01 May 2015
Our Bwindi trip was about more than gorillas, if you can believe it. Indeed, a major goal of the journey was to renew D’s Ugandan visa by hopping back and forth across the Rwandan border. This left us with an extra day and night of traveling. After a close examination of our handy-dandy map of Uganda, we decided that a stop-over in Kisoro and a visit to Mgahinga National Park would be the perfect addition to our trip. Quite conveniently, Mgahinga butts right up to the borders with DRC and Rwanada and Kisoro is the nearest city (less than 20k from the Rwanada-Uganda border). Second, D and I had heard, from two independent sources, that there was a marvelous little creature called a golden monkey that lived there and this creature could not be missed!
Golden monkeys resemble blue monkeys nearly exactly in form and size but have vibrant golden flanks. For those of you who do not already know, I spent some time at the Kakamega Forest Reserve in Kenya working as a field manager for a blue monkey vocalization project. I quickly fell in love with blue monkeys on the basis of adorableness and my affinity for them grew daily as I catalogued their social dynamics and began to recognize individuals and know their social stories. The end result was a blue-monkey-shaped niche carved into my primatologists’ heart where I will always be fascinated by them. Honestly, all of the monkeys that belong to the group called “guenons” are just so damned cute- among my friends, redtails are often argued to be the cutest, but blue monkeys… I have so many ridiculous stories for another day and time.
On the other hand, before this venture I had no knowledge of golden monkeys (and my impressions were not be substantially enriched through a brief review the very few available articles about their behavior and ecology). I assumed that they shared a number of similarities with blue monkeys and other guenons. But this forest was so different from other guenon habitats, who knew how different golden monkey diets and ranging and social behavior might be!
Like Bwindi, Mgahinga is montane rainforest with patches of pristine, primary growth and patches of bamboo forest. The visual is absolutely stunning. Imagine a winding path up the side of a mountain. You cross over buffalo tracks, signs of elephants, and as you trek higher, you shift into new ecological zones. Each time you turn around, your take in more of the Congolese Virungas, shrouded in mist. You come to a cross-trail where you can turn right into primary forest, complete with hundred-foot-tall fig trees, or left, toward ancient caves once frequented by the Batwa before Mgahinga was a national park. Instead, you continue straight, and up. Finally, you reach the edge of a formidable wall of bamboo. The forest floor is carpeted with soft bamboo leaves and everything above the floor is glazed with soft moss. The softeness swallows sound so you can hear only whispers of the breeze between bamboo stalks and the songs of very close birds. The effect is somewhat like physically entering some magical corner of your imagination that you haven’t visited since childhood.
The first sign of monkeys were a few tiny piles of bamboo leaf stalks like matchsticks. Then the sound of rustling just overhead in the thickest bamboo leaves. It could have been a light wind just as easily as a monkey or a bird or a leopard or a ninja. Indeed, as the group descended, heading for the tasty bamboo shoots newly emerging with the onset of the rainy season, the fluidity of their motions traversing mature stalks reminded me of scenes from Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.
Like the gorillas, we were allotted one hour in this magical place, but in many ways the hour could not have been more different. Bwindi was so crowded. The forest was thick THV tightly wound around narrow passages up the steep slopes and the thorny undergrowth grabbed at you as you passed. And there were so many of us- ten tourists, one guide, one guard, and four trackers- shoved into these tiny slanted spaces that were already full of gorilla. In Mgahinga at the start of the rainy season, only D and I, plus one guide, one guard, and two trackers were in the whole forest. No one was hiking any of several gorgeous peaks, or on a cultural tour with the Batwa, or even tracking gorillas (we had no idea you could even track gorillas there) that day. Bamboo doesn’t allow for much undergrowth, save for the odd firework-burst of thick-stalked flowers, but layers and layers of it gave the visual effect of a wall after so many feet. All at once the forest felt so closed and so open: closed like “enclosed,” like a safe space, and open like the opposite of claustrophobic and all the air in the world to breathe.
At Bwindi, there was less than one gorilla per human and the touring crew ushered us between individuals one by one, embellishing gorilla factoids as we moved along. For the most part I tuned them out and tried to imagine what it would be like to be Diane Fossey seeing the for the first time. But at Mgahinga there was far less to tune out. They still tried to direct us: “You stand here,” or “Take picture from here,” but they let that go when I asked them if I could just explore on my own for a bit (granted I did have to ask a few times). With monkeys all around us, in every direction, at every height, I could hardly choose just one to watch!
Similar to the visual differences between lowland and mountain gorillas, golden monkeys are extra-fluffy versions of their lowland (blue) counterparts. Clearly this bumps the cuteness factor to chart-topping levels. If you love puffy, squeezable cheeks like my friend, Katharine, you will love golden monkeys. When a few monkeys (first the male and then a few bold females and subadults) finally stepped to the ground to dig out bamboo shoots I actually squealed a little with delight. I could not stop myself from vocalizing my delight at the sheer cuteness of their tiny hands and puffy cheeks! Luckily for monkeys, it is highly unlikely that they can feel patronized.
I spent the hour watching them munch. Between snapping shots of such gorgeous little creatures in such gorgeous surroundings, I contemplated bamboo and cyanide and whether golden monkeys, like bamboo lemurs, have super-primate abilities to process this toxin. Surely they must, given the prevalence of cyanide in bamboo- even if they are specializing on the shoots. SNAP!
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This blog is a forum share my personal experiences as a field researcher and traveler.