Tracking chimps in the Mahale Mountains, Tanzania

Fancy some quality face-time with wild chimps? Visit the Mahale Mountains to discover that Tanzania isn’t just about the Big Five

4 mins
He drew my attention from the start. It could have been his broad shoulders or simply his commanding presence, but when his deep-set brown eyes held my gaze for an instant I was transfixed. Primus, however, was indifferent to my arrival. The undisputed alpha male of M-group lay on his back, one foot resting on his thigh, arms behind his head, while doting females fussed around him.

Nearby, an adorable pink-faced youngster gleefully practised somersaults, bounding around the original jungle gym and demanding attention before being gently scooped up by his mother and piggybacked away. Two adolescents cackled with laughter as they chased each other around a tree; others sat face-to-face quietly grooming, their hands clasped together in a Mahale high-five. This was my first enthralling introduction to wild chimpanzee spotting, and my delight was heightened by the fact that over the next two days there would hopefully be more electrifying encounters with them.

There are very few places in the world where you can still see wild chimps, but in the Mahale Mountains National Park in the west of Tanzania I was getting up close to these fascinating primates in their natural habitat. Tanzania may be famous for its Big Five, but away from the lions and elephants live around 800 chimps concealed within its densely forested mountain slopes. The 60-strong community of M-group has been semi-habituated to human visitors through 50 years of continuous study by Japanese researchers, who have learned to identify each chimp by its face, scars, missing digits and behavioural traits.

Some scientists believe that chimps and humans differ by just a few percent of DNA. These primates can display a range of complex emotions – happiness and depression, anger and tenderness – once thought to be the sole preserve of Homo sapiens. To my untrained eye, their startlingly familiar expressions and mannerisms were a revelation.

Wild chimps can live for around 40 to 50 years and, like the characters in a long-running soap opera, their distinct personalities are well-documented and their daily lives engrossing. Machiavellian plots, power struggles and sexual politics are all part of their routine. I had arrived in Tanzania hoping to spend a few days watching this little-seen travel show live, as well as paying a visit to their more famous co-stars just a short plane hop away.

Walking with the chimps (Sarah Gilbert)
Walking with the chimps (Sarah Gilbert)

Breezed and briefed

Mahale Mountains National Park can only be explored on foot and the base camp for my four-night chimp-tracking safari was the unique Greystoke Mahale camp – Mahale from the mountains and Greystoke after Edgar Rice Burroughs’ fictional hero, better known as Tarzan. I had reached the camp via a tree-skimming flight and a leisurely sail in a creaking wooden dhow boat alongside green-clad mountains that tumbled into the sapphire-blue ripples of Lake Tanganyika.

“The air is scented with jasmine, the forest rich, the water of the lake gin-clear. And if I dare to put an imprint on this paradise I had better get it right.” So said Irish adventurer and safari legend Roland Purcell in 1988, when he came upon an expanse of untouched sand on the lake’s shore. And he did get it right, his simple fly camp morphing into an idyllic hideaway that was the epitome of barefoot luxury.

I slept in one of just six bandas, open-fronted thatched wooden huts that were built to blend into the jungle landscape. My four-poster bed sat under a cocoon of netting and the furniture was handcrafted from reclaimed dhow wood, complete with the remains of colourful peeling paintwork. The second-floor chill-out deck that overlooked the lake – and, on a clear day, the mountains of the Congo – was even reached via a dhow that had been cleverly reinvented as a staircase.

There was no electricity but solar power provided light; no air conditioning but the walls allowed the breeze to filter through. There was no TV or WiFi either, so I was lulled to sleep by the gentle lap of the waves and woken by the strident song of the purple-crested turaco.

The lounge at Greystoke Mahale (Sarah Gilbert)
The lounge at Greystoke Mahale (Sarah Gilbert)

Every evening, guests gathered for sundowners and relaxed chat at the rustic-looking Beach Bar, perched on top of a rocky outcrop. It was there that my irrepressible guides, cousins Butati and Mwiga, explained the dos and don’ts of chimping: only six people per group for no more than an hour, wear a surgical mask in the chimps’ vicinity and keep at least ten metres away – though the primates don’t always follow that last rule.

