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Uganda - walking with gorillas, chimps ... and dung beetles (Part I)

 

It was an interesting start. Jenny and I had 3 hours to spare at Heathrow, plenty of time to discuss how well we thought we'd get on over the coming days and our trip to Uganda.  We wondered together if we'd have enough in common to keep the conversation flowing and discovered our mutual love of over-analysing.

We stopped at the equator for a couple of photos
We stopped at the equator for a couple of photos

When I looked at my watch, to our horror, it was 12.05pm. The plane had started boarding half an hour earlier and was due to close at 12.10pm … so it was that we started our holiday running hell for leather to the boarding gate to manage a last minute leap onto the bus to take us to our plane.  Another 5 minutes and we would have missed it … how embarrassing!

We arrived at Entebbe airport late that night and, after a noisy night (dogs competing how loudly they could howl) woke up to the crashing of thunder and a small river running past our front door that hadn't been there the previous night.  We had arrived at the end of the dry season, but Uganda had decided otherwise and the rainy season had arrived unseasonably early.

Heading off to the wild

We were met by our guide, Carlos (who continually added "mmmmmmm" every time he said "yes" so "yesmmmmm" became our favourite catchphrase); a charming and friendly chap who drove us past Lake Victoria (the largest freshwater lake in the world) and out of Entebbe. 

“Carlos suddenly swerved to avoid a cobra that was in the middle of the road, head and hood raised …”

At one point Jenny and I needed a "comfort stop" (which turned out to be long grass and bushes) after which we carried on driving, when Carlos suddenly swerved to avoid a cobra that was in the middle of the road, head and hood raised ... after which Jenny hurriedly changed out of her flip-flops and into a pair of hiking boots for any further "comfort stops" in the long grass, probably a wise move.

Our first "event" was chimp habituation.  Jenny and I were joined by 4 chaps on a wildlife photography trip.  They became known to Jenny and I as "the alphas" as they lugged their cameras with zooms as long as your arm and who proceeded to elbow any competing people with small cameras out of the way to take their photos.  "Wait for the light", "wait for the eyes", "see the detail in the foliage", etc. etc. 

I ended up taking photos of the alphas themselves as their behaviour was almost as fascinating to study as the chimps! 

At one point I vaguely took notice of a caterpillar crawling up the outside of my trouser leg; the ranger noticed me trying to get the caterpillar onto my hiking stick and called out in alarm, flicking it away with a stick.  He called another ranger over to point it out to him and then told me that this particular caterpillar was rarely seen and "very dangerous" as he tried, and failed, to squash it with his boot.

“Trying not to think too much about what unpleasant organisms might be swimming around my toes, we managed to find chimps and were amazed at how close we were able to get.”

We clambered up and down muddy hills, being told by our guide not to walk in the elephant footprints through the boggy marsh as they were deep and filled with water (I, of course, immediately lost my balance and stepped into an elephant footprint, filling one boot with water and step-squelch-step-squelching for the rest of the trek).  Jenny managed to put a hiking stick into the thick, sticky mud and lose the end of it. It's actually quite nice to think the marsh still holds some of our possessions. 

Trying not to think too much about what unpleasant organisms might be swimming around my toes, we managed to find chimps and were amazed at how close we were able to get. At one point we were walking down a path and a chimp walked up towards us, passing us by and looking at each one of us in turn.  On another occasion Jenny climbed over a fallen tree trunk; I was about to follow when an (apparently unfriendly according to our guide) chimp ran down the log to pass, looking most annoyed at me for being in his way, and I froze, holding onto the back of Jenny's backpack, as the stroppy chimp passed behind me, knocking my backpack as he went.

Where the chimps walked, we walked; walking in line with them, or parallel, all the time moving, photographing, and studying.  At times the chimps stopped and looked up into the trees – they were looking for Colobus monkeys, which offer a meat supplement to the predominantly vegetarian chimp diet.  The guide told us that the BBC had filmed these very chimps hunting the monkeys but it was not a sight everyone wants to see – it can be brutal – so I was glad when the chimps seemed to lose interest in the monkeys and carried on walking.

“This was a great way to start our holiday but fairly hard-going. We walked for around 6 hours, through bogs and vegetation and hills.”

This was a great way to start our holiday but fairly hard-going.  We walked for around 6 hours, through bogs and vegetation and hills (I have a feeling those chimps knew exactly what they were doing, leading us through the dirtiest, muddiest, most difficult areas possible). We were spoilt for choice with opportunities to see the chimps with about 30 of them overall. 

We were both desperate for showers as we were filthy dirty when we got back to the lodge by around 2.30pm, but had to wait until the water heated up at 6pm! This was not going to be a glamorous holiday.

Next day

It was Jenny's 60th birthday on Friday 29th August.  I had brought some cards and presents from various T&L people with me, plus a little birthday cake and vodka for later! 

We then set off on a walk, spotting birds and monkeys with our guide called Joanne, who started off quite taciturn but gradually thawed out to become quite good fun. She took the mickey out of our inability to spot birds right under our noses, laughing when I mistook a bird for a monkey, and then again when Jenny mistook a monkey for a bird. She regaled us with stories of horrendous tourists she had taken on previous walks, fat ones, unfit ones, why people kept bumping into her (I told her it was because we had to study our feet as we walked over the uneven ground), what she thought of different nationalities (thankfully us Brits fared reasonably well). 

We saw baboons, red Colobus monkeys, red tailed monkeys, the rarer L'hoest monkeys and black and white Colobus monkeys. All in all pretty good spotting for one day!  Back to base and there was a little lad following Jenny around and watching her every move and I remembered the birthday balloons I had in my back pocket. I don't think I've ever seen someone's eyes go so wide as this youngster when Jenny started blowing up the balloon for him! 

We then had a long drive, going through tiny villages where the children waved and yelled "Mzungu!!" ("white people") and I was surprised that we were such an attraction. People working in fields would stop what they were doing to watch us drive by.  We stopped at the equator for a couple of photos with the markers (well you've got to haven't you?) before arriving at our lodging, which overlooked the water's edge and we enjoyed spotting elephant, warthog and buffalo from our terrace. 

at the Equator
at the Equator

The only problem was that the toilet in our lodge was a bucket at the bottom of a plastic box, which you had to use and then pour sand over – not glamorous at all …

The Kazinga Channel

On our first afternoon game drive we saw lion, warthog, buffalo and antelope, before heading back for dinner and sitting on the veranda with our vodkas and birthday cake, listening to the deafening noise of a gazillion bullfrogs whilst watching the lightning.

Next day was a boat ride along the Kazinga Channel where we saw a huge volume of buffalo, hippo, birds and a monitor lizard that, upon realising he was being watched, went and hugged a tree stump in the hope that his camouflage would make him difficult to spot. It didn't. 

As we chugged along, the people of the village all jumped into their canoes and small boats to head off for Lake George – they were all fishermen and we were surrounded by boats. We watched them all and it looked a serious business. No smiling or waving here!  Dinner was out under the stars with the sounds of the jungle all around. Our last night having to use the sand bucket, phew!

As they continue on their journey Jenny and Lisa take us to the mountains and the mythical gorillas in the mist … it is all so magical! Click here to continue reading