The feelings building up inside of me as I drive the last twenty kilometres to the lodge are bubbling, and have nothing to do with the in-car snack intake.
“THIS,” I tell my Jane, “is what Tarzan was doing back then but swinging by vines with Jane on his back, instead of sitting beside him in the Discovery. ”
“NO,” I change, quickly, “THIS is what Indiana Jones was doing seeking the Temple of Doom and Raiding The Lost Ark!”
The road was now bumpy, the night was dark, the sky was full of crickets or cicadas chirping loudly, and the bushes around us kept poking out into the road as if to cross to the other side. I felt that at any time a large, rare, pre-historic animal might pop out and crash our car off the road into God-knows-what-the-darkness of the Kibale Forest held. At some points, the roof of the car hit thick dangling vines that I wanted to imagine could have been a lazy python lounging in its tree. And I was really, really excited.
Because the two of us are the job-holders in the household, the discussion was brief when we informed the children that we would be spending the weekend away form them, and we set off with neither guilt nor remorse for a weekend with the chimpanzees of the Kibale National Park, courtesy of Primate Lodge in Kibale. The accommodation was complimentary and had been standing for two years since proprietor Amos Wekesa made the offer.
The excited speeds we’d driven at from Kampala to Fort Portal eventually subsided as the section in Kiko, en route to Kamwenge, offered up potholes like Sebaggala’s Kampala of old. The slowed advance was a good thing, as it allowed a couple of jackals (we were later told) to scuttle across our headlights, as well as many human residents going along their way.
We arrived and pulled up to a neat enclosure cut out of the forest, to a briefing by a pretty girl who was obviously a ‘native’ (words like these just make their way into your mind when you are here, but I didn’t have a Safari suit in my case so I didn’t complete the stereotype).
Walking to our banda in the dark, I yelped at the sight of a leaf that was bigger than my head, while taking in that mix of dread and awe that the words ‘African Jungle’ conjure up in the imaginative mind bred by TV. Stopping to take photos of the big leaves, it struck me that if I were so beside myself, how much more excited would the German, French and American groups that were also camping and lodging here for the weekend be?
I discovered how much more the next morning when, after a quick breakfast and scuttle down to the Uganda Wildlife Authority office, we had all paid up (locals only Ushs100,000 each, foreigners US$150 each) and gathered for a briefing on chimpanzee tracking. The lady in front of me could barely breathe, she wanted to set off so badly.
Meanwhile, I expected instructions such as, “Don’t feed the chimpanzees” but the Ranger laughed me off when I raised the question: “If that happens, we will put your name in the record book!”
Apparently, chimpanzees do not play around like that.
And I wasn’t doubtful because I have always been keenly aware of their vicious, angry, violent and irrational nature – made more worrisome because they are very closely related to human beings, and we are really not good animals ourselves.
Eventually, we set off bravely, led by a man with a gun. An AK-47 rifle.
“But boss,” I asked him, “Is that really necessary? Do the chimpanzees really present such a danger?” The acceptability of the answer included how useful it would be to share it with the children when we eventually got back to them. But the rifle was in case we met with elephants and found them ill-tempered, not for the chimps, he said.
If the chimps presented a problem, I presumed, they’d probably be upon you a bit too fast for you to unsling a rifle off your shoulder and go through the steps to fire.
Walking into the forest, I pondered the concept of habituation, which is the process by which the chimps have been forced to accept the presence of human beings tracking them all over the place. It sounded just like a method we used at the university, where you kept zeroing in on a girl and asking her to visit you so many times that she eventually gave way just to stop you asking. Twenty years later, you could find yourselves tracking chimpanzees together (not a true story).
So the 1,450 chimpanzees in Kibale National Park, being habituated, are accustomed to the irritation of people walking behind them pointing and taking photos, or standing under their trees and peering up at them. That does not make them tame; just less likely to hide, run or reach out to rip you apart with their sizeable bare hands<—this is a realistic risk.
“Do not stop talking,” we had been briefed, “because if you are silent they will think you are planning something against them. But also don’t shout – you might annoy them.”
“And keep your distance – stay at least eight metres away.”
I envied the chimpanzees this deeply. I wished I came with such instructions sometimes. Life would be so much more smooth. Eight metres of space at all times would suit me just fine – in the office, in traffic, at public meetings…I could do with fewer people speaking loudly, and God knows that too many chaps out there, especially at work, go silent when I am in the vicinity (Eh!! I am now considering that maybe they have been planning something against me all along…)
The side show as we made for the chimps was amazing – from the massive bright movie-style butterflies, through the giant-size tamarind seed, to the 200-year old Piptadeniastrum africanum tree.
And then we met the chimps. First, they erupted in loud screeches and shouts, accompanied by a booming sound that we later discovered was their slapping against the buttress roots of the massive trees in the forests. We made our way cautiously towards them, and were quite unsettled when one walked right past us and scampered up a tree.
As we went from point to point, the Rangers kept up a string of tales about chimpanzees that all revolved around the sex lives of the beasts; and when we met up with other tracking groups, the conversation between the Rangers sounded like what you’d hear when two women met in a salon and discussed a mexican tele-novella – but about the chimps in the forest!
After a couple of hours, our closest encounter presented itself when Magezi, the alpha male in this community of 120 chimps, descended from his lofty perch under which we had kept vigil for an hour and given up, then walked down with two of his balebeesi and forced us off the path.
Like juveniles, they strutted down and gave us nary a care except to pause a little when we got too close for comfort. Eventually, Magezi gave pause and peered into the forest and somehow passed on the message to his deputies that he desired to go in some particular direction, and they therefore had to make arrangements for his detour to be comfortable.
Ntale disappeared into the bushes, leaving Magezi and Tabu to walk on along the path for a little distance longer, before they too turned East and almost disappeared from our view. Fascinated and a little worried about the possible ambush, we followed.
And when we finally got to them we drew a breath: Magezi was perched in a throne made of dried branches, high up just above adult eye-level, and holding onto a branch as if it were a sceptre, posing patiently for our photographs. A respectful distance away, but sitting on a set of branches on the ground, was Ntale, posing for his own photographs but while keeping an eye on his boss.
In awed silence at our good luck or his magnanimous grace, we took aim and fired off our cameras till Magezi had had enough and leaned back out of view, dismissing us with a flick of his hand.
But luckily, we had him on video for later, and I still watch it every weekend here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SkBnOQ5Sss4&feature=youtu.be