East Africa 2011: Tanzania, Kenya, Uganda & Rwanda travel blog

Ngamba Island Chimp Sanctuary Photos

This morning we had an earlier departure time than we have gotten used to since joining with Kevin. We had to make it to Entebbe by close to 10:00 in order to catch our boat to take us to Ngamba Island Chimpanzee Sanctuary.

Driving into Entebbe we had the opportunity to witness the hustle and bustle of a Monday morning. Traffic was jammed just like it has been in most big cities. We passed rows of shops and a large outdoor market.

They have the usual minivan transpos but also have motorcycle taxis. We passed an area of homes that seemed very basic with kids naked on the porch being bathed and women and men washing their faces from their large plastic jugs of water. Yet one of the women that I saw leaving one of these homes in her dress shoes, skirt and blouse heading off to work looked fabulous and you wouldn't know she didn't walk out of home with all the comforts that we have. In fact I would bet no one would take a second look if she was transported and walking down the streets of Vancouver to an office building there.

It is probably a silly thought and untrue but I do automatically assume that if the woman's hair is dyed or straightened that she would have money. The only things I know about African hair is what I learned from Oprah. My impression is that braiding it or straightening it etc takes a long time and you generally need someone else to do it for you. In my head I think of what I have to pay to cut and color my hair (which I don’t do that often) and assume that they must put a lot of their budget towards this maintenance. In reality I’m sure the price points of their services are not on the same extraordinary level as ours and it’s not that big of an expense…but I have no information to support either thought one way or the other. At any rate, I have been noticing the women’s hair and nails while in Africa and I have been using them as a basic guideline to what economic class they may be in.

These thoughts remind me of a woman that was on my bus from Moshi to Dar that intrigued me. As I think I mentioned when I wrote about the ride, I was on a luxury bus so the locals that were on it all appeared to be people of means, business men and women. At the lunch stop we had to wait to get back on the bus because they locked it up when we all got off and so I was able to have a look at the other passengers that I couldn’t see from my seat.

There was this one woman, I would guess that she would be in her late twenties / early thirties but she was very “done up” and wore sunglasses so I can’t be 100% certain on that range. As I just mentioned, she was very done up; she was in high high heels and a very “loud” (as in color) dress that didn’t leave much to the imagination in the cleavage department. Her finger and toe nails were well manicured in a bright color and with added design – you know press on stones and flowers, that kind of thing. She had a big designer handbag and sunglasses and her hair was perfectly straightened with loose curls – a very Hollywood hairdo.

She was one of those people that you can’t look away from. A game of “what doesn’t belong” would have been over in mere seconds. I was watching because I was trying to figure out where she was from / going and if this was common. I hadn’t been to a big city to really experience that type of African living. This isn’t the point of this story though, what made me laugh at this particular woman was that she caught a man checking her out and her response to him was – “That’s right, I’m damn sexy”.

But back to the Chimps – the subject of the day.

Ngamba Island is in Lake Victoria, the largest lake in Africa and we all boarded an open sided boat for the hour and half ride. Any of these long truck or boat rides are always events in themselves since we have so many people in the group who get motion sick and this ride was no exception. The looks on the faces of some of the people as we approach is priceless and there’s a lot of back and forth about whether they have taken a motion sickness pill that morning.

The boat ride to the island was about an hour and a half so it was lunch time when we arrived at the island. We were greeted by one of the staff and he gave us a security briefing including instructions that if we heard a whistle we needed to go to an emergency gathering point because it would mean a Chimp was loose.

We were to stay in this one small section of the island where there was a shelter with information about the sanctuary and an area for us to eat our lunches. There was also a small gift shop next to us that we could peruse and have a cup of coffee or tea. It was a waiting game at this point. We were here to see a feeding and so it was just a matter of waiting until it was time.

About 15 minutes before the feeding, the staff member came back and gathered us together for a quick tour of the facility. The staff houses, the caged area where the Chimps come at night to sleep and where two Chimps were kept because they were too aggressive to be out with the others. As we were taken close so we could get some photos and get a better look the staff member warned us that there was a possibility that if they got irritated by our presence that they could potentially throw feces at us. Ummm ok, don’t need to tell me twice. I just made sure there was someone else between me and the Chimp. My clothes are dirty and smelly enough without the addition of Chimp feces.

Now I have really enjoyed seeing all the animals to date and have developed a fondness for all of them, cute or not. But when it comes to the Chimps… Well I’m just not sure how I felt before getting to the sanctuary, I guess I didn’t have any expectations which is how I approached the majority of this trip. Then as we were getting our tour you could hear these screeches – ear piercing screeches that no joke had me ready to turn around and head for the boat to get off this island. I had flashes of the Blair Witch Project going through my head.

