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Let Us Go Meet Our Cousins: MyDogKyle’s Adventures in Uganda & Rwanda

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Apr 12th, 2009, 05:42 PM
  #41
 
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Perhaps the sign should have said “Pse Don’t Go Beyond This Point – Common Sense.”

I think I'll pass on a V & A next time I'm offered.

It is truly heartening to hear that you saw so many animals in Murchison Falls. Too bad about getting stuck but at least you were in good company.
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Apr 12th, 2009, 08:39 PM
  #42
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Thanks for the comments, guys! (After my April 5th post, I wondered if anybody was reading this anymore...)

Nyamera, I agree -- I would much rather be stuck in the mud in Murchison Falls right now than sitting at home thinking about going to work tomorrow. I know you are deeply in love with Kenya, but maybe when you move there you can start vacationing in Uganda -- you would love it!

Lynn, that really was a good lesson for all of us about always checking the shorts. If even one person is helped by that bit of advice, I will have done my job here.

Leely, you're right. We had a few hours of frustration trying to move those vans and get back to the lodge, but in the end everything worked out fine. As it usually does!

Next up, back to Kampala and then onward to Kibale... I hope to get another couple of posts finished this week. Thanks for reading!
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Apr 12th, 2009, 08:42 PM
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Oh, and... no, we never did get an explanation for the gunshots we heard from Paraa Lodge. Hopefully there was a reasonable explanation.
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Apr 13th, 2009, 06:44 PM
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MDK, not only am I still reading your report, I am entranced. I'm not much of a fan of the primates, but you're making me want to take this trip!
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Apr 13th, 2009, 07:11 PM
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Star55, how about this August? Your choice of Murchison Falls, Rwanda gorillas, colobus and chimps in Nyungwe, Rwanda. You can mix and match or do it all. So far it's just me on the departure I'm doing.

Pardon the ad...back to the Cousins.
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Apr 14th, 2009, 03:22 AM
  #46
 
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Don't worry MDK-I've been eagerly awaiting each installment.
The one good thing about events that don't go as planned... they make good stories! I think it was Woody Allen who said "comedy is tragedy plus time"
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Apr 14th, 2009, 10:19 AM
  #47
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Lillipets, what a great quote! Makes me think of the time we had to sleep on the floor in the Tahiti airport (with cockroaches).

Glad you guys are enjoying it! Sorry I type so slowly... but hopefully I can add another entry tonight. Thanks for all the kind words.

Star55, someone on this board already said she wanted to be the #1 advocate for travel in Uganda, so I would like to be #2! I loved Uganda so much, and I would be thrilled if this report inspired anyone to plan a trip there. If I hadn't already been, I would jump right on that offer to join Lynn -- she has an incredible trip planned! And if you think the primates are interesting in my report so far, just wait... the really amazing stuff is coming up in Kibale and Rwanda.
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Apr 14th, 2009, 09:28 PM
  #48
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PART 8 (Murchison Falls to Kampala) – “K-Mart, Traffic Jams and Indian Food—Where Are We, California?”

Our guides told us the roads between Murchison Falls and Kibale are so bad in the rainy season, we had to spend a day driving back to Kampala to avoid them. Well, if that direct route was worse than the one we drove, thank goodness we didn’t go that way! As it was, we had to contend all day with bumpy, sloshy, slippy dirt roads which gave the drivers a real test of their skills. As we drove out of the national park, we spotted red bishops dotting the roadside shrubbery like tiny red traffic signs—my friend joked that we could set a measuring stick by them, “every ten feet, a red bishop!” At the wait for the ferry crossing, we saw a baboon sitting on a motorcycle. Not long after the ferry ride, it was impossible to see anything out the windows, because they were caked with red mud.

