Craig and Ross in East Africa

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July 15th 2014
Published: July 15th 2014
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Episode 4: Goodbye Tanzania, hello Uganda

July 15, 2014.

Woke up this morning with a cold unfeeling reptilian eyeball staring back at me. No, it was not Ross, but a large brown gecko on my pillow. It promptly launched itself onto the wall and disappeared through a crevice.

We are safe and well and are currently in Uganda.

Our last few days in Tanzania were spent at Arusha National Park, where the aim was to see the beautiful black and white colobus monkeys and pink flamingos. We did a short tour with a great safari company called Wayo Africa. Arusha National park is largely cool and moist rainforest, with imposing Mt. Meru at its centre, quite unlike the other dry and hot Tanzanian parks such as the Serengeti. We again had an excellent guide, this time called George, who - much to Ross’s delight - would routinely stop the landcruiser at superb viewpoints for coffee breaks. We saw heaps of colobus monkeys up close and personal, with black and white shaggy fur and a ridiculously long fluffy white tail. Probably the most beautiful monkey species I’ve ever seen. There were, however, unusually very few flamingos, so we had to settle for those we had seen back at Ngorongoro Crater. We also did a half-day canoe trip across one of the lakes, each of us in a canoe with a park ranger. Great views of animals such as giraffe and antelope from the water. It was a lovely sunny day and all very relaxing,…. until three hippo heads broke the water about 50 metres away. The rangers said that it was OK, as we were not in their territory. Yet we were in flimsy canoes and one fact kept repeating itself in my head: Hippos kill more people than any other animal in Africa.We paddled to the shoreline, but still sat in the canoes and watched them. It was quiet unnerving when one would disappear below the surface, wondering if it would subsequently explode from the water in front on us and bite us in two. Yet, the rangers were right, they stayed in their patch and we paddled off.

Overall, Tanzania was great with lovely people and a great experience, and highly recommended.

Then came the saga of getting to see the wild chimpanzees in Uganda, a long and tiresome journey that was ultimately very very worth it. Our Tanzanian tour guide dropped us off at Kili airport in Tanzania at 11am, for an early arvo one hour flight direct to Entebbe, Uganda, where we were to stay overnight before being driven to the national park were the chimps live. In a nutshell, we spent all day stuck at Kili airport, with the flight delayed for hours, then cancelled and then we were told to “come back tomorrow”. But we couldn’t, as we had the chimp tour in Uganda all planned. Ross often says to me that “the noisiest cogs get the most oil”, so we went to the airline office at the airport (Precision Air - an oxymoron). We politely but firmly demanded they get us from Tanzania to Entebbe (Uganda) that day. It finally happened, at 7pm that night, and via Nairobi in Kenya, on Kenyan Airways. We arrived Entebbe at midnight and collapsed at a lovely pre-booked B&B very near the airport. The next day, our chimps tour guide picked us up and I had to forgo looking for shoebill storks in the Entebbe swamp at dawn, since we were too rat shit to get up early enough – thanks, Imprecision Air.

The drive to Kibale Forest National Park on the other side of Uganda took some seven hours, way longer than we expected. We drove through pretty green hilly landscapes of forest, interspersed with banana and tea plantations, but also through confronting desperately poor villages and ramshackle communities. Very basic and dirty by Western standards. Lots of people walking along the roadside, with things like huge bundles of sticks or tubs of fruit being carried on their heads. On the road itself, it was open slather. Guys on motorbikes carried all sorts of things, from a few wheelbarrows, to entire fridges, to huge piles of hay that looked like haystacks miraculously moving along the road. Our guide, Brian, stopped to buy some local roasted bananas for us to try. Despite my love of bananas, I found them hideous and turned to see what Ross thought of them, only to find his face twisted in agony, with a roasted banana protruding from his mouth. He said it took him the whole seven hours to get the foul taste from his mouth. We passed over an inordinate number of speed humps, even in the middle of nowhere. Finally, we arrived at Kibale National Park around 5pm, to a lovely lodge in the jungle, but we were too physically shattered to appreciate it at the time, considering the past two days. We quickly ate, then collapsed into bed for the 5am start to go see the wild chimpanzees the next morning.

