Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Kibale... Chi-ba-lee... Chi-baaaa-li...

So I have this excellent Tae Kwon Do instructor. His name is Phil Ndugga, and it’s because of him that it’s safe and awesome for me to be in Uganda, he’s the director of Ssubi. Phil’s got this wife, Tracy. Tracy is a super cool woman who at one point worked for the Jane Goodall Institute tracking chimps in Kibale National Park in Southern Uganda. When Tracy left her position tracking and researching with JGI another lady and a good friend of Tracy’s took over the position, and her name is Julia.
Right. Now that that’s sorted, guess where I am at the moment? At Julia’s place, on a great big piece of land with a series of high and low tree houses on it for the occupants to stay in. So for the past three days I’ve been living ‘bush life’ and it’s amazing. The tree house I’m in is the original so it’s all made of off cuts of wood. It gives this really rustic feel to it because you can see through the gaps between the walls and floor to the outside. There are big swing-down and normal swing-out barn windows on every wall and the view from the front porch is amazing because Jules’ land is on top of a hill overlooking a valley.
Jules herself is living in the newer, lower tree house (because it’s actually cooler lower to the ground) which is a little more modern. So she has an actual spring mattress (that’s pretty luxurious out here) and a smooth, evenly joined floor. The walls and the shelves and such are all still made of off cuts and the roof is still thatched grass so it still has a very similar feeling to the original house. The garage/storehouse that the car never actually parks in is done the same way but with a dirt floor, so it’s the best for food storage and it’s wonderfully cool inside. The only real issue with that particular building is that there’s a snake living in it.
The kitchen is cool, it’s outside and done with only three walls. Most of the food storage is done using metal tins or big metal… boxes? Trunks? To keep the mice out. There isn’t any refrigeration but the shade works pretty well to keep the water in the very posh filter nicely chilled. Jules is British, and figures the filter is posh because you don’t need to boil the water or anything before you run it through the filter, and then… tada! Safe drinking water.
The showers are all raised platforms that are flush to the floors of the tree houses with spaced slats of wood for the floor. The whole thing is surrounded by woven grass mats and you get a great big jug full of cool water, a thermos or a kettle full of boiled water, a wide bucket to mix the two in and a wide mouthed mug to use for dumping water on your head. It’s such a gong show. You definitely need to shower in the middle of the day though, when it’s really hot out, otherwise you freeze when the breeze comes through and there’s no sun on you. I did not consider that the first evening I got here. Ah… that was poorly planned.
She’s got these three great dogs that have such distinct personalities. They’re all rescue dogs from Kampala or Fort Porteal. Sparkle Bailey is the alpha and she is a gorgeous dog, all tawny and big brown eyes. She’s such a brat though, she’ll climb up on tables to get at food she wants, sleep on the bed, push you off the bed, jump up on you, all that jazz. Her training is still a work in progress. Slim Shady is the male in the pack. He’s got some Doberman in him but he’s very tall and long, and very timid about being introduced to humans. He’s definitely the sentry though, he’ll run patrols around the fence at night and you know there’s actually something up when it’s Slim who’s barking, not just Sparkle. I may or may not like him best, he’s such a sweet heart. The last is Foxy Lady, and wow…what a unique dog. She’s coloured like a mangy german shepherd but with this huge ridge of fur running down her back that sticks straight up. Then her tail has been broken a few times so instead of being straight, or even crooked, its spirals like a pig’s tail. She’s by far the biggest suck for attention, and definitely lowest on the totem pole.
Now, Jules is living in a very rural area of Uganda, so at first the idea of getting three dogs was really only a companion thing, then they became more guard dogs when Slim started running patrols along the fence. Ugandans don’t like dogs. At ALL. They find them dirty, dangerous… basically everything that is bad in the world is embodied in a dog. So the neighbours come to Jules’ house and the first thing they’re greeted by is Sparkle leaping up to put her paws on their shoulders. Then they see slim all legs and sleek Doberman features with his big deep bark, and then they see Foxy and they’re just like ‘Whoa… ok, I don’t even know what that is I think maybe it’s time for me to leave!’ It’s really kind of fun to watch.
