Great Apes!

Alex and I spent last night at Tacugama Chimp Sanctuary, about 45 minutes outside of Freetown (still on the Freetown peninsula). We hired a driver to take us out there yesterday around noon, through the hills of the city, past the fortress that is the American embassy (some things are the same the world over), and smack into the village life of Sierra Leone. Still, there were always people along the road, selling fruit, phone credit and/or cookies or just lounging in the heat – rare was the instance where we were truly alone, until we turned onto the road for the park itself. The road up to Tacugama was paved at one point in time, but the lack of upkeep made the last 1000 meters a bit of a slog – luckily we had Med, a competent and kindly taxi driver (who was on time, too!).

The taxi deposited us at the bottom of a hill that I’m “inclined” (groan) to say was almost a 45 degree pitch. The sign at the bottom of this final stretch of road warns visitors that only 4x4s should attempt the climb – so it was up to us to hike the last 100 metres. We said goodbye to Med, set-up to meet the next day for the return trip to Freetown, and set off.

The sights, smells and sounds of Sierra Leone are no less intense outside the city, but they’re definitely different. The blaring horns, shouting voices and pounding music (or soccer match commentary) give way to chirping birds, screeching chimps, and the gravelly croaks of frogs. The lines of traffic snaking through the narrow and bumpy streets are replaced by hordes of ants marching their way along their own miniature highways. The half-finished buildings injured by war and ramshackle stores along the main roads give way to lush greenery and moss-covered trees (almost everything is covered in moss, in fact). Rich, damp earth fills your nostrils, erasing any lingering stench of burning garbage, exhaust fumes and body odour.

In short, it was a very welcome respite from the city. Don’t get me wrong, I love Freetown – the people and the energy are what gives Africa its charm, in my mind… but it’s also really nice to take a break from the hectic pace of life in the city.

We checked in and were escorted – along a skinny trail dotted with rocks and tree roots – to our quarters for the night: a round, thatched hut painted yellow inside, with a double bed, couch and private bathroom. Outside was a brightly-coloured rope hammock and small covered patio with a table and two chairs, overlooking the rainforest – in fact, the entire hut was shrouded by rainforest. Hello, paradise.

We dropped our bags, had a snack and decided to do one of the hikes that the sanctuary advertises as activities around Tacugama. There were a few short trails that were listed as about 30 minutes each, but we decided to make the three-hour-plus trek to Charlotte Falls – knowing that if I didn’t do it right away, I probably wouldn’t at all. We sprayed ourselves until our skin was thick with 30% DEET, and set off. The trails all started off wending their way down the steep, final incline to the sanctuary, but soon diverged into the bush. They were marked with a clever series of shapes – the trail to Charlotte Falls was marked with triangles, to get to Congo Dam you follow the circles – however, we sometimes came to a fork in the path where the way forward wasn’t clearly marked… and it became a matter of making a guess and then hoping to see your chosen shape within a few hundred meters.

The trail was the same lush forest as surrounded the sanctuary: damp, mossy and raging in so many different colours of green. The hike to the falls was mostly downhill – sometimes treacherously so, and I was tempted to sit down and scoot my bum along the red earth and fallen leaves – leaving an ominous feeling about how much energy we’d have for the return journey uphill. The trail took us through Charlotte Village, where we said hello to some of the villagers and admired their old wooden Krio houses. Seeing village life always leaves me conflicted – it seems like such a wonderful and uncomplicated existence, but I don’t know if I’d survive at it… I don’t know if I could adjust to the lack of “stimulus” – although, if traveled has taught me anything, it’s that I (like all humans) can be remarkably adaptive when the opportunity presents itself.

Anyway, we passed through the village and carried on to the falls, still downhill and through a series of wending and slippery paths – until finally on our left, over the dense foliage, we caught a glimpse of misty sheets of water cascading over water-worn rocks in the distance. We kept following the triangles until we had the falls in plain view (although still a ways away), at which point we came across a sign that said “No Trespassing – Property of Mr. and Mrs. Williams”. Not knowing what to do, we gladly sat down for a break, squished onto the only shady rock we could find.

