Looking for Chimps in Kibale Forest, Uganda

I have just returned from a three-week safari in Uganda.  One of the highlights was a morning spent climbing over bushes in Kibale Forest to watch chimpanzees.  They are boisterous and lively.   They squabbled and shrieked and ran past us in the brush, then ambled up a tree to swing from vines. It was as if we were not there, standing in the forest quietly watching. The Alpha Male kept them all in line. He would settle a fight or chase off a trouble-maker then lie down in the forest, legs crossed, for a rest.

Quite an amazing three hours.

In search of a Ugandan Rose…

My 2009 safari in East Africa took me back to the edge of Kibale Forest, a high-altitude rain forest ( a jungle, in fact)  in Western Uganda. The forest lived up to its name with rain pelting down in dramatic outbursts most days. When the clouds cleared it became humid and warm and felt quite tropical.

I had been there a few times before so it was quite wonderful to see the villagers who live nearby, people I had smiled and waved at in past visits. They seemed to remember this white-haired mzungu with a camera around his neck who wandered along the road taking pictures of birds and butterflies and kids. I have tentative plans to return to Kibale for a few days in September 2013 and am very much looking forward to it.

On my daily walks, as I followed the red dirt road into Kanyawara village, I was aware of  being watched by several sets of eyes.  An old baboon sits in the grass, scratching himself and looking like he’s a spectator for a parade. A big brown cow stops chewing for a moment to look up as I pass and children peek from behind curtain doorways.   Some of the bolder ones run out to greet me with “How are you?” the only English phrase that they know. One little girl is dressed in a torn and dirty party dress and most of the children are barefoot.

MarkI stopped along the way to visit a young fellow named Mark who is a progressive entrepreneurial type. He had purchased a plot of land that sloped down into the valley.  He grows all of the food needed to feed his four children and has some left over to sell. As we chat, he hands me a carrot pulled from his garden and I munch on it as we walk.  He introduces me to his 9 year old son, Moses, as “Geddes, my friend from Canada”.

He  and his wife have been digging sweet potatoes and pulling up plants that have peanut-like clusters on the roots. Ground nuts, or G-nuts, are a staple here.  Mark also knows that they enrich the soil somehow so he intercrops them with other plants.  We walked under the banana trees and he pointed out various other crops – greens, peppers, tomatoes, potatoes, cassava and arrowroot. Avocado trees form a border for his lot. He sells the fruits for less than ten cents each. He breaks off a fresh pineapple from a spiny bush and cuts it up for me to savour. There is no comparison in taste between a tender, sweet, fresh pineapple that is five minutes from the plant and the pale sinewy ones we often get in the super market.

I leave Mark with thanks for his hospitality and carry on. I’m on a bit of a mission.  I have with me a photograph of Rose, a waif who I have seen by the side of the road every year for the past four.

When I first encountered Rose in 2006, she was a sad little waif on the side of the road.

When I first encountered Rose in 2006, she was a sad little waif on the side of the road.

When I get to her village, Rose is nowhere to be found. Knowing that many children in Uganda succumb to malaria or malnutrition before they reach the age of five, I worry that she is OK.

I show Rose’s picture to a woman who is sitting under a tree as she weaves a basket from coarse grass. She shakes her head then points vaguely across the road but I can tell from the look in her eyes and absence of a smile that I won’t find Rose there.

Rose in 2007.  I knew she remembered me from the year before.

Rose in 2007. I knew she remembered me from the year before.

A man sitting in a doorway looks at the photo and tells me that this little girl is not here any more. Both her parents died within the past few months, her mother on Christmas Day. She has gone to live with grandparents in another village – the stereotypical African orphan story. He says he will try to pass the picture on to them.

Disappointed, but glad to know that Rose is alive, I start to head back to the research station. Soon I am joined by four young kids who have been following me around the village. The youngest, about four years old is dressed in a one-piece red pajama outfit, the dome fasteners up the legs and around the crotch all undone. She grabs my hand as we walk.

I think of how trusting and open these kids are with me, a white foreigner from the other side of the world.. In North America, we have scared our children so much with warnings about strangers that they have become fearful and suspicious. There must be a happy medium.

