Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Portal to Another World

Before you read this, please note that my mother agreed to every form of transport and that she was never in any danger. In fact, every family member who reads this should really be grateful that Mom gets to go on grand adventures and you don’t have to be the one to escort her. What I’m really trying to say is, don’t be mad at me or Jeanette or Mom. Nothing was as bad as that bus we took Stuart on… On to the story.
Our first major destination in Uganda was Fort Portal, a town in the southwestern part of the country near many forested national parks. Because Jeanette and I are cursed, the theoretically four-hour-long drive took nine hours, including waiting time at the bus station and being caught in traffic. By the time we arrived we decided it would be best to go a short distance the next day to the crater lakes next to Kibale Forest instead of trekking all the way up to Semliki National Park. Of course, that was the day the minibuses decided to go on strike, so we had to pay too much for a private taxi to get there.
 The crater lakes are exactly as they sound: old volcanic craters that are now filled with water. We stayed at a “resort” on a lake fed by seven different streams and surrounded mostly by farmland with some forest remnants. We took a walk to look for birds, it rained, I swam for a bit, it was nice. Unfortunately our relaxing resort was a bit further away from the start of the chimp walk that we planned on taking the next day than we thought. Hiring a private car would have been very expensive, so the men at the park headquarters helped us arrange motorcycle taxis for the next day. Please note that Mom did agree to this plan.
We hoped to have three different bikes to take us the 12 km to the park in order to safely carry us and our massive bags. Come 7 am when the drivers were to arrive, only two awaited us. We strapped our packs onto the back of a reasonably solid-looking motorbike and I hopped on. Jeanette held onto Mom on the back of the other bike, and we roared off down the dirt road. Okay, so roared is a bit of an overstatement. I honestly could have ridden a bicycle faster than these motorbikes moved. We puttered up and down the hills, and Mom was only vaguely petrified for the first part of the ride. Then their bike got a flat tire. The plan was to take me to the visitor center to meet up with the chimpanzee tracking group, and my driver would turn back for Mom and Jeanette. Problematically, my bike was so slow that I got their 15 minutes late. By the time the bike turned back for Mom and Jeanette they had already walked for 25 minutes then found another motorcycle taxi to take them. They arrived just as the chimp tracking groups were taking off, luckily more than 30 minutes later than scheduled.
Our chimp tracking was a success! A short car ride followed by a short hike then a short wait and there they were: lots of chimps hanging out far, far above us in trees. Our first good view was mostly the swollen butt of a female chimp in estros, but soon we saw other chimps lounging in trees and grooming each other. A mother and a medium-sized baby climbed down but they ran away too quickly to see well. A male swung from branch to branch then sat to play with his foot. They calmly ignored us and led their normal lives. Meanwhile, we frantically tried to get the evil, massive biting ants off of our legs and feet. It’s hard to watch chimps when flesh eating insects are literally up your pants. One even got on my neck and when I reached back to pick it off, I pricked my finger on its pinchers and it drew blood. But picking insects off of each other was a fantastic reminder that chimps are our closest relatives.
The next day we headed to Bigodi Swamp in search of birds and more monkeys. We arrived as soon as they opened to increase Mom’s chances of seeing good birds. We diligently pulled on our borrowed gum boots, headed down the path with our guide, and within two minutes it started to downpour. The guide said it was best to wait until the rain abated. After four hours of hanging out in a craft shop playing the Ugandan version of Uno, we set out into the swamp. Trudging through water up to our ankles we passed papyrus swamps and saw four different types of monkeys and a Great Blue Turaco. The swamp was well worth the wait.
Our next destination was Semliki National Park. Our park experience started with a number of miscommunications. When the man from the park said over the phone that there were cabins that cost about $3 per person that were equipped with a kitchen, what he meant was we could ask nicely to cook over the staff fire, maybe, and the cabins that cost $24. After 30 more minutes of painful, round-about conversation we decided not to spend $135 to see some hot springs or to stay in the cabins and would only enter the park for one day for a long forest walk. We then had to find transport to the nearby town with a hotel.
We plopped down by the side of the dirt track to wait. And wait and wait. Finally, a lorry came by with dozens of people sitting on large baskets of fish. Mom said she was willing to ride on the back of the truck, and we climbed aboard. Jeanette and I clutched onto some baskets on the edge while Mom was perched precariously on top. It took about 30 seconds of driving for everyone in the vehicle to see this was a horrible idea. The men got the driver to stop, and people quickly readjusted to make Mom enough room on the baskets of fish where she could never fall out or hurt her back. Within a few minutes the man hanging on next to me figured out my Swahili was better than his English, and I chatted with all of the men at the back of the truck. Once I confirmed that yes, white people can in fact have relationships with Africans, Jeanette was instantly proposed to by a man who already had four wives and purportedly 32 children. Though I had to reject the proposal on her behalf, they still bought us all ears of corn.
Our hike the next day was slow but rewarding as far as birds were concerned. We even saw a rare monkey species, and I was only bit by two or three ants. Even our forms of transportation were fairly easy, if not comfortable. The next day we headed back to Fort Portal and decided to rent a car for visiting Queen Elizabeth National Park.

Lake view from near our hotel.

Superhighway of vicious, biting fire ants.

Chimp in its natural habitat (i.e. no free lunches).

Two dung beetles rolling a ball of dung.

Red Tailed Monkey

Red tailed monkey.

Boardwalk in Bigodi Wetland Sanctuary.

Left: the backside of a grey-cheecked mangaby.  Right: blue turaco.

Grey-cheecked Mangaby Monkeys.

Extreme closeup of a grey-cheeked mangaby.

Black and white colobus monkey.
Butterflies feasting on a cherished delicacy - monkey urine.

Red colobus monkey.

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