Kibale National Park is Uganda’s premier chimpanzee trekking destination, with the chance of seeing chimps being more than 95%. Permits costing $150 must be booked in advance and are said to be limited to 36 in the morning and 36 in the afternoon, with no more than six to each group.
Having been the first to arrive at Kanyanchu Visitors’ Centre at 7am, our guide sorted out paperwork. Meanwhile we availed ourselves of the free Wi-Fi in the nearby café before taking seats in the briefing room, which rapidly filled with what seemed to be far more than 36 people. At 8am, we were allocated to a group with six others, and introduced to our guide Benson. We walked a short distance to a thatched hut for Benson’s briefing about the various other activities offered in Kibale, and the five communities of chimps: three are for research, and two can be trekked. He then went through a long list of dos and don’ts, including not getting closer than 8 metres and what to do if a chimp approaches you.
We set off optimistically with Benson suggesting the fine weather would bring the chimps down from the trees. Initially, the path was wide, and we took it slowly, stopping occasionally to be told about a tree in what is both primary and secondary forest. We then started taking some of the lesser marked trails through the trees and it became more difficult as we avoided catching our feet in vines, banging our head on a low branch or getting scratched by prickly bushes. There were fallen tree trunks to clamber over and a couple of swampy muddy areas to negotiate. I found it tough going particularly the uphill climbs because of the fast pace being set by Benson, who was obviously on a mission and did not look backwards to check on his group.
We’d just stopped for a water break with Benson talking of summonsing our vehicles (our guides telephone numbers had been taken) and driving to another area, when he heard a call, and hared off at speed as we tried to quickly put bottles back into rucksacks and follow. I was the last trekker to set off, with only a young trainee on her first day behind me. Roy was in front, trying valiantly not to lose sight of the group whilst ensuring I kept up, although at one point, I took the inevitable tumble, but quickly recovered.
Having caught up with the group, who were all significantly younger, we found them peering at a couple of chimps high up in a tree. As it wasn’t a great sighting because of the density of the leaves, the others suggested moving to the new area. But Benson now seemed reluctant telling us that he couldn’t guarantee a sighting, with a Dutch guy saying he was happy to take the risk, bearing in mind we couldn’t see much. Whilst the debate continued, another four chimps came into view, but again, high up. By this point, it was 10.30am, and Benson suddenly announced to the group that as some members were tired, we wouldn’t be taking the vehicles to the next area. When I said the two of us were happy to peel off so the others could continue, he said it was too late, as we’d nearly had our allocated three hours. So, we spent the remaining time, with necks and lenses pointing upwards, hoping the chimps would come down. They didn’t.
Back at the centre, we were given our Chimp Tracking Certificates and then as it was still only 11am, had a much-needed restorative Americano in the café.
Needless to say, this was a disappointing experience for many reasons, and we heard later that 10 groups of eight had set off, more than double the number suggested on their website, not a good advert.