough of us hanging around.
"It's time to go" said the ranger, nodding with a smile.
"They're telling us to." We laughed.
Our hour with the chimps of Kyambura had passed as if it was ten minutes. We had been so lucky to see so many aspects of their nature, behaviour and environment. We completed the last river crossings over boardwalks and around muddy pools, then ascended back out of the gorge. Talk among the group relived the moments with enthusiasm. This had been such a special experience, I knew I would remember it for the the rest of my life.
Back in the warm sunshine, it was time to say thank you to our guides. As well as a grateful handshake, we offered a tip to the ranger and his two assistants. While the group thanked the assistants before they headed home, the ranger discretely spoke.
"Thank you for remembering our assistants. Many guests forget about them."
"With pleasure." I replied "You've all been superb."
The coaster bus arrived in a cloud of red dust to take us and the Ranger back to Mweya.
After five minutes on the track, the driver slammed on the brakes.
"Leopard!" He exclaimed, as the white tip of a 'follow-me" tail disappeared into the bush.
It was my second leopard sighting, in exactly the same circumstances at the first when on the way to Bwindi to go gorilla trekking.
Today had been a good day.
No. Today had been a great day.