Chasing Chimpanzees

Thursday, June 11, 2015

Chasing Chimpanzees 1

“I’m sick,” says my father. The words hit me like a ton of bricks. My heart sinks to my toes.

It’s 7 a.m. and I just spent my fourth night sleeping in a two-man tent plopped on the grounds of a well-manicured guesthouse in the beautiful Ugandan countryside near Kibale. We’re slated to track wild chimpanzees in Kibale National Park this afternoon. The timing of the sickness couldn’t be worse.

I look at my father in the soft morning light cast by the rising sun. His face is covered in sweat and he’s curled up in the fetal position on a thin sleeping pad. He looks frail. I wonder when he turned into an old man.

He tells me he’s been up since 2 a.m. sick to his stomach and isn’t sure if he’ll be able to do the trek. The news is crushing for both of us. This was supposed to be one of the highlights of our 16-day camping trip through Kenya, Uganda and Rwanda — a trip of a lifetime.

“I might as well have stayed up all night getting pissed like the others for all it matters,” says my father. His voice is shaky. His eyes fill with tears. “How come I’m the only one who gets sick? It’s just not fair.”

My dad turned 65 this year and decided it was time to go on an adventure before it was too late. When I told him I was going to East Africa, he said he was going with me without any hesitation. The last time he flew overseas was 37 years ago. Now, here we were in southwest Uganda, about to trek through dense jungle in search of wild chimpanzees in this unfamiliar world.

There wasn’t much change physically when I came back to the tent to check on him later, but his spirit had changed from defeated old man to fighter. He mustered up the strength to get onto our truck that transported us into another world.

Spanning 766 square kilometers, Kibale National Park is an important eco-tourism and safari destination, known for its population of habituated chimpanzees and 12 other species of primates, such as the black and white colobus, grey cheeked mangabey and red-tailed monkey. Around 1,420 chimpanzees call the forest their home, along with more than 300 species of birds.

The number of chimpanzee trekking permits for each day is restricted, so we’re broken into groups of six where we get to spend one hour with the primates that share about 98% of our DNA composition.

In the company of a guide and armed ranger, we’re soon on a trail, passing by giant trees with trunks the size of a small car. I’ve never seen trees this huge before. Looking up at their tops is dizzying and nearly impossible given their mammoth size.

The sound of the jungle is deafening, the vegetation a dazzling sea of green. Colorful butterflies dance around my head in air so thick I can almost drink it.

Everyone in our group is quiet as they carefully step over large tree roots and logs coated in moss that looks like carpet. I expect to see Tarzan swing from one of the many vines at any moment.

“It’s just surreal,” says my dad as he walks along the path, drinking in the magical environment around him. His sickness releases its grip the further we venture into the wild.

Our pace is brisk. We’re trying to catch up to a group of chimpanzees before they move. Our guides have been tracking them all morning, listening to their calls to determine their whereabouts.

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Within an hour of beginning the trek, we veer off the main path, stopping in some bushes where we’re told to relax. I gaze at the treetops, anxiously waiting for my first glimpse of a chimpanzee when suddenly the trees shake. There are two of them, sitting high in the treetops. They look like silhouettes against the sky, making it impossible to take a decent photograph.

One of them moves, displaying its enormous size to the wide-eyed travelers far below. Then we wait. And wait some more for something to happen. I begin to feel restless.

“You have to be patient,” says our guide.

We switch locations. Our guide spots a chimp on the ground. We give chase, carving our own path through the jungle. My heart is racing as branches fling into my face. I suddenly catch a glimpse of the large primate briskly walking through the vegetation with ease, then disappear. I feel like I’m chasing something I’m never going to catch.

The chimp climbs into a tree, hovering a few feet above our heads. I snap a few photos, getting a good look at his face before he scampers further up into the sky. His name is Sebel, says our guide, and he’s 40 to 45 years old. He’s the male in charge of one of the groups, but he’s taking a time out to be alone.

Through my binoculars I can see his eyes, staring down at us with curiosity. It’s as though he’s thinking, wondering why we’re so fascinated by his daily routine of munching on leaves.

I look over at my father. He’s lost in photography, a smile permanently glued to his red face.

“Quite the place this world,” he says. His eyes flicker with excitement. The moment is priceless.

TheExpeditioner

By Pamela Roth / Pamela Roth Twitter Pamela Roth Facebook

Matt Stabile Bio PictureA journalist for 11 years, Pamela has covered a variety of topics along the way for various newspapers and magazines. She currently works as a crime reporter, travel writer and editor for Sun Media, one of two major newspaper chains in Canada. Aside from being published daily in Canadian newspapers, Pamela’s work has also appeared in Outpost Magazine, Dreamscapes Magazine, More of Our Canada Magazine and a handful of online travel publications. For more information visit Pamelaroth.ca or Pamelaroth81.blogspot.com.

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  • Katie Kenney

    What an adventure to share with your father! I’m so happy he was able to make it out to see the chimpanzees despite his illness.

    …but, the photo accompanying the article is definitely of a gorilla, not a chimpanzee, right?

    • MattStabile

      Errr, fixed.

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