After a bag of chips and a lot of water, we started hearing voices in the distance – the voices of children. Then, through the woods came a group of about 20 schoolchildren ranging in age from 8-10, coming from Freetown on a field trip. Their leader seemed completely happy to trespass, so we followed along with the kids, who were chirping “Auntie! Auntie! What is your name? Auntie, auntie, where are you from?” at me. We got right up to the base of the waterfall and enjoyed the spray on our backs, took some pictures of the kids and talked with them for a little while, and then we were back off (uphill) home. It was much less painful and shorter than expected, I think because we were both so dazed and sweat-soaked and dehydrated and hungry.

The lodge doesn’t provide dinner (but they do sell beer, which we immediately availed ourselves of) – so once we had showered in extremely cold water and relaxed with books on the porch for a while, we set about putting together a simple pasta dinner, carted in our bags from Freetown. The hut had a shared outdoor cooking facility, and a gas ring in the bedroom… with all the utensils one could need. (As well as a garbage disposal system that separated organic waste, cans/bottles/plastics, and papers – which puzzled me in a country that burns its garbage and certainly doesn’t have a recycling program). Penne and canned tomato sauce never tasted so good, and I’d be embarrassed to tell you how quickly we snorfed down our food, sitting out on the porch in candlelight. It would have been romantic if we’d actually stopped to think about it.

The hut had solar electricity, so we read in bed for awhile but passed out by 10 pm – four hours of hiking was probably more exercise in one day than I’ve done in three weeks in Freetown combined, thanks to the heat and the ubiquity/relative affordability of shared taxis.

We were up at 8 am, reading on the porch when a woman from the lodge brought us breakfast – instant coffee, hardboiled eggs, warm bread, butter (a first in three weeks), Laughing Cow cheese, strawberry jam and boiled cassava – to which we added a mango and two bananas. Sated, we headed up to the main building for the main attraction of the trip: the chimp tour.

Tacugama has been operating since 1995. It’s a sanctuary for orphaned and rescued chimps, the former usually a result of bushmeat hunters and the latter because of people who think having a baby chimp as a pet would be cute (or lucrative – as a performer or slave labourer). We started in the quarantine area, where new arrivals spend 90 days. Then, they’re moved into a starter area (still in a cage), where they have to get used to not being in direct human contact – they stay here until they’re acclimatized enough that the sanctuary thinks they can interact successfully with other chimps.

Chimps are extremely social, sharing 98.6% of their DNA with humans (although an adult chimp is five times stronger than a human, when provoked). Once they can be integrated, they start living together in large enclosures with jungle gyms and swinging ropes, where they can become dextrous at living the way a chimp lives – swinging from branches and sleeping in trees, not living in a house and sleeping in a bed, as they might have if they were a rescue. This is where we really first got to see the chimps in action – dangling wildly from the two-storey jungle gym, tightrope walking, galloping along the ground, stuffing their faces with potato. You’d have to be a really sour person not to get a warm feeling in your chest watching them play. There was some mesh strung up across our viewing area to protect us – the interlopers – from stones thrown at us by the chimps (who are very territorial)… but only one chimp decided we needed to be taught a lesson about trespassing, and he didn’t have very good aim.

One of the neatest parts of the tour was watching our guide interact with the chimps – calling out to them in chimp noises, addressing them by name, scolding them from stealing food from each other… and genuinely laughing along with their antics.

From the play-area, we moved along to the next stage in a chimp’s progression at Tacugama – jungle enclosures. We saw the chimps in both the smaller enclosure (where they’re not allowed to mate, made possible by an implant in the female chimps), and the larger one where four babies have been born. The end goal is to have these chimps released into the wild, but at this point they have nowhere to release them where they aren’t in danger of being poached for bush meat.

At the final, eight-acre enclosure, we were lucky to see the babies playing in the treetops and their mother Julie (the oldest chimp at Tacugama) lounging on a tree branch. One of the other chimps was playing on an overhanging branch and our guide kept calling out “Be careful, man, that’s dangerous!” with real worry in his voice. Julie just hung out in her tree and gazed right at us – what I wouldn’t give to know what was going through her mind.

Overall, it was a pretty magical 90 minutes, to top off a pretty wonderful weekend.


One thought on “Great Apes!

  1. Very interesting blog!
    You greatly captured the essence of West Africa; dirt, warmth, laziness and cold showers!

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