Uganda is prime real estate for primates: as well as trekking to mountain gorilla at higher altitudes, one of Uganda’s best safari experiences is to go chimpanzee trekking. The two experiences are quite different, with chimpanzee, in general, being much more vocal and energetic than their more contemplative cousins – it’s a full-on encounter!
Having already experienced mountain gorilla trekking in Bwindi Impenetrable Forest, I felt as though I knew what to expect when we went chimpanzee trekking in Uganda. How wrong I was – in the most wonderful ways.
From the moment we met up with the guides and rangers (after a cup of superb Ugandan coffee), we were struck by their passion and enthusiasm. They were just as excited as we were, even though they’d done this many times before.
After a briefing, we stepped into the cool of the trees and commenced our trek. All the usual primate-viewing rules would apply, in terms of maintaining our distance and not eating or drinking when near the chimpanzee.
I was pleasantly surprised at how easy the going was when chimpanzee trekking in Uganda. As it was one of the two annual dry seasons, there was very little mud underfoot, and the terrain was quite level.
As I was sure of my footing, I could pay attention to my surroundings. My partner and I greatly enjoyed pointing out passing birds, and colourful and unusually shaped seed pods and leaves. Even without the prospect of encountering chimpanzee, this would have been a delightful forest walk.
The calm of the forest didn’t last – ahead, we heard a rhythmic drumming sound: simian thumping. But it wasn’t a monkey; rather, our guide explained that it was a chimp, banging on the buttresses of a giant tree to create an echoing contact call. We were drawing close!
A few moments later, all hell broke loose! A dark, hunched shape sped across the path ahead of us, and the trees erupted into a joyous cacophony of panting, hooting, and branch shaking. We had found the chimpanzee – or, more accurately, they’d found us.
It was a lot to take in – an extended family group of 20, explained the guides, but it felt as though there could be easily double that number. Whereas the mountain gorilla had been content to sit and chew in a clearing, these smaller primates seemed to prefer the trees.
This made them tricky to spot and photograph, but to be honest, I soon put my camera away and concentrated on the chaos going on around us. Think of a possible chimpanzee activity, and we were treated to a demonstration. Here, were juvenile males semi-seriously wrestling in a test of strength. There, a mother tenderly grooming her adult daughter while a fresh, pink-faced baby gazed on in wonder, its tiny hands knotted firmly in familiar fur.
A continuous pattering sound made us suspect an unseasonal rain shower, but it turned out to be pieces of fruit being dropped from the branches above us. Chimpanzee are messy eaters – they have no need to be fastidious in such an abundant environment.
As we adjusted to the exuberance all around us, one of the guides motioned to a much larger chimpanzee, sitting off to one side on his own. We learned that this was the silverback, the alpha male of the group.
While everything seemed happily disorganised, the guide explained that with one signal from this male, the whole group would form up and move off through the forest. We spent some time in a whispered discussion as to what the chimpanzee must make of us poor hairless creatures who had stumbled into their midst, but they appeared far too busy for contemplation.
It seemed that – like some arboreal teenage pop group – they were living life out loud and wearing their hearts on their sleeves. They reminded me of children in their apparent lack of impulse control, but they had one final surprise for us: a female patiently dipping a twig into a termite mound and licking off the termites that stuck to it. It was an Attenboroughesque moment of time travel during which we felt we could see back to the very dawn of our own species.
True, there were similarities between our two primate experiences: exploring forest habitats with dedicated rangers and guides, straining to catch the first vocalisations as we neared the group and the sense of wonder that comes with being so close to a wild creature than acts uncannily like we do…
But while our time with the mountain gorilla was an hour of zen-like calm; trying to keep track of a boisterous chimpanzee family while chimp trekking in Uganda was a little like trying to childmind in a sweetshop. It goes without saying that both were highlights of our Uganda safari.