“Kalema and Umutama, from Burundi are the current hopefuls since the Alpha male died. Mawa on the other hand wants to forcefully take over power. The troop refuse to let him because they want a peaceful transition of power. Asega, Mawa’s bodyguard and right hand man is constantly intimidating the rest on Mawa’s behalf…………….” As the tour guide at the sanctuary tells this evocative story of the great apes during the tour briefing, it’s hard to miss the remarkable resemblance between their situation and that of the African political scene over the years. Even harder to overlook are the similar traits apes and humans possess as we already know.
On a cold Saturday morning, the skies just blessed us with showers and the ground is wet. The fresh earthy scent emitted from the soil and plants greets the nostrils. In a distance, about 4 boats are docked and near the lake front, a few tourists talk to each other, seemingly about trivial issues. Soon we’re all assembled, cleared to get onto the boat and handed lifesaver jackets to wear. The boat captain welcomes everybody aboard, wishes us an enjoyable ride as we set off from the Water Front Beach. The sun has come out now and the waters are calm which must have made it easy for the captain because minutes later before we know it, we’re ready to dock on the other side. The Island.
Ngamba Island Chimpanzee Sanctuary, a 45 minutes boat ride from Water Front Beach, Entebbe is home of currently, 48 chimpanzees and about 120 bird species. The air is clean, the setting is serene and characteristic of a typical getaway. As I’m helped off the boat onto the dock, I can almost feel my mind nodding in agreement that we both, my mind l, needed this sojourn. The staff welcome us in royalty style. One member walks to each person with a smile to personally ask them how the boat ride was. A complimentary cup of coffee is offered and dutifully served in the open hut (visitors’ center) where several items are on sale too. For example, for a pretty small-for-apparel fee, you can have a shirt branded with a picture of your favorite chimp and its name. Yes! ‘How cool!’ is what I thought too.
During the briefing we learn that whereas the birds freely fly, perch and nest in trees, the great apes are kept in large spacious cages and occasionally let out to go into a caged part of the forest on the other side of the Island; mainly because they’re wild animals, but also because they require utmost care and attention; including 24 hour manual surveillance, 4 meals a day and every so often, a series of medical check ups. “At first I was going to quit, I thought I couldn’t handle it; but I love it now.” Paul says with a beaming smile. Paul who has been a caretaker and tour guide at the sanctuary for 9 years is impressively knowledgeable about the chimps. He knows, believe it or not, all the chimps by name (they’re all given names) and is happy to tell them apart for you. He alludes it to a teacher and the students in their class when i ask how he is able to tell them apart.
Throughout the tour, he recounts his experiences with the chimps. From the time Sande hijacked a boat from a fisherman and started sailing towards the wrong direction of the lake from where he was rescued, to the time a caretaker forgot to lock the central cage door and the chimps had a ‘chimp party’ on the Island; the chimp that he has recently caught trying to swim, to those that are caught in a chimp love triangle because Bwambala wants to ‘steal’ Kisembo’s girlfriend Medina,a seasonal painter might i add. Yes. This female chimp has demonstrated good abilities in painting. ‘Seeing’ your life yet? Yeah, I did too. A baby chimp, Survivor, is still in the nurturing stage and as such, moves around the Island freely with close supervision. He has a 24-hour caretaker, consumes two tins of tinned milk a week and not so far back he was wearing pampers. Pretty much like any average human baby. You and I i’m certain agree that these animals are quite fascinating.
After the tour, you’ll have lunch and take a rest just until when next the animals are being fed because it is not everyday that you get to watch great apes holding bowls full of porridge and sipping delightfully. In the evening, after a 3 course meal served by a dedicated chef whose purpose in life seems to be getting you fat by irresistibly delicious food, you’ll be invited outside to a bonfire on the edge of the lake. There, you will strike drums, sing all your favorite song lyrics off-key on top of your voice and dance the night away. When your feet are finally sore from all the dancing, you’ll sit at the shores and while sipping on a cold Nile Special, you’ll watch the sun sink into Kenya.
The lodging at Ngamba is nothing short of the Island experience you’d imagine. The large family tents are set up on wood plank flooring that is held about two meters above the shoreline by thick metal rods. Inside the self-contained tent is a table bedside table with magazines, an open closet, bedside lamps and of course, a big, pretty comfortable bed if you ask me. So when you retire to your tent, you can choose to read a good book by the bedside lamp or just get into your cozy bed. Either way as you go to sleep, the last thing you hear will be the soothing sound of the waves crashing on the shore just below your tent and the feeble grunting of the chimpanzees disappearing into the wind.
In the morning, the birds will chirp to you a good morning song. A caretaker will come to the corner of your tent to ask how your night was. Whether you’d like to join the morning round of feeding the chimpanzees, before ensuring that warm water is running in your bathroom. The Island chef will invite for a delightful breakfast which you might choose to have in the dining area, or just by the lakeside. While you have breakfast, a member of staff will walk up to you every now and then to ensure you have everything you need. “Has the coffee gone cold? Do you want more toast? Is it too cold out here?” When all is said and done, when it’s time to get on that boat and go back to the other side, your heart will ache and long for when next you will be at the island….because you will have already made the decision that you will, must, be back to Ngamba.