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A Brave Photog’s Unexpected, Thrilling Search for Chimpanzees

By Jürgen Ritterbach

A translated excerpt by Lisa Rainwater from Jürgen Ritterbach’s German essay, “Eine Reise zur Perle Afrikas” (February 2015)

On my short trip to see mountain gorillas a few years back, I hadn’t experienced many densely populated regions. So it was with a bit of skepticism that we set off on our first visit to the East African country of Uganda in search of chimpanzees. Would we enjoy going on safari in such a densely populated region? Hadn’t we grown accustomed to the vast savannah of the Serengeti and the infinite wilderness of Botswana’s National Park?

The “Pearl of Africa” was how British Prime Minister Winston Churchill once described the land of Uganda. And as it turned out, we wouldn’t be disappointed.

En Route to the Nile

Dani, our very friendly guide from Cologne, picked us up in Entebbe early on our first morning, allowing us to avoid most of the traffic jams around Kampala. On the way to Murchison Falls National Park – our first stop – we were able to rescue a chameleon from the middle of the road. He would have surely died in all the traffic.

In the afternoon, we reached the gate to the park and wended our way through the enthralling Budongo Forest. Our meanderings brought us to a parking area above a waterfall. From there a small path led us to various outlook points – each a wondrous spectacle of nature. The Nile rushed through a narrow, 7-meter wide crevice with a forty-three-meter drop, called Murchison Falls.

Jürgen Ritterbach |

As we soon learned, even on this short hike, one should never forget to bring enough water and sun hats!

In the late afternoon, we finally arrived at the Murchison River Lodge, which provides a wonderful view of the Nile and its opposite shore. Unfortunately, the Lodge was booked (we knew it beforehand), so instead of a cottage, we received a huge tent with comfortable beds. It was perfect, because of our love of Africa. As compensation we received a wonderful meal before we fell into bed from exhaustion. We listened in on the night sounds of the African wild before sleep took hold.

Arriving in the Middle of the Jungle

Jürgen Ritterbach |

Several days later, a long journey brought us to the Kibale Forest. There was nothing humdrum about it. Along the way, we had a series of wonderful interactions with the people of UgandaLater in the afternoon, we arrived at the Primate Lodge – situated ideally in the middle of the jungle.

The opportunity to observe chimpanzees was finally before us. There are two options. The first is a traditional group hike, offering an all-encompassing experience in the local rainforest, where one keeps an eye out for countless animals. One usually gets to spend about an hour with chimpanzees.

Our host, to whom I am very grateful, recommended the second option, “The Chimp Habituation Experience.” It’s unbelievably expensive compared to the first, but I recommend it to anyone who is able to afford it. During this outing, a private guide accompanies a small group as you cut through the jungle. One gets to spend the entire day with chimpanzees.

To Behold Wild Chimpanzees on the Hunt

Outfitted with hiking shoes, gloves, rain parkas, and long-sleeved shirts, we headed out at 7am. We hired an aide to assist in carrying my camera gear, water, and supplies. Within thirty minutes of our hike through dense trails, we encountered chimpanzees. Quickly, we left the trail and stood underneath a pair of giant trees where our new friends had just awakened in their nests and were climbing out of bed.

Breakfast was announced. All the activity was so high in the treetops that are necks grew stiff observing. Taking good photos wasn’t an option.

Jürgen Ritterbach |

Slowly, the first chimpanzee came down from the trees, and a wild hunt ensued through the jungle. Storming – individually and in small groups – they passed us, and we stumbled after them. After a few minutes, the chimpanzees took a short rest and marked the borders of their territory with wild screeches. It was striking that we were observing, almost exclusively, adult male chimpanzees who, more than likely, were less shy than we were.

The hunt continued on, but the rests slowly grew longer, allowing us to get closer and closer to them. In the afternoon, a regular hiking group came through and spent some time with the chimps and us. Then they needed to move on, and we were happy to have booked our private tour.

Jürgen Ritterbach |

We were surprised at how intense our encounters with the chimpanzees were and how similar their behaviors are to humans. Their facial expressions … their penchant for relaxing on their backs … group think … even nose picking!

Throughout our entire trek through the jungle, I thought I was having foot issues, but the culprit was something else entirely. The soles of my shoes were slowly coming unglued. I put the whole issue behind me, thinking it couldn’t get any worse.

Oh to be wrong …

In the afternoon, the chimpanzees finally settled down for siesta. All around us, they lay on the ground, catching a little shuteye. It made a lot of sense to us, since we, too, were exhausted.

I’d already shot over 500 photos; what was it like before digital cameras?

Now I had a bit of time to tend to my shoes. It wasn’t good.

The sole had detached around the broad toe, and it was hanging down in large strips. With the help of my shoelace, I tried to fasten it to the rest of the shoe, when suddenly the hunt broke out again.

Approximately thirty to forty chimpanzees gathered around us. With a wild screech, a showdown was underway with another chimpanzee group, whom we weren’t able to see.

It was a turf battle, and our group didn’t hesitate to capitalize on our presence. They rang victorious – without a fight – because the other group wasn’t comfortable around humans and was afraid of us. During all of this, another hiking group passed by, disappearing after a short pause.

Then the chimpanzee clan broke into small groups, and once again they were crisscrossing through the jungle. After awhile, Beate’s shoe also started to come apart. Later, we learned from Dani that it’s not unusual to see visitors arrive with hiking shoes that hadn’t been worn for awhile, only to find them falling apart in the jungle. I’d never heard of such a thing, and had never considered the risky ramifications.

Still Happy and Content

Jürgen Ritterbach |

Given my situation, it was becoming harder and harder to keep up with the chimpanzees. With my do-it-yourself fortitude, I tried to keep the sole and shoe together with canvas straps. But along with a few other poor attempts, I failed to produce anything of use.

The result: around 3pm we had to take leave of the chimps and conclude our tour. We were facing 4-5 kilometers back to the Ranger’s Station. Because of our shoes, however, it wasn’t going to happen on foot.

Luckily, we found ourselves in the one place in the jungle accessible to vehicles, so we were able to call on Dani, our taxi driver, via two-way radio.

And thus our trip came to an abrupt end.

We weren’t disappointed, however, because our experience was so astounding and hard to beat. We also heard from our ranger that many other guests before us would have had enough and he didn’t believe we would have seen much more. The only thing we didn’t get to see were a few mothers with their babies, but we also didn’t want to make too many demands … ;-)

Happy and content, we returned to the lodge and treated our exhausted bodies to rest and relaxation. After a dance performance by native Ugandans and dinner, the bed was calling.

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