Animal magnetism... in Tanzania

| April 26, 2018

A recent documentary about the life of primate expert Dr Jane Goodall reveals her love for western Tanzania, where she worked. Emma Gregg, who met her there, finds the area’s incredible wildlife utterly beguiling too, especially when she tries ‘chimping’.


Brushing sweat from my eyes and twigs from my hair, I perched on a rocky ledge, catching my breath. Khalfan Kikwale my young Tanzanian guide, had warned me that our hike through the wildlife-rich forest of Gombe Stream National Park might be challenging, but I hadn’t expected quite such a scramble. To reach our vantage point, we said goodbye to the sun-dappled path, plunged into a tangle of undergrowth and emerged at the foot of a dry waterfall, steep as a ladder. “We’re really close now”, said Khalfan. “Are you ready?” I climbed it as fast as I could, hand over hand, my feet groping for purchase on a lattice of vines and twisted roots. Speed was of the essence. We were tracking wild chimpanzees, and the group we were following could disappear at any moment.  

Thankfully we found the chimps had paused between bouts of foraging for a leisurely mid-morning get-together. Relaxing at the foot of a gigantic fig tree, they groomed each other, eyeing their fidgety youngsters and calling to distant comrades in that breathy explosion of excitement that primatologists call a pant-hoot. Nearby, watching calmly and intently, were two American graduate researchers, each with a data sheet on her lap. If, in my mind’s eye, I had softened the focus and increased the colour saturation, it would have been just like a scene from Jane, the recent National Geographic documentary film about Dr Jane Goodall, the legendary British chimp expert who came to Lake Tanganyika in 1960 and set up Gombe’s field station on the shore.

Chimpanzee, Tanzania

A chimpanzee with an itch

Premiered in September 2017, Jane has been scooping film festival awards and charming arthouse audiences ever since. To create it, director Brett Morgen painstakingly stitched together long-lost 1960s footage of Goodall in her element, living and working among Gombe’s chimpanzees. With a dreamily evocative score by Philip Glass, the world Jane portrays seems Eden-like and utterly remote – which, of course, it was. Back then, the journey from England to western Tanzania was an adventure that few European women had even contemplated. Goodall was and still is a pioneer – a fearless explorer, an original thinker and a female role model. Her greatest breakthrough was the discovery that chimps have complex social structures and distinct personalities, rather like humans. As my hour in the company of Gombe’s energetic, garrulous chimps played out, I wondered how anybody could have doubted this.

Even today, it’s normal to encounter more field researchers than tourists in Gombe. