Tuesday, 3 February 2015

... Gorillas in the Mist: Karma Chameleon

How does a country expecting hundreds (thousands?) coming across its borders from anywhere and everywhere try to keep itself safe from Ebola? It takes their temperature! By employing “thermal scanners” at each border crossing, they hope “to detect elevated body temperatures and possible infectious diseases."  

And I woke this morning still feeling like crap. Great!

We again crossed the border at Malaba. Leaving Uganda was considerably less painful than when we entered. then again, I wasn't trying to palm off a trillion shillings worth of $1USD bills. The customs official was jovial and quick, which in the searing heat was much appreciated. When we reached the Kenyan side it was like a scene akin to a Doctor Who episode complete with sonic screwdriver. I was feeling safer already!.... Hmmm. Where do they stick these things again? Some researchers claim these scanners are merely "reassuring" and not much else. So, more like scammer then? My scientific self was already twitching. 

After being exposed to heat in the truck, queuing at the Ugandan customs and again for my "Ebola screening" I began to ponder that in all likelihood most people will have skin temperatures alone that are well above an expected fever. Skin temperature is not core temperature. The scanner is placed, somewhat thankfully, against your forehead and then, if you are below 37 degrees, you're given a piece of paper meaning you can proceed to go and get your stamp. I have to admit I was a little nervous given that I wasn't feeling 100%. And wait a minute.... 37 degrees?!?! That is merely an average of what's classed as normal (at least what I learnt in physiology and I had a Dr. confirm). Normal body temperature can fluctuate by as much as 0.6 degrees throughout the day, depending on time and activity level. "A fever is usually 38 degrees or above isn't it?" I frantically thought to myself. Quite clearly I'm not a doctor, but I'm pretty sure about this - fevers are also symptoms of loads and loads of things. So there non-scientific scanner type thing!

I was 36.2. 

One person in my group however had a reading of 37.2 and was immediately flagged. Did this mean men in white suits and masks were going to appear?  No. Instead a waiting period of about 10 minutes, in the shade, ensued. And of course upon retesting the temperature was passable.  Oh and get this, checking body temperature isn’t a sure-fire way to find individuals infected with Ebola. People can carry the virus for up to three weeks before showing symptoms, and are not contagious during that period (via the WHO website).

How's that for reassurance?

A return to the Naiberi campsite in Eldoret and we had the pool to ourselves. Well almost. As a couple of us were swimming around we saw we had a guest shading itself under the slide. A Trioceros hoehnelli, commonly known as Von Höhnel's chameleon (and the helmeted or high-casqued chameleon), was lounging there as though it was waiting for a piña colada complete with umbrella. 

Both sexes have a small blunt horn shape lump on the snout, larger on males. Large spikes are present on the throat, smaller spikes run along the back to the base of the tail. The colour varies from shades of dull green, green-brown, light to dark grey or yellow. Reaching a maximum size of 16-17cm (6.5 inch), averaging out at 10-14cm (4-5.5 inches), this is a small species. They live together in the wild and are not territorial. This chameleon is found in high altitude, cooler temperate regions of Kenya and Uganda.

It was incredibly cute, believe it or not, and after sort of making sure it wasn't dangerous (by asking a campsite staff member - who quite frankly could have told us anything) a few of us gently held it. It didn't seem to mind as apparently the species turn black when threatened and it stayed green-brown. It had the cutest little pincer-like feet (some reference it as zygodactyl, others as didactyl) and of course the coolest eyes in the animal kingdom.... Ever. 

Nothing quite matches being watched by something that isn't even facing you... With one eye. A chameleon "without conviction"? 

Monday, 2 February 2015

... Gorillas in the Mist: It Don't Mean A Thing If It Ain't Got That Swing

I'm a medical Doctor! Well, that's according to the mighty Google! This morning I awoke feeling slightly feverish with a low grade temperature, bunged up nose and a bit of a cough. By breakfast I had self diagnosed myself with everything from Ebola to Malaria with a dose of Bubonic plague, smallpox and Spanish flu thrown in for good measure. Thankfully there is a (real) Doctor in my group who was able to quickly check me over and I wasn't quarantined.

I had originally planned to do a village walk this morning but I decided to stay back. It was nice to spend a couple of hours just chilling in the shade . The location of the camp on the Nile is really beautiful, and the wildlife is prolific and diverse - ranging from fish eagles to kingfishers, monkeys, monitor lizards and otters.

By mid afternoon I was feeling a lot better, thanks in part to a dairy free smoothie perhaps. I decided that I wanted to get closer to the wildlife and so rented a kayak for a couple of hours in the early evening. I wasn't quite ready to brave the whitewater rapids that the Nile has to offer but a couple of hours of paddling seemed like a good idea. The aptly named "Kayak the Nile" has their office on the campsite grounds. We even got a deal on the kayak rental for the 3 of us that had decided to go out.

I've never used a sit-on-top kayak before but certainly liked the sound of just being able to hop on and off one. No need for a skirt - just throw on clothing you don't mind potentially getting wet and/or sweaty and off you go. Winner! They have similar hull shapes to the traditional counterparts, but instead of sitting inside you sit on a molded depression on top. Apparently this makes them more comfortable than the sit-inside, although I found my hip flexors weren't the biggest fan plus I personally could do with a "bit more padding".  Apparently it is also easier to do self-rescues..... Hang on a minute, I wasn't planning on needing to do one of those!

Whilst the water was not choppy, paddling upstream was certainly quite the workout. We stuck quite close the the river bank to begin with under the watchful eye of the birds that called the area home. Upon coming across a rope swing, Tim decided he wanted to attempt not only swinging on it but swing on it ONTO his kayak. Hmmm. Ok. This should be fun to watch. I'm pretty sure that someone somewhere was yelling a slo-mo "Nooooooooooooooo". It looked promising, well at least in theory. Problem was likely because Tim didn't let go when over his kayak ("I didn't want to get wet") and I think I was cringing before he even struck the steep embankment on his return journey. There was quite the crunch, even though he seemed to primarily strike it with his backside. You know when you have that nervous laughter because you think it will hide the fact that someone has just hurt themselves? That was Peter and I. It was hilarious on so many levels, all of them wrong. Let's face it, really the only way to deal with something unbearable is to laugh at it... Although it's probably preferential that the victim is doing the laughing and not the bystanders. He did manage to place himself back in his kayak, dry yet most likely with a bit of a bruised ego and backside.

Needless to say, no one else tried.

A curious otter briefly popped up to say hello as we paddled towards the middle of the river and one of many islands. There were many cormorants and kingfishers around looking for food which was highly entertaining to watch although I'm certainly they were just as entertained in watching us struggle against the current. As we made our way around the top of an island it got easier and soon we were caught in the downstream current. We cut through another waterway in between two smaller islands just as I started to smell smoke and hear the crackling of fire. Admittedly for a moment I was a bit worried that we had stumbled upon an uncontrollable fire but then we saw a boat and someone on the island. They use a controlled burn (prescribed fire) to clear away foliage so that they can then use the land for agriculture. Controlled burning can also prevent uncontrolled and more destructive fires as well as help maintain biodiversity. Still, I was a little uneasy at the thought of any animals that might be caught. The birds however seemed, for most part, unfazed and stood on the waters edge presumably for a quick getaway should they need to make one. Interestingly the fire went out as quickly as it was started and we soon saw a man leaving in his boat.

As we made our way back to shore there were two huge fish eagles standing on a rock, seemingly without a care in the world. We were able to get quite close to them before they decided they had had enough of us gawping and took flight. There were very majestic to watch and it was a great way to end an afternoon on the River Nile. 

Sunday, 1 February 2015

... Gorillas in the Mist: The Jewel of the Nile

The past two nights haven't been the greatest sleep-wise and trying to sleep on a truck driving crap roads, which have potentially given me whiplash, is no mean feat. Also add the combination of being too hot to the variety of noises heard during the night. At Bunyonyi it was a howling dog... I wanted to throw it in the lake and I'm an animal lover! Back at Red Chilli, Kampala, this morning the church bells were going off well before 6am. Well, it is a Sunday after all, however I wished the wannabe Quasimodo would bugger off. No amount of ear plug/covers over head was going to truly dampen either of those noises.

Yesterday I was up at 5 and packing the tent & hauling it up a couple of flights of steep stone steps before having a quick breakfast. We wanted to get on the road early in a bid to try and avoid the Kampala traffic again as we spent another night at Red Chilli. The views during the drive were.... Interesting. First up were the coffins being made and sold on the roadside. I guess you can never be too well prepared and now you needn't worry with the ease of drive-thru funeral arrangers! Next there was the tall naked Ugandan in the middle of a field. I'm going to hazard a guess that perhaps he was bathing himself. You can apparently get away with being naked in a field in these parts because no-one batted an eyelid. Whereas back home you would attract the attention of the boys in blue pretty quickly. I was half tempted to wave.....

Traffic in Kampala was, as predicted, nuts on both days. People this time were driving on the wrong side of the road and headed straight for us. May be Sunday is a day where anything goes? Thankfully I was sat up high in a huge truck so really never had anything much to worry about. I think what concerned me about the entire experience was those in their little chicken chaser-Toyotas didn't seem worried either.

Camp for the next few nights is at the Nile River Explorers in Jinja. Jinja is the second largest town in Uganda, after Kampala, and is located on the shores of Lake Victoria, near to the, often hotly contested, source of the (White) Nile River. The nearby Owen Falls Dam regulates the flow of the White Nile and generates electricity. You are not allowed to take any photos on or anywhere near the Dam nor are you allowed to stop. The actual "source" of the Nile was the Ripon Falls now submerged after the construction of the Owen Falls Dam. Englishman John Hanning Speke was accredited with the discovery in 1862 as the first European to locate the source at Ripon Falls, however in 2010 an exploration party went to the source of the Rukarara tributary giving a new length of the Nile believe to be 4199 miles. It is still not agreed upon which is the most distant source, Lake Victoria has feeder rivers of considerable size and some still believe it to be in either Rwanda or Burundi.

The White Nile offers grade 5 white water rafting. I've been told, should I wish, that I can partake in that tomorrow either in a white water raft or in a kayak. I have to admit the thought of every upper body muscle aching and swallowing half the Nile isn't really appealing to me, having already white water rafter I think I would rather do another activity. But it is certainly popular amongst those that stay here as well as options to horse ride, quad bike, mountain bike, kayak (on calmer waters), SUP, village walks and volunteering.

A Nile sunset cruise certainly seemed like a tamer idea after watching a member of my group enter the Nile alternatively, courtesy of the "Flying Fox" zip line (he admittedly screamed like a girl but it was hilarious to watch). I would have entertained the idea but my rib cage is still really sore from the water polo accident and holding onto a bar really hurts. You have a considerable amount of hillside to clear before you are overwater and I've no desire to face plant into solid earth. I did go into the water for a quick swim to try and escape the heat then of course began worrying about schistosomiasis. A quick shower "with a view" (meaning the front side of it was open) over the river was a better way to get wet in my humble opinion. I chose the "waterfall" themed shower and it literally was just like that.

The cruise was about 2hrs in length and there was a bar and appetizers for the duration ($45USD all inclusive with a considerable discount if you're signed up to one of their rafting excursions). It was a great place to be if you're an avid birder and some of the species seen included: great cormorants, long-tailed cormorants, African darters, several species of heron & egret, several birds of prey including fish eagles and some vulture species, swifts, moorhens, jacanas, greater-painted snipe, malachite kingfishers and pied kingfishers, to name but a few (posters were on the boat to assist you). I also got to see two river otters frolicking around. No signs of Kathleen Turner or Michael Douglas however.....

 $45 was a little steep if you're not a meat eater or looking to drink (and I wasnt to either) but the sunset was, of course, stunning with a vast array of red, orange and gold before night finally fell. This kind of made it worth the price tag.

Friday, 30 January 2015

... Gorillas in the Mist: Little Angels

Lake Bunyonyi is a stunning part of Africa that I never even knew existed. About 10000 years ago a river was damned by the lava from an erupting volcano. The result was the beautiful lake, which aptly means the "place of many little birds". 6,437 ft above sea level, it is about 15.5 miles (25km) long and 4.35 miles (7km) wide. Its depth is believed to vary between 144 ft and 2,952 ft. It is one of the few lakes in the region that is rumoured to be free of schistosomiasis (bilharzia) and safe for swimming, however, this claim is not verifiable and so the closest I got to it was in a dugout canoe. Emerald hills rise from its shores with beautiful terraces cut into the slopes, giving you the false idea that you might even be in Nepal. Amidst the ever present red dust is an abundance of rainforests and agricultural land with a dose of an air of mystery thrown in for good measure. It has 29 islands, some of which have interesting and somewhat tragic histories:

Akampeine Island, which translates to Punishment Island, was where unmarried pregnant women were left to starve to death or drown by trying to swim to the shore until the 1940's. They were often saved by poor men or slaves who couldn't afford the regular bride price.

Bwama Island was an anti-colonial rebel base but by 1921, the missionary Dr. Leonard Sharp founded a leprosy hospital here. After leprosy drugs were introduced in the 1980s it became a secondary boarding school. Sharp himself lived on the nearby Njuyeera (Sharp's) Island.

The 35 acre Kyahugye Island is home to wildlife such as zebra, waterbuck, impala and kob. Alas their presence on the island isn't all that romantic, they were brought here from the nearby Lake Mburo National Park.

The legend of Bucuranuka Island, aka Upside Down Island, says that this island killed people as a result of a spell cast by a witch. Some men brewing local sorghum beer on the island refused to give some to an old woman passing by. The old woman asked if she could at least get somebody to take her to the mainland. A young boy took her over and when they reached the shore the island turned upside down killing all bar a chicken that managed to escape and the young boy.

This morning a bunch of us headed out on a free walking tour run by Little Angels, a non-profit orphan project (http://www.littleangelsuganda.org/the-project.php). From the campsite, we hiked up some steep slopes that surrounded the area, weaving our way past sugar cane plantations and banana groves. The higher you climbed, the more impressive the view got. The little islands rose from the water surface and you got an idea of just how massive the lake, seemingly stretching into the far distance.

As we trekked up the hillside we stopped in at a house to meet an interesting character named Frida, whom many call “the crazy lady”. Despite being in her 80's, this woman was bursting with energy. She gave each of us a big hug, and welcomed us with a song and dance. As translated by our guide & Little Angels founder Duncan, she wanted to find out which of us was his girlfriend. This somehow led to her groping us, squeezing our boobs and slapping our bums. Ok I must confess, out of all the girls I was the only one who didn't get their chest groped. However, she did seem more fascinated by my tattoos rather than the fact I don't have much of a chest. I broke out into fits of laughter regardless and even though there was a language barrier, it was easy to feel and appreciate Frida’s joie de vivre. We got to take part in weaving with banana leaves and grinding some kind of seed to make a flour.

Overlooking the lake, a little ways from Frida's, is the Little Angels Needy Children and Orphan Project. Duncan set up the project in 2010, in a bid to improve the lives of the children and offer them better education. All Little Angels children are living significantly below the poverty line. Having grown up in a poor family, Duncan was a sponsored child himself and he graduated high school thanks to his sponsor. With this project, he hopes to give back to his local community and help children from financially disadvantaged backgrounds. There are currently 200 registered needy children between the ages of three and eight under their care and new classrooms are being built so they can take more.

During the visit, we got to sit in a classroom and watch the children learn spelling and mathematics. We even got to teach them (my artistic talents shone through *cough*). After class, the children all gathered in the playground and we had the opportunity to play with them (they loved braiding my hair) and join in the singing and dancing. We were then asked to perform a song and dance for the children. Nothing like being thrown to the lions! I apologize, to the entire planet, for inflicting the Birdie Song on these poor, poor children!