However, I can say that, despite having two arduous travel days, the wild chimpanzee experience was the best wildlife encounter I have ever had. Just four of us in the jungle for most of the day, Ross and I, a young guy from Slovakia and a rifle-carrying park ranger - a girl called Rossi. The chimps are habituated – they are quite accustomed to humans in very close proximity, and I mean very close (a metre or two). And so it was that they completely ignored us, going about their daily life. First they came down from the trees around dawn - an awesome sight of these black figures descending the branches around us. They were often just 3 -4 feet away from us, hooting and screaming at each other, or mutually grooming, then climbing trees to eat fruit and fart for an hour or so, then down to groom, mate or sleep, then repeating the process. They moved around the forest a bit throughout the day, sampling different fruit trees. We saw it all, involving chimps of all ages, from big old males to small infants. On one occasion, Ross and I were admiring a little baby chimp in the tree, when a hulking black-grey male jumped out of nowhere onto the fallen tree trunk right in front of us, and ambled along it. He could have torn us apart but completely ignored us. Another highlight was having a group of some 30 to 40 of them all ambling along the jungle floor around us, as if we were invisible, hooting and screaming (not angry, just how they communicate). It was just brilliant. Later that night, still drunk with the excitement of the day, Ross said to me:

“Looking at those wild chimps, how could you not believe that we are descended from apes, how could you not believe in evolution? So many of the things they did, so many of their facial expressions, were so human.” He comically added: “But I expected them to be riding bicycles and wearing a fez.”

Humans and chimpanzees actually share a common ancestor, and watching their interactions that day gave us a sort of fascinating glimpse back in time at our own evolutionary past and how our early ancestors may have spent the day. Totally awesome, and we will never forget it.

The next day, we did the nearby Bigodi swamp walk, spying all sorts of handsome monkey species and tropical birds, including the magnificent great blue turaco. Uganda has primates in spades and we saw no fewer than seven monkey species that day ! (For those interested: grey cheeked mangaby, vervet, Olive baboon, red-tailed monkeys, l’Hoest monkeys, black and white colobus and red colobus). We also saw trees bearing figs the size of soccer balls. When they fall to the ground and ferment, they are eaten by chimps and elephants, who then get drunk on them.

The swamp walk was a somewhat long and rather hot affair, and we returned to the lodge for lunch and a much-needed cold ale (quite a good local drop called Club Pilsner). Ross and I sat on the lodge balcony, the expansive forest below us. We thought we were the only people on the balcony. Ross read the beer label:

“ Excessive alcohol is damaging to your health.”

I said: “ Well, yes. So is excessive sugar and salt.”

“…and women” said a decisive voice from somewhere behind us. He proved to be a chatty and funny Belgian traveler, whom we failed to notice sitting having a quiet cigarette in the corner.

We did not relish the prospect of the long haul back to Entebbe, but what I call “The Principle of Diminished Returns” applied, with the drive back seeming quicker than the drive out to the forest. We are currently sitting outside at a very nice B&B, eating the best nachos and watching the sun set over Lake Victoria and nearby Entebbe airport. We leave tomorrow for Rwanda (gorillas).

We had given careful consideration about coming to Uganda, given their horrendous new anti-gay laws. But we had already paid for everything before the new laws appeared, and we also decided the locals needed our tourist dollars – plus of course I was so keen to see the primates. I was not at all concerned for our own safety in light of the anti-gay laws, but the implied tacit support for a regime abusing the human rights of its own people. (As an aside, Ross noted that so much of the mutual chimp grooming was between males, and they often had erections throughout – so, he reckons the Ugandan chimps should all be thrown in jail.) Anyway, despite some misgivings, everyone in Uganda was friendly and helpful and we enjoyed everything we saw (well, except the roasted bananas).
Bye for now


Craig (and Ross).


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