Just. WOW

This entry might be a bit extensive, but WOW! It is worth it. 

After our second successful attempt to see the shoebill, it was time to go to our very first pre-booked experience of the trip. So far, we had just been winging it, going with the flow of our energy. We planned to split the drive to Kibale in about half. Our first stop was close to the village Kyegegwa, camping on a grass spot at the Katente Country Resort. The trip was only 200 km, but it would take us 4 hours. Long story short, the roads were horrible. We have been on bad roads in Kenya and on the dirt road that made us crash towards Kidepo, but we both agreed that this road was way worse. What made this road bad, is the fact that it is tarmac, but with random giant potholes. We would be driving at a reasonable 60 km/h, and suddenly stumble upon huge potholes that could not be avoided without major zig-zags from left to right. Certain stretches were lacking tarmac completely. The inconsistency between fairly good roads and parts filled with unavoidable potholes, made us decide to just slow down completely and drive very slowly, even on the good roads, to avoid sudden braking and still ending up in potholes. 

We were happy to arrive at Kyegegwa, but were a bit hungry. We tried to order some food, but the not so friendly lady at the canteen told us the only option was fries. 'And if we want to order for dinner?'. Also fries. As we left the canteen she shouted 'Maybe some beans too'. We asked the much more friendly lady at the reception if she could order us some Rolex from the village  and she said it was no problem. We set up our rooftop tent, spent some time enjoying our sudokus under the awning and we decided that for dinner we would cook ourselves some noodles. The friendly lady opened up a room for us, so that we could use the toilet, which was great. We feel so blessed with all the amazing people we have met in Uganda. Everyone feels genuinely friendly (well, almost everyone) and they do their best to make us feel at home. We went to bed early, because the next day we were set to leave for Kibale National Forest. 

The road to Kibale continued as we left it: full of potholes. Fortunately, we were able to leave early. We were woken up by all the beautiful birds, had another Rolex from the village for breakfast and broke up camp quickly. This gave us the opportunity to drive to our destination slowly and still be on time. We kept trying to avoid the potholes and arrived at the wonderful Isunga Lodge early afternoon. The lodge is set on a ridge at the edge of Kibale National Forest, with some of the most amazing views we have seen in Uganda. We could see all the way to Queen Elizabeth National Park and Lake Edward and had a wonderful view of Kibale National Forest. After lunch, Jeroen went to the Uganda Wildlife Authorities office to register our permits there and to be informed on the time of our trek the next day. After that it was time again for some admin.  

The next day, we were up quite early. We were expected to be at the UWA Kanyanchu Visitor Center at 6 AM. We took our coffee and our Rolex breakfast and headed out at 5:30 AM. The visitor center was easy to find and as we arrived, we were clearly the first visitors there. As we turned off our car, we saw a light turn on at the center. We had our permits checked again, had our coffee and Rolex and waited for the briefing to start. This was a perfect way to wake up slowly. There was another friendly couple from Canada, who were to do the trek with us. Their driver took all of us, including our ranger to the starting point of the trek. 

Our armed ranger, Benson, turned out to be an avid birder. This to Emma's great joy, as she is also becoming a true birder. Benson kept talking about a guy called 'Peter', and we keep wondering why. In the meantime, we are walking for about 2 hours without seeing the animals we have come here for. Then, Benson suddenly speeds off for a few minutes, leaving us bewildered, as he searches for a good cell connection to call his colleagues to ask for the location of the chimp group. Unfortunately the message he gets is 'they have left for the dense forests and cannot be reached'. We turn around and hope to find another group.

As we head back, Benson suddenly stops and looks up. He informs us to be quiet and we comply. Then he tells us we might see this Peter. We step off the track and look up. It is then that we find out he meant a Pitta, a small bird of which a certain subspecies can only be found in this forest. Unfortunately, despite our efforts, we do not manage to see the little bird. Apparently we have run out of karma points. 

We continue our hike through the forest. Benson has been able to contact some of his colleagues. Maybe we are not out of karma points after all...

We continue hiking for about half an hour and there we find a group of people. Not quite what we were expecting of course. They seem to look up, and so do we. Excitement and disappointment come together. We have seen the CHIMPANZEES! But they are all the way up in the canopy. Anyway, we just enjoy the time we have with them, even though they are all the way up there. 