The other really cool thing about Jules’ land is that it borders on Kibale National Park. There are two great big trees at the edge of the park with canopies that cross the border into her land, and they’re full of fruit. It’s not unusual for the chimps (a.k.a. the boys) to come and climb the trees and stay there all afternoon eating all the fruit they can get.
Chimps, baboons, red-tailed monkeys, black and white colobus monkeys, red colobus monkeys, grey-cheeked mangabes… I’ve seen all of them since I arrived. They’re great fun! Both mornings I’ve been up early to do a walk around the wetlands and then the morning after for tracking chimps. Tracking the chimps was insane! They do it with tourists in groups of six or less and you do a sort of mad dash through the forest towards wherever you happen to hear them calling at each other from. The guides are all equipped with walkie-talkies so they’re chatting back and forth to make sure that if one group can’t find chimps at least another group has and they can double up.
Our guide was a guy named Charles, and I think he broke just about every rule in the book. Because the chimps are still wild there are limitations that are supposed to be considered, things like ‘stay at least 7 meters away from the chimps’ and ‘don’t use the flash on your camera’. Seem like pretty good rules to me being as the chimps aren’t small animals, and the alpha males are aggressive and like to display. Oh! And if they charge you during a display, you’re to stand perfectly still and not look at them. If you run, they’ll chase you, and they’re way faster than we are. Anyway, Charles took us veeeeeery close to the chimps. Like… possibly less than 3 meters. He’d move us forwards one by one with a friendly ‘Come, stand here’ and then before you knew it you had to keep your movements slow and easy so as not to startle them into thinking you were some sort of enemy.
It was amazing to be so close to them, but at the same time, one of them was an aggressive, highly ranked male named after the dictator in the DR Congo. Mubutu? It sounded like that. He likes to display, and yell, and make noise, and is very territorial. So knowing all of that from Jules’ and Charles I wasn’t terribly thrilled to be quite that close to him. They named him Mubutu because he runs his section of the community like a dictator. The little elderly male with him was funny though, he was nearing 40 years and his named sounded like Magezi. He was so funny, he’d look at you in a terribly bored way and chomp down on his shoots. His teeth were all there but they were chipped and his gums were brown with age.
My current location is outside of Fort Portal, which is about 3 hours west and a bit south of Kampala. From Fort Portal Jules picked me up in her car and we drove to the western side of Kibale National Park. The nearest town I could place to where Jules lives is a little town inside the park called Bigodi. So that’s where I am, and mostly how I got here. To get from Kampala to Fort Portal and back though I took the Kalita, which is kind of like Greyhound… but very ghetto. They wrap all the seats in plastic so that when it rains and the water leaks through the roofs and the holes in the windows the passengers get wet but the seats avoid water damage. There’s no air conditioning or anything (which in all fairness I did expect) but it would be very nice if they did have it because they squeeze you into this bus like sardines in a can. Being as I had my first ride on a boda-boda, going from the bus stop to Jaja’s so that I could tag up with Phil and the family, I have devised a ranking system for traveling in Uganda.

1) Private Car, if at all possible take your own or a friend’s car
2) Taxis, of the single passenger, marked variety
3) Kalita, for long distances it definitely beats boda-bodas but is aromatic (think diesel, dust and sweat)
4) Boda-bodas!, yes, despite the dangers and the wild driving and the ‘IthinkI’mgoingtodieohmanholdon!’ they are very convenient and a kind of hellish fun.
5) Kamapal Express, this is the lime green version of the Kalita and it speeds around like it's the only vehicle on the road. I rank it above mutatus because at least if you crash into something you're big enough that you're likely to win.
6) Mutatus, those are the crazy minibus/taxis that I don’t think you could pay me to get in, when a mutatu crashes it’s like someone pulled a scene out of ER and put it on the side of the road.

I’m now back in Kampala with Brenda, Fred, Zoe and Billy. It’s definitely louder here, but good to be in a familiar setting again. I should have access to the internet for the next few days so my posts will be more regular again.
See you later!


  1. Reading about Mobutu I couldn't help but think, "I'm the king of the swingers, the jungle VIP!"

  2. Go Kenna, you're amazing.
    Love Dad