During your visit to the beautiful Lake Tanganyika, you’ll have the chance to meet Tanzania’s chimpanzees in the wild. To spend a morning with one of these troops is sure to be joyous, emotional and perhaps even life-changing; it’s definitely one of Tanzania’s best safari experiences.
We arrived at our safari lodge in western Tanzania by traditional wooden dhow. It was a most elemental and romantic sight: coming into a beach backed by tropical forest and stepping ashore as Livingstone or Stanley might once have done. There was a thatched gazebo with loungers on the sand and small welcoming party to meet us. We’d finally arrived in this little corner of paradise.
My partner and I had come to Mahale Mountains National Park to see some of the continent’s last remaining wild chimpanzees. The population of roughly 900 is habituated to humans and offers perhaps the best viewing of these gregarious primates in Africa. Greystoke Mahale sits on a pristine, white beach overlooking the turquoise water of Lake Tanganyika, with the forested slopes of the Mahale Mountains rising to almost 3,000m behind.
We were led to our banda, which was tucked back into the forest; our view was of beach and the beautiful lake beyond. In the distance, we could make out the mountains of the Congo in the haze. Our delightful room was open-fronted, with heavy canvas curtains to pull closed if we so chose.
The banda had been constructed from sustainable materials sourced on Lake Tanganyika. ‘All the wood was reclaimed from wrecked or retired dhows bought – after much haggling – from villagers along the lakeshore,’ explained Kakae, our guide. ‘We’ve used fisherman’s old canoes and makuti thatch from palm fronds gathered outside the park for the roofs.’
My partner and I even had a ‘chill-out’ deck upstairs, accessible by a rather clever canoe-ladder around the side of the banda. This was the perfect place to while away the afternoon with a glass of wine and a good book. So we did just that.
Next morning we were up bright and early. We donned good walking shoes and long trousers (Kakae had warned us about a nasty forest creeper called buffalo bean which can cause skin irritations). Our day started at the main mess, where we ate breakfast and waited excitedly to hear news of the whereabouts of the primates.
‘It’s almost time for you to meet the chimps,’ said Kakae. ‘But before we go, I must please ask that each of you wear a light surgical mask over your nose and mouth when we’re near them. I will hand them out to you. This is purely because of germs. Chimps share so much of our DNA and are very prone to catching our coughs and sneezes.’
We readily agreed. Then it was thumbs up. We were divided into two small groups, accompanied by guides and trackers. Our party headed off first, armed with water bottles and snacks, our hearts racing in anticipation of a meeting with our hairy cousins.
It took us about an hour to find the troop. We came upon them quite suddenly. ‘Look up,’ whispered Kakae.
I glanced into the tree overhead and there, staring down at me, was an adorable face. Inquisitive, naughty … beautiful. My breath was quite taken away.
Our party spent a blissful hour hanging out with the chimps. We watched them as they played, groomed and foraged around us. At first I just wanted to take photos. But after I’d snapped a few dozen wonderful close-ups, I put my camera away and soaked up this once-in-a-lifetime experience.
We sat on the forest floor and let then carry on their daily lives just a few metres from us. I soon become aware – through gesture, sound and expression – of the subtleties of different relationships. One dictating the pace, another courting favour, yet another perhaps plotting a coup. There was humour too, as the young chimpanzees gambolled about rumbustiously on the forest floor.
It was hard not to compare their movements, feeding, squabbling and grooming, with our own. Anyone who doesn’t believe in evolution needs to visit Mahale! It was both funny and wonderful to see how human the chimpanzees were (or how chimp-like the humans were).
‘We’ve watched, over the years, as families have grown and developed,’ said Kakae as we walked back to camp. ‘Alpha males have come and gone, bonds and friendships have been created and then broken, and then created again. They are not very different from us. We watch again and again, through our guest’s eyes, as the enormity of what they are seeing hits them for the first time.’
After an adrenalin-filled morning of tracking chimpanzees, we took a late afternoon ride in the lodge dhow. The graceful vessel headed out into the lake with a cooler box and sundowner drinks on board. We anchored near the shoreline and watched hippo swimming underwater close to the boat. I sat on the deck marvelling at the privilege and luxury of our chimp encounter and at how it had affected me in such a profound way. It actually felt as though I had just experienced a wonderful and emotional family reunion!