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Blog: Chimpanzee tracking
Imagine Africa specialist Pierre tells us why tracking chimpanzees in the Mahale Mountains is, for him, one of Tanzania’s true highlights.
Having grown up in South Africa, I was sure that I knew all that Africa had to offer – oh, how wrong I was! On my first visit to Tanzania, I was overwhelmed by how many surprises this fascinating country had up its sleeve – the vibrant colours and bustling streets of Stone Town and Dar es Salaam, the beautiful baobabs of Tarangire, the tree-climbing lions of Lake Manyara National Park, the amazing views at Ngorongoro Crater and the vast expanse of the Serengeti… not to mention the astonishing sight of the wildebeest migration!
It wasn’t until more recently that I first ventured to the remote western part of the country, and once again I felt like a whole new world was unfolding before me. Katavi National Park, with its herds of buffalo over 1,000 strong, is an amazing place to visit – despite being one of Tanzania’s largest parks, it has one of the smallest human footprints. However, for me, there is no doubt in my mind that my experience tracking chimpanzees in the Mahale Mountains is the highlight of everything I have done in Tanzania.
We arrived by boat on the crystal clear waters of Lake Tanganyika, and straight away we could see the fantastic array of flora and fauna that awaited us within the jungles of the mystic mountains. The park is renowned for its chimpanzee inhabitants, with around 1,000 still residing in the towering canopy of trees on the Mahale slopes. The ‘M-group’, consisting of over 50 chimps, was habituated to human visitors by a group of Japanese researchers in 1965, and as a result the park arguably offers the best chimp safari on Earth. Although I’d heard numerous stories about other people’s amazing experiences with the chimps, and I had been on safari many times before, I did not expect to feel so anxious with excitement as I stepped onto the white sandy shores of Lake Tanganyika and into the home of these incredible creatures.
Initially, the only sign of life was a beautiful array of colourful butterflies and forest birds, but they were not what I was here to see. I had been warned of a possible three hour trek in order to reach the chimps, but within just 20 minutes any doubt I had that we might not find these amazing creatures had firmly been replaced with excitement, as our guide spotted the first grouping of last night’s nests. This could only mean that the chimps were nearby! Moments later we were surrounded by 16 of these magnificent creatures, all completely content and going about their daily routine of preening and eating, whilst the more energetic squabbled playfully and swung on the vines from the high trees above – it was just incredible! I could hardly believe how closely their behaviour resembled that of humans, from the way they moved to their wildly animated and highly amusing interactions with one another.
Our guide provided an invaluable commentary to our visit, telling us the history of M-group – how former alpha males rose to power, toppled leaders, were killed by revolutionaries and others reinstated to serve as ‘prime ministers’. It sounds like the plot of a Mafia epic, but this is the life of these remarkable animals that have their own culture, language and even politics. Sitting amongst them on the forest floor, I became so captivated by the scene around me that I hadn’t noticed one small chimp making its way down to a lower branch right beside me, where it stopped and looked directly at me, its big eyes filled with curiosity. Scarcely moving and hardly breathing, I was staring into the eyes of our closest relative and one of Africa’s last remaining wild chimpanzees for what felt like a year, but was probably only a minute, before it scampered off to find its playmates. I then sat for a further hour observing the interaction of a chimpanzee family just a couple of metres from me. The intensity and peacefulness you experience with such an encounter is overwhelming and one I’ll never forget!
We've shortlisted our favourite lodges for chimp tracking in Mahale...
The unique setting of Kungwe Beach Lodge – comprising beach and mountains, is perfect backdrop for this simple yet comfortable lodge.
Greystoke Mahale – is the most stylish option for exploring Mahale, Greystoke is the crème de la crème of base camps for tracking chimpanzees.
Check out our Unchartered Tanzania itinerary to follow in the footsteps of Pierre or get in touch with one of our Tanzania specialists on 020 3141 2810.