You can sponsor a child at the project or make any kind of donation that you feel will help. Collectively our group decided to buy a bunch of food products and gather together any clothing we had packed which we could easily do without (cue a reason for me to get rid of several pairs of socks which I haven't worn and likely won't on this trip that I'd planned to ditch before heading home). A little girl had also seemed quite enamoured with my watch, which I had had for eons and hardly ever wear these days, so as we were leaving I ran over to her and fixed it around her wrist. We headed back to camp in a wooden dugout canoe where we took part in the paddling for quite the workout. Just as we docked the heaven's opened causing a mad dash for the clothes line to salvage my hand washed laundry that had been drying. Thankfully it was just a quick shower although my clothing would've probably benefitted from the extra rinse had I left it hanging.

This afternoon some of us took a walk with the promise of coffee at the local coffee shop... Except the coffee machine was broken. And they didn't have the type of juice someone wanted. And the power went out. TIA! Still, it was nice to go for a walk before a very yummy "fingers only" dinner of lentils, spinach, salsa, chapati & ugali (maize) and I did get a very nice cup of tea.

Tomorrow I will be kind of sad to leave this idyllic haven and hit the road again to head back to Kampala. 

Thursday, 29 January 2015

... Gorillas in the Mist: King of the Jungle

My alarm went off at 425am. Doesn't that sound like fun! Thankfully there was no need to pack away my tent like I had on so many other ungodly early morning starts, I merely had to drag my behind out of my sleeping bag and up a couple of flights of stairs. I felt like a roast chicken upon waking. When arriving at the camp last night a lady, whom had been residing here for several days already, had told us it had rained every single night since her arrival. So out came the rain cover which of course I didn't end up needing and instead I cooked. Like it wasn't already hot enough without the cover! It's rather disgusting waking up with a pool of sweat in your suprasternal notch.

Still, you soon forget all of that with a couple of wet wipes and the realization that today is the day that this trip is basically all about. At 530am I began a 2.5hr drive from Lake Bunyonyi to one of the entrance gates of the nearby national park. Today I was going Gorilla tracking!

It is said that the mountain gorilla evolved with the rise of the volcanoes half a million years ago. They adapted to the differing terrain to their lowland relatives by becoming larger and having thicker fur. Tragically less than 800 mountain gorillas exist in the world (as of Dec 2014), however that number is increasing thanks to conservation efforts. In Uganda they can be safely visited in two national parks: Mgahinga Gorilla National Park and Bwindi Impenetrable National Park. We are able to do this thanks to a procedure known as primate habituation (the same applies with chimpanzees). This long process is where a group of primates (or other animals) are exposed to human presence, albeit slowly, to the point where humans are regarded as neutral. Of course these are still wild animals but they are less likely to flee deeper into the forest or, worse, become aggressive and attack unlike those that are unhabituated. It takes two to three years for a gorilla group to become habituated and even longer for chimps (around 7). It is achieved by a group of rangers with a lot of patience, and a good dose of bravado, spending time with a group every day to eventually win over their trust. This is done by mimicking their behaviour: pretending to eat the same food at the same time, grunting, beating on one's chest. The first few weeks are risky for the rangers with repeated charges commonplace. Having now seen a huge silverback male that was easily over 200kg and with the strength to rip you limb from limb, I can imagine how scary being charged at must be.

Habituation has been taking place for a long time - it allowed scientists to study them. Then of course someone had the bright idea of charging tourists, like me, $500USD a pop to take part in viewing them in the wild. Is this a good thing? There are lots of heavily enforced rules and regulations that you have to follow to be even considered.  If you are sick on the day then you won't be going - the Ugandans are fiercely protective of their primates and any signs of as much of a sniffle and you'll be refunded your permit money and sent on your way. Only 8 people are allowed at any one time to visit a group per day and your time with them will be an hour - and they follow this to the last second as I found out. You are not allowed any less than 7 metres away from a gorilla and if one approaches you you have to slowly back away from it to maintain that distance. Of course deep in the bush that might not always be possible but the Rangers will do whatever they can to keep your distance, they do speak gorilla after all. Bottom line is that had there been no habituation then the subsequent tourist trade the likelihood is that mountain gorillas would've been wiped out by poachers years ago. I felt incredibly honoured that I was being given the opportunity to go and visit a family.

