24 March 2013- Lake Nkuruba, Uganda
We have found another gem of a spot! Its late morning and the sun has poked out after a morning of fairly steady rain. I’m sitting in an open room with a tin roof and just heard something gallop across above, sounded like a buffalo! A black and white colobus monkey leapt from the roof to a nearby tree and swung away! We both woke late this morning and treated ourselves to a breakfast of toast and jam, and a nutella and banana pancake (yum!) with African tea, (although we aren’t really sure what African tea is, seems to taste the same). We pulled up yesterday early evening and smiled at each other, a perfect spot for us. Low key, beautiful, simple and really nice people. We were immediately greeted by some children of the staff who waved at us and held my hand as we got out and walked over to say hi and ask about camping. We are camped on a grassy area at the top of the steep slope looking over a forest rimmed crater lake. The simple accommodation includes a restaurant that serves veggies and rice, chicken and rice, veggies and pasta and chicken and pasta. You bath by pouring water from a jerry can into a bucket and then using the bottom of a cut plastic bottle to pour the cool but refreshing (lake) water over you.
We arrived yesterday tired but exhilarated, as we’d had a big day. We got up at 5 to meet our guide at 6 for a full day of chimp tracking. Normally you do a one hour walk but we had heard from some people we met in Tanzania about an all day habituation program so we decided to go for it and are so glad we did. We walked for three hours through the beautiful mature trees of Kibale Forest National Park until we heard an almighty screech – our guide, Silver, looked at us and said “Chimps!” Until then we had enjoyed our walk and Silver, who was an excellent guide pointed out different trees, butterflies and monkeys as well as telling us a lot about chimps and what they eat. We hadn’t seen any evidence of them in the area and more importantly we had not heard them. We were beginning to think we might not find them. The key to tracking is their noise and once we heard their many calls we understood that – they are very loud! So when we first heard it, off we went behind Silver. We came across the first chimp high up in the trees and got a few glimpses of it eating. A few minutes later we came across a group of at least 15 and were able to see some of them climb up the trees to the high branches they seemed to favour. This was probably as close as we would get to them as they are so fast, very skilful climbers and can swing from branch to branch at an incredible speed. Although it seemed obvious now we were standing looking up, it was a little disappointing to realise this was as close as we would see them. How wrong we were. Silver said we will wait here, he has been working with the chimps for 22 years so we figured he knew what he was talking about, and sure enough after a while two adult males climbed down the tree and started walking through the forest. It was amazing to see them so close, and to our delight Silver said, “We will follow them”. We both looked at each other, with big grins! We were actually following chimps as they sauntered through the forest, they walk on all fours using their knuckles. Although they looked as if they were going slowly we had to walk fairly quickly to keep up. They glanced back at us every so often, and paused a few times for a sit down and relax. At one point they scooted ahead of us, moving quicker and started screeching and grunting that was accompanied by loud booms as they jumped onto a big buttress of a mighty fig tree and whacked it with their feet, they make this loud noise which echos through the forest as a way of calling others. I tried it as I passed the tree, my efforts hurt and only produced a quiet little thud.
Soon we were beneath a small hole in the canopy where a big tree had crashed to the ground. The males joined a few others who were around the clearing, some dozing precariously in the lower branches and others playing, snoozing and grooming each other on the logs of the fallen tree. We were held spellbound, relaxed chimps were everywhere, it was siesta time. We watched the little guys chasing each other, but the main activity was grooming. They merrily pick at each other constantly shifting through each others long black fur searching for and nibbling on ticks and cleaning wounds. They took turns, and at one point even formed a little line sitting on a log grooming each other. Every so often they would break into truly deafening screeching to speak to other family groups nearby, a very intimidating noise. Silver knew each individual of the 100 strong community, they hang out in small groups of up to 10-15 individuals, but the groups are always calling and checking in with each other. The leader is the alpha male, and when he moves on the whole community move too. Individual groups can be up to 2 km apart, hence the very loud calls, and Silver told us they had about 50 calls. All meaning different things, greetings, lets move, threats, checking in, time to hunt… The only time they are silent is when the males move off to defend their territory against another community, stalking silently and then it’s not pretty.
After a quick bite to eat we moved to an area with a dense canopy with not much undergrowth and sat down on the forest floor quietly watching the relaxing chimps around us. A couple of younger guys were playing with each other and slowly became a little bolder and checked us out, getting a little closer and closer, mum looking up every now and then. It was a special moment as we sat and relaxed with the chimps, doing exactly what they were and sharing our space together. Two males walked very close and right past us and the group began to move on. This was a perfect point to let them go and head our own way.
What a day. We spent ten hours out in the forest, much of it walking following them, some of it just sitting on a log or the forest floor watching them and almost all of it with the chimps. What a privilege to be able to spend so much time and see so many of their behaviours.
As I have been typing this I discovered a tick on my arm so we have spent the last 20 minutes looking remarkably like chimps ourselves! Checking each other and ourselves for more and picking them off, but not eating them 🙂
L and O