• William Gray

Making Contact with Chimps

Updated: Mar 2

By William Gray

Toro-Semliki Game Reserve, Uganda

They’re watching us, I’m sure of it. And laughing, too. Great chesty whoops and highpitched hysterics echoing through the forest. My guide, Simon, calls it ‘pant-hooting’– a common method of communication. But then he would – he’s a biologist. My theory is that the chimpanzees are simply enjoying a good joke. Look at it from their point of view – along come their cousins, showing off on all-twos, way up the evolutionary tree. Then a few steps in the primeval forest and all they seem capable of is tripping over tree stumps, cursing horseflies and falling in streams. I’d laugh if I was a chimp.

Fortunately we humans have also evolved a sense of humour. After insect repellent, it’s the most essential thing for tracking our closest relatives through their Ugandan forest home. This is our third dawn trek in search of chimpanzees – and each time they’ve given us the slip. Our scout, Adolph, isn’t surprised. He didn’t dream of chimps last night. Until he does, he says we might as well have a lie-in.

“These chimps are wild,” Simon explains as we venture back into the forest the next morning. “Habituation takes years – they’re still wary of us.”

The transition from savanna to forest is abrupt. One moment I am walking tall, wading through chest-high grass, the pepper-sweet tang of Africa spicing my nostrils – the next, I’m bent double beneath a pressing tangle of trees and vines; a twilight world permeated by the loamy odour of decay. We follow a scant path, walking silently in single file. Adolph hunts for clues: a knuckle print or shreds of bark where the chimps have been searching for grubs. Suddenly he freezes. “If it’s buffalo, keep calm,” whispers Simon. “Look around; find a tree to climb if they charge.”

I nod slowly, my eyes flicking through tears of sweat from one tree to the next. Each one is either thinner than my wrist or sprouts its lowest branch 10m above my head.

I can hear footsteps now – a rhythmic patter on brittle leaves. Whatever it is, is moving towards us – fast. I focus on a gap in the meshwork of plants. Something dark passes behind it. Surely too small for a chimp, though? I glance at Adolph. The tension has already slipped from his body. Once again the chimps have eluded us. Even as the guineafowl emerge into a clearing ahead of us, we hear a distant outburst of pant-hooting. “You’re right, I think they’re laughing at us,” says Simon. He shakes his head, Adolph shrugs and I slap a horsefly.

At dusk, we hold vigil at the edge of the forest. Chimpanzees are creatures of habit. Each evening they build sleeping nests and call loudly to each other as they settle down – a kind of ape-version of The Waltons. But we hear nothing more than the trill of cicadas. Without some kind of clue, we don’t stand a chance of finding them. “Let’s give it another 10 minutes,” suggests Simon. They call in less than two. Adolph judges their position and soon we are scampering through the forest, sweat slicked across our backs and faces. Then Adolph whistles softly and clenches his fist.

“We’re so close!” Simon murmurs. “If only they’d call again, we could pinpoint where they’re nesting.” But the forest has fallen silent. As bats flicker around our heads in the murky slide towards night we have no choice but to turn back.

Crouching on damp leaf litter the following dawn, we sift the sounds of the forest. A rustle of leaves momentarily lifts our heads and our hopes. But it’s a troop of black and white colobus monkeys performing leaps of faith in the canopy. We sit and wait. Twitching in its death throes, a praying mantis is edging towards me, carried aloft on a grisly tide of safari ants. I begin to accept defeat...

Then Adolph tenses and I see the familiar fist signal. He’s seen something – a branch moving? We walk a few paces off the trail, then simultaneously freeze and sink to the ground, like balloons deflating. “There!” Simon’s voice is hoarse. I follow his stare, but my brain is scrambled by the riot of plants. “They’re climbing out of that tree.” Eyes bulging, chin straining forwards, he’s willing me to spot them.

“Yes!” I breathe. “I see one!”

A hairy shoulder; hands and feet clasped around a trunk – four chimps are shinning down the tree. Briefly, a face appears around the trunk, eyes staring as intently as mine. It’s the merest glimpse and then they’re gone – moving silently like smoke in the forest. Adolph smiles. “Last night,” he whispers, “I dreamed of chimps.”

Game Plan

Several operators, such as Natural World Safaris can tailor make safaris to Uganda which include chimp tracking in either Semliki or Kibale Forest.

Semliki is a 1hr drive from Fort Portal, or 1hr flight from Entebbe.

With views of the Virungas, Semliki Lodge has large, luxurious tents.


Year round. Main rains April to May and November to December.

Tourist Information: visituganda.com

Conservation projects: Ape Alliance


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Wildlife Wishlist was founded by zoologist, conservationist and award-winning travel writer and photographer William Gray. Sharing his passion for wildlife and recommendations for responsible travel, Will has spent around 30 years tracking down the world's best wildlife holiday experiences.