The chimps are nomadic, constantly searching for food in ever-changing groups. Every evening they construct sleeping nests high in the trees, woven from branches and foliage, settling where they can easily find breakfast the following morning. At first light, trackers go into the forest to search for them, listening for their calls. Where they are depends on their food supply. In the rainy season they could be high in the mountains, a tough uphill hike of four hours or more; luckily I was visiting in the dry season, when their favourite fruits can be found lower down the slopes and chimps are often seen congregating a short boat ride and an easy walk away.

Big Five hors d’oeuvres

I had begun my exploration of one of Africa’s remotest regions a few days earlier at Chada Katavi, another camp set up by Purcell. Just a 45-minute plane hop from Mahale, Katavi is one of Tanzania’s largest and most isolated national parks. It is a pristine wilderness that brims with life and has only a handful of small, permanent safari camps spread across its 4,500 square kilometres and a few hundred visitors a year – compared with the hundreds of thousands that flock to the Serengeti and Ngorongoro Crater.

I didn’t see another vehicle but it wasn’t hard to spot wildlife. A dazzle of zebras and skittish wildebeest scattered as my 12-seater plane touched down on the dirt runway. Beyond the mess tent’s wooden deck, built around lofty tamarind and sausage trees, there was a seemingly endless parade of animals. As I sat quietly sipping on a beer, three giraffes chewed on leaves and studied me, docile and curious. A male impala eyed me nervously, barking out a warning to his harem, while vervet monkeys squabbled and screeched and scampered across my roof at dawn.

My spacious safari tent was one of only six at the camp and there was just a thin wall of canvas between me and the hyenas that whooped long into the night, and the lions whose sonorous call echoed through the darkness. I woke with a start, jumped out of bed and peered into the inky blackness, my apprehension mixed with excitement, as I tried to catch sight of them.

Grooming is a good bonding experience for the chimps (Sarah Gilbert)
Grooming is a good bonding experience for the chimps (Sarah Gilbert)

I didn’t have to wait long. On the following morning’s game drive we came across seven of the well-fed female lions of the Chada pride lazily stirring from their roadside siesta and pulled up at a distance that seemed perilously close. One fixed me with her amber eyes and my heart stopped for a moment, but I was clearly of no interest as she soon rolled on to her back and stretched her limbs, revealing a pale belly and formidable fangs in a gaping yawn.

Katavi is renowned for its large pods of hippos, but nothing had prepared me for the sight at Katuma River. During the dry season, when the exposed river bed lies parched and cracked, hundreds of humungous males congregate to wallow in the few remaining pockets of mud until it looks less like a watering hole and more like hippo soup.

I watched as a latecomer ambled along the bank appealing for space, finally deciding to reverse in while his five-tonne peers grumbled and harrumphed as they jostled for position. Motionless Nile crocodiles were packed together on the river bed like reptilian sardines, while some hibernated in holes they’d dug in the riverbank, just a glimpse of a snout and a jumble of jagged teeth to give them away.

One evening, our campfire tales were interrupted by the arrival of some unexpected guests – a female elephant and three of her off spring dropped by in search of tamarind. I watched silently from the deck as they scoured the ground, so close that I could see their wrinkled skin, the supple tip of their trunks, even their mud-caked eyelashes. Before they left, the youngest, a wayward two year-old, casually trampled the fencing around Tent Four to get at the tastiest fruits. A civet cat took advantage of the distraction to try and slip by unnoticed. I caught a flash of its lustrous coat – a mix of black and gold, spots and stripes – in a shaft of moonlight, along with the sight of a solitary startled bushbuck.

When it was time to leave for the Mahale Mountains, Katavi had a final treat in store. The missing male from the Chada pride was waiting at the airstrip, lying sated in the shade of a bush, plate-sized paws stained with blood. Behind him, a still-hungry lioness tore with relish at the remnants of a huge hippo carcass.

Chasing chimps

Back on the Mahale Mountains’ chimp trail, I discovered that meat is a treat in the omnivorous chimps’ mainly vegetarian diet. And if the first day’s sighting had been a peaceful social gathering, the next morning’s encounter found M-group in a very different mood – they’d been out on a dawn raid and were now enjoying the spoils.

Chimpanzee eating apple (Shutterstock)
Chimpanzee eating apple (Shutterstock)

To reach them, I had walked for around an hour up a gentle incline, then, when the muddy slope became almost vertical, I had to grab frantically at any available root and branch to haul myself up. Bathed in sweat, out of my natural habitat, I was more chump than chimp.