We stopped at the curious restaurant in Hoima again for lunch, but this time our guides (wisely) brought picnic lunch boxes, and we ate out in the garden during a rare break in the rain. While we relaxed, Jhonie, Ali, Kule and Wazir disappeared with the vans. When they came back at the end of lunch, the vehicles were spotlessly clean. I told Jhonie I was impressed with how fast they’d washed them and he replied, straight-faced, “We bought new vans for you.” Ali started laughing hysterically. And then he showed off his stylish pointed-toe cowboy boots, and asked me if the cowboys in California wear boots like these. I think he was a little disappointed that I don’t know any cowboys.

Driving from Hoima to Kampala, I got into an interesting and extremely sad conversation with Jhonie about the problems in northern Uganda, and the country’s political situation in general. This bright, sweet, normally funny young guy had a very sobering take on it, and I appreciated his honesty. As much as I had read about Uganda before I came here, there is nothing like talking to a person who has actually grown up here. It is important to learn about the successes, the strides that are made by conservation groups and aid programs and grassroots organizations. But it’s also so important to try to see as much of the whole picture as you can when traveling through a new place, not to just see it through rose-colored tourist glasses. Hearing the negatives with the positives did not make me love Uganda less – in fact, it made me love the place even more, the way you love a friend even when they frustrate you or let you down, with all the good and bad. I know I will spend most of this trip report talking about the incredible experiences we had with wildlife, but I can’t over-emphasize how significant it was to have the chance to really talk with so many people on this trip, and to spend so much time with our wonderful guides. This conversation with Jhonie was a turning point for me in that sense – the point when I felt like we two had moved beyond just tourist and guide, and started to really become friends.

We drove through pouring rain and flashes of lightning which startled people from their catnaps. Our road trip conversations ranged from discussing TV shows (somebody tried to explain “Survivor” to Ali and Jhonie) to sports to politics. At one point we stopped for a short call at a gas station with a small store called “K-Mart,” which had neat shelves of goods and a stuffed German Shepherd toy in the window. My husband wanted to try some of the meat kebabs a vendor was trying to sell us through the van window, but Kule wrinkled up his nose and said, “You best not – WE even get sick if we eat that!” Instead, my husband satisfied his need for road snacks by picking up some Ugandan goodies at the K-Mart: cookies, fruit, little packages of biscuits called “Nice” and “Helty” [sic], and a plastic envelope of Zed (pineapple-flavored warangi, a type of powerful liquor), which he saved for later, for a special occasion. Just up the road from K-Mart, we passed a police roadblock for “Produce Check,” where we saw fruit—huge green bananas, long purple sugarcane, giant jackfruit, and other fantastic-looking things we couldn’t identify—lined up along the sides of the road.

As we neared Kampala, we saw increasing signs of urbanization—more and more people walking along the road, and traffic, and the stink of fumes and burning oil creeping through every crack and crevice in the van. I hadn’t noticed that smell before, but those days spent in the Budongo Forest and in the wide-open space of Murchison Falls had spoiled me for fresh air, I guess. We passed the Mayor’s house and the huge mosque, and drove through neighborhoods of Indian-style houses with gates and high fences topped with broken glass. Jhonie told us these used to belong to Indian merchants’ families before they were expelled from the country under Amin, and now tended to belong to wealthy Ugandans. The closer we got to the city center, the worse the traffic got. Gridlock, just like home. Our vans came to a halt, facing into a wall of traffic heading in the opposite direction. People were making their own lanes, and there seemed to be no sense to it. After a conference out the windows of their vans, Ali jumped out of our vehicle and swapped with Kule, so that Ali the Super Driver was now in the lead. He then performed a miraculous move that somehow created a wedge formation, and our three vans moved right through the oncoming traffic as if parting a curtain. It was incredible! Everyone in our van cheered and applauded as we moved forward.

But only moments later, just before we’d reached the Grand Imperial Hotel, another car banged into the side of our van, leaving a dent (and it was their brand new van!). Kule said a bad word (very softly), and got out to talk to the other driver. The whole exchange was typical for how we saw Ugandans speak to one another throughout our visit. At home, there would have been yelling and finger-pointing and blame and anger, but instead, this is how it went. Kule: “Sir, are you all right?” Other guy: “Yes sir. And are you all right?” Kule: “Yes, we are all fine, thank you.” And then they exchanged information on slips of paper, Kule got back into the van, and we were on our way.

