2: Mahale Mountains National Park
After a full and exhilarating week in Katavi National Park my 4 American guests and I flew the 150 kilometers to the Mahale airstrip and this Lake of Lakes came into view.
Lake Tanganyika is an awesome piece of water and until recently has been completely isolated for most of its 6 million year history. Lake Kivu to the North drains into this inland freshwater sea as the Ruzizi River and a massive drainage area of central Tanzania estimated to be over 250,000 sq. kms in size also sends millions of tones of fresh water into this Greatest of Rift Lakes. The Lake has only one outlet, the Lukuga River in the Congo and even this river only takes off a very small percentage of the water held. With a surface area of about 34,000 square kilometers and depths of over one kilometer only 3 kms from the shore and recorded depths of up to 1470 meters, the volume of fresh water contained by this Rift Valley Lake is estimated to be over 35,000 cubic kilometers.
However one describes the World’s second deepest lake, (recent claims are that because of the increasing drainage of Lake Baikal – the World’s deepest Lake - Lake Tanganyika is to become the World’s deepest quite soon), the facts are astounding. This is not a basin cut by glaciers but created by a slow sinking process as the Rift has separated and mountain have risen around this ever widening and deepening U shaped basin.
It is bigger than Belgium and as long as a drive from London to Aberdeen. It also feels very isolated if you fly from Arusha for hours over central Tanzania. Only a few lakes are seen on such a flight so the sheer size of Tanganyika is a shock as one views it for the first time especially from the air. It seems as though you have arrived at the west Coast of Africa.
My very first visit to this perhaps oldest of Rift valley lakes was in March of 1984.
I arrived in Kigoma by train from Mwanza via Tabora and traveled to Gombe Stream National Park before boarding the M.V. Liemba to travel for three days to Zambia. This old boat has quite a history which includes an appearance in the Hollywood Film ‘African Queen’.
That first night as we steamed south out into the lake I saw the Mahale Mountains for the first time. A crown shaped set of mountains seemingly floating to the East and bathed, as they where that night, in the full moon light that was reflected by this massive body of water. I was spellbound and made a promise to myself that I would explore them one day. But I was off to Zambia, Victoria Falls and the Kalahari Desert and would not get back to this lake for 5 years. In 1989 I did return and spent 10 wonderful days exploring the Mahale Mountain which had became a National Park in 1984, in fact only a few months after I had first seen this magical place. By 1989 I had been a safari guide for some years and I studied every new park I visited with the passion and detail of a man possessed. Mahale was so very different and I found great pleasure in leaning what was known of the Park and Lake Tanganyika.
So to fly into Mahale from Katavi that November 1st morning of 2005 was no let down, no second best, it was to arrive at a personal favorite and truly one of the most beautiful spots in the whole of Africa.
At the end of the airstrip was the lake and rocking on it a beautiful wooded dowh, our luggage and cameras and our tossed aside footwear were taken on board. We waded out to get aboard and headed off towards the Greystoke Camp some 2 hours away. That slow lake life culture washes over you and you instantly relax.
Did I spot a cold beer and wine? Cheers we had arrived.
The Watongwe people of this area are small speedy and stocky fisherman types that can be very energetic one minute and then as relaxed as a dead tree the next. Easy to laugh and willing to share their laughter I enjoyed them at once.
Suddenly a dark cloud was overhead and that sweet smell of rainfall filled the air. I headed to the very front of the boat and sat cross legged to smell and feel the rain. The boats up and down motion increased and I deliberately got soaked to the skin as we headed into camp. Being beached this way felt great and there on that beach was Teena the camp manageress and the staff, umbrellas aloft and rain coats ready to greet us all into camp.
The rain slowed up as we walked to our rooms and as all 7 rooms were full I was given a tent just into the forest edge. I was happy about this- it reminded me of the very first camp that Roland Purcell had sited here in 1991. Yes- good old days!
We had a full week to plan but spending quality time in the forest and with the chimpanzees was our priority. I wanted to explore the lake and find hidden coves and secret beaches. We decided to enjoy this very original camp for a few days, hiking into the forest each day and then on day 4 or 5 head out by boat with a fly camp to explore the coast line to the south.
It rained a little each afternoon and the sunsets got wild. The Congo on the other side of the lake was crystal clear and mountain detail I had never seen before was visible 20 miles away. That clean air of the first rains is one of the most intoxicating events of each year. Every life form feels it and is both enchanted and relived by it.
Hiking into that forest each day is a ritual- at 7am a cup of coffee was placed outside my tent- at 7:10 I would walk along the beach with my coffee to say hello to my day and the warthogs that seemed to be doing the same as I, then to greet the guides and hear news of where and how far away the chimps were today, then into breakfast. Fresh fruit and porridge and more coffee is my start to the day, no eggs for me before a hike. Water containers ready, energy food packed, my camera, bird book and binoculars all accounted for. Off we went.
We hiked for usually no more than an hour or two. It felt good to be exercising each morning and the thrill of seeing a rear bird is always there.
The Chimps never disappoint and our first few encounters were magical. We learned fast and got to know individuals quickly. Males displayed, showing off whenever possible, females played with and nursed their young and as some of the forest fruits were in abundance sometimes the chimps stayed in one spot.
