Monkey business in Tanzania
by Jo Austin | 20 November 2019
Signs everywhere read: “No plastic bags.” Tanzania announced a total ban on them in June and having seen snow-capped Kilimanjaro on the way in I can appreciate how pristine and fragile this country is and how important measures like this are for maintaining it.
Unlike the throngs of walkers, with their backpacks and poles, I’m heading to Katavi National Park, a remote wilderness of 1,700 square miles with just three lodges.
Mbali Mbali Katavi is our host for two nights, but nocturnal sounds make sure that none of us sleep through the night as elephants and other unidentifiable wildlife roam around the 12-tent camp.
There’s no rhino here (the last was spotted in 1942) and tsetse flies make relaxed game spotting challenging, but we spy lion, leopard and the park’s famed pods of wallowing hippo and burrowing Nile crocodiles on the Katuma River. Next we fly west to Lake Tanganyika. Second in size to Lake Victoria, it’s the longest freshwater lake in the world and the second deepest. Forming Tanzania’s western border with the Congo, this ancient waterhole also shares its shores with Burundi and Zambia.
“Doctor Livingstone, I presume?”
A motorised dhow takes us two hours south, past a coastline dotted with tiny villages. The morning’s catch of sardines glitter as they dry in the sunlight on raised wooden racks. Our captain tells us that Henry Stanley met Livingstone on these very shores after eight months of trekking through the jungle in 1871.
The Mahale Mountains National Park offers one of the best opportunities to see chimpanzees in their natural habitat and is one of only two protected areas in the country. Tricky to access and costly to visit, the park is estimated to be home to around 700 chimpanzees in 14 communities.
The stunning thatched lodge of Mbali Mbali Mahale sits on the lakeshore and is dwarfed by majestic mountains which rise to almost 2,500 metres. The surrounding forest has wild mango, fig, nutmeg and hardwood trees, including mahogany. With the Congo (DRC) 50km across the lake, we’re told it’s not uncommon for the Congolese to sail over and cut down these valuable trees to build with – although the National Park forbids deforestation and the killing of any animals for bush meat
The next morning our guide Rani informs us that distant ‘calls’ from the mountains indicate where early morning spotters have tracked a group of chimpanzees – but we must move quickly before they move into the impenetrable valleys.
Wearing walking boots and carrying a long wooden pole, we make a tricky stream crossing before the trail becomes steep. We haul ourselves up an almost vertical stony track, with the help of roots and vines.
After trekking for over three hours the calls of chimpanzees suddenly fill the air.
A rapid application of facemasks - protective rules are strict to reduce infection from humans – is followed by an excited scramble through the spiny undergrowth to get my first glimpse of ‘sokwe mtu’. It is deeply humbling watching these creatures.
Jane Goodall country
It’s not long before we get to see them again, in a totally different habitat. Another two-hour dhow ride from Kigoma towards the Burundi border is Gombe National Park, Tanzania’s smallest, but home of Jane Goodall’s chimpanzee research station.
Here the terrain is less dense, the beach pebbly and the water clear, with no hippos or crocodiles. Instead there’s bush pig, mongoose, baboons, red-tailed monkeys and red colobus monkeys on the shore.
Sixtus, our guide at Mbali Mbali Gombe, tells us there are three chimp communities in Gombe, numbering around 90. Visitors are limited to 30 a day in groups of no more than six and the best time to visit is September or October.
Sparrow is the oldest female, born in 1958, and Gremlin is mother to twins. Within one short trek we’re lucky enough to see the chimps swinging in the trees and feeding on the ground.
Dr Deus Mjungu, Director of the station tells us: “Our chimp numbers will dwindle in the next 50 years unless the gene pool is expanded – but as long as they produce one female every five years they should survive”.
It’s a grave ending to our trip but an important message to take home.
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