At the hotel, we hurried to exchange some more dollars for Ugandan shillings. This is as good a time as any to mention that, unlike Kenya and Tanzania where our dollar bills were always welcome, most people we encountered in Uganda preferred shillings to dollars for tips and small purchases. In fact, some small shops (like K-Mart, how ironic) would not take dollars at all. And even for tips, people did not want small American bills. If it was anything smaller than a $20 they would ask if we had shillings instead, since the exchange rate is so much worse for small bills. Everyone in our group had this same experience (even after we’d been advised to bring small bills by someone who’d been to Uganda before). We ended up bringing home a lot of our dollar bills and just using all our $20s. Fortified with a supply of shillings, a few of us walked back to the craft market in the dwindling light. Crossing the street in Kampala was, as before, an adventure in itself! We made it to the market just before closing time, and were able to pick up some magazine-bead necklaces for our moms. I almost bought the beads at one shop before I noticed the black and white colobus monkey skins hanging on the back wall. I can’t say I had the courage to speak up about that to the shop keeper, but I did not spend my money there and I made sure to tell my friends so they wouldn’t, either. We walked back to the Grand Imperial in the dark, careful not to fall into any potholes. Our guides told us that parts of Kampala can be dangerous to walk around, particularly the refugee neighborhoods, but we felt perfectly safe in the city center, even after dark.

Back at the hotel, we had a quick listen to a jazz combo playing the restaurant (“Autumn Leaves”) before some of us walked over to a place that Wazir told us was “the best Indian restaurant in Kampala.” The restaurant was small and Spartan, tucked down a random side street that we’d never have found on our own, but the food was so delicious—paneer dosa for my husband and a heavenly thali for me, washed down with Kingfisher beer. The guys said that there are lots of places to get great Indian food in Kampala, “better than anywhere else in the country.” They joined us for dinner here, and we had a lot of fun. Only later did we discover that they’d planned to have dinner with their families tonight, and gave that up to spend time with us. It was so sweet of them to do that, but it made me feel bad for them—it is amazing how much time these guys have to spend away from their wives and kids.

We made it back to the Grand Imperial just in time to catch the last tune of a Congolese band. Sadly, they stopped playing for the night just after I’d ordered some African tea. Oh well. There’s never enough time to do everything you would like to do on a trip like this. We still had a great night out after an exhausting day of road travel, and I got to try African tea for the first time—creamy and spicy like Indian chai, but slightly different. Even that wasn’t enough to keep me awake long enough to write in my journal tonight.


Coming up next... Kibale, more chimps, and one of the most harrowing experiences of my life.
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Apr 15th, 2009, 04:53 PM
  #49
 
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Lynn, if I wasn't in startup mode on my consulting practice, I'd seriously think about your offer. Maybe next time!

MDK, eagerly awaiting the next installment, even if it does sound nerve-wracking.
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Apr 17th, 2009, 10:39 PM
  #50
 
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MDK, I LOVE your report and am eagerly awaiting the rest! I am going to Uganda for 3 weeks in July. Quick question--any items that you would say are a 'must bring' (ie Cliff bars)? What clothes did you find most useful and again, are a 'must bring'? or what did you WISH you brought, or had with you?
Can't wait to hear about the rest of your adventure!
MB
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Apr 19th, 2009, 07:01 PM
  #51
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Thanks, pinkdog (another dog! )! I'm glad you're enjoying it. How cool that you're going to Uganda!! Will you be chimp and/or gorilla trekking? My next installment about Kibale and the chimps is quite long, so it's taking me a while to transcribe it (this is all getting typed up out of an old-school hand-written journal, which explains why it's taking me sooo long). But hopefully I will get it done this week. It turned out to be a busy weekend (volunteering at an Earth Day event).

