12 July 2019 by Debbie Mayger
The noise was unexpected; impossibly loud, it thundered right through me. Shouts, squeals, hoots, grunts, screeches, whimpers and tree-drumming. It was simultaneously utterly thrilling and totally heart-stopping. I had been hiking steeply upwards to around 1,200m above sea level for approaching three-and-a-half hours. I was spent. The terrain had fought back, the trail was non-existent in places and the sheer drops were terrifying. But, this sudden cacophony boosted my adrenaline for one final push. I rounded the corner and came face to face for the first time with wild chimpanzees.
Mahale National Park
Mahale National Park lies on the shores of glorious Lake Tanganyika in far western Tanzania. Pristine and remote, you don’t stumble across it. You have to really work to get here. The lake, the second deepest in the world, is home to hippos and crocodiles, along with hundreds of fish – many endemic to Tanganyika. Its tropical-forest-covered mountains dip right down to its shores and are also home to a dazzling array of flora and fauna, from red-tailed, colobus and vervet monkeys to warthogs, butterflies and 200 species of birds. There's even the enigmatic leopard – my favourite animal.
However, I was here for the fascinating, playful and mesmerising chimpanzees. Years ago, I was told by the owner of Colchester Zoo that he would have little hesitation getting in with the lions, but never the chimps. They’re very strong, incredibly clever and deceptively unpredictable. With these thoughts bouncing around in my brain, I will admit to being apprehensive about meeting our closet living relatives in their own habitat and strictly on their terms.
I expected to be scared but I was not. Living in extended family groups, they are as spectacularly gentle as they can be powerful. I sit enthralled for my hour with them as they laugh and play, groom one another, embrace, touch hands, pick seeds and fruit, and drink water from the stream. Photographing their faces, hands and feet, it was startling clear that no two chimps look the same. They’re a joy to observe up close; like us, they have individual features and characteristics.
Rather whimsically perhaps, it felt to me that the group understood and appreciated the effort I had made to be there. They all moved around me slowly, unbothered by my presence, and simply sat for extended periods, allowing their babies to come close – but not too close. From time to time they gazed at me directly, always flicking their eyes away so as not to be perceived as threatening.
Suddenly a female chimp receives a slap from one of the males and the noise crescendos again as the other females rally to support her. With the males calling back, the forest is alive with primeval sounds. Then, as quickly as it erupts, the noise abates and peace settles back within the clearing. Time seems to stand still. Eventually, almost reluctantly, the last chimp ambles past me, achingly close, and heads off deeper and higher into the dense forest. I am left suddenly alone and wondering if I imagined it all.
Gombe Stream National Park
Two days later and I have moved further north to Gombe Stream National Park, again on the shores of Lake Tanganyika. It’s one of the smallest national parks in Tanzania and it has taken the best part of a day travelling by light aircraft and boat to reach Jane Goodall’s famed research station. Jane arrived here in 1960 at the tender age of 26 to habitualise the chimps so that they could be studied and protected. Now 85, Dame Goodall has dedicated most of her life to the conservation of her beloved chimpanzees. With this in mind, I set off in her footsteps, my previous arduous trek still at the forefront of my memory.
I was staggered, and mightily relieved, when I find my first chimp family within a gentle 20-minute hike from the research station. Fresh from waking and, following a breakfast of fruits high in the canopy, the family slowly, little by little, make their way down from the trees to drink in the stream, taking wary little sips and glancing around. They are much quieter than the last troop and don’t sit so still, moving fluidly from tree to tree. I keep apace easily enough through the less-dense foliage.
The guides tell me all of the family’s names. This was G Group. I met Gremlin, and her twins Golden and Glitter, along with their older sister Gaia. As it’s extremely rare for a chimp mother to successfully raise twins in the wild, she had helped Gremlin rear the infants. But, being the super-mum that she undoubtedly is, poor Gremlin was pregnant again at 48. I “helpfully” suggested some baby names – Gizmo perhaps?!
In Gombe, the chimp population has declined significantly in recent years due to loss of habitat. Age-old forest corridors are being cleared for charcoal, timber and farming. Every new baby, therefore, is a celebration, and the trackers and researchers were gleeful about their imminent arrival.
Leaving the little family behind, I trek onwards, but I use this term lightly – this was more of a nature walk when compared to Mahale. We arrived at Kakombe Waterfall, taking a refreshing break before sauntering back to the research centre. On the way we spotted yet more chimp families in the canopy, along with huge troops of awfully confident and very naughty baboons! Between Gombe and Mahale, these were two completely different but both utterly magical chimp treks. That’s the beauty and unpredictability of wild animals!
So where should you stay if you would like to trek with chimps? In Mahale, Greystoke Camp was awarded the accolade of Africa’s Leading Safari Lodge at the 2018 World Travel Awards. The name alone just evokes thoughts of Edgar Rice Burroughs and “The Legend of Tarzan”. It is undoubtedly a spectacular lodge, a traditional thatched offering set on its very own white beach. I would also recommend Mbali Mbali Mahle, which has all the same wow-factor for location and service, often with better rates.
Then, there is only one lodge in Gombe Stream National Park. It’s the sister property of Mbali Mbali Gombe and, of course, there are deals to be had by booking both together. Gombe is more rustic and traditional than Mahale, but both lodges are delightfully sited on the lakefront, featuring tents with permanent bases, roofs and proper beds. That’s alongside the all-important mosquito nets and en suites. However, wherever I was, the staff were attentive and genuinely lovely. I also couldn’t fault the food, either.
Mbali Mbali is Swahili for “Far, far away” and this describes Mahale and Gombe quite perfectly! For an adventure with a difference, look no further than this remote corner of East Africa.