Sunday, July 3, 2011

East Africa Day 47 (Wed June 29): Chimp Tracking

When I purchased my Chimp Tracking permit in Kampala the other day, I had to decide between the 8am group and the 2pm group. I picked the 2pm group, thinking that it would give me more time to find my way to the park. Turned out to be a good plan. In the AM I had a breakfast of fruit and toast – with hungry Vervet Monkeys watching my every move – and then spent the next two hours walking along the main road from CVK to the Kibale park entrance. I hadn’t gone more than a few feet from CVK’s entrance when I was approached by a young man, Ignatius. He is getting his certificate in tourism and is interning at the guest house across the road from CVK. We had a really nice talk and walk. He walked me several miles, up and down sloping hills, between more tea plantations and fields of other crops, until we reached the forest, when we parted ways. He said that he’s wanted to work with tourists since he was a young boy, and has been inspired to protect the environment and to not kill animals by his older brother, who works in the nature conservation field. I learned a lot from Ignatius.
Once I had entered the forest, I began to see so many butterflies all along the side of the road. When I would walk into a group of them resting and feeding on the roadside, they would flutter up and into my path. It was like walking through smoke, but the smoke was butterflies. All different colors and sizes – absolutely beautiful. Each time I heard a noise I’d peak into the dense trees along the side of the road, and saw several species of monkeys. Very few vehicles of any sort passed me, and no other pedestrians. It was an unpaved road, though well-packed and wide – so not quite like walking on a nature trail, but I would advise anyone visiting Kibale from CVK to do the walk!

When I arrived at the park at 12noon, I was the only guest in sight. Just me and the park rangers. I met Mark, who has been working there for about five years, checking in guests and collecting permits and payments. I learned that his sister passed away, and his brother-in-law invited Mark to come visit him in California. Mark is saving up the money for the trip. I told him to make sure that he visits Yosemite! Mark showed me a book about Yosemite that the park happened to have in their library, a gift from someone with an inscription on the inside cover. It was fun to see that book in one of Uganda’s national parks! I also learned that one of the monkey species that I’d seen along the road is rare, and not usually seen. So the walk was worth it:) While chatting with Mark I met two older park visitors, who had just completed their Chimp Tracking. They showed me photos of a mother chimp and her baby, that they had taken on their way back to the gate. The AM group didn’t have much luck with chimp spotting – didn’t see any until they had given up and were on their way back.
Since the rangers thought that it might rain, our group departed at 1:30pm instead of 2pm. There three groups of guests, each led by a ranger. Our group was led by Jessica and a trainee.

This is Jessica, checking in with the other groups’ rangers, to see if they had seen any signs of the chimps:

The other two members of my group were visiting Uganda from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) where they work – the Finnish woman has been there for 3.5 years working for an NGO, and the French woman works with the government regarding police reform. They are on a little Uganda national park tour, with a private guide. Flipping through the registration book with Mark, I noticed that many of the guests come to Kibale as part of a private tour group – from all over the world – but again it seems predominantly from Europe and the USA.

To sum up the afternoon, we walked through the rainforest until almost 6pm without spotting much wildlife. We saw a pretty insect, butterflies (though not as many as I saw on the road), and I spotted a large white and gray bird that I was told was a vulture. That was it. In the AM I had wanted to walk through the park by myself before the 2pm tracking started, and was told that I could not – that I would have to take a ranger with me, and that I didn’t have enough time to hire a ranger to give me a Nature Walk ($10). Once we started tracking chimps, I saw why I wasn’t allowed to walk through the park by myself. The trails are narrow, not that well-trodden, and unmarked. At times I wasn’t even sure if we were still on a trail, or were bushwacking. The trees were beautiful, and we passed a few chimp nests – but no chimps!

At around 5:30pm we received a call from one of the other groups’ rangers, saying that they had heard a chimp noise. Our rangers gave us the option of extending our hike by 30 minutes, to go explore the site of the noise, or to pack it up and continue on our walk back to the park gates. I said that we had been walking for hours – might as well walk for a little longer, if it meant we might see a chimp – I wasn’t quite ready to give up, not after having traveled so far and long to see the chimps! My group agreed to head to the site of the chimp noise.
When we arrived, we found the two other groups and their guides gazing up into the trees at a baby, an adolescent, and a mother. They were so far away – I couldn’t see very much, and only heard the rustling of branches, but it was great to finally see them in their natural environment! Wild, though acclimated (
“habituated”) to people so that they didn’t run away when they looked down and must have seen all of our camera lenses pointed in their direction. I recorded some video, which I’ll post at some other time.

Can you spot the chimp in this photo?

We couldn’t stay long – maybe 15 minutes – before the rangers said that if we stayed any longer, we’d be sleeping in the park. The sun was setting. The Finnish woman in my group said “Thanks to the optimistic American, we saw chimps.” I’m glad that we saw them. I could have tried to get into the AM group the next day, but the other two women in my group were headed off to another park the next day. So if we hadn’t seen the chimps in the trees, then they wouldn’t have gotten to see them.
Here’s a photo of my group, taken after we’d returned to the check in/departure point.

When we got back to the gate at 6:30pm, I had to catch transportation back up to the CVK campus. (Not safe to walk that road back to CVK in the dark.) I got really lucky – a middle aged couple and their private car and driver, who were in one of the other afternoon Tracking Groups, picked me up and dropped me off at the CVK gates. Along the way we passed two of the rare monkeys, on the side of the road. It was fun to hear about the couple’s experience with the Gorillas – they had just come from there. They were from Minnesota, but had once lived in San Francisco, not far from where I most recently lived. When I got back to CVK I had a great vegan dinner, thanks to Ben, and Nash who told Ben that I am vegan. My banda was on the top of a hill, overlooking the lake – so quiet – it reminded me of nights at Frost Valley.

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