I think the clothes I was most happy to have on this trip were my two pairs of shoes -- hightop hiking boots (well broken-in) for chimp and gorilla trekking, and close-toed waterproof sandals (knock-off Keens) for the other days-- as well as a tough long-sleeve shirt, leather gardening gloves, and rain pants (to zip over my lightweight hiking pants, that fast-drying "rip-stop" material) for the gorilla trek; a raincoat and rain cover for our daypack; and some cheapo cargo pants from Old Navy that roll up to capris. We also needed a warm pullover in Rwanda in the evening. Other than that, it's just t-shirts and shorts for me most of the time. There wasn't really anything we wished we'd brought, but we were pretty well-prepared by reading this board and having gone on safari the previous year. Our shoe strategy was basically to have a 2nd pair that would dry fast and be suitable even for gorilla trekking if our hiking boots were too saturated from the previous day's trek.

For must-haves, I would say a headlamp (or at least a really good flashlight) for the inevitable power outages), and I wish we'd brought more Cliff bars (non-melty flavors, no chocolate). I also like to bring ginger candies for car sickness on bumpy roads. Lots of large ziploc bags, to protect the cameras from rain, and then to quarantine the muddy gorilla-trek clothing at the end of the trip! Duct tape to repair any rips in the duffles or backpack (we used this more on our Kenya trip than this time, but it still came in handy) -- I read a tip here to wind some around a pen or pencil. And hand sanitizer plus a few small rolls of toilet paper are pretty darn useful (you can get those travel TP rolls without a center tube, in a little plastic shell).

That's all I can think of off the top of my head! Hope it's helpful.
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Apr 19th, 2009, 11:24 PM
  #52
 
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Yes, this was very helpful! Thanks so much MyDogKyle! ( I love dogs). We (my 18 year old daughter and I) plan to do both gorilla and chimp trekking (one day each), but mostly we will be participating in projects through the Global Buddies program at UCLA (www.globalbuddies.net). I will be in Africa for a total of 5 weeks, first in a township in Cape Town, then a short safari in Kenya, and finally on to Uganda! So I'm trying to figure out how to pack as lightly as possible...(between winter clothes for Cape Town and hiking boots for Uganda, it won't be easy!)
Anyway, your adventure reads like a good book that I can't put down! So I'm eagerly awaiting the next installment.
Again, many thanks for taking the time to respond and your information will help make our trip that much better!
MB
P.S. I'm always open to additional words of wisdom!
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Apr 20th, 2009, 03:45 PM
  #53
 
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Your Earth Day participation earns you an extra two weeks time on the report.

Love the duct tape around the pencil tip. I'm going to do that. I fully agree about the 2 pairs of boots.

"and I wish we'd brought more Cliff bars (non-melty flavors, no chocolate)" Good God, woman, have you lost your mind? No chocolate?
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Apr 20th, 2009, 04:02 PM
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I forgot to mention the most important tip about what to bring (thanks for reminding me, Lynn!) -- backpackers' chocolate, the kind wrapped in a wax coating so it won't melt. I still stand by my no melty-flavors Cliff bar recommendation, though, after seeing the inside of a friend's backpack in the aftermath.

(Another good reason to bring extra snacks is so you can share them with your guides and porters on the long treks up the mountain. The gorilla trackers, especially, appreciated some snacks.)
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Apr 20th, 2009, 04:37 PM
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Backpacker's chocolate--good idea. I believe the inside of my entire duffle once looked like what your friend's backpack looked like. What a mess and what a waste. I think your no-melt recommendation is a good one.
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Apr 20th, 2009, 04:59 PM
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Well, I have found that peanut butter crunch with chocolate chips counts as "non-melting"!
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Apr 20th, 2009, 10:16 PM
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PART 9 (Kibale Forest) – “Witnesses to a Murder”