As we walk, the kids want me to go up a side road. I don’t understand their Rutoro language nor do they understand my English, but it is clear that they want me to follow them, perhaps to their home.  So, also in a very non-North American way, I let these kids drag me half a kilometre up a narrow roadway lined with tall grass and banana trees.

We come to a driveway that leads to a small house. Outside a mother is sitting with a baby on her lap. Beans boil on an open fire in a mud kitchen hut. Three other kids are playing in the yard.

One of them is Rose.

Rose in 2009. A happier chid living with grandparents and brothers after both parents had died, likely of AIDS.

Rose in 2009. A happier chid living with grandparents and brothers after both parents had died, likely of AIDS.

She looked happy and healthier than when I saw her the year before.  Shyly she came to greet me. She remembered me for sure and once again, I checked out the scar on her leg that reminded us both of our first meeting when I treated an open sore there. We were all smiles and I take a few more photos with promises to send them back or maybe bring them myself one day.

After a brief visit, I headed out, feeling relieved that Rose was still there – still alive – struggling, no doubt, to get day to day but looking like she will survive. Rose will never know and would never understand the influence her being has had on motivating me to help in Africa where I can. I have trouble, sometimes, really understanding it myself.

I will travel to Kibale Forest again this September.  Will our paths cross again in this little town near the Ugandan jungle? Stay tuned.

Rose in 2010. Look at those eyes. She will be a teenager now. Will I find her again? I am on a mission.

Rose in 2010. Look at those eyes. She will be a teenager now. Will I find her again? I am on a mission.

African Butterflies

Red butterflyMy last blog about the Monarch Butterfly and Africa got me looking through photos I have taken of Butterflies in Africa.  Good segue into this one which will only be butterfly photos – give you a reading break.  I have enjoyed chasing butterflies all over Kenya and Uganda to get their pictures – more challenging than photographing giraffes. Butterflies don’t stay still for long.

I even wrote a children’s book for my grandchildren based on butterflies in Kibale Forest, Uganda. Some of these photos were taken on Poinsettia bushes in Kenya, others on the forest floor in Western Uganda. The one against the bricks is called a Christmas butterfly.  I hope you enjoy them.  Happy New Year.

butterfly 3

blue butterfly 2

christmas butterfly2butterfly 4

bflies 4458 art

Colours of Kibale Book cover

BIG and little

Sometimes we are drawn to BIG.

BIG tends to get a lot of attention.

I have been awed by the expansive views over the Rift Valley in Africa and can never capture that image in a photograph, no matter how hard I try.

I went on the whale watch, hoping to get the photo of a humpback fluke dripping water as the whale started to dive.

Elephants and hippos are hard to ignore and have an appeal that is unmistakable.

Last month I was visiting friends in Nova Scotia. One of my missions was to go whale-watching on the Bay of Fundy. The Humpbacks there are plentiful in July, having come over 2000 km from the Carribean to feed on the plankton and krill that populates the Bay during our summer months. You would think that a 40-ton mammal that is longer than a fishing boat would not be that hard to miss. But in the Ocean, this huge creature is small and takes some searching to find. BIG and little – it is all relative. And what sustains these huge mammals? Some of the tiniest organisms in the sea.

Watching several humming birds flit among the flowers and feeders at sunset was a treat.

Well, I did see the whales and, yes, they were impressive. But that same evening I got as much thrill photographing six hummingbirds that were feeding in the warm, waning sunlight. Standing in silence by the feeder and flowers, I was able to marvel at these little birds, peeping and whirring from flower to flower, their delicate wings cycling so fast I could not see them.

An African Elephant along the shore of Lake George in Uganda.

In Africa, as well, I have taken to watching tiny birds or insects. The challenge of catching a photo of a butterfly sometimes provides more satisfaction than one of an elephant. (Don’t get me wrong, the elephants still amaze me.)

A photographic challenge
Hobart’s Red Glider
(Cymothoe hobarti)

While staying near the Kibale Forest in Uganda, I spent a couple of days chasing down a red butterfly that was skimming up and down the forest path, ever elusive. It was more of a challenge to get a good photo of this little creature than it is of larger African animals.

BIG things tend to inspire awe and attract attention. Contemplating the vastness of the universe can be overwhelming but the recent discovery of the sub-atomic Higgs boson particle also drew a lot of notice. The little things in life sometimes need to be sought out but, once found, can be just as amazing as the BIG ones.