Bwindi Impenetrable National Park was established only in 1991 and became a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1994. It covers an area of 331 sq km and the jungle forest, one of the richest ecosystems in Africa, is only accessible by foot.  Bwindi has 11 habituated gorilla groups in total and is home to half of the world's population of this critically endangered species. The Mubare group have been habituated since 1993 and the most recent are 4 groups in 2011. One of the 4 gates, Rushaga Gate, in the southern sector of Bwindi is home to the largest number of habituated groups: Mishaya (2010), Nshongi (2009), Bweeza (2011), Kahungye (2011) and Busingye (2011). It also has occasional visits of elephants. Bwindi itself has at least 350 species of birds too not to mention many butterflies and insects and species of trees.

If you like the outdoors, don't mind getting very hot and sweaty with a strong possibility of at least some part of you caked in mud (so leave the designer gear at home, also no bright clothing allowed), aren't fazed by the loud whack of machete hacking or thorny bushes and have an interest in spending time viewing one of the most magnificent animals I have ever had the opportunity to see then Gorilla tracking might be for you! It will likely be one of the most surreal yet amazing experiences you will ever be a part of. Whilst this literally is a "walk in the park" it also isn't. Don't underestimate how steep some of the climb will be or how thick the bush is. If you have issues with fitness then this may not be for you. I also had to forgo my fear of "creepy crawlies" for this one as you fight your way through the dense jungle. Slap on the sunblock, Deet, gators, good hiking boots, long trousers and, when needed, a good pair of gloves (gardening or leather, I used my cycling gloves) to protect your hands from the thorns - there will be times you will reach out to grab something to steady yourself, even though you also have a walking stick. Local porters are for hire if you feel you need someone to carry your stuff (I didn't so can't remember the minimum price quoted) and by stuff I mean at least 1.5L of water, snacks & a packed lunch and then your camera gear plus any rain gear you may need, this is the jungle after all. You could be hiking for as little as half an hour or up to 8. These are wild animals remember! Trackers are already out in the bush following the group you are assigned to from a distance and your job is to catch them up. Our guide together with two other rangers carrying guns and a couple of porters took 6 of us off into the forest in the hope of catching up with the Nshongi group.

I hoped I would see a couple of gorillas but what I ended up with was beyond my wildest dreams. I knew it would be a challenging hike, but would you expect me to want to do anything less? It was well worth the effort and the cost of the permit. After about an hour we were told the trackers were with the group. It was just a question of how long it would take us to get to them, it's not like they sit and wait around for us. After a further 50 minutes I had to make sure I was seeing what I thought I might be seeing. In the not-too-far-distance as bold as brass there was a gorilla climbing up a tree. Now we just had to get to him!

Some serious bush-whacking ensued before we stopped just short of where the Nshongi group were feeding. You could hear the crunching. Gorillas are primarily vegetarian but will occasionally eat ants. We  left our packs with the porters and the two rangers with guns then carrying just what we needed (cameras/iPhones/GoPro's, no food or drink allowed) followed our guide and the two trackers. Swinging from a tree without a care in the world was a baby gorilla. He didn't care that we were there either, in fact I think it encouraged him to put on a show. I was mesmerized. He would occasionally try approach us but the trackers would start making grunts to basically tell him to move away, and he would obey. Still that said, I'm pretty sure he was closer than 7 metres at some point although we were pretty boxed in by the foliage. There was a deep low pitched rumble. I switched my line of sight to lay eyes on the back of an adult male silverback. His silver stripe was almost cumberband-like. We weren't even acknowledged as he sat there eating, only moving to reach out to pick more food. All around us bushes were moving and we knew we were not alone with just these two. Sure enough as he moved to find a better spot, he'd make a noise and the bushes would move again towards his general direction. We would follow and as a result during our hour with the group we were able to watch 3 adult females as well as this male and the baby, who kept reappearing again and again to put on a show. He even beat his chest for us to show us his future aspirations perhaps. The group consists of 10 gorillas in total. To be able to spend one of the best hours of my life with these amazing creatures I can't even do it justice with my words. When it was time to leave the group and make our way back I actually started crying. Why? It was admittedly a little bit overwhelming. But the main reason was that to witness their expressive thoughtful faces and their cinnamon eyes watching you watching them was an experience I will forever be truly grateful for the opportunity to be able to do.

