THE TALE OF THE HUNT FOR THE HYRAX
(Posted 15th April 2015)
Spending a night or a few inside the Mabira rainforest inevitably brings one close up to the sounds of the forest, during the day with birdsong, the chatter of the monkeys high up in the giant trees and at times the sudden flight of a forest antelope, startled by the unexpected appearance of a two legged ‘animal’ called man, stumbling through the undergrowth and hardly softly softly.
However, it is the sounds of the night, when nocturnal mammals wake and get active which makes spending a night there unique. The rarely sighted tree hyrax is one of those elusive creatures, almost harder to spot than a leopard but while difficult to spot they are readily heard as not long after darkness settles their eerie calls emerge. The loudest calls come from the males, or so scientific lore tells while the females apparently cannot match these db levels.
At times almost humanlike, sounding like screams if not shouts for help, are these little creatures making noise well beyond the size of their body and often for hours at end soon after darkness falls if not through the entire night.
I had travelled to the Mabira rainforest to help fill a gap in the paramotor tour of Uganda, which back in November due to adverse weather was unable to overfly the forest, leave alone take aerial shots of the acclaimed RainForest Lodge which was my base for a couple of nights.
Jean Michel Hausmann and his ground photographer / cameraman Patrick certainly gave this second attempt to capture the essence of the 28.000+ hectares large forest their very best, but again, adverse weather and in particular gusty and shifting winds made taking off a gamble no one was ready to take, and so after several hours of trying and changing potential take off places was the paramotor loaded in the back of the escort vehicle again and a return to base signaled.
With this part of the agenda ticked as failed was it then up to yours truly to scout the forest near the lodge in search of the tree hyrax. During the two remaining daylight hours, criss crossing the hiking paths around the lodge, was every effort made to spot one of their hideouts, ending however in equal failure.
No sooner though had the sun set, were the first tentative calls of the tree hyrax heard some distance away, before at the onset of the night their voices seemed to come closer, crowd around the lodge, almost mocking our daytime effort to see them and get a decent photo of them. Well, have a laugh, I thought while changing for dinner, a one on one affair with the lodge manager Lynda Meeme, who has been in situ since the lodge opened in 2007, eventually rising to the manager’s position and as fine an example of managerial qualities as they come.
No sooner had we sat down for dinner did the mockery resume from high above and Lynda admitted that she had not seen any of them, other than in the light beam of a strong torch or spotlight high in the trees, before making a hasty getaway. It was however possible to record the sound of one of these little creatures, available via YouTube, as is a general impression of what can be seen from one’s cabin at the lodge: http://youtu.be/ryJHMO5TV3s
The forest guide employed by the lodge, one Bruhan Kasozi, also confirmed that he, who is almost every day in the forest for short and longer hikes with guests, had never seen a tree hyrax during the day out in the open though conceded that perhaps, if using a hide and remaining silently in it for hours, would make one of these extremely shy animals show themselves.
A repeat attempt on the next day equally produced no results, though one was seen at night in the spotlight of a torch before vanishing into the foliage, not to be seen but definitely be heard again, protesting even louder if that is at all possible.
Most people would perhaps think that the trip was a failure after all, but then, one can never measure a fieldtrip as a failure when other and often unexpected elements come into play. I enjoyed several sightings of hornbills, emphasis on plural, saw a wide range of butterflies and the birdsong at dawn was giving unexpected rewards for the trouble of standing on the deck outside the cabin and waiting for the first rays of light. Inhaling the fresh unpolluted air in the deep of a rainforest, laden with scents, I felt did compensate greatly for not seeing the tree hyrax in day light.
Another startling experience was hearing an insect at night which sounds exactly like my alarm clock at home and, admittedly, had me looking around the cabin a couple of times to see if I had not, after all, brought it along and it had gone off.
Mabira has always been that step child of Kampalean travelers who venture out of the city on weekends to explore the country and yet is, apart from some of the Lake Victoria islands which are close to the mainland, the nearest major getaway. The Mabira Forest National Reserve is full of surprises and quite capable to hold its own vis a vis more fancied but also much more distant weekend destinations. Several cycling trails and hiking trails criss cross the forest now and at Griffin Falls can those with the heart for it even do some zip lining which of course is not for the fainthearted. Visitors who take a guide from the Eco Tourism Community Centre, which is easily reached from the main road opposite the turn off to the RainForest Lodge, can count on a safe though perhaps exhausting trip into the deep of the forest, but also a trip which brings rewards when encountering the rich flora and fauna in the almost untouched part of Mabira. ds when encountering the rich flora and fauna in the deep, almost untouched part of the forest.
312 shrubs and tree species, 287 types of butterflies, 316 species of birds, many of them endemic, 23 species of reptiles, 97 species of moths and according to a Nature Uganda inventory 51 mammal species makes by any standard impressive statistics considering the vicinity to major urban centres, Jinja on the Eastern side and Lugazi, Mukono and of course Kampala on the Western side of the forest. From Kampala, once reaching the outskirts, is it just over an hour drive and for those continuing to Jinja after their stay, give or take another 20 minutes.
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