Before my most recent excursion to Kibale national park from February 15 to 17, I had been at this primate capital of the world two other times.
But each of the three visits is a tale in itself. The forest, the primates and the elephants remain the same, but the experience and stories differ. This time, together with a group of about 25 journalists, we were taken to Kibale national park courtesy of the Chimpanzee Sanctuary and Wildlife Conservation Trust Organisation which runs the Ngamba Island Chimpanzee Sanctuary that looks after 49 rescued chimpanzees.
The purpose of the visit dubbed ‘Conservation Media Camp’ was to build capacity for journalists to appreciate nature and conservation so that they report from an informed point of view. Unlike my previous two visits where I stayed in fancy hotels in Fort Portal town and then drove to the park about 27 kilometres on the Fort Portal-Kamwenge road, this time, true to the name of the excursion, we had to camp.
Although I was aware of the camping side of the tour, I somehow forgot the weather of the Tooro sub-region. With a Kampala mindset where it has been very hot both during day and night, I thought the people of Tooro were as unfortunate; I was wrong.
Despite the dry season the whole country has been experiencing, Tooro is cool; the fresh air coming from its many protected areas and perhaps the tea plantations fights any would-be hotness resulting from the dry season.
Now alone in the tent in the compound of Mzee Tinka - a veteran conservationist now into community tourism - the chill started pecking away at me until I turned my camping mattress into a blanket!
A night can be long when you are having problems sleeping; sleeping on unlevelled ground with a very thin camping mattress that I easily used as a blanket, the night seemed like eternity. In a hotel, you can take a hot shower, but not in a tent. Cleaning up in the morning was really a job, for the cold water felt like it had been kept in a freezer overnight.
At 6:30am on Saturday morning, we were already up to go start our first activity of the day: trekking the four-square-kilometre Bigodi Swamp Sanctuary, a community tourism project which is a habitat to eight primate species and more than 100 bird species.
The swamp acts as a route to the park. When there is insufficient food in the park, chimpanzees often come here for survival and when things improve, they go back. Owen Natukunda, our guide, told us the swamp was gazetted as a community tourist centre in 1992. It is managed by the Kibale Association for Rural Development [Kafred].
Foreign tourists pay Shs 50,000 while East Africans pay Shs 10,000 to be taken for nature walks around the swamp. Our nature walk which lasted two hours was replete with rainfall, not too much to inhibit our movement but enough to drench someone. After the walk, we returned to our host’s home for breakfast before going to the park for chimpanzee tracking.
The elusive chimpanzees
It doesn’t matter how many times you visit the park, the routine remains the same. A guide will take you through the history of the park, the nature of animals it has, the dos and don’ts; it was not any different this time.
Godfrey Balyesiima, the head of tourism, after going through the routine, told us we were to visit Kanywantare chimpanzee community which has about 120 individuals. We got started, dividing ourselves into groups of six, taking different directions.
Our journey into the thicket started at 12:30pm, scaling through one of the thickest forests in Uganda. On my previous two visits, it took me just 10 minutes to spot the chimpanzees – animals whose genes are 98 per cent similar to those of human beings. This time round, it was 10 minutes, 20, 30, an hour, one and half hours…
“Sebo, are we about to find them? I don’t feel like I want to continue,” I told Richard, our guide.
“Don’t worry…I’m hearing their sound already,” he assured me.
“How long do you think it’s going to take us?” I asked in exasperation. “I think they are in one and half kilometres distance from here,” Richard answered.
“What? That’s another hour of walking…” I chipped in, now moving from exasperation to resignation. In the morning I had already done a two-hour walk; there was no way I would do six hours.
Seeing that his group was visibly tired, Richard resolved that we abandon the trail and use shortcuts that would reduce the distance by at least half. We sauntered on, now with less interest in the names of the rich flora in the hilly forest, only concentrating on getting done with the trail.
Finally we heard the ramblings in the jungle and there they were. About 50 chimpanzees were jumping through the tree branches and on the forest floor, many of them mating. Because tourists are taken to visit only habituated families, we were not threatened by the otherwise dangerous primates.
Habituating a chimpanzee family is a months-long dangerous process where rangers and researchers sit for hours with a family until the primates are fairly comfortable with human presence. Only then, is a family open to tourists.
Once we had had enough of these strange cousins of ours, the journey back to the Kanyanchu offices loomed. We had been mostly sloping downhill; how would we get back up that hill, I wondered to myself. Richard, being the master of the forest, somehow took us on winding paths without directly climbing, taking more time than we would if he had taken the hill, head-on.
Overhead, nimbus clouds were angrily circling the forest and I prayed that the gods of the forest allow us first to exit this jungle also renowned for its unapologetically wild elephants. Our prayer worked; no sooner had we arrived than it rained very heavily.
By the time we returned to our camp, it was past 5pm, and we were hungry and tired. You should have seen the vengeance with which we chewed Mr Tinka’s matoke, Irish potatoes, peas and chicken.