Caring for Chimpanzees
By Vicki Portman, an English woman with an unusual goal
My original intention was to go trekking in Africa for my 40th birthday – I was being pestered by my friends and work colleagues to have a party – I’ve never celebrated a landmark birthday – not my 16th, 18th, 21st or 30th and had no intention of starting at this ripe old age. I decided I wanted to do something special – but special for me, not an opportunity for others to put up embarrassing photos of my youth for their own amusement!
I’ve had a passion for Chimpanzees as long as I can remember. My sister had dolls, my friends had teddy bears, I had cuddly apes! So that was it – decided – I was going to Africa to see the Great Apes. I had seen an African Trek advertised on a holiday programme several years before and had kept the details – I made enquiries and part of the package was an overnight stay at a place called Ngamba Island in Lake Victoria – a Chimpanzee Sanctuary where the visitors get a chance to do a Forest Walk with the juvenile Chimps!
My lifetime’s ambition was to touch a Chimpanzee – I would have been happy with a brushing of the hand or linking of fingers – I couldn’t let this opportunity pass me by - decided – I was going to go to Ngamba Island and experience a primate safari.
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I read the Long Stay Visitor’s Handbook and was ready to book my trip. I was anxious, as previously I had never been out of Europe and had not been out of England alone – now I was venturing to Africa single handed.
I arrived in Uganda on Saturday 13th October 2007. I was met at the airport and taken to CSWCT’s head office in Entebbe where my vaccinations were checked by the Staff – due to the contact with the Chimps I had to have quite a few! I was booked on the afternoon boat to the island so had some time to spare – I was taken to the Uganda Wildlife Education Centre where I was given a guided tour. Not long after my visit there, I was on my way to the island.
I was shown to my tent – more of a mini canvas hotel room. I had two proper beds with an en-suite toilet and sink and a shower. All pretty basic but I thought excellent accommodation for the island. I was shown around the 2 acre camp of the 100 acre island – the other 98 acres being forest for the chimps – I knew I was going to love my stay here. Supper was amazing – a 4 course meal was dished whilst we dined with Dr Lawrence, the head vet. I was soon to realise that all visitors on the island (never more than eight overnighters at a time) ate together and any night there was a new visitor present a member of CSWCT would dine with us to answer any questions we may have and give us information regarding Ngamba.
Basically, the Long Stay Visitors Programme meant I could do as little or as much as I chose. I wanted to help as much as possible, so on my first day, started typing up the Chimp Diaries – a record of the daily goings on with each ape on Ngamba. It wasn’t long before I was chopping fruit which I would then throw to the Chimpanzees during the daily feedings which day visitors to the island would view. One of my daily duties was to count the Chimpanzees in at night, as all Chimps needed to be inside the holding facility to allow the taking place of the early morning Chimpanzee walks with the chosen Juvenile Walkers. Once in, I would feed them porridge.
The Walks took place mostly first thing in the morning, however my first interaction was early evening. Two Australian Visitors to the island had booked three Chimpanzee walks during their two night stay and that night an adult chimp had not returned from the forest, meaning we were unable to venture in there (naturally). We were shown into a separate compound and the juvenile chimps were introduced to us – I was surprised by the size of those Chimps approaching me – these were not babies – they were 6-10 years old! Life time ambition achieved – I reached out and touched a Chimp – I was amazed at how soft her skin was on her hands and how course her hair was – these were my first thoughts. I stroked them, groomed them and tickled them – have you ever heard a Chimpanzee laugh? Yes, they actually laugh! The quickest hour of my life soon passed!
My next interaction was to be an early morning Chimp walk where I gave Nakuu a piggy back into the forest. Some of the chimps wanted to be carried constantly, others were happy to run alongside us – Bili was my favourite - she was bigger and heavier than some of the others and I took a really shine to her. I sure needed my breakfast that morning, having done an hour’s walk with a Chimp on my back and then cleaned the holding facility.
I had been on the island for 11 nights when I woke up on the morning of my 40th Birthday to the most amazing sunrise! That morning Gerald, the Head Care Giver had arranged that I could walk with the Chimps – the best birthday present EVER!!! I spent my birthday walking with Chimps, cleaning cages, breakfasting, cutting fruit, feeding chimps, lunching, more cutting, more feeding and more supper for me. Then came the extra special bonus – a campfire party with a cake and all the staff on the island and four South African lady visitors who had been on the island for several days with me! So I got to have that party after all – and it was the simplest and the best party EVER!
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If you want to work with chimps like Vicki did or you'd like to donate to the Trust, read the Volunteers Manual carefully and then contact us