Time spent in the company of the Mahale chimps is unlike game viewing anywhere else. The steady climb through the quiet of the forest to find them leaves time for the mind to wander and idly contemplate the streams, waterfalls and massive forest trees. But there’s a persistent frisson of suspense, hightened by occasional chimp calls echoing through the tree tops ahead…are they getting closer?
Occasionally the canopy parts and Lake Tanganyika, turquoise, cool and alluring, is visible several thousand feet below, its waters receding towards the distant shores of the Congo.
And then - often quite suddenly - the chimps are there, among you. These are habituated animals, entirely oblivious to the presence of humans. They feed, play and fight sometimes within a few feet of the assembled people.
The individual characters of these animals are well known by the guides, their relationships, feuds and politics well documented. This is as much about soap opera as it is game viewing.
A couple of places in Tanzania offer outstanding chimpanzee trekking - chimps are generally relatively easily found and the experience is a fantastic one; it does however differ dramatically from other main stream safari experiences, so here are a few notes so you know what to expect. Both of these places lie on the eastern shore of Lake Tanganyika in the far west of the country. As is often the case, it’s the least known that offers by far the richest experience.
Gombe in the north where Jane Goodall performed her groundbreaking studies, is a small park, beautiful, but surrounded by encroaching humanity on all sides. 100 miles to the south the much larger and lesser-known Mahale Mountains are home to The Tongwe People and several hundred wild chimpanzees and are literally breathtaking.
Chimp trekking is quite unlike any of the more traditional forms of safari. Here you are on your feet throughout and in awe inspiring forest that bares no resemblance to anything you will have encountered elsewhere in the country. When you find the chimps you are often in close proximity to them (sometimes they pass within a few feet of you) and because they’re habituated, they more or less ignore you.
Consequently you’re in a remarkable position to observe the complex social interactions. In both Mahale and Gombe, individual animals are well known and their characters and relationships well documented so there is a very high level of intimacy, which is rare in game viewing of any kind.
Finding the chimps is largely a matter of luck as they can theoretically be anywhere from the top of the 8000 ft mountains to the lakeshore at 2500 ft. However, the trackers know the animals well and are nearly always in touch with their movements day to day. As long as you’re up to the walking, it’s unusual for people not to see the chimps in a 3 day stay.
The length of walk can vary enormously – they are sometimes literally at the back of the camp and other days they are nowhere to be seen – but on average you should expect to walk for about 2 –3 hours on well-defined paths in the forest, with occasional scrambling down less defined animal tracks. The pace set by the trackers is steady and aimed at the slower members of the group. You need to be reasonably fit, but many people find that the steep and sometimes slippery descents are more of an issue than the actual physical exertion.
Your time with the chimps is limited to 1 hour per day and face masks must be worn to prevent the transmission of human diseases to the chimps.
Photographic opportunities are good, however you do need to be aware that you can’t use flash photography, so you need lenses with good light gathering ability.