He’s speedier than I thought. “Hurry! You have to be quick”, my guide, Kwatampola Benson, whispers excitedly to us. I don’t have much time to ponder about the primates rapidity. We crash through the jungle in hot pursuit – six of us in a line behind Benson – skating across slippery terrain. The forest floor is a mash of fallen fig fruits, mossy tree roots and mulchy leaf litter. We’ve yet to meet the stars of the show, and already, it’s an adventure.
Yesterday, I had arrived at Crater Safari Lodge near Fort Portal in Western Uganda. A recent winner in the 2019 World Luxury Hotel Awards, this eco-lodge is surrounded by a series of curious lakes formed over 8000 years ago and overlooks the second-largest lake of its kind. The setting couldn’t be lovelier. However, few visitors come here for the water. Bush-whacking is a more likely endeavour.
A shadowy figure had dropped from the treetops minutes earlier, and Benson had us hastening after it. The urgency of our mission strengthens my senses. There’s the smell of dark, damp earth (so fertile you could almost hear the plants happily driving their roots deeper into the ground), the natural embrace of temperate, fresh woodland air and my eyes accustom to the gloom of all this undergrowth.
As suddenly as our chase began, it pauses again. Benson holds his hand up for silence. There, perched beside a shallow pool of water, he sits. An old man of the forest. The little light that penetrates the dense woodland sits on the chimpanzee’s face. It’s freckled and soft pale peach in colour, trimmed by inky whiskers and topped off with a somewhat receding hairline. His fur was handsome charcoal black though, just the way I’d imagined. Gazing upwards, with ears cocked and head tiled, he’s listening. Could there be company cruising the arboreal attics above?
Despite his apparent age, he rapidly scales a tree, disappearing once again. However, Benson wasn’t done with us just yet. “Come, there might be more this way, I heard them calling”.
Kibale (pronounced chibale) National Park in western Uganda is a primate playground and one of the best places in Africa to observe our closest living relatives. There are five kinds of chimps in the world, and this preserve is home to the Eastern Chimpanzee. There are plenty of other primates besides chimps too. Grey mangabeys and Red-tailed monkeys, Black-and-white colobus monkeys, L’Hoest’s monkeys and many more – even some who only emerge under cover of night – call Kibale and the surrounding areas home.
On a guided tracking experience, you can meander through the forest and meet a habituated community. Habituation simply means that a family of chimps have grown used to human presence after a lengthy process of well-regulated exposure. It’s easiest to find these primates when they’re out and about seeking nourishment, either in the late afternoon or early morning – as we were now.
After more fancy forest footwork, Benson leads us into a clearing (a relative term in the jungle). I hear the apes before spotting them when a ferocious clamour erupts from the canopy. Eerie doesn’t begin to describe it. Their hoots and howls whistle down trunks of trees, sinking through my skin and creeping into my core. It’s the very definition of primal.
A chimpanzee trek is no walk in the park, and we’re deep in the forest now. Craning my neck back, I watch the creatures shimmy, as though across the sky, through my camera viewfinder. Some of the trees tower over 40 metres high and, as they pluck fruits from the upmost boughs, I wish I’d packed binoculars. I’m lost inside the frame until a yelp nearby jerks me back to our human pack. Some droppings have landed square upon the head of one intrepid guest, but besides the surprise, he doesn’t seem too perturbed.
Unlike the bigger gorillas (who tend to sit and feed) chimps clamber between trees, feeding and frolicking, screaming and arguing.
It’s a real show, and it’s all on their terms out in the precious wild. Just the way it should be.
- Melanie van Zyl
- : I pride myself on crafting meaningful narratives about Africa using expertly photographed travel pieces. Born, bred and based in Johannesburg, I make a mean G&T and am happiest when 4x4ing through mud (or sand - not picky) on Southern Africa's remote backroads. A qualified field guide, diver and growing twitcher, I'm a sucker for the wilderness, the creatures that inhabit it and greatly admire the people living on its peripheries. Botswana, Namibia and my home, South Africa continue to lure me away, but current aspirational destinations include Ghana, Senegal and Malawi.
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