Squinting upwards through the foliage, I could make out the lifeless remains of a red colobus monkey hanging from Primus’ iron grip. He was holding court on a high branch, handing out monkey morsels to his favourite females, and males who grovelled sufficiently and approached him with bowed heads and pleading whimpers.

Suddenly, a distant but piercing pant-hoot reverberated through the bush. It was a spine-tingling call to hunt, which gave me goosebumps despite the steamy heat. Just one call at first, then another, until the whole troop had joined in. The cacophony grew louder and more frenzied as, one by one, they swung down from the trees in a dazzling display of acrobatics.

For an instant, Primus was in front of me in all his primordial glory, hanging from a branch by his disproportionately long arms, the fluffy remnants of the colobus clamped between his teeth. I was rooted to the spot, mouth agape, heart pounding, but by the time I had remembered to reach for my camera, all the chimps had dissolved into the bush and the forest was tranquil once more.

After an hour of chimp-spotting there was time to relax, so I tested the refreshingly chilly waters of the world’s second-deepest lake. I set out on a creaky wooden dhow, took a dip, then watched from the boat as the hippos followed suit, moving with agility across the Tanganyika lake bed with the grace of an outsized synchronised swimmer. I tried my hand at fishing, accompanied by the resident people-loving and permanently hungry pelican, and what didn’t end up in Big Bird’s beak later emerged from the kitchen as delicate slivers of sashimi.

Hippos at the Katuma River (Sarah Gilbert)
Hippos at the Katuma River (Sarah Gilbert)

For those with an abundance of energy, there are hikes along precipitous trails that follow streams to hidden waterfalls and spine-like mountain ridges. But even on a gentle stroll through the forest around the lodge, the omnipresent whirr of cicadas in my ears, I encountered gigantic multi-coloured butterflies and a host of tropical birds, such as the diminutive, brightly coloured robin-chat.

Christmas cheer

Mwiga had promised us an easy walk for our third and final morning, but Primus had other plans. He had summoned members of the community by banging loudly on a tree and now they were scattered, foraging for food and on the move, and there was no option but to move with them.

A fallen tree had blocked the trail, so I went off -road, following in the wake of my machete-wielding guide. Like the chimps’ larger, more ungainly and decidedly less agile cousin, I crashed through tangles of trees and clambered over snarls of roots and ducked under wayward branches in hot pursuit. And it was hot, like a workout in a sauna, but worth it to be in their company for a few minutes more. We finally caught up with a trio of chimps on one of the main trails. Alofu – elder statesman, ladies’ man and a favourite of the guides – was sprawled on the ground with an older female, Nkombo, hunched over him diligently checking for ticks, while another male, Christmas, sat alone feigning nonchalance.

“Christmas is desperate for attention. He wants to be groomed too,” whispered Mwiga, as the young male chimp focussed intently on a leaf, curling and unfurling it with his leathery hands, occasionally casting furtive sideways glances at the others.

Chimp known as Christmas poses for the cameras (Sarah Gilbert)
Chimp known as Christmas poses for the cameras (Sarah Gilbert) 

Spa session over, they filed past us one by one, so close I had to stop myself reaching down and stroking their hirsute backs. We followed them on our way back to the beach and then, as if he knew that our hour was up, Christmas suddenly stopped, turned and faced the battery of cameras like a celebrity on the red carpet.

That night, I dined feet-in-the-sand under a dazzling array of stars and all the talk around the table was of chimps, as we drank a toast to M-group. It was more than just wildlife watching; I felt an innate connection and it was a privilege to have entered their private world. I could have watched them play, groom and forage all day long, but although our time together was brief, I suspected that the thrill of my very close encounters with my closest animal relatives would linger with me for a long time.

The author travelled with Rainbow Tours (020 7666 1266) on a nine-night tailor-made itinerary, including four nights at Greystoke Mahale; three nights at Chada Katavi on a full-board basis; two nights at Arusha Coffee Lodge on a B&B basis; international flights with Kenya Airways via Nairobi; light aircraft transfers; and Flying Doctor Evacuation Cover.

Main Image: Mother and baby chimpanzee (Shutterstock)

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