Saturday, June 19, 2010

Safari Part 1

Back to civilization! Thank you Mom and Dad for an AWESOME time on Safari. I’ve just arrived back in Kampala after 4 days of adventure and wide-eyed wonder at human, animal, and natural beauty in the western Ugandan countryside and wilderness, bringing back some pineapples and bananas for my Yale friends here and some memories to last a lifetime. My excursion may be worthy of a couple posts, but I’ll start with a chronology of where I went and what I did.

I got up early on Wednesday, packed one small backpack with everything I thought I needed (Mom the flashlight turned out to be a lifesaver! figuratively). My driver and guide, Mr. David, picked me up at the hotel in the Pearl of Africa, Inc., safari van, and we shot out of Kampala, just missing morning rush hour (which lasts from 8am-3pm. Evening rush hour starts at noon). We drove about 4-5 hours on the bewildering highways of rural Uganda. The national highway system is characterized by the most schizophrenic planning I’ve ever encountered. Several miles of immaculate asphalt will often be sandwiched between two entirely unpaved stretches of the same road. Unmarked speed bumps, bulging drainage pipes, and accidental piles of dirt provide constant surprises. You begin to prefer dirt or gravel surfaces to paved ones, unless the latter are brand new, because the older, crumbling asphalt has more of Uganda’s national product, potholes. In fact, “highway” is really too strong a word for the two-lane road with no lights, no signs, no guardrails, no shoulder, and no telling how many goats crossing at a given moment. No matter how remote or urban the setting for the highway, you are always certain to have one of these banana-cycle guys along the side.

Local driving etiquette is an experience in itself. Because the potholes, banana guys, ladies with enormous objects balanced on their heads, and goats cluster nearer to the sides of the road—and since there are no lane markers anyway—drivers tend to stay right in the middle of the road. This results in an exhilarating game of “chicken” virtually every single time two cars come from opposite directions: each driver, attempting to spare his suspension as long as possible from the beating it will take from the potholes in his actual lane, stays in the center of the road on a collision course with the other driver until the very last moment, at which point both drivers

suddenly veer into their respective lanes to avoid catastrophe. It has been easier to learn some basic Luganda phrases than to figure out the complex language Ugandans have developed for using turn signals. Depending on the situation and I think the weather, turn signals may communicate “Do not pass me!” ; “Please do not hit me” ; “Watch out because at this speed I have no control of the car” ; “Go ahead and pass me already!” ; and, very rarely, “I am about to turn.” The horn is used at all times for any reason, but especially to tell pedestrians you do not feel like slowing down for anything.

Below, a typical Ugandan highway, complete with obstacles

Finally I reached Kibale National Forest, home to one of the greatest concentrations of monkeys and chimpanzees in the world. I checked in at the nice Kibale Primate Lodge and went on a hike in the Bigodi Swamp. The local tribe has come up with a pretty cool business model for their swamp, which is ringed by a 3-mile hiking trail. Apparently they protect the monkeys inside from hunting and deforestation, provide guides for tours, and then use the funds generated for community enterprises like schools and irrigation. Led by my trusty guide Ivan, I saw a ton of swamp creatures, including baboons, colobus monkeys, and many other of our playful distant relatives with obscure names I can’t recollect.

That night Mr. David and I were treated to a lovely dinner at the Primate Lodge served by terrified waiters who acted as if they had just been dragged out of the forest and made to wear clothes and live in buildings and serve food to people. The next morning, I joined in with a few Danes and Germans to track chimpanzees in the Kibale Forest itself (a big step up from the rather undignified swamp). This experience was one of the highlights of my trip. No more than ten minutes could have passed after driving up to the edge of the forest and stepping out to begin tracking when we heard a cacophony of wild screeching and hollering from within the dark, impenetrable-looking jungle. Our park ranger guide Johnson pricked up his ears and immediately plunged into the pathless forest, shouting, “Follow me!” as branches and vines closed behind him. We swiftly and quietly pursued the outlandish noises, which sounded something like a series of brutal murders with a laugh track, until we were surrounded by hoots and shrieks above and all around us. Suddenly, we spotted our first chimp, which Johnson—who had been working with this chimp community of 50+ individuals for over a decade to accustom them to seeing humans—excitedly informed us was the “bodyguard” to the alpha male. Indeed, this figure was on the ground looking warily on all sides, including at us with particular suspicion, and occasionally pounding loudly on the hollow trunk of the banyan tree to showcase his strength and aggression.

After posing proudly for a few Kodak moments, the bodyguard whistled that the coast was clear, and the alpha male emerged with a swagger. The rangers have named him “Mobutu” after the late dictator of Zaire in light of his tyrannical behavior to his underlings and especially the women of this chimp clan. Johnson suspected he was due for a coup attempt, as happens occasionally in chimpanzee communities, probably by a member of his five-chimp “Cabinet” of almost-alpha males. After winning the respect of the despot, we sort of earned the good graces of the community and were treated for the next 3 and a half hours to a staggering number of swinging, scampering, jumping and hollering chimpanzees as we traipsed through the jungle, which did have some trails carved out by elusive and destructive forest elephants (which we did not see). At one point a group of chimp “warriors” cornered a family of colobus monkeys, which chimpanzees apparently eat with great zest. The entire chimp community rose up in joyful shrieks as the news spread. From my guide, later supplemented by some research of my own, I learned that chimps do indeed hunt and eat meat, as well as going to war against other chimp communities (see, this does have something to do with my research project). Unfortunately the jungle was so dark and my camera lens so affordable that I didn’t really get many good pictures, but I’ll put up a few of what I’ve got.

Oh no they are closing the “business center” here for the night. Well, much, much more on my safari tomorrow! Love to all.

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