Our plans had to change a bit at this point in the trip, thanks to a mix-up with the chimp tracking permits at the Kibale ranger station. Originally we were supposed to drive from Kampala to Kibale today and then go see the chimps tomorrow morning, but last night we found out that we’d have to do both the long drive and the chimp tracking today. Nobody was very happy about that, but you roll with the punches. We got up at 5am and had a quick breakfast around 6:00, then all stood around nervously waiting for our guides and vans to arrive at the hotel. They finally arrived about an hour late, and by the time we got everyone and the gear loaded, we set off just before 8:00, knowing we had to be at the Kibale Forest ranger station by 2pm. “Ugandan time” is fine in most instances, but it is quite nerve-wracking when you really need to be somewhere on time! “No problem, no problem,” Wazir assured us, and since we had no other choice we decided to take his word for it.

We drove out of Kampala just ahead of the rush hour traffic, and through the outskirts of town where we passed a muddy field scattered with garbage, marabou storks, and hammerkops. This is the only place where we experienced some unfriendliness when a member of our group shot a photo out the window – a man quite a ways away from the road started waving his arms and yelling at our van, and Jhonie said he was yelling that we should pay him for taking a picture here. He seemed pretty angry, but this was a very different reaction from what we usually saw in Uganda (frankly, it reminded me of the way some Maasai people had reacted to tourists snapping pictures out the window in the Masai Mara in Kenya).

We passed the time on the long drive talking about music and sharing tunes in the van. Jhonie told us that on his time off he likes to go to the disco and dance “from the first tune to the last.” We asked who his favorite musicians were, hoping for some local tips about great Ugandan bands and singers, but his picks were Alicia Keys, Usher and Jennifer Lopez. He did, however, promise to play some of his African favorites for us once he got his cell phone batteries charged. We also talked with Jhonie (the only unmarried guide in the bunch) about how young single Ugandans spend their time, and he said that internet dating is very popular… but that many people are disappointed by the results. We told him that’s pretty much the same in America. We tried a few more tasty Ugandan road snacks along the way, bought from vendors pushing them up to the windows at a fuel stop: roasted plantains and cassava, and mellow little cookies called “short biscuits.”

As we neared Kibale, we entered into some of the most beautiful landscapes we’d seen on this trip so far—rolling hills covered with carpets of iridescent green tea leaves, sprawling plantations in terraces that covered every inch of ground. We stopped briefly at a restaurant in the town of Fort Portal, where our guides urged us to quickly fill up little foil boxes with food from the buffet to eat in the car on the way. Everyone jumped back into the vans and we were off like rockets—all of the sudden, it seemed the drivers weren’t so sure it would be “no problem” to get us to the ranger station by 2:00. They sped up the winding dirt roads into the hills, past more tea plantations and finally into the leafy green darkness of Kibale Forest National Park. As the vans raced and swerved around potholes and animals and hapless school kids, desperately trying to make it in time for our trek, we scrambled to eat our lunches without spilling food all over the van, then slapped on bug repellant and pulled on our waterproof layers, tucking pant legs into our socks to foil biting ant attacks. “Be ready to go as soon as we get there!” the guides cautioned.

We arrived at the ranger station around 2:15, and everything was in a rush—dividing up into groups and getting whisked off by our impatient chimp tracking guides. Our group had 6 people plus our guide, a soft-spoken man who introduced himself this way, “I am Charles. Like Prince Charles!” Charles had been tracking chimps in Kibale for 13 years, so we felt like we were in very good hands. He walked with us a short way into the forest and talked about the rules, and then gave us an orientation to the types of trees and wildlife found here while thunder rumbled ominously overhead. (One thing he mentioned that I really wish we’d been able to do was a night walk in the forest—definitely something worth investigating if you’re inclined toward adventure!) Charles glanced up at the leafy canopy overhead and said he needed to find the chimps quickly, before it began to rain too hard. “They will not be very active if it rains,” he told us. (Oh, if only that had been true…)

