Africa Part 1: Chimpanzees, Gorillas and Adventures on Public Transport

4 07 2008

This post is part of a series:

Mark and Mike At The Ugandan Equator

Mark and Mike At The Ugandan Equator

I’ve never felt so white in all my life. My friends Tony and Wendy, and my cousin Michael and I have now spent roughly a fortnight on African soil and its impossible not to notice how severely our pale flesh stands out amongst the sea of black faces, I feel like a neon sign glowing in the night.

We’ve already adjusted to ‘Africa time’, the ambling pace of life here. Never order food if you have less than an hour to spare and don’t expect your taxi driver to be putting the pedal to the metal any time soon – it’s a little annoying at first but soon enough the warm, humid hours seem to expand and a lethargic relaxation kicks in.

The four of us spent a few nights in the Kenyan capital city Nairobi before venturing to Entebbe, Uganda to join a tour with the company Absolute Africa for three weeks. Nairobi is charmingly nicknamed ‘Nai-robbery’ after the huge amount of street crime that goes on there. After reading dire warnings in the Lonely Planet which were then compounded by the unfortunate tales shared by hostel staff, we nervously made our way in to the city, eyeing suspiciously every thing that moved en route.

Perhaps threatened by our fearsome New Zealand strength, apart from one solitary chap trying to flog a budget safari, we were left completely alone as we hunted the streets for the Ugandan embassy. After a confusing hour looking for the government building we finally found it down an unmarked alley and up a winding staircase where we handed over fifty American dollars, collected our visas and were on our way.

Chimpanzee Grooming

Chimpanzee Grooming

That night, we made our way to the bus station and jumped on a rickety old bus, full of fat African women in bright colours eating and talking at full volume. Within minutes of departing the bus decided to die, prompting some emergency roadside repair by the driver. Finally, after an hour sitting in the darkness the bus rumbled back in to life and we started our bone shuddering overnight bus ride over the horrendous potholed dirt roads to Uganda.

We were thrown violently thrown side to side, up and down in our seats, the air seemingly as often dust as it was oxygen. Tired, grumpy and with a film of sweat and dirt caking my face, it was with great pleasure that after six torturous hours, the road thankfully smoothed out and the heat dropped to a non-sweat inducing temperature allowing us all to get some much needed shut-eye. Having donned my ever fashionable eye mask, bright yellow ear plugs and inflatable neck pillow I drifted off in to an uncomfortable sleep only to be roused sometime after by an angry militant sporting a Russian machine gun. After kicking us all of the bus, bleary eyed at 4 o’clock in the morning, we were given not one, but two rough friskings on the road side by the Ugandan police, before being allowed to return to our seats and resume our restless slumber.

After nearly sixteen hours on the bus we arrived the following morning in the Ugandan capital Kampala. After waiting an age for them to release our packs from customs we jumped on a crammed mini-van which then took us another couple of hours to the small town of Entebbe, where we met our huge yellow Absolute truck and thankfully completed our current adventures on public transport.

The following morning, after an evening of getting acquainted with out fellow passengers (coincidentally almost half of which are Kiwi) we took a two hour boat ride across the choppy Lake Victoria to visit a chimpanzee sanctuary. Encompassing an entire island, the refuge now provides a safe home for sick or at risk chimps which are rescued from the jungle and brought here before eventually being re-released back in to the wild. Chimps, being 99% similar to humans in DNA are susceptible to many human diseases so the remote location of the island protects the chimpanzees from our illnesses, but also from people who are out to kidnap them for zoos and private collections around the world.

Baby Gorilla

Baby Gorilla

The chimps are fed by sanctuary staff five times a day, one of these feedings we were fortunate to be able to watch. We were led to a wooden viewing platform perched high above a wire fence which surrounds the dense jungle. With loud squeals and much stomping the chimps made their way down to feast on the fruits lobbed towards them by their keepers, squabbling and fighting which each other the whole time. From their physical appearance to their behaviour and interactions with each another it’s easy to see the genetic similarities with us homo sapiens – it’s kind of creepy to be honest.

It’s now been a few weeks since we met our big yellow truck and we’ve since driven countless bumpy miles, visited three African countries, seen chimpanzees, monkeys, gorillas, lions and scores of tiny black children in ragged clothes bouncing up and down, waving excitedly at us perched high up in our vehicle as we thunder through their small villages.

Christianity undoubtedly has a very strong foothold here, people merrily walk around toting Bibles in hats proclaiming their love for the Lord and vehicles everywhere are sign-written sporting Bible verses and slogans like “No Jesus, No Life – Know Jesus, Know Life”. Preachers enthusiastically evangelise on public buses, working themselves in to a frenzy of excitement, their arms flailing and their voice booming with the power of the Lord – much to the mirth of my heathen self.

Absolute Africa Crew

Absolute Africa Crew

We spent a few nights in Ruhengeri, a small Rwandan town, which is evidently a little off the usual tourist track – both adults and children alike stared openly at our alien pink skin as we wandered around buying groceries. I waved at one little girl on the street side which sent her scurrying frightfully to hide behind her mother, one cautious eye peeping out at me from behind her protectors leg.

The highlight of the trip thus far was easily the visit to the Volcanos National Park in Rwanda. After hiking through the dense forest with our trousers fashionably tucked in to our socks to protect us from the vicious fire ants, we visited a family of 27 gorillas living wild on the side of a volcano. I was expecting to view the primates from afar, but we soon found ourselves right in the middle of them all.

The gorilla family was composed of mainly adolescent and adult gorillas plus two babies and four super size Silverback gorillas, all of which seemed completely unperturbed by our presence. Standing off to the side of a narrow path in the muggy forest, we watched in awe as the gorillas climbed trees and then stormed past us in a cacophony of screams and chest beating. Once, with me at the rear of our group, we were following the gorillas up a narrow path through the heavy growth when I turned slightly and out of the corner of my eye caught a glimpse of something black behind me. I turned around to find just a metre behind me a quarter-ton Silverback idly watching me amble up the path.


Our guide had reassuringly warned us earlier on that running from a gorilla will only cause it to chase and beat you, so with my heart suddenly beating at a thousand beats a second I tried to slide slowly out of the way, my foot creeping back inch by inch. Suddenly the monstrous beast howled and charged forward sending me careening backward in to a bush as he crashed his way up the path, leaving the ground shaking in his wake.

Having left Rwanda we’re now camped out in Jinja, a small Ugandan town where I’m presently sitting with my laptop overlooking the river Nile, sipping a cold beer. We’re less than two weeks through the nine we are spending on the continent, so there is still plenty of time ahead. We part ways with the tour group in a little over a week, but not before doing two safaris through both the Serengeti and Masai Mara where we’ve already been warned about leaving our tents during the night in case we encounter Hippos or Elephants while doing our business.

After resuming independent travel, the four of us are going to slow the pace right down and spend a week or two diving off the coast of Tanzania and Zanzibar before continuing our journey south.

Stay tuned.





One response

6 07 2009
2008 Round-the-World Trip |

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