After an overnight in an aging lodge with more character than comfort, our guide Abdallah picked us up for our road trip to southern Uganda.
Upfront, where the spotter usually sits, is Dennis. Sara and I are in the second tier of seats in the Land Rover. Immediately it’s apparent it will take a long time to get through the markets to the next stop on our itinerary. I understand why Abdallah, whom we fondly call Dad, and our guide for the next two weeks, wanted to get an early start. We’re being driven from Entebbe, on the Lake Victoria peninsula, through Kampala, the capital of Uganda, to the Kibale Forest National Park and the Primate Lodge.
When a grey cloud hangs over a distant city on a sunny day, something is amiss. When the same grey cloud starts to burn my eyes and sting my throat, I know it’s not a gift from nature, it’s pollution. Many US citizens think we’re doing a lousy job of managing air pollution in the states, but compared to cities in Africa, we’re angels of fresh, breathable air. Smog checks on automobiles and motorbikes are far into the future. Matters of greater importance, like walking miles to get potable water from a single tap, take priority.
Abdallah is tense and focused. Later he admits to dreading the drive, at least the first three hours, which is about as long as it takes to make our way through the markets stretching for long, dusty miles. Initially, I was mesmerized by the shops selling everything a person might require for living in this congested area. Colorful clothing hangs outside the small businesses bleached by the sun and covered with a layer of dust. Shoes are piled in big heaps on the ground. I wonder if they’re tied together or if shoe shopping turns into an all-day affair searching for a matching pair. Fruits and vegetables, tires, whatever a person needs and probably things less acceptable like illegal exotic animals, are for sale.
The transport of goods on bicycles has been elevated to an art form in Uganda. I watched as men walked their beat-up bikes, bare-footed or in flip-flops, loaded with an impressive balance of goods: five Jerry Cans each holding 40 pounds of water, for example. Bananas, not the small bunches you see at the supermarket but the giant clusters cut from the tree, called banana stems–transported on a bike. When the couch, bed frames, stacks of firewood, and metal pipes passed by I was speechless. Women balanced impossibly large bundles on their heads, wrapped in colorful fabrics. I watched and concluded I’d spend more time picking the goods off the ground than carrying anything on my head. How do they do that?
Shops, bicycles, people, cars, motorbikes, trucks, the commotion was startling. Somehow people survived, living the life script they had been handed, in the chaos of a city overrun with a rapidly growing population. There was an earnestness to the faces, an intensity and if my white, privileged American psyche interpreted correctly, there was acceptance. For some, this is as good as it gets, for me it was a marvel until it went on and on and on and lost its’ grimy charm. Fresh air and something that didn’t belch smoke, or kick-up dust were becoming a necessity. Eventually, we would run out of city. We had to.
As the air cleared, we started to climb. Abdallah relaxed, and so did we. Tea growing is serious and big business in the Ugandan highlands. Steeply terraced rows of tea bushes wound around mountainsides the way evenly spaced cornrows wind around a black women’s head. Hard to comprehend how people could work the fields as the angles were dangerously steep. After the first sip of hot Ugandan tea, I decided it was my favorite. Smooth and bright, with barely there tannins it tasted like the dew on a flower petal.
The most notable welcome to the park was a troop of frisky olive baboons, hanging-out along the side of the road. Not exactly a spot I’d have chosen for resting, but one male appeared deep in meditation or sound asleep.
The youngsters played tag creating primate havoc with their elders. The first sighting of an animal while on safari is exciting. Abdallah could barely drive 100 feet without one of the three of us calling for a photo stop. By the end of three days, baboons were commonplace, and the last thing any of us wanted was yet another photo.
Olive baboon’s range is wide in Africa, encompassing 25 countries in a band between the east and west coasts, pretty much in the center of the continent. We’re relatives. Not the kind to invite to Thanksgiving or Christmas dinner, unless Aunt Florence can handle the prospect of a male baboon masturbating at the table. They’re funny that way.
Road weary, we arrived at Primate Lodge. Instantly it was a thumbs-up from the three of us. Generous cabins sat unobtrusively among the forest trees. Sara beat us to the lounging area, one side of the building open to a firepit and the forest. Oversized furniture and the quiet encouraged shoes off and feet up.
Past the casual bar on into the dining area, we were seated at a table we owned for the entire time we were guests. We agreed, meals were terrific. When it came to soups, Primate Lodge had perfected the creation of smooth as silk, soft as velvet, seductive soup. We never passed up an opportunity to indulge. Chef shared recipes, and a plan was born to prepare a meal of African cuisine for when we returned. Doug and Rebecca would be the guests of honor.
