The 42-year-old chimpanzee lounges lazily on the branch, eyeing us congenially. Far from being bothered by our presence, he seems to be actively enjoying it, striking the sort of poses a catalogue model would be proud of, working the crowd, playing to his audience. This, after all, is almost certainly not his first encounter with the paparazzi.
His name is Ssebo, which means Sir, and he’s one of around 1500 wild chimpanzees living in the Kibale Forest in Western Uganda. Primates are one of the country’s biggest draws – Uganda’s star attraction is the chance to get close to the critically endangered mountain gorilla (which you can read about here) – but a chimpanzee tracking experience is also one not to be missed.
I travel to Kibale by road from Murchison Falls National Park, where we’ve just spent two days (I wrote about that here). I’m travelling with Linn, my friend and fellow travel blogger at www.travellinn.net, and Hassan our charming Ugandan driver and guide.
The journey takes us south-west for about eight hours of being rattled and jolted over unsealed red dirt roads, past wide fields of papyrus and cassava, and through tiny towns where the children wave excitedly and shout ‘Hey Mzungu!’ (white person) as we pass.
We stop for lunch at the gorgeous Kyaninga Lodge, a top-end luxury hotel complex perched like an eagle’s nest on the rim of an ancient volcanic crater, with breathtaking views out over the crater lake. Hassan tells us that we’re now entering the Albertine Rift Valley, and that this is only the start of the stunning scenery we have in store for us. He’s not wrong, as we’ll soon find out.
The Albertine Rift is part of the East African Rift Valley, a huge fault line caused by the breaking away of the Somali tectonic plate from the rest of the African continent. The result is a trench that runs 4000 miles from the Red Sea in the north to Mozambique in the south, with a width of about 40 miles, (though it’s increasing by about 2 cm every year). The Albertine Rift sits on the border between Uganda, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Rwanda, and the huge forces that created it are also responsible for some of the world’s most dramatic landscapes, including the spectacular Virunga mountains, and, of course, the volcano Nyiragongo (which you can read about here).
Our al-fresco lunch-with-a-view is interrupted by a heavy rainstorm – this is Uganda’s rainy season, after all – so we scurry inside and watch through the windows as the scenery is swiftly obscured.
Hassan has the unenviable task of driving the rest of the way on wet roads, but he’s more than up to the challenge, and we arrive in Kibale, road-weary but excited, at about 5 pm. Which is just about the perfect time for a beer on the veranda of our cottage at Crater Safari Lodge, overlooking another spectacular crater lake. But more about this later, we’ve got chimpanzees to find!
We’re up and out early the next morning, ready for the 8 am briefing at the Kibale Forest chimp tracking HQ. Mist hangs in the valleys, and I’m nervous. It’s been raining all night, and it looks like it might be about to start again.
I’m fully prepared with everything I need: sturdy walking boots with socks tucked in (in case of biting ants), a raincoat, my much-loved Canon 5D and 70-200 lens, and a banana pinched from breakfast, in case I get hungry on the walk.
Our guide, 33-year-old Africano, gives us the rules for chimpanzee tracking: keep at least 8 metres away from the animals at all times, don’t attempt to imitate their calls in case you accidentally say the wrong thing and upset them, and don’t bring food – they may try to steal it. I’m forced to sacrifice my breakfast banana.
We’re divided into four groups of seven, each with a separate armed guide. Then we set off, walking into the forest down a muddy path, still soft from last night’s rain, before veering off to the left and pushing on into the tangled undergrowth itself.
Some way into the jungle we stop, and Africano motions us all to be quiet. He’s listening for chimpanzee calls. We all crane our heads, though we’re not quite sure what we’re supposed to be listening for. Africano explains that the best way to find the chimps is to follow their cries, though the guides will already have a fair idea of where the group will be based on where they were the day before.
He listens again, and then, from across the forest, we hear them: a distant screeching and yelping echoing through the air. We make our way towards the sounds, ducking under low branches and picking our way through twisted foliage, stopping every so often so that Africano can have another listen and check we’re still going the right way.
It takes us 12 minutes to reach them. Africano spots them first, two males, high up in the tree above our heads. I peer into the green, struggling to see what everyone is looking at, and then, suddenly, one descends, hand over foot down the tree trunk till he reaches the ground, before disappearing into the undergrowth. By the time I’ve realized what’s happening and got my camera ready, all I manage to capture is his departing backside.
We set off in hot pursuit, matching his brisk pace as he moves purposefully through the jungle, pausing only once, briefly, to look around – almost as if he’s making sure we’re still keeping up.
Then he heads off again until he finally reaches the place he was looking for: a fallen tree lying across the forest floor, a smooth resting place raised up off the rain-dampened ground. He climbs up, and sits.
We’re all of about 10 metres away. This is my first encounter with a wild chimpanzee, and I’m so shaky with excitement I can barely hold the camera steady.