My night of terror in an African forest

As I entered Kibale Forest in Western Uganda with a group of students from McGill, I was warned against the hazards I might encounter. Kibale is a protected mid-elevation moist forest – the jungle of Tarzan stories – that is home to many species of monkeys and chimpanzees. The rustle of leaves in the tree canopy high above the trails as monkeys bounced from branch to drooping branch drew my eyes upward. But I was warned to keep my eyes on the ground so as not to inadvertently step on a snake, or into an area of swamp. I was sure to wear protective footwear and although it was warm I wore long sleeves and trousers to avoid malaria-carrying mosquitoes or to avoid contact with stinging nettles or biting insects. There was also the possibility of running into a troop of baboons or even a forest elephant that could plough through the dense underbrush more quickly than I could if he decided to chase me. I saw bees and wasps and huge, fat earthworms that were over a foot long. The trails were muddy and sometimes slippery. The forest was a lush green and exotic birds flitted from branch to branch, often making jungle sounds.

The hike deep into the forest filled me with a sense of romantic African adventure. (Do I sound like J. Peterman from Seinfeld?) I had been adequately warned of the possible looming danger.

A Black and White colobus monkey in the trees of Kibale Forest, Uganda.

Our guide, however, had neglected to tell me about the Army Ants, little critters that mass into legions to scour the ground looking for food. If one accidentally disrupts them by standing in their path, they scatter; then they race up the nearest pant leg in search of tender flesh where they grab hold in a hot sting. The females are not very big but they move quickly and once buried deep in clothing creases, seem to all decide to bite at once. The larger males appear more threatening, tend to act as guardians and have menacing pincers that grip like a stapler. Rumour has it that these are even strong enough to be used to hold skin wounds together like sutures.

Whenever we encountered these ants in the woods we were respectful, jumped quickly past them and spent the next five minutes swatting at any little tingle we felt in our pants.

A couple of weeks later, I was staying alone in a small cabin near the edge of the forest. At night my closest neighbour was about half a kilometer away down a dark path. It was wonderful to sleep at night with the window open, the sounds of the birds and bugs and baboons in the forest occasionally punctuating the silence.

You can imagine my surprise when I woke up at 3 am one night to find my bedroom being invaded by Army Ants.

I was sleeping under my mosquito net when I became aware that I was not alone in the room. At first I thought perhaps there was a moth fluttering around or perhaps it was a gecko on the wall catching flies. The electricity was out so I used my flashlight to get up, wander into another room and eventually outside to admire the brilliant stars sparkling in the clear, black Ugandan sky and listen to the occasional croaking call of a Colobus monkey.

A few moments after I crawled back into bed, I felt a tickle on my arm, then my back, then my leg. I brushed aside something crawling on me, grabbed my flashlight and quickly found that there were a dozen or more ants roaming the bed sheets and looking for me. Army ants. Where were the rest?

I swung my flashlight beam onto the floor. Thousands – yes thousands – of ants were parading around the door jamb and the perimeter of the room. A two inch wide swath that flowed like a black stream stretched from the back door of the house and now encircled my bed. I was under attack.

I grabbed my shoes and anything lying on the floor and threw them on a nearby table. For the next hour I perched on a wooden chair in the middle of the room my bare feet up off the floor on the chair rungs and my flashlight beam scanning the invading army like a prison beacon looking for escapees. Would they crawl up the furniture? Would I be found in the morning, covered in ants in a heap in the middle of the room?

Eventually, despite my uncomfortable position, I dozed back to sleep. When I jerked awake an hour later they were gone. Totally gone. All of them.

I actually started to wonder if I had been hallucinating – a common side-effect of some of the malaria prevention drugs. So, in the morning, I quietly told a friend who works in the forest regularly about my invaders. “Oh, yes,” she said, “The Army ants clean up our house occasionally. They get all the crumbs on the floor and even catch the odd small rodent!” I wasn’t crazy after all.

Travel in Africa conjures up images of being attacked by a lion or trampled by an elephant. I’m embarrassed to relate that it was ants that terrorized me one muggy, sleepless January night in the Uganda forest.