Kyambura Gorge is located in the the eastern part of Queen Elizabeth National Park in south western Uganda. Carved out by the River Kyambura over centuries, the gorge is approximately 100 metres deep and 1 KM wide at it’s broadest point. Surrounded by the hot and dry open savanna, the gorge is a vital water source to many wild animals. The fauna is mainly dense, tropical rain forest with thick tree canopies high up letting virtually no direct sunlight through. This makes a perfect habitat for a rich and wild biodiversity that includes primates, wild animals and many species of birds.
After having spent a couple of days exploring the savanna in Queen Elizabeth National Park, we headed to the Kyambura Gorge with the aim of tracking some of the chimpanzees that live here. After a somewhat bumpy drive along various dirt tracks, we arrived at the top of the gorge. We unloaded our gear and immediately headed off, following a small path that led us down towards the bottom of the gorge. After having descended only about a hundred metres, I already felt the change in atmosphere. This was real jungle territory – the undergrowth was dense and bushes, trees and vines were all fighting for space. Moving along without the aid of a machete (actually, a guide with a machete in our case) would have made any progress impossible.
Soon enough we arrived at the bottom of the gorge, alongside the River Kyambura. Over the next couple of hours we followed the river as we explored deeper along the gorge, all the time hoping to find the chimpanzees. My personal aim of recording some of the amazing forest soundscapes I was hearing was slightly hampered by the fact that we had to keep moving at a reasonable pace – the chimps can move from one spot to another very quickly and finding them was our main aim here. A colleague of our guide had moved on ahead to track the chimps and we had to keep up with him if we wanted to observe the chimps in this beautiful setting.
After about 40 minutes or so into our trek, we found ourselves moving through a section of the gorge that was really close to the river, though we were at an elevation of about 20 metres from the river itself. The acoustics were incredible, the natural topography on either side of the river meant the sounds reverberated similar to inside a large amphitheater. I had stopped to get a breath of fresh air and drink some water when I heard something not that far away from me in the river. It started with heavy breaths like a horse, then water sprays, much like a whale, then the most incredible sound I have ever heard in my life. A low frequency belch, reverberating around the gorge. It sounded to me like the kind of noise a video game sound designer would give to the baddie monster – a kind of evil laughing. Hippos!
I had heard very distant hippos at night from my lodge in Queen Elizabeth National Park, but to hear this clearly and so close was simply amazing. I had absolutely no idea hippos made this kind of noise until I heard it with my own ears. What a discovery! I hadn’t expected to see hippos here, nor hear them the way I did, so this really left a fantastic imprint on my memory of this day in Kyambura Gorge.
We moved further along following the river. Soon we arrived at a small opening and the guide signalled to us all to move slowly and remain very quiet. He pointed towards the tree canopy above. Chimpanzees in the wild! What an incredible moment! A group of about 6 chimps were sitting high up in the canopy. There were some younger chimps in the group who seemed to be playing, whereas the older chimps were sitting eating. We sat and observed the group for around 30 minutes in total. To my disappointment, the chimps weren’t at all vocal, though this did actually signify that they were pretty satisfied and not at all alerted by our presence. It was a fantastic experience to watch them. As I did so, I made a number of recordings – mainly of the birdsong and insect chorus, with the occasional distant hippo grunt. We also hear the chimps high in the canopy as they moved from one branch to another.
From a sonic perspective, the Kyambura Gorge is a true natural amphitheatre. The acoustics bring the already rich soundscape alive, and animal and bird calls sound all the more distinctive there. I will never forget the moment I heard the hippo grunt – the hairs on the back of my neck stand up even as I write this. And then to be able to observe a group of chimpanzees in their natural habitat was simply stunning. A truly memorable day.