I fire off shot after shot, and it’s perfect: his raised seating position so the undergrowth doesn’t get in the way, the clean light coming through the trees, the way he’s perfectly still, allowing plenty of time for photographs.
This is Ssebo. Africano tells us he’s come down to the ground after feeding, to rest after a heavy meal – his fruit-stained teeth are a dead giveaway. Chimpanzees feel more relaxed on the ground, but they don’t like the wet, which is why he’s found this comfy log to sit on, a peaceful haven away from the chatter of the rest of his group.
Ssebo is 42, and used to be the beta male, or vice president, of the 120-strong group. His alpha, Magezi, was ousted in July 2016 after a 2-year-battle with another male, Totti. When Totti finally won the battle, both Magezi and Ssebo, his second-in-command, were forced to stand down. Now he’s just a regular group member like everyone else, fallen from grace.
Nevertheless, right now Ssebo is the star of the show, and it seems he knows it. He strikes poses like a professional model: a head tilt here, a glance to the right there. He leans and lounges, sometimes looking straight at the camera, other times shifting his position so that everyone in the group can get a good look at him.
We are all entranced, shutters click and clatter like a train. The paparazzi are out in force, and celebrity Ssebo is loving every second.
THE HUNT RESUMES
Eventually he lies down to sleep, and, show over, we move on. Africano is confident that the rest of Ssebo’s group won’t be far away, and I’m keen to see them, and photograph a few more faces.
We pass a group coming the other way; they say they’ve just had an amazing close encounter with seven chimps all on the ground, but that they left when they all went back up into the trees. I begin to feel uneasy, should we have stayed where we were?
We press on regardless, stopping occasionally to listen to the hooting and howling that’s echoing across the forest. The chimps are definitely nearby. We pass a nest in a nearby tree which surprises me: I had no idea that chimpanzees built nests like birds do – though unlike birds their nests only take about five minutes to build and they make a new one every day.
After another few minutes we find the noisy neighbours, about 20 more chimps, high up in a fig tree. They’re stuffing their faces with the fruit, and Africano tells us they’re unlikely to descend for hours. They’ll spend their time feeding and would then normally come down to rest, sleep and groom, but if the ground is wet, as it is today, they’ll probably just stay up in the trees. This is obviously disappointing news, but I do my best to capture what I can anyway. It’s great to see more animals, but part of me regrets leaving Ssebo, and curses the weather gods for making it rain.
Africano tells us some of their names: there’s Adyeri sitting in the fork of a tree, and Ntale, a 32-year-old male, shovelling fruit into his mouth. Chimpanzees mostly eat fruit, supplemented by wood for fibre and calcium, and sometimes small monkeys and antelopes which they hunt in packs. Today, though, it’s all about the figs.
There are babies up there too. A female chimpanzee reaches maturity at age 13, after which time she has to leave the group she grew up in and find another, to avoid inbreeding. She’ll have a new baby every 4 years, but the fathers can all be different: chimpanzee groups are polyamorous, everyone shares everyone, like some sort of big, free-love commune.
As we watch them I chat to Africano, and discover that he’s almost as fascinating as the chimps themselves. He grew up right here in Kibale, one of ten children born into a poor peasant farming family. In 1992, when he was seven years old, the Kibale forest was made into a National Park, and all the families living in the area were forcibly evicted or resettled by the government, with no compensation.
For a long time Africano was angry, and then he realized that even if his family could no longer live here, they could still benefit from the land. So he decided to embrace the situation, went to school, studied tourism and wildlife management, and got a job working as a ranger. Which, given that there are 50 applicants for every job, and a gruelling 3-stage interview process including a fitness test, an exam, and an interview, is no small achievement!
We watch the chimps a little while longer, but soon it’s time to return to base. I feel a little disappointed – yes we’ve been lucky to get to spend time with Ssebo, but I’d been hoping for more than just one chimp. Still, these are wild animals, and nothing is guaranteed. And at least we didn’t get rained on.
CHIMPANZEE TRACKING HINTS AND TIPS
- Kibale is generally recognised as the best place in Uganda to go chimp tracking, but it’s also possible in Queen Elizabeth National Park
- In Kibale, chimp tracking groups leave at 0800 or 1400. Chimp sightings are not guaranteed, but the odds of seeing some are above 90%.
- A chimp tracking permit costs $150 for a non-Ugandan resident for a half day, or $200 for the full day chimp habituation experience, during which you can get much closer to the chimps, in a group of just four people.
- In low season it may be possible to buy a permit on the day, but as there are only 72 permits available each day, it’s advisable to book in advance, especially in peak season.
- You can buy permits in person from the Uganda Wildlife Authority office in Kampala, or check with your tour operator. For more information, check the UWA website.
- Make sure you bring: sturdy walking shoes, a waterproof if it looks like it might rain, and of course your camera!
- Expect to do 2-3.5 hours of walking, though the terrain is not too challenging.
To read about what we got up to in the afternoon, and where we stayed, head over to An Afternoon in Kibale, Uganda