The rain didn’t start until just after we took our first steps into the Kalinzu Forest. As if on cue, it wouldn’t cease until we climbed back out nearly five hours later. In between it was a steady rain, sometimes a loud pelting on large green leaves the size of doormats, other times soft, sensual drops that drizzled the forest floor with a stream of sloppy kisses. Mostly though, it leaned towards the former.
It was early, just after 7:30, when our small hiking group of four set off from the forest’s ranger station. We’d already been up for two hours so after the initial exchange of pleasantries, we all settled into our quiet zones as we began to navigate the muddy track that served as a trail through the 137-square kilometer expanse that remains of the Kalinzu Forest, which sits along the southeastern edge of western Uganda’s Queen Elizabeth National Park.
The forest is home to six primate species, including the Olive Baboon, Black and White Colobus monkeys, the L’Hoest’s Monkey, and the Blue-tailed and Red-tailed monkeys. Our goal was to reach the Kalinzu’s one habituated extended chimpanzee family that humans are allowed to observe.
Habituation, the delicate process through which primates gradually become accustomed to the presence of humans, can take upwards of five to six years depending on the species, its range and travel patterns. Contact with humans comes with significant risks for the primates, so habituation is carried out very selectively.
This is old hat to Debbie, our guide. She knows the forest and knows those patterns well. A scout, who set out before us, does too. They’re in regular contact as we amble through the rain. I’m pleasantly surprised by the strong mobile phone reception that reaches beneath the Kalinzu Forest’s wet canopy.
In nature there are no guarantees. That’s the attitude I set out with, and the one I kept reminding myself of as my pants, shoes, socks, backpack and waterproof jacket took on more water as the hike progressed – without the faintest sign of a chimpanzee. But the forest has its own way of helping you forget such mild inconveniences.
With the steady beat of raindrops on leaves and the echo of forest birdsong as a soundtrack, the annoyance of the rain that largely framed the hike’s first hour turned into a saturated calm by the second. As the third hour began, it no longer seemed to matter how wet we were or if we’d see any wildlife at all. I’d reached a kind of calm, sublime and reflective contentment I’d never quite experienced before. A slight smile turned into a soft laugh when Debbie pointed to a rustling in a tree above us.
Enjoy the video.
Once contact was made, we’re allowed to stay, observe, watch and photograph for one hour. We saw about a half dozen, mostly males, mostly swinging between branches to munch on leaves, nuts and berries. The rain kept them off the forest floor, high and far away. If they noticed us, they didn’t show it, or simply didn’t care.
That hour passed swiftly. So too did our hike back to where we started. Impossibly, the climb out of the forest took just 20 minutes. On the road we’re greeted by a rising veil of mist that revealed a stunning view of the Rwenzori Mountains. The rain stopped and didn’t return the rest of the time I was in Uganda.
While it’s not that demanding of a hike, be sure you’re prepared and fit enough to walk up to four hours on sometimes steep and very muddy terrain in extremely rainy conditions. Much of the walking is off-path, call it bush-whacking lite. One woman who began with our group saw early on that it would be too much for her and asked to go back. I’m sure it wasn’t an easy decision for her, but she was sensible – not stubborn. If you find yourself in that situation, follow her lead.
By the numbers:
The Kalinzu Forest is home to:
- 414 tree and shrub species
- six diurnal primate species including the Olive Baboon, Chimpanzee, Black and White Colobus Monkeys, L’Hoest’s Monkey, Blue-tailed Monkey and Red-tailed Monkey
- 378 bird species
- 263 butterfly and 92 moth species
Located about 10km northwest of Ishaka on the Mbarara-Kasese Highway, trips to the Kalinzu Forest are an easy add-on to visits to Queen Elizabeth National Park, and are included on most itineraries of more than a day. Make time for it.
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