Chimpanzee trekking in Western Uganda's Kibale National Park on a day long habituation experience is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and one of 12 reasons that I think Uganda is the most awesome place to go on safari in East Africa. Read on for details about our full-day trek in search of chimps, humanity's closest relatives.
Chimpanzee Trekking Rules in Uganda
We arrived at the visitor's center in Kibale Forest Park at dawn and were greeted by our Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA) Ranger, Benson. As we started our chimpanzee trek, we stopped at a thatched enclosure to go over the rules. The most important rule is that if you're sick, you can't go on the hike. Chimps and humans share so much DNA that it's possible to transmit diseases across species.
I knew this rule in advance and took extra precautions to make sure I wouldn't catch a cold in the weeks leading up to the trip. I recommend lots of hand sanitizer and vitamin C. I even found a nose spray that is supposed to help prevent colds. I figured it couldn't hurt. I definitely did not want to miss the chimpanzee habituation trek on our trip to Uganda!
Into Uganda's Kibale National Park
Five of us embarked on the chimpanzee habituation trek that day: me and my husband, an older gentleman from the US, and a pair of British diplomats living in Kampala.
Kibale Forest is quite dense with all sorts of creatures living within so it's important to dress appropriately for your chimpanzee habituation experience. Wear long trousers, a long-sleeved shirt and sturdy hiking shoes. Tuck your trouser legs into your socks to protect yourself from fire ants. Gaiters (coverings for your trousers) to protect your clothing from mud and tears are definitely helpful.
We entered Uganda's Kibale Forest Park and were enveloped by deep green foliage. Benson pointed out the large old-growth trees that the chimps tend to favor.
We learned about how the chimpanzees rap on the trees to communicate and scratch themselves with the bark.
Chimpanzee Night Nests
After about an hour of walking along reasonably well-cleared trails in the forest, we emerged into a clearing and looked up. We had found the chimpanzee night nests and, uh, other evidence of the chimps' recent presence.
Now all we had to do was figure out where the chimps had gone to feed.
Hurry Up and Wait: Chimps Feeding and Napping in the Treetops
The UWA guides track chimps in Kibale Forest Park nearly everyday and get to know the patterns that these fascinating primates follow and their favored locations. After another hour or so of searching for the chimps, we found two apes lounging high up in a tree.
Tracking chimpanzees in Uganda is definitely a hurry-up and wait exercise. We had to hurry to find the chimps but then we had to wait patiently for them to come down from the trees. The chimps follow a fairly predictable pattern: leave the night nest, find food, feed in the treetops, come down to ground level to move through the forest, go back up to the treetops, bed down for the night. In total, we waited about 2 hours in a forest clearing while the chimps took their time feeding and resting.
Lunch Visitors in Kibale National Park
Since the chimps were eating, our group thought it was the perfect time to have some lunch. When we pulled out the packed lunches provided by Kibale Forest Lodge, beautiful butterflies fluttered into view and perched on my backpack. I love the amazing nature in Uganda in its largest and smallest forms!
A Red-Tailed Monkey Diversion in Kibale Forest Park
Chimpanzees aren't the only primates living in Uganda's Kibale National Park. While we were waiting for the resting chimps to come down from the trees, we entertained ourselves watching a red-tailed monkey jump from tree-to-tree.
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Chimps Coming Down
Finally, our patience was rewarded! The chimps were coming down from the treetops! At this point, there were the 5 people from our day-long chimpanzee habituation trek plus about a dozen others doing the hour-long chimp encounter. It was like the paparazzi had descended on the Kibale Forest with everyone jockeying for a good spot to get a photo.
The chimpanzee that climbed down from the trees was a good sport and sat on a rock for a few minutes to be admired. Such an amazing creature!
Once the chimps come down from the trees, the goal is to follow the them wherever they go. However, on the chimpanzee habituation trek, you can only move as fast as your slowest group member will allow. One of the people in our group had some mobility issues and had a hard time keeping up with the pace required to effectively track the chimps. You need to be in good physical shape and be able to walk fast over rough terrain to do chimpanzee trekking in Uganda's Kibale National Park. If you go anyway despite physical limitations, you'll be holding the others in your group back.
Chimpanzees Chilling in the Trees
Despite not being able to keep up with the chimpanzees who had come down from the trees, we were fortunate to find a few more chimps hanging out in a different set of trees not far away.
Waiting in the Rain
We waited for the chimps to descend for about an hour and then a heavy rain started to pour down. The chimps looked equally unhappy to be wet! Once again, we have a lot in common with our closest relatives.
The Hike Out of Kibale Forest Park
The Kibale Forest Park chimpanzee habituation trek typically lasts until the chimps make their nests for the night or the group agrees that they've had enough. We waited until the last group of chimps came down from the trees, followed them a short distance and then unfortunately lost them again since our group wasn't able to keep pace. At about 5 pm, we hiked out of the muddy, rainy forest to meet our waiting Matoke Tours driver, Geoffrey to take us back to the lodge.
Our Full Day Chimp Habituation Trek Distilled Down to 3 Minutes
A picture may tell 1000 words, but a video can be even more powerful. Check out my video highlights of our day of chimpanzee trekking in Uganda's Kibale Forest Park to immerse yourself in the experience.
Overall, this unique Uganda wildlife encounter was a great day out. We'd recommend chimpanzee trekking in Uganda if you are in good physical shape. It is indeed a once-in-a-lifetime experience.