A Tanzania chimp story

Chimpanzee trek

We flew to Arusha, Tanzania for a night at Lake Duluti Lodge, just outside the city. This is a lovely countryside retreat with individual bungalows equipped with WiFi and television. The property has a pool, common room for meals and relaxing, excellent food and service.

We headed out the next morning for Greystoke Mahale in the Mahale Mountains, flying from Arusha over Ngorongoro Crater to Ndutu to pick up some passengers, then on to a refueling stop and finally landing on a tiny airstrip at the edge of Lake Tanganyika. We then climbed aboard a traditional wooden boat for the hour and a half trip to the property, which is nested between the beach and jungle, with the forested mountains rising right behind.

We were greeted by the camp’s staff along with Big Bird, the resident pet pelican. Mahale has six wood and thatch bandas built from sustainable materials. The wood is from reclaimed dhows bought from fisherman. Ladders are old canoes. En suite bathrooms are in each cabin, accessible by a short boardwalk. Bathrooms have flush toilets and hot showers on demand.

The chimpanzees are the main event here, and our first day did not disappoint! We were told the chimp briefing would be later in the afternoon, so we walked over to lunch prepared to relax. However, the chimp trackers interrupted our lunch as chimps had come down the mountain right behind the camp! We ran after them, so excited to be so close! We saw them up ahead on the path.

They were moving with purpose, four of them hunting a red tailed monkey. It was thrilling to see the chimps noisily moving down the path, then up the side of a hill into the thicket of trees, hunting down a monkey. We did not see the kill, but we certainly heard the screaming on both sides and saw one of the chimps carry off the dead monkey. What an introduction to chimping!

We woke in the night to a terrible storm - thunder, lightning, intense rain. The storm continued during much of the day so there was no chimp trek possible. In the late afternoon we were able to go out for a hike, which allowed us to see the terrain. The jungle was thick with a floor full of roots, big puddles of water, dense brush. It was warm and humid, with a fairly difficult trail.

We trudged on with walking sticks, helping each other over the deepest pools, around, under and over trees, logs and vines. I could imagine Tarzan sailing through the trees! The jungle was beautiful, but the trek was more difficult than I had anticipated. The heat and humidity coupled with the challenge of the hike was tiring.

We returned to camp to clear weather, so we motored out to the middle of the lake to swim in the deep water of Lake Tanganyika. It is not permitted to swim off the beach without supervision, as crocodiles swim along the edge and hippos live just around the corner. I was fine with swimming in the deep water, but during our stay a few of the guests did venture into the water at the edge, with our camp manager standing watch.

One of the favorite activities here is fishing, so after our swim the guests fished off our boat and caught enough fish for sashimi to be served that night.

Next day was perfect for chimping. We set off in two groups, looking for the chimps. We found them after about an hour and a half hike. We had to wear surgical masks for the protection of the chimps as well as ourselves - chimps share so much of our DNA they are prone to catch our diseases. Each group has about an hour to spend watching the chimps. There is a rule keeping us about 10 meters away, but the chimps do not know the rule, so we were often much closer!

I cannot describe how magical it was to stand close to a group of chimpanzees, watching them interact with each other. They noticed us, looked at our faces, but went back to their own activities. There were four or five chimps in a group, grooming each other and just hanging out. There was a mother with baby up in a tree overhead, she was watching us a bit more carefully. The baby was having a good time going from mom to branches, back to mom.

After about 20 minutes, we moved to make room for the other group to come close. We were standing on the trail relaxing, when suddenly the chimps were on the move! They were walking fairly fast down the trail and walked right past us, so close they almost stepped on our feet! We had to move off the trail for them. The baby chimp was clinging on to his mother’s arm. She was not too happy with us and moved away and called to the others about her annoyance - it was clear! She swung her baby under her chest so he was more protected, then followed after the others.

Now there were chimps up ahead, but there were also chimps in trees behind us, beside us, and all around! We did not know where to look first. We were all absolutely in awe of how close we were, how the chimps would look at us but then keep on with their own agenda, not paying us much attention.

At one point, our guide told us our time was up and we had to move away. We walked reluctantly down the trail and came upon a group of three, sitting in a clearing, grooming and lying around on the grass. We had to walk right around them to continue. They calmly watched us as we nervously made our way around them.

This experience was worth everything - the heat and humidity, the difficulty of the trail - none of that mattered. We were filled with adrenaline and excitement - and a feeling of being very privileged to see these close relatives of ours in their own setting.

The walk back was filled with a few challenges as we had to cross the river in three different places. The river was full and fast - everyone acted together to help until each one of us made it across. At one crossing point, our guide came to get me and he carried me across on his back!

The camp is set for 12 guests, plus camp managers and staff. Meals and activities are mostly communal. We became a close knit group after sharing such a thrilling experience and helping each other on the trek. We went out on the boat again for swimming and fishing and this time headed down to find the hippos as well. Hippos do not swim, they walk on the bottom of the lake bed. We wanted to see this, but when we got there, the hippos slowly made their way out of the lake and into the forest so we were not able to see them walking on the lake floor.

Several of the other guests were avid birders, they were able to identify quite a few different birds and explain the nests we saw along the lake.

We all loved our stay at Mahale and were sad to leave - our hosts, the couple who managed the camp, were so personable and had “adopted” Big Bird the pelican who behaved as if he were their child. The camp rangers know all the chimps by name - they do not name the babies until they reach 3 years, as they are not sure which will survive.

The camp has a generator, a charging station is offered so guests can keep their devices charged. However WiFi is extremely limited.

We reluctantly departed, back by boat to the airstrip, back to the refueling stop, to Ndutu...

Katie Cadar