Warm and toasty inside and out we set-off down the path with our flashlights to find our cottage and crawl into bed. No Masai warrior or camp guard need accompany, as lions and leopards don’t frequent the forest. Genet cats, look like felines, with their long-striped tails, and semi-retractable claws, but they are not cats, they are viverrids. They’re shy and skittish, with absolutely no designs on anything remotely the size of we humans. Their tastes lean toward fruits and vegetables, and insects, similar to the mountain chimpanzees we’re off to track tomorrow.
Abdallah connected us with a sturdy, straight-talking woman the following morning. The first woman we’d had as a guide in Africa. Starting down the road where we had seen the olive baboons, we soon cut across the shoulder up a bank of jungly, low vines of some sort or other. Into the forest of dense trees and squishy fallen leaves, the air still with the earthy smell of decay. Like the mountain gorillas we would visit in a few days, the mountain chimpanzees have been acclimated to the presence of humans, slowly, over a period of years. Visitors as in we tourists are not permitted until a group is comfortable with the sight and scents of people. We were following a smaller group, likely part of a larger community of 30 to 80 individuals.
The terrain though not steep, was dense, easy to foot tangle in vines and rotting wood. Ahead the first mountain chimp I’ve seen in the wild loomed large and docile calmly picking his way through a jackfruit, eating the sticky-sweet, picking out the seeds. Uganda is considered the tropical fruit basket of Africa, which explained the watermelon and pineapple and avocados, slices of fatty deliciousness always available. I’ve not tasted jackfruit, the largest tree-borne fruit that can grow giants weighing 80 pounds. The chimp knew we were watching remained unfazed by our whispering and photo taking, far more interested in what he was stuffing in his mouth. I felt comfortable. I wanted to be alone with my relative, close to a being different from me, yet one with whom I share an evolutionary history and 98% of the same DNA. I had nothing to teach; I would be the student: watching and quiet, hoping for the touch of a hand, that curiosity would draw a chimp or two my way.
Grooming made me long for the relaxation the process appeared to induce in the one being groomed. Soulful stares into the thick overhang of leaves and vines splotchy with sunlight, faces looked content and peaceful.
Not unlike how we humans feel while being massaged or taking a long, hot bath. For chimps, it maintains good social relationships, as bits of leaves, bark, insects, whatever, is picked away, using hands or mouth. Sometimes it’s a one on one arrangement, other times it’s a group effort. Especially appreciated by youngsters whose mothers are weaning them from breast milk to fending for food on their own.
Conscious and protective of wild animals, I’m always concerned with the number of people gathered for a viewing. Our group of five was just right. As a larger group of people descended upon the chimp scene, I felt uneasy. I was annoyed with a woman who seemed to have no sense of primate space. When I suggested she step back, she either didn’t hear me or ignored me. It matters not the chimps are accustomed to visitors, they’re still wild animals. They have been known to attack, which was the least of my worries. I’m more concerned with disrupting their behavior with boorish actions of our own.
The humidity and heat were getting to me. Overly ambitious when it came to dressing for the hike, I peeled off a couple of layers. I hoped I suspect sooner than Dennis and Sara, the trek would end. I was satisfied with the experience and didn’t see any good reason to carry-on. My knees were suffering from the uneven ground. I was hot and starting to feel what often accompanies a rise in my body temperature: grumpiness. Having no idea where we were, I was relieved when our guide leads us to the open road. I only had to negotiate a steep shoulder before we were back on even ground. I did it, but not without trepidation. I could say it was preparation for the hike to the mountain gorillas, but visiting the chimps was a walk in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park compared to trekking to the mountain gorillas.
Apprehension about walking, hiking, climbing, sitting, standing, bending, is new to me. I’ve always moved freely with my body. Our first trip to Africa in July 2016 I swung myself up into Range Rovers with ease. I didn’t hesitate to sit in low dug-out boats, requiring a deep knee bend to enter and exit. I walked effortlessly. Within a year things had changed. I creaked around on crotchety kneecaps; inner thigh pain was making me not want to walk at all.
One of Dennis’ and my pleasures in life is walking and hiking. When traveling, we always explore cities and countrysides on foot. The experience, feels more intimate, a way to get to know the unfamiliar, up close and personal. We’ve been known to cover many miles in a single day, get up the next day and began again—on foot! Now, nearly every step is painful. Something is haywire, and I vow to get to the bottom of it when we return to Cape Town. Returning home, however, is a few weeks away. I focus on what we’ll be seeing tomorrow: the black and white colobus monkeys near the Crater Lakes of Uganda. We’re in primate paradise out to see as many species as we can.