A Nature-Phobe and The Kibale Chimps

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There are some people who walk through the forest with the poise and grace of a gazelle. They don’t slip in the mud and trip over roots. They’re quiet, contemplative and at one with nature.

I am not one of those people. I like nature well enough.  I like being out in it from time to time and admiring it from a luxury lodge even better. Put me in the forest and I spend most my time sliding in the mud and lumbering through the underbrush with the gait of an aggressive jungle elephant.

So, it was with no small amount of trepidation that I donned hiking boots and prepared to spend four hours hiking to find the chimpanzees in Kibale.

Kibale (pronounced: Chibale) National Park is about a four and half hour drive from Kampala in the beautiful west of the country adjacent to Queen Elizabeth National Park.

The chimp treks start at the Kanyanchu Centre where you pay your fees for the trek to the Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA). Costs are $150 USD for foreign non-residents, $100 USD for residents, and 100,000 UGX for East African citizens. However, if you have specific dates, or it’s the high season, it’s advisable to book in advance through a tour company. The UWA take four groups (of between 3-4 people) out twice a day: at 8am and 2pm.

A short briefing follows from a guide who works for the UWA where we were introduced to the forest, the chimps, what to (hiking up to four hours), what to avoid (getting within 8 metres of the chimps). The guides are friendly and knowledgeable even when pestered with my inexhaustible list of questions:

“How long have people been coming to see the chimps?”

The Kibale forest was gazetted in 1991 and the chimps began to be habituated in 1993. It takes 3-4 years of someone visiting them every day from 8am to 6pm for them to become used to humans.

“How do we find them?”

We know where they were this morning (or yesterday – if it’s a morning hike) and we start there and follow their tracks. We listen for them.

“Is it possible that we won’t find them?”

Yes, but not likely. [Note: this is why you should read your disclosure carefully – you are not guaranteed to see them but the UWA does make every effort to ensure that you do].

“Why do you carry guns?”

So that we can shoot in the air if an animal becomes aggressive. Some forest elephants are aggressive and a shot in the air will scare them away.

“So you don’t shoot the animals.”

No.

These guys deserve a medal, really.

And so we began. Our guide and four of us walking single file through the forest.  From time to time our guide would signal for us to stop by raising his hand (he was one of the gazelle-types, FYI) and we would stop and listen. Intently.  Hearing nothing we would continue. From time to time, another guide would radio where he was and if he had tracked them. An hour slipped by and then two. I concentrated on making as much noise as possible in order to remain upright as we walked. It was beautiful but no chimps.

Another hour of hiking and then, there they were. The family we visited had approximately 30 members and they couldn’t have been missed. They also couldn’t have cared less that we were there.  They went on mating, eating, building nests, screeching, and playing without a care in the world.  We followed, gawked and photographed for an hour and then we had to go. It was amazing and exhilarating and passed in a heartbeat.

Was it worth the drive, the mud, the hiking, and a few bug bites? Absolutely – even for a nature-phobe like myself.

Some tips:

  1. What to bring: It is a rain forest – this means that while it is supremely beautiful it is also wet, dark, and dank. You will need a good pair of hiking boots. You will be hiking in the mud – and pretty squiggy mud at that – especially between March-May and September-November.  You will want a rain coat and you will need at least one litre of water per person. Tuck your trousers into your socks so that the safari ants don’t find their way up your legs – a deeply unpleasant experience.
  2. The hiking itself is not difficult but it can be a four hours of walking up and down moderate hills. There is some steepness going up and down the hills but this is generally no more than 5-10 minutes at a time.
  3. Do listen to the guides and keep 8m distance from the chimps.
  4. Children under 12 are not permitted nor those who are, or recently have been, sick.

For more information visit the Kibale National Park website here: http://www.kibaleforestnationalpark.com/.

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