We set off in earnest to look for the chimps, with Charles leading us quickly into the dense forest. This was some of the toughest hiking we’ve ever done (and even after our Rwandan gorilla treks, I would still same the same—this was often harder). It was difficult even before we saw a single chimp, just trying to keep up with the fast-moving Charles in a place with no trails. The forest was humid, very dark and steamy and dripping with rain, rumbling with thunder and the quick overhead rustlings of unseen monkeys scattering at our approach. It didn’t take long for the camera lenses to fog up, and people wearing glasses had to keep wiping them off. Every step was a hazard of mud and roots and vines, so we had to simultaneously watch our steps and watch out for low-hanging branches overhead to avoid being hit in the face, while also trying to keep track of the blur that was Charles hurrying on ahead. We could hear chimps pant hooting somewhere in the forest nearby, and Charles kept urging us to “hurry, hurry!” before the rain began. At one point he said, “Chimp!” and we saw a black figure dashing off into the darkness of the trees. I can’t even describe how exciting this was – I loved every second of it. I remember thinking in that moment that even if that was all we saw of the chimps here, I was satisfied. It was just so thrilling to be here in this elemental environment, in their home.

Still, we kept pushing on in a line, as quietly as possible, nearly running single file to keep up with Charles (who was trying to keep up with that blur of a chimp). We sloshed across a fast-moving stream, several people’s feet sank deep into patches of quicksand-like mud, and we were all repeatedly snagged in branches—people fell, foreheads were bruised, clothes were ripped, glasses were broken (if you wear glasses, bring an extra pair!). Did I mention it had started pouring rain? It was liberating in a way—no point in even trying to stay dry anymore, so we sloshed through streams and mud with abandon, and shed our raincoats to protect our camera gear instead of ourselves.

At last we found the chimps! They were a troop of about 40 individuals, scattered around so that we only saw small groups—mostly adults, but I did see a few with babies up in the trees. We’d expected them to be hunkered down waiting out the rain, but no. They were definitely on the move, or at least some of them were. The big adults would sit for a few minutes on the forest floor, glancing around at each other and occasionally at us, or looking up at the rain, and then they would get to their feet and head purposefully off into the forest in a silent single-file line (much more skilled and graceful than our own!). They let us follow them for about 15 minutes, and it was quite clear they were letting us—they could easily have ditched us at any time, and they kept glancing back at us with mild curiosity. I wondered at the time if we were bothering them, because every so often they would stop to eat a small amount of fruit or just gaze up into the treetops, their dark fur spiked with rain, but they would never stay still for long. Almost immediately, one big male would get up and lead the others off in that calm, steady march through the forest again. We didn’t realize until later that they had a destination in mind, and it had nothing to do with us.

Eventually we lost the chimps, and since our tracking time was nearly up, Charles began to lead us out of the forest. Everyone in our group was elated, thrilled by the beauty of the chimps’ home and by how it felt to be in their presence, even for a short while. Unlike the chimps we watched in Budongo, these guys were right down on the ground near us, so we really got to see them move – and there were so many of them!

We had just reached the road to head back to the visitor’ center when the forest erupted with sound, an incredible ear-splitting ruckus of screaming and thrashing of branches. I’ve never heard anything like it (and I’m not sure I’d ever want to again). Blood-curdling screams and cries that shook the treetops. Charles immediately dove back into the forest, motioning for us to follow, and we knew something big was happening because he was flat-out running toward the commotion. I have no idea how he knew which way to go, because the screaming seemed to be everywhere around us. We just ran after him into that sound, hearts pounding, terrified and yet wildly curious. What on earth was going on?! It was like being inside a nightmare of noise, with the rain still coming down and the forest dark as night.