Within 5 minutes, we find out that we had a huge reserve of karma points, that were about to be cashed in completely. The other group of people left. They have had their hour with the chimps. We had booked a specific experience that would allow us to spend up to 4 hours with them. Of course, four hours of looking up into the canopy would strain our necks. As we try to find a nice spot on the ground, where we could lay down and look up to see the chimps, they decide that there was no need for that. One by one they all came down. Super excited, we walked to the sound of Benson saying 'Come here, come here'. As we reach Benson, we see a chimpanzee sitting down. Before we are able to get our camera out of the bag, Benson says 'Turn around'. A huge chimp just walks past us, not even 2 meters away. 

What followed was hands down the most amazing wildlife experience both of us have ever had. We remember the first time we have seen a lion, the times we walked among rhinos, but this was on a whole other level. We had almost 4 hours of walking among the chimpanzees, them walking around us and them sometimes sitting down right next to us. All we could say for the next 4 hours was 'This is sooo amazing'. 

We both switched between photographing, videographing and just putting down the cameras and enjoying, taking in every moment. The experience we booked, is called a Chimpanzee habituation experience. These experiences include spending about 4 hours with a group of chimpanzees, with the purpose of them getting used to humans (getting habituated). In order to be able study the chimpanzees to increase their chance of survival, they need to be used to humans. To fund these studies, chimps should be used to humans for touristic purposes. Some of the chimpanzee groups are being habituated for study purposes, some for touristic purposes. This habituation experience means spending about 4 hours with chimpanzees that are still getting used to humans, so they might walk or turn away when they don't trust you. 

Since we couldn't reach the group we were supposed to habituate, we went to another group. This group is already habituated and was therefore fully used to humans. We still got our 4 hour experience, meaning we were able to enjoy 4 hours of chimps that sometimes even walked up to us, instead of away from us. We were told which amount of distance we should keep, but if we stood still, the chimps would just walk up to us, which they often did. 

Due to the dense vegetation, little sunlight reached the ground, which made it difficult to photograph and videograph them. This sparked our creativity and our patience, to still try to get some good shots, in between the times we put down our gear and just enjoyed everything they did. It was quite frightening the first few times they wanted to show their dominance. Shouting loudly, hitting trees and slamming branches against the trees. After 2 times, we realized they did not do anything for us and did not mind us at all. All we had to make sure, was that they would not use us as a branch to slam into a tree or to slam a branch into us. 

Anyone who has not seen 'Chimp Empire', we highly recommend it. For anyone who has already seen it, it is amazing to see all the emotions these chimps portray. From fear of the leader, to the sadness one chimp showed after losing the battle for leadership. Chimp groups are highly hierarchical, and we were able to observe that extremely well during our 4-hour time with them. There had recently been a battle for leadership and the males high up in the hierarchy were clearly influential, as multiple chimps wanted to groom them. One of the 'losers' of the battle for leadership was moping around and sometimes consoled by another chimp, lower in the hierarchy. If the leader moved, everyone moved. They mostly moved just for food, our presence seemed to not have any impact on their movements at all. 

Once they moved, we had to be quick to make sure not to lose them. If we lost them, our experience would be over as it would be difficult to find them again. Several times we had to quickly get our stuff and be on our way, but we were able to keep in their tracks. Sometimes, we even found ourselves amidst a group of chimps. Emma was following a group of chimps, when she found another chimp following her. She was really 'one of them'. 

Among the entire group of chimps, there were two mothers with very young babies. These babies were the most active out of all the chimpanzees. It was so wonderful to see how these youngsters played, climbed, annoyed others and gained their confidence in their plays. Most of our focus went to these adorable chimps, and they did not disappoint. We fell in love with all of them. At the end, we decided to follow the chimps one last time, sit down with them until they moved and that would be it. The chimps sat down, and so did we. We kept our distance, but the chimps did not mind. They sat down around us and even between us. We spent another 20 minutes just sitting there, watching them, until their new movement meant our final whistle. This was really amazing. It was great to spend this time with just the 5 of us: Benson, us, and the wonderful Canadian couple. We could not have wished for anything else, it really superseded any dream we had of this. 

Once we got back at the lodge, all we could say was 'WOW, just WOW'. 

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