Thursday, July 19, 2007

Murchison Falls - Day 3: Chimp Tracking

Sunday, 5:15 AM wake-up. We dressed and finished packing in the dark. There were noises from the surrounding tents of others stirring, but the hippos had returned to the water. When we stepped outside we felt a spattering of raindrops. Fred, our driver, arrived shortly after 5:30 AM and drove us the hour to Budongo Forest while the rest of us slept in the back of the van.

We arrived in the middle of the forest to a half-built reception building, all blond wood with a stack of boxed Sharp solar panels on the front porch. We were introduced to our guide, Justin, who was keen to smile and had one tooth missing on the right side of his upper teeth. He wore a dapper wool hat, that made me think of Britain in the 1950s, and tall black gum boots. Philip was our second guide, who trailed behind, quiet, but in a way that you knew he was paying attention, and that maybe he knew just as much as Justin, but just wasn’t as charismatic.


The trees protected us from much of the rain. Only our shoes grew damp trekking through patches of fern carpet. Stray drops on our shoulders therefore seemed more noticeable, like they were intentional. We passed trees with roots like the walls of a rate maze—they grew tall and thin up from the ground.

For an hour we saw nothing but a brubaker, a small antelope, trotting down the path ahead of us. We walked like tourists in Times Square with our necks craned up and our eyes trained on the highest branches. Just when I thought our animal luck had run dry, we turned east into the forest and saw the branches sway and then crash together high above our heads as a chimp scurried to get away from us. The chimp was just a small black flash in the green far, far away.

And then these black flashes seemed to be all around us. The group split up briefly as J and I followed Philip one direction and had a few chimps to ourselves. The rest of the group disappeared and we didn’t care. I trusted Philip to get us back to the half-finished building where Fred waited for us, if it came down to it. The guide’s enthusiasm was infectious—Philip grabbed my finger to pull me where I could see every time a chimp came into his sightline. He was as excited to see the chimps as we were, as though it were his first time, too.

When Justin found us again he scolded Philip for separating us. He scolded N. and S. for talking too loud. Justin takes chimp tracking seriously.

Large branches came crashing down the long trajectory of limbs blocking the way to the ground thirty or so yards from where we stood. We could imagine the chimps meant them for our heads.

You know the smell. It’s the same smell from the zoo, but softer, mingling with the scent of wet bark, soaked leaves underfoot, and rotting fruit peels left behind by the monkeys.

For thirty minutes there were chimps everywhere we went, though always far above us, too far for pictures, and always trying to escape us. If you looked down for a second to get better footing, you’d lose the spot between the leaves where you thought the chimp should be. The chimps would just disappear.

For that short time I was able to stop worrying about standing in an ant swarm that would climb up over my shoes and attack my legs, about snakes, about spiders, about insects I’d never heard of biting me. And that was a beautiful thing, too.

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