No joke, the sanctuary is on an island for a reason – so the Chimps are contained. Wasn’t there a movie about Apes attacking? The Chimps that are here are orphans and rescues and they are given birth control to avoid any population growth. There was an “accident” though and there is one Chimp that was born on the Island.

The Chimps come and sleep in a cage area but otherwise they are loose on the majority of the Island and there is an electric fence that keeps them from coming to the area where the tourists arrive and the staff lives.

With all this lead up I was still not ready for what I was about to see. The staff has set feeding times and the Chimps know when they are so they all come in from wherever they were hanging out on the Island in time for food. This was what we were here to see.

We were led to a platform area (after leaving all our bags, water bottles and food behind) with our cameras at the ready. The Chimps were already on their way in and you heard them well before you saw them. Along with the screeching there was also stomping noises as they barreled into the clearing.

They were a lot larger than I anticipated and had a few of us worried that if these guys were this large, what would the Gorillas be like? There would be no electric fence between us and the Gorillas.

Their aggressive nature was clear instantly as several fights broke out amongst the Chimps. The bigger ones were picking on the little ones and not just a little brawl but similar to a UFC fight. They would scream and stomp and generally do a lot of grandstanding and then chase down the Chimp they were after. In one case, once the bigger Chimp got hold of his prey he tackled him to the ground and started to pummel him. I’m not kidding…he was punching him in the head and smacking him. The little guy fought and tried to get away so the bigger Chimp took hold of the smaller ones foot in his mouth and just started dragging him around.

I didn’t think they were all that cute either. Most of the other animals had a cuteness to them or beauty. The Chimps are actually quite ugly in my opinion and with their bare bums out on display, just not my favourite. There was an older one though who was going grey and if I was to pick one that I enjoyed looking at, it would be him.

The staff threw carrots, avocado, bananas and other fruits and veggies out to the Chimps and they would catch and hoard what they wanted and eat away. Many of them will come up to the fence and stand up and put their hand in the air and make some noises asking the staff to throw something to them. When they stand up from our vantage point they look like they’d be as tall as us, they are extremely long limbs – arms and legs.

As I stood and watched them all I was slightly disappointed that this was our closest relative with what? 97% similar DNA to humans? But then again, I guess with the amount of violence humans commit I shouldn’t be that surprised. The Chimps are just demonstrating how powerful they think they are or how powerful they want to be, not that much different from what a lot of us do on a daily basis and sometimes using the same bullying tactics.

I’m not sure how long we were there, probably less than an hour and then it was back to the boat and an hour and half ride back to the mainland and our truck and crew. One of the couples in our group had actually left us in Jinja the day before and come out to the island on their own. You can pay and stay overnight on the island and participate in the morning feeding and you can hold the Chimps is you like. One of the two when we asked how it was just said…”they said I could hold one for my birthday but I refrained…” After seeing them I can’t imagine why he wouldn’t want to hold one! I’d be afraid of being beaten to death, no doubt the Chimp would take me in a brawl.

In hindsight even though the Chimps weren’t my favourite, I suppose I am still glad I experienced it but for the three hour travel time required it did seem like a bit of a waste of a day.

We were staying the night in Entebbe (or just on the outskirts) and the campsite had a full fledge sports bar that was packed that evening with locals. Wycliffe had planned a traditional meal for us that evening and wouldn’t accept our help that night so we were all sent to the bar to chill until we were called for food.

Before dinner one of the staff at the bar helped find me an outlet that worked to charge up my iPod and phone and sat and had a chat with me, then invited me to play a game of pool. Since the alternative was talking with people that I have been spending 24 hours a day with I gladly accepted but tried to explain to him that despite the many many times people have attempted to teach me to play pool, I have never gotten any better.

I’m pretty sure he didn’t believe me when I said I was a horrible pool player but after a few rounds he was getting a better idea and despite his gentlemanly efforts to set up easy shots and try to let me win the game, it was no use. I would suggest that it might have been the longest game on record. Once some of the others noticed me playing they all migrated to that area of the pub and had a few games amongst themselves as well..

The pub was getting more and more crowded as the night went on and eventually the DJ came out and dancing started. As promised Wycliffe joined us and we even managed to get him out on the dance floor for a bit.

For most of the trip, aside from a beer or two after dinner, I haven’t been drinking. I’m past the Contiki party tour years and we have such early mornings and full days that being hung over just doesn’t seem like a fun thing. Tonight was an exception and so I can’t talk much more about the evening because I don’t really remember it. My fellow Canadian, Kory, kept a watchful eye on me and got me back to my tent safe and sound. It was the first night that I slept through the night though…upside! I’m choosing to blame the Chimps…they drove me to drink.

If you’re wondering, I was right about a hangover on this trip not being fun.

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