Locations Mahale Mountains, Mbali Mbali Camp
In a car – zero
In boats – about 25
On foot – about 20
The Mahale Mountains … magical, majestic, magnificent and more!
Abundant adjectives and alliteration aside, the Mahale mountains are truly remote … 1500 sq km (the size of Kenya’s Maasai Mara) with only 24 tourist beds in 2 small camps. Most guests coming here would fly in by private charter to an airstrip just outside the park (rather than spend 2 days on the road as we did) and then take a motorised dhow to their camp. We were staying at Mbali Mbali, meaning ‘far, far away’ (which it is), a lovely tented lodge which we had to ourselves for 2 of our 3 nights there.
The location is stunning. Set on a beach, with the turquoise waters of Lake Tanganyika lapping up against the platform of our luxurious tent to the front and behind us, the mountains rise up, covered in thick, verdant jungle. The primary reason for visiting the area is chimpanzees and the park is home to approximately 700 of them. Of these, the 72-strong ‘M’ group has been studied by researchers since 1960 and is now completely habituated to human presence. This make trekking after and viewing them very easy … well the viewing part is easy as the trekking can still be quite challenging, given the terrain.
We went out to find the chimps on both of our full days and were rewarded with several great sightings. Each time, our viewing time was limited to 1 hour from the point of first contact and we had to wear face masks to reduce the risk of transmitting diseases between us and the chimps … as much, if not more, for their benefit than ours. We witnessed a wide array of chimp activities – grooming, feeding, nest-building, sleeping, posturing, mating – and could also see a variety of emotions in them as well – affection, care, irritation, nonchalance, aggression and more. Chimpanzees share 98% of their DNA with human beings and the more time one spends with them, the more similarities become apparent.
One thing that did amaze me was how the chimps paid absolutely no attention to us human bystanders. We have spent a lot of time in the field with wild animals, but even the most habituated of lions or elephants will still keep a little distance between themselves and our vehicle, or even look to use the vehicle for some purpose – shade, as a lookout point or scratching post. In those instances, our presence always has an effect on how a situation or interaction evolves, but with chimps that was simply not the case, and they continued their day to day business completely undisturbed by our presence. In certain instances, this was quite disconcerting and even a little frightening. One big male named Christmas, who weighed over 60kg, charged up and down pathways right by us, wielding pieces of wood as one would a club. All this aggressive posturing was for the benefit of other males in the group as several of the females were in oestrus, so testosterone and adrenalin was running particularly high amongst the biggest and most dominant of the boys. The noises also made a big impression on us. When trying to find the chimps you’re always listening out for evidence of where they are, whether it be whoops, screams or thuds as the males beat the ground or tree roots. But they can also move very quietly, gliding through the forest only to surprise you with a sudden vocalization and the realization that you’ve become surrounded. Meet the ‘M’ group.
We were lucky enough to spend 3 days with chimpanzees in 2 different locations in Tanzania and it is a truly humbling experience to come face to face with our closest relatives. I was going to include some jokes about certain similarities between chimpanzees and some of our dear friends but, after mulling it over, I decided against it as I felt that would simply have been unfair to the chimps.