When we reached the chimps, it was pandemonium. A mob of roiling black bodies was in a small clearing, and other chimps were climbing rapidly up and down the trees, several of them breaking away from the groups to run out in wide loops on the forest floor, screaming and shaking their arms in display. I saw one of these individuals drum his hands against a tree trunk before running back to join the mob. We could see the white back of the alpha male in the pile of writhing bodies, and one person in our group even saw the pink flash of a female in estrus amongst the mob. “They are killing him!” Charles kept saying, “They are killing him!” But it was hard to hear him over the screaming. I think we all began to realize what we were seeing, but didn’t completely understand it until he explained the situation to us afterwards—3 chimps from another group had wandered across the road and entered “our” group’s territory, and they’d been caught by the patrolling males. Two of the invaders escaped (when I watched my video later, I actually saw one of them getting away), but the third was not so lucky. He was being beaten to death right in front of us.

This is what I saw: a mass of bodies in the darkness, faces emerging every now and then with mouths wide open, teeth bared, screaming. Arms raising into the air, and fists pounding down. And once, the bodies parted enough for me to see a bloody little face tipped back in agony, mouth open and gasping with pain and fear, his teeth lined dark with blood. This is what I heard: terrifying screams, the sickening thud of fists and then, at the end, the wails of the dead chimp’s companions far off in the forest. (Charles identified this last sound for us, but as soon as I heard it I somehow knew what it was.) Midway through the beating, I felt a wave of self-loathing and switched off my video camera, even though Charles was urging me to “keep filming! Keep filming!” I understood later why he did—this kind of event is rare enough that it isn’t usually witnessed, and the researchers could learn a lot from the film. But at the time, I felt like some opportunistic, unethical journalist, or someone making a snuff film. The whole thing was so shocking, I felt numb… and beside me two of my friends were clutching each other and sobbing. “It’s okay,” Charles insisted, “they will not hurt you.” But I don’t think any of us were worrying about that.

When it was over, the chimps kept pounding on the victim’s battered body to be certain he was dead and not just unconscious. The mob broke apart a bit, and the males took turns running up to the body and smacking it. They also tore his testicles off (which, thankfully, I didn’t see). Charles told us they would take turns standing guard over the dead chimp for another day or so, to be sure his companions did not return. After that, the researchers would bury the body and eventually return to dig up the skeleton. During all of this, the chimps seemed to have no interest in us; Charles said that the habituated groups were so comfortable with having people around that, if anything, they probably felt emboldened by our presence. The victim was not from a habituated group.

By the time we left the site, several trackers had arrived to monitor the situation. Our hike back out to the road was at a much slower pace, and the forest was much quieter. As we stood out on the road in a huddle, Charles explained more about what we’d seen and told us we were “very lucky,” as even chimp researchers who spent years in the field often never saw an event like this. I sure didn’t feel so lucky, just wet and exhausted, and very sad. I knew that this was a perfectly natural event and we should not have interfered to help that poor chimp… but still, the impulse was there, and so strong that to ignore it—to just watch, and film, and marvel at this aspect of nature—felt so fundamentally wrong. Like watching a group of thugs beat some poor guy to death in a parking lot, and just standing by while it happened. I know that those feelings (so different from seeing, say, a lion hunting a zebra) come from a fundamental sense of recognition we feel when we look at chimps: they are our cousins, and they are so much like us. I could not stop imagining how terrifying the last moments of that chimp’s life must have been, and how our presence might have made it even more horrific for him.

As we walked slowly back up the road, two other groups of Zoo friends were coming toward us, excited and smiling. They’d heard the commotion but still had no idea what had happened. I think we tried to tell them, but our little group was still in shock and I don’t think they really understood until their guides took them to see the dead body. As hard as it was to actually witness the death, after talking with friends in these other groups I am glad I wasn’t in one of the groups that was taken in to see the gruesome aftermath this way.

