If you have ever dreamed about being in the jungles of Africa, crashing through the forests to see the most amazing animals, like lemurs in Madagascar or hippos in Botswana, then chimpanzee tracking should be on your list. Dressed in khakis from head to toe, a camera banging about my side with a huge telephoto lens, I must have been crazy to think that chimpanzee tracking would be a walk in the park. But this was one of the stops on our Uganda Self Drive that I wouldn’t have missed for all the world.
Which Chimp Experience is Right for You?
Firstly, I had to decide if I wanted to spend only one hour in the company of a human’s nearest relative or did I want to have several hours with them. The Uganda Wildlife Authority offers two experiences when it comes to the chimpanzees. You can do the regular tracking, where you find the chimps and stay with them for one hour, or you can do the slightly more demanding (cost as well as physically) and do the “habituation” which is basically the same thing except you follow a troop of chimps around for the entire day.
We chose to spend as much time as we could, so we went for the habituation option. For this option, you must get to Kibale National Park at 6:30 in the morning, as opposed to the more civilized 7:30 of tracking. You are then put in a group and your group’s guide will then brief you on the park and safety guidelines before heading off into the woods.
Benson was our more than capable guide. He professionally explained everything we needed to know about keeping ourselves, the park, and of course the chimps safe. For example, did you know that since chimpanzees share about 98.4% of our DNA they are susceptible to human colds, flus, and other diseases? One thing the rangers do right away is assess your health. If you are coughing or have a runny nose, they will suggest you try to come a different day as they do not want to spread any unwanted germs to the chimps.
After our briefing, we took off. It all started off so peaceful and slow. We meandered up and down a few slight grades on a well-worn path. About 25 minutes later, we left the path to look up and see a family of chimps. The rangers track where the chimpanzees make their nests for the night, and bring us to that spot before they decide to come down from the trees and move on.
A Lucky Encounter
Our first glimpse at these thoughtful, intelligent beings was that of wonder and amazement. It was still quite early in the morning, and the chimpanzees were just beginning to have their breakfast of fruit. We watched a mother and baby make their way across the tree tops; then we watched a male following a female in estrus; we watched, and watched…
All of the sudden the quiet was disturbed, and we realized that some of the monkeys were lobbing their fruit at us. They didn’t throw it hard, but they definitely were playing with us to see if they could get us to move or even knock us on the head with a hard fruit, about the size of a baseball.
Chimps on the Move!
Then all kinds of chaos erupted as the dominant male, who apparently had not spent the night with the others, came back. The entire troop let out whoops and calls, high-pitched screeches to welcome him home. Shortly after he returned, the entire group started descending from the tall trees to the ground. They were on the move.
No longer were we in for a gentle walk through the forest. Chimps are much faster than the average human and of course adept at negotiating the jungle. We took off. The chimps first, us following, up the hill, down the hill, sliding, climbing over logs, leaves and small branches snapping back at you. It was a wild chase.
It came down to us really only following the two dominant males, and funnily they knew that we were following them and that this was expected. They would would move fast for about 50-100 feet, then stop and seemingly wait for us to catch up before going further. We did this for about six or seven minutes when they reached the spot they were looking for and began to groom one another, which they did for over 40 minutes.
We repeated this entire process time and again. The chimpanzees definitely have personalities, and they were very vocal. We observed them going about their daily lives, from waking to eating to caring for their young and each other, and moving about the forest to find food.
To say we were tired when we were finished is an understatement. It was hard work running about the hills, through the forest and trying to stay close to the chimps. It was fascinating watching their behavior and seeing how closely they really do resemble us humans.
The one website you need to refer to for all the national park activities in Uganda is the Uganda Wildlife Authority. It has the current price list as well as a wealth of information on each park.
When to go:
Chimp tracking and habituation is offered all 365 days per year. However, it is certainly much easier to track and get through the forest during the dry seasons. The rainy season makes it much more slippery and there are more bugs. According to Benson, January through March and June and July are the best months to go.
Where to go:
Chimpanzee tracking is offered at two places, Queen Elizabeth National Park and Kibale National Park. The latter is the one we went to and highly recommended by everyone. When we were in Queen Elizabeth, they even told us Kibale was better for chimps.
Chimp Tracking Permit – One hour with the chimpanzees in a group of about eight is $150
Chimp Habituation Permit – You have a whole day to follow the chimpanzees around. Group size is six. $220
It is a good idea to have your permit before you go to Kibale, especially during the high season since the UWA only allows a certain number of people to do each activity per day. We went in the low season and it was possible to just go to the park and pay for it that day. Every lodge in the area will also assist you in getting the permits, so inquire with them as soon as you book and you should have no trouble at all.
What to bring:
- Appropriate clothing (see our packing list) and shoes
- Garden gloves, gaiters
- Lunch and lots of water
- Good camera with a long lens. When the chimps are in the trees the smaller cameras won’t do much good.
Where to stay:
We stayed at the Kibale Guest Cottages. The accommodations are individual cottages, very clean and comfortable with on-demand hot water and 24 hour electricity. It’s location was perfect, only five minutes from the park entrance. For other options, search the Fort Portal area using this link.
Is going on a safari and spending the day with chimpanzees your dream? Have you been? Any tips to share?
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