Three dogs bark excited greetings as we drive up the steep hill on the approach to Julia’s house on the edge of Kibale Forest.
The four hours to Fort Portal on tarmac are easy. The last hour of the journey is the hardest: balancing a plastic bag full of raw eggs on my lap, as Julia races down the rutted dustbowl that passes for a road. Cool crater lakes beckon me right and left.
I’m having a break from the midday sun. Julia suggests I haul my Jerry can of cold water up into the sunshine so it’s warm for my shower this afternoon. Butterflies circle around the water dripping into the washing bowl beneath the Jerry can. Julia’s world is full of her dad’s home-made inventions, contraptions in which Jerry cans feature prominently.
Determined to finish her Ph.D., Julia is spending most of her time in Kampala this year. We arrive in Kibale to find the inverter is broken, so there’s no power; the solar panel isn’t working either. There’s no gas left in Fort Portal, so we borrow a gas cylinder from the local lodge. At least we won’t have to rely on the charcoal stove to cook dinner and heat water for eight people for the next three days.
Hope has prepared dinner: it’s ‘Irish’ (potatoes) from the garden, and G’nut sauce. The home-grown groundnuts are stored in a gigantic Ali Baba basket. Swimming in my g’nut sauce is a Lungfish, whole. I can’t face eating it and guiltily leave the fish in the pot. The kids found it in the river when they were collecting water this morning – I guess someone will have the stomach for it.
After dinner, a slither of moon to guide us, we check out the park boundary paths, spiders’ webs suspended between branches caught in the torchlight as we inch past. We duck under the washing line. The dogs bound ahead of us into the trees.
Freshly broken branches are evidence of a recent elephant visit.
“Wake up, the chimps are here! Come quick!” Yells Julia.
Bleary-eyed, I climb the viewing platform and we watch a solitary chimp warming himself in the early morning sun some 30 metres above ground. It’s my first sight of a chimpanzee in the wild.
Julia spent many years living in a treehouse studying Kibale Forest’s chimpanzees.
Baby Dillon points at the sweet bananas. He’s eaten four by the time we arrive at Primate Lodge on the edge of Kibale Forest. I’m covered in banana (there’s no chance of keeping clean around dogs and babies). Malcolm arrives shortly with five visitors, here to do a bird census and to advise Julia on how to maximise the biodiversity to attract more birdlife from the forest.
Before he arrives, we walk down to the forest boundary a few hundred metres away and check the ‘slashing’ (cutting back of the Bush). Four men have been working all morning to clear an access path for the nets.
We stop for a minute to debate whether to cut down a slender branch hanging over the path.
“Don’t touch that,” says Julia, “that’s the National Park.”
We look up, straight into the eyes of a Green Mamba! It’s a message: he is protecting the forest.
I’ve added four new birds to my bird list this morning; I can’t wait to add more over the next two days.
We notice freshly broken branches across our path – “The elephants must be close,” says Julia.
Next installment from Kibale Forest: twitching and ringing birds with Malcolm Wilson.