Back at the visitors’ center, waiting for the other groups to return, we looked up in the treetops and saw a peaceful little red-tailed monkey eating leaves. I told Jhonie about what we’d witnessed and he said, “You are lucky, even if you don’t feel it now. Someday you will realize what a special thing it is to see the unusual moment in nature.” Honestly, 6 months later I think I am finally starting to see that he was right. With the encouragement of the chimp specialist in our Zoo group, those of us who saw the event wrote detailed descriptions of everything we remembered, and we also gave copies of photos and my video to a chimp researcher who works in Kibale. She was very excited to hear about our experience and wanted us to share anything we could, so I hope in some small way our documentation of the experience helps the chimps and the people who study them. I do want to add that I fully understand why “our” chimps killed the intruders—that it’s ultimately about survival, about others coming in to steal from their food source and hurt their own family’s chances of survival. I don’t hold this against the chimps. But I hope never to experience anything like this again, and I’m so grateful that I was with a group of friends when I saw this, people who are mature and sensitive about what was happening, and not somebody who would think it was funny or “cool” to see such an act of violence.

It was a short drive from the trekking office to the Kibale Forest Camp (formerly known as the Mantana Tented Camp), where our half of the Zoo group stayed (the others were in nearby Ndali Lodge). We had time to strip off our wet, mud-soaked clothes and boots and felt much better after some hot bucket showers. This camp was much more rustic than the luxurious tented camps we stayed at in Kenya and Tanzania, but it was very welcoming and wonderful in its simplicity—big walk-in tents with attached bathrooms and small porches, eco-friendly touches like composting toilets and solar energy—everything tucked away into the lush forest with lanterns lighting the paths. The new owners are in the process of renovating the camp, so I’m sure big changes are in the air. The common areas had recently been rebuilt, and the new structure was fantastic: an open-air bar and lounge downstairs, with a treehouse-like dining room upstairs under an enormous thatched roof.

Before dinner we all met in the bar and shared the Zed’s pineapple waragi that my husband had picked up at “K-Mart” a few days earlier. It seemed like an appropriate night for some hard liquor. Our chimp expert managed to put into words what so many of us were feeling about the trekking incident—it really felt like we’d witnessed a murder, not just one animal killing another to survive. We all discussed that, and talked about what we’d seen and how it made us feel. This was one of several moments when I was really thankful for our group, to be here having this experience with friends. I knew this was the kind of experience that would take a long time to process. After a delicious dinner and a chance to meet the camp staff who would be our hosts for the next few days, we all headed off into the darkness to our tents and some much-needed rest. In the middle of the night I awoke to the deep, guttural croaking of black and white colobus monkeys, an incredible primal forest sound. But this time, with this sound, I wasn’t afraid.
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Apr 21st, 2009, 03:27 AM
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Whoa! Wowy wow wow...I wouldn't have been able to watch that either. I don't care how "important" it was! I'd hand over my camera and camcorder to someone else. I'd shut my eyes and try not hear what was happening. I can't even watch that stuff on TV!
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Apr 21st, 2009, 10:24 AM
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MyDogKyle - what a wonderful story! You have us all captivated. My girlfriend and I are doing our first Africa trip in November starting with Uganda for 8 days (including seeing the Gorillas) and Tanzania for 12 days. We've been planning and saving for this trip for 2 years. Thank you for reminding me again how excited I am over this trip!
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Apr 21st, 2009, 10:41 AM
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Thanks, Lillipets and fourwheelinit! I really appreciate that people are taking the time to read this very long report.

fourwheel, I'm glad I'm helping contribute to your excitement about your upcoming trip -- we loved both Uganda and Tanzania, so I'm sure you will have an amazing time. Will you have a chance to see the chimps too?

Our chimp experience in Kibale was astounding, in both good and bad ways... but I definitely think the chimps are worth visiting (and we loved seeing them in Budongo). I would do it again if I ever get to return to Uganda. I wanted to mention that, because I hope my story doesn't discourage anyone who is on the fence about chimp tracking. (It's very, very unlikely that anyone would see what we saw in a random half-day visit!) In my humble opinion, visiting the chimps is a must-do for anyone spending time in Uganda.

Our Kibale chimps showed us the worst side of primate behavior, but in many ways that made our experiences with the gorillas later in our trip (stick with me, I will eventually get there!) even more moving and incredible. If the Kibale chimps gave us one of the most harrowing experiences of our lives, the Rwanda gorillas gave us one of the best.
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