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Uganda is one of the best places in the world to view wildlife. From the Murchison Falls park, through Kibale National Park, the Queen Elizabeth Park, and into Bwindi Impenetrable, where the extremely endangered mountain gorillas reside, there are opportunities to get really close to all sorts of amazing wildlife all over the country. While it’s very possible to encounter all the ‘big five’ game animals Uganda is also an exceptional location for encounters with large primates.
Kibale National Park is one of the best places to go chimpanzee trekking. Kibale is located in western Uganda, around 340 km from Kampala. It would take around 5-6 hours to drive there, depending on road conditions.
The opportunity to spend time in the forest following the local primates is a marvellous experience. You need a permit to enter the park – the tariffs are published on the Uganda Wildlife Authority website.
Kibale National Park – The Briefing
On arrival at the park you receive a briefing and are then split into small groups. Each group comprises six people who are accompanied by two guides. The chimps are wild but habituated, that is, they are comfortable in the presence of humans. It is a privilege to be able to track them, so it is important to pay close attention to the briefing and to follow the guides’ instructions at all times.
It is essential not to visit if you are feeling unwell. We share about 98% of our DNA with these amazing primates so passing on a virus or disease could wipe out the population.
There are a number of rules to abide by to ensure the safety and welfare of both the chimps and the humans while tracking: these include staying with the guide, keeping your distance from the chimps (unless they decide to walk past you) and – our favourite – don’t imitate the chimps’ vocal sounds – you don’t know what you might be saying!
We arrived in the morning and many of the chimps had yet to wake up. So the first part of the trek involved looking up. Sure enough, the chimpanzees were in the trees. They were eating breakfast – their diet mainly consists of fruit, supplemented by insects such as termites and leaves. The forest in Kibale has an abundance of fig trees so figs are usually the breakfast of choice.
Walking though the forest is relatively easy – unlike Bwindi Impenetrable, the terrain is pretty flat and the paths through the forest easy to navigate. Sturdy shoes are recommended and waterproof gear is useful if you are trekking during the rainy season.
Each group tracks the chimps through the park, following the guides’ instructions in order to keep both the chimps and the visitors safe. It’s advisable to be reasonably fit as you may need to move pretty quickly to follow the chimps.
As the day progresses some of the chimps will come down from the trees and wander through the forest. It’s okay to follow them – just stay with the guide and keep a respectful distance.
One chimp climbed down from his tree and decided that he was going for a walk. He just strolled by. The rangers told us that you are lucky if you get within 10 metres of a chimp. This chimp passed by within 10 centimetres! He was totally nonchalant as he walked on. I could barely contain my excitement!
Other Activities In Kibale National Park
While in Kibale, it’s also possible to visit the local communities. The Bigodi community offer the chance to see how the local people live and work. We visited various craftspeople, including a brewer who made his own banana beer, weavers, a local shaman and a coffee maker .
The local coffee maker makes a very fine brew. The coffee berries have been dried in the sun…
… they are then pounded to remove the husks
It’s a fine art to blow away the husks from the beans.
Then it’s time to light the fire and roast the beans .
They are cooled off before grinding.
The final step is to brew with water for a damn fine cup of coffee.
From bean to cup in half an hour. Cheers!
We also met the banana brewer. He stores large bunches of bananas in a wooden shed on stilts. A fire is lit underneath to ripen the bananas. The fruit needs to be ripe but not over-ripe. The bananas have a natural sweetness and the sugars are perfect for fermentation.
The bananas are peeled, mashed and mixed with leaves to extract the juice. The mash is filtered to separate the juice from the pulp. The resulting liquid is fermented for a day or so then bottled to produce a tasty and refreshing banana beer.
Some of the beer is distilled into a banana spirit which packs a punch!
A local shaman taught us about the medicinal uses of plants in the area and demonstrated some of the healing rituals he performs within the community.
We also met some weavers who showed us how to weave baskets using reeds from the area.
It required a lot of dexterity – they made it look so easy!