Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Chimp pee and elephant poo: our Ugandan anniversary

We arrived in Kampala on the 27th August 2010.  Exactly one year later, in Queen Elizabeth National Park (QENP), we marked the first anniversary of our new Ugandan life. It would be nice to say that we celebrated it together, but that would not be true.  I celebrated it by tracking chimps through the Kyambura Gorge with Tim and Ruth.  Stuart celebrated it by NOT having to track chimps.  He'd done it twice before, one chimp was much like another and he didn't see why he should have to do it again.  Fair enough... so Stuart had a very pleasant peaceful morning reading his book, cup of coffee in hand, gazing over the edge of the Kichwamba escarpment, which marks the eastern boundary of the Great Rift Valley, and thanking his lucky stars he had got away with it.  Tim, Ruth and I, however, spent the morning trekking through mountains of elephant poo under a steady downpour of chimp pee.

Well equipped for chimp-tracking: hats, long sleeves and trousers tucked into boots.
From the open grassland of Uganda's Rift Valley, you can clearly see the line of tropical forest which  marks the winding course of the Kyambura Gorge.
The Kyambura Gorge cutting its way through the savannah.
Once we stepped below the ground level of the savannah, the trees closed in around us, the path dropped steadily down the cliffs towards the water and the unfamiliar sounds of the forest stunned us into silence.  What had looked like a clear enough route when seen from above, down below became a tangled maze of luxuriant growth, ages old. Massive trunks entwined with lianas soared high above us, leaving tiny patches of sky providing just enough light for us to see where we were going. Thick undergrowth caught at our feet and snared our hair.  We thanked our lucky stars we had a local guide, an experienced ranger complete with firearm, someone who was familiar with the forest, its narrow overgrown paths and the invisible and sometimes dangerous creatures lurking in the undergrowth, often just a yard or two away. We could hear their snuffling and see the movements of the branches, evidence of their passage through the nearby thickets.

A tangle of lianas down by the river.

Dizzy patches of sky high overhead.
We weren't the only animals crashing about the gorge. Every so often we came across giant footprints and huge muddy scars which scored the sides of the valley from top to bottom - elephant tracks, very recent elephant tracks, heaped with fresh dung.  Whereas we humans were carefully picking our way along the established paths,trying to step over, but usually stepping through, the huge heaps of excreta, the elephants which had preceded us had been far too impatient for such slow progress.  They wanted to get down to the river as quickly as possible so they had just sat on their bums and slithered all the way down, quite clearly shitting themselves as they went. Their tracks were littered with smashed branches and broken trees.  Elephants are destructive: to eat a few leaves, they will uproot an entire tree. Impressive though they may be when seen from a distance, the prospect of a face-to-face encounter with one on a narrow precipitous track holds little appeal.

Ben the ranger
What other menacing creatures were around?  Some heavy breathing and an enormous crash provided evidence of a giant forest hog which fortunately decided to steer as wide a berth round us as we would have planned to steer round him - had we realised in time that he was there, of course. It's always reassuring if potential threats decide you're too much of a problem yourselves, and get out of the way.

Thick forest right to the water's edge.
Right at the bottom of the gorge was the river, a broad ribbon of fast-running muddy water, for the rains had arrived early in QENP this year and the valley floor was full. Before we even saw the hippos, we could hear their grunting.  Half a dozen of them were resting on the opposite bank and then quickly slipped into the water and made a beeline for the strange human creatures on the opposite bank. Not being all that keen on becoming more closely acquainted with hippos, the most dangerous animal on the African continent, we decided on a bit of evasion ourselves.

Hippo invasion imminent.
However, the gorge was not just a place of trepidation and anxiety; it was also a source of delight and wonder. There on the far bank, just above the hippos, a group of black and white colobus monkeys swung through the trees making breath-taking leaps from tree to tree and branch to branch. Their strong thumbless hands grasped at their next perch, a quick handstand, a twirl or two and they were away. And there spanning the river was their bridge, a fallen tree trunk.

Primate bridge.
Colobus at rest.
But, of course, the main source of wonder was the community of chimpanzees.  Until  a few years ago, the chimpanzees of the Kyambura Gorge could roam the full length of the canyon, visiting their relatives in the more northerly forests and penetrating the reserves to the south.  Alas, the local human population have encroached on an eight kilometre stretch of the southern end of the gorge, and blocked the chimps' traditional routes. Instead of the half dozen or so troops of chimps who used to roam the canyon, now just one group of twenty remains. They can easily be observed with the naked eye.  Photographing them successfully is, however, something else entirely.

Only half a dozen human visitors can visit the gorge at a time to observe the chimps, and the rangers lay down strict ground rules so that humans don't teach them bad habits.  You cannot smoke in the presence of chimpanzees as they might raid local homes for packets of fags.  You cannot eat apples as the chimps might think they were mangoes and pillage the villagers' gardens. You can, however, drink from bottles of water, as apparently, they will simply go and drink from the river.  I'm a bit sceptical about this advice.  I wonder, if you drink a bottle of Fanta will they ransack the shelves of the local shops?

Anyway, be that as it may, we were lucky that day.  Within ten minutes of entering the gorge, our ranger looked up and said we had reached the chimpanzees.  There they were above our heads, getting out of their nests and eating their breakfasts. Fruit was on the menu, much to our relief, as we didn't fancy being bombarded with the inedible bits of caterpillars or witnessing a hunting party of chimpanzees surrounding a hapless colobus. The chimps leant lazily against the branches right up against the clouds, or so it seemed, breaking open the fruit and dropping the peel and stones.  All around us we could hear the soft thuds as  debris hit the ground, and then a quiet continuous pitter patter.  Oh no, I had forgotten my hat!  It was a gentle shower of chimp pee.  It went on and on and on.

Who said you can't eat  while having a swing?
Left over breakfast.
A tiny chimp climbed daringly out of his mother's nest and practised acrobatics with the lianas. Two adolescents swung upside down from a neighbouring tree. The alpha male, Brutus, shared his perch with his best buddy, though he didn't share his food. Just an ordinary day in Kyambura Gorge.

Looking down on the humans.
Perhaps just one more piece of fruit.
The rangers have names for each member of the troop, names which match their personalities.  At Christmas, we had been delighted to meet Hatari, a brave adventurous male chimp.  Alas, we were told, Hatari was no more.  He had challenged Brutus, the dominant male, and been thoroughly beaten, beaten to death, in fact.  This is Uganda, but it could have happened in any community of animals with a hierarchical structure.

There's a head among all those limbs...somewhere.
After an hour or so, our time was up.  We clambered slowly up the sides of the ravine stepping carefully through the elephant poo and shaking the chimp pee from our hair.  We had been enchanted by our nearest relatives and by the privilege of being accepted as onlookers to their daily lives. We didn't belong in the forest ourselves, magnificent though it was: it was too dark, too confusing and too threatening.  We belonged up on the plain, where the sun shone and the grass stretched away on every side.  However, we wouldn't have missed the experience for the world.  Chimp pee and elephant poo: our Ugandan anniversary.
You would scarcely know the gorge was there.

1 comment:

  1. Happy Anni! It sounds unforgettable. I lived in Cosa Rica, and I love the rainforest! It doesn't have the big mammals like Africa, but still loads of adventures. Thank you for joining Post Of The Month Club! XOL