It always amazes me just how that totally the chimps ignore you (it seems) at very close proximity. But then suddenly as one walks past you he stares into your eyes and knows you instantly – he sees you alright- he knows your place.
When the chimps are relaxing or feeding at a slow pace you tend to fall into a false state of the ‘world is at peace’. Then a male decides to grab a baby from a mother he doesn’t like and use the baby as a play thing- over and over the baby is tossed and as it is not too rough for now the baby seems to be quite enjoying the tumble. Your relaxed state is slightly upset as you wonder if the baby is really enjoying the rough and tumble and from the slight increase in distress on the mothers face you begin to feel worried for the baby. Then other males appear screaming that high pitched scream that only chimps make and all hell breaks loose. Tree branches are dragged down and leaves fall everywhere as it starts to rain falling male chimps- all screaming and all so close to you. Being submissive as you must comes very easily!
Then the male that is playing with the baby starts to drag it along the ground as he runs to join the screaming throng now suddenly 20ft ahead of you- a split second ago they were 2 ft away- boy they are fast. The baby’s head bounces off tree stumps and rocks and that ‘world at peace’ feeling just exploded into a ‘world at war’ one!
The male then, to your relief, decides to drop the baby and its mother rushes in – the baby is ok – just a little beat up and covered in forest floor debris. Tough baby!
We all sank to our bottoms and were shocked at the violence the sheer manipulation of that male showing off to the others- but did they even see him doing it we ask each other. If not then it was to put the mother in her place or maybe she has never mated with him? Or was he the father? What the hell was going on there?
Fine way to impress the girls someone says.
We were all exhausted and the debate continued for an hour.
Chimp watching is like this and if I think back to the many emotional moments I have had with wild chimps over the years I can honestly say that it is never boring being with them- it is awesome and life changing and worrying and spectacular and humbling all at the same time. As I write this the hairs on the back of my neck just rose. If you like primates but have never spent quality time with wild chimpanzees then Mahale National Park in Western Tanzania is to be placed at the top of your list.
I always ponder the conservation lessons learned in each area I visit and as these chimpanzees of Mahale are the ones I know best, each visit I try to quiz the Park’s people, the researchers and the guides.
Such a special animal has had many a champion and far better informed people than I have written on the subject. But two things spring to mind for me each time I visit Mahale.
The first is that we must recognize the role the local people of such areas have played and remember that these people gave up- if not totally willingly- these areas to become Game Reserves and National Parks. Recent surveys suggest that in Western Tanzania there are many more chimps than we thought and that the often voiced view that local people have eaten them is thankfully, in more areas than we think, just not true.
Tourism can and does play a fund raising role as more and more visitors are coming to Mahale to experience first hand, the thrill of standing with these amazing animals. But, and it’s a very big but, we are now at the stage where tourism numbers coming to Mahale are too many for the one habituated group to handle. Visits will have to be limited and time spent with the chimps reduced. Nomad safaris that operate the Greystoke camp there are trying to create more non chimp watching activities such as walking safaris and kayaking and fly camping expeditions away from their base. This is a good move as if all you do at Mahale is watch the chimps you will only see around 3% of this beautiful Park.
Habituating a group of wild chimpanzees to the point where they will allow visitors to observe them takes up to five years and is an expensive exercise.
So a real investment of time and resources is urgently needed to habituate the many groups of these animals both inside and outside the Park. A larger patchwork of protected areas with local people benefiting from visiting tourists can and must be established in the coming decade. Let us cherish the wild chimp experience and not dilute it to an over visited circus experience- the danger of this happening is closer than you think.
Our Fly camping adventure, for one reason or another was reduced to only one night out and about. With Steve the camp’s manager we headed by boat towards the southern tip of the Park and explored the numerous small beaches. We hiked in land a little from two of these scenic spots and found evidence of chimps and large mammals everywhere. Selecting one such beach we set up our fly camp. Our tents were mosquito proof mesh above ground and firm plastic on the ground with a fly sheet to pull over if it rained. The very comfortable roll mats complete with linen sheets and blankets made sleeping in these small tents on that remote sandy beach a pleasure after we had gotten back to an old habit of drinking a little too much red wine.
Huge crocodile and hippo prints were found around our tents the next morning and the heavy heads of our dawn awakening evaporated after a hearty breakfast.
We swam in the shallows and kept a close eye out for the owners of those prints still fresh in the sand around our tents.
Our return to base was again a chance to explore a little and I saw two brown parrots which strangely enough were not on the Park’s bird list. Seeing this common parrot indicates to me that this Park must not have been explored that much- certainly not by many birders- except perhaps near the habituated chimps range and close to the camps. I will return to do just that I hastily promised myself.
The rains were moving in over The Congo as we returned to base camp that day and the sunset was awesome. I know that many sunsets are, but this one really was. Perhaps it was the clean air, or the sheer remoteness of out location, or the cold beer, or that huge Lake called Tanganyika.
I was intoxicated and speechless – now that’s a rarity for you!
I thank sincerely Tanzania’s National Parks (TANAPA) for creating this incredible Park and many real thanks are due to Steve and Teena the camp managers and the wonderful staff at Greystoke Camp. But my deepest thanks go to those amazing primates that over 40 years ago eventually began to almost ignore and then to trust the Japanese researchers that first came to study them – the wild chimpanzees of Mahale Mountains National Park.