Our total hiking time was about 3 hours not including the hour spent with the gorillas. The drive back was slightly faster than the drive there at 2hrs, likely because it was now daylight. It made for a long day but, in case my sentiments aren't yet clear, it was totally worth it. I can say I "penetrated the impenetrable".

Wednesday, 28 January 2015

... Gorillas in the Mist: Planet of the Apes

Kalinzu Forest Reserve is located in the Bushyeni district of SW Uganda and is close to the well-known Queen Elizabeth National Park. It is home to 378 species of birds (including sun birds, black and white casket, cuckoos and the Great Blue Turaco), 97 moths, 262 butterflies, a variety of flora, reptiles, several mammals (it provides refuge to several savannah grassland species) and over 5 species of primates.

Another early start of 520am was because today was the day we would be tracking chimpanzees in the forest. The endangered chimp shares an unbelievable 99% of their genetic makeup with... Humans. Like us, they're highly social, care for their offspring for years and can live to be over 50. Communities can consist of between 9 and 120 and the males will spend their entire lives on ancestral turf in shifting hierarchies whilst females will disperse to other communities. Decades of research into chimpanzee behaviour has been done at Tanzania's Gombe National Park. Dame Dr. Jane Goodall is a name synonymous with chimpanzees: considered to be the world's foremost expert on chimpanzees, she is best known for her 55-year study of social and family interactions of wild chimpanzees and I highly recommend the IMAX film "Wild Chimpanzees" (2002) which we have played at Science World. Chimps have already disappeared completely from four countries and are under tremendous pressure everywhere else they live. Their population is believed to be within 170K to 300K (per the WWF).

Poaching is a major threat, like with most endangered species in Africa. Bushmeat has always been a primary food source in some parts of Africa and in recent years has become commercialized to satisfy the appetites of wealthy urbanites. Infant chimpanzees are frequently taken alive and sold as pets. There are obviously some very dumb people out there. Sadly, there has been a high level of illegal hunting in the Reserve too and many of the chimpanzees that live there have snare injuries, even though they are not the target. The Jane Goodall Institute and the National Forest Authority started a snare removal programme within Kalinzu Forest Reserve in the late 2000's, supported by the Disney Wildlife Conservation Fund and the Japan Ministry of Environment Global Environment Research Fund.

Upon entrance into the forest there was a blue monkey high in the trees but it didn't take long to start hearing the calls of the chimpanzees. It was pretty amazing to hear not mention loud. Now we just had to locate them! As we trekked deeper into the forest they were all of a sudden above us swinging from tree to tree. I was admittedly awestruck. A little baby held on tightly as its mother moved from branch to branch. They all seemed to be eating voraciously and didn't appear to notice us down below.

When they moved we followed. Aside from seeing one on the ground a short distance away that was very obviously staring at us, they stuck to the tree tops which is where they spend most of their time. We attempted to follow two different groups and came across chimp poop, nests that they make to sleep in, knuckle prints in the ground and, just when you start thinking how cute they are, some colobus monkey fur.... with skin attached. Chimpanzees eat Colobus monkeys and will corner their meal before ripping it to shreds. Lovely.

To be able to track chimpanzees you need a permit and a strong sense of adventure. Wild animals don't obey anyone but themselves. You may come across them within minutes or you could be trekking for several hours. Our trek in total was 3.5hrs.

Upon return to camp for brunch and to pack away our tents we were joined by a baboon family. It certainly made me wonder what may have been lurking in the bushes whilst I had slept.

The road quality deteriorated quite considerably from the ones in and around Kampala and I was treated to the "African massage" for many hours. The scenery however was certainly even more green and lush than it had already been plus a lot more hilly. I also saw a little monkey sat on a telegraph pole as we headed towards Kabale and Lake Bunyonyi in the south west, very close to the Rwandan border. Our campsite, Bunyonyi Overland Resort, was right on the shore of the lake and the views were absolutely stunning even if we did have several flights of steep stone steps to climb with a tent. The great thing about the camp is that it is ecologically built, with local materials, locally owned and provided employment to the people who call Lake Bunyonyi home. Of course having hot showers and flushing toilets also helps. 

Tuesday, 27 January 2015

... Gorillas in the Mist: Blinding You with Science!

Tiny bladder syndrome kicked in at 315am but I was able to fall back to sleep until my 445am alarm. Yes, I know... I'm on holiday and I am getting up earlier than I would do were I home. I was actually awake earlier due to someone chanting in the bushes. I half expected that, were I to peer out of my tent, I might see a crazy baboon swinging from the trees singing, "Asante sana, squash banana, wewe nugu mimi apana". I've absolutely no clue what was being said and thankfully they stayed in the bush singing to themselves.

Of course I'd forgotten to bring in all my washed laundry off the clothes line prior to bed so they were all wet. Then again the word "washed" can only be applied very loosely here. I don't think I'm going to rid any item of clothing of the red dust until I can actually machine wash them with proper detergent. That stuff gets everywhere. Still, as long as my clothing at least smells tolerable for a long ride on a truck, out of respect for my fellow travellers as much as my own nose, then I'm happy. In the interim drying clothing took the form of holding onto it tightly and sticking my arm out the window (a good portion of the Ugandan countryside has seen my peach Lululemon sports bra drying in the breeze as a result) or hanging them from my chair on the truck. You've got to work with what you've got!

We were on the road by 625am with the goal to try and avoid the Kampala traffic. About 65km southwest of Kampala is where the equator crosses the Kampala-Masaka road. Two cement circles mark the spot however the true GPS apparently places it about 30m south of it (without the same pomp & circumstance). You can watch a demonstration on the apparent Coriolis effect, which way water travels down a drain, depending on which hemisphere you are in. On the Southern Hemisphere it appeared to turn anticlockwise, on the Northern it turned clockwise and at 0 degrees there was apparently no rotation. It was pretty cool to see even if  I personally think it is a hoax (and I had good Science teachers at school who helped guide me to this conclusion, many years ago, so I was always going to be jaded about this demonstration). For one, shouldn't it turn anticlockwise in the north and clockwise in the south? Hurricanes certainly do this depending on which hemisphere they are in due to the direction in which the winds are pulled by the Coriolis effect (left in the South, right in the North). Hmmmm. I also believe systems like toilet bowls & sink drains are probably too small to be controlled by the effect, unlike jetstreams, hurricanes and trade winds etc.which definitely are affected..... Then again I was trained as a Chemist (the cooler science, right?) so what do I know about Physics?! However, an interesting factoid is that if you stand at the equator at midday during the equinox there is no shadow.

A quick stop to pick up some charcoal from one of many sellers on the roadside and some veggies afforded me with the opportunity to try some fresh jackfruit for a good dose of B vitamins.

Upon arrival at the basic Kalinzu Forest Camp, once I'd erected my tent, it was time to go on a tea plantation walk around the Ankole Tea Estate. East Africa exports high quality tea (& coffee), although locally you tend to get a far inferior brew (and instant coffee is the norm). Camellia sinensis is an evergreen plant grown in mostly tropical and sub-tropical climates. It was interesting to learn that tea plants take 4 to 12 years to bear seed and about 3 years before a new plant is ready for harvesting. They can grow up to 52ft but cultivated plants are usually pruned to keep them low as this primarily means more new shoots equaling new and tender leaves thus an increase in tea quality. Not to mention its a lot easier to pick!

After dinner we were treated to some traditional songs and dance from a group of children from the local village. They are part of a charitable organization that perform to help raise money to buy school supplies.   The best thing was getting to join in. Pretty soon I had a grass skirt deftly wrapped around my waist whilst I shook what my mother gave me. In my mind I was the greatest dancer, in reality not so much. It was a lot of fun to be reduced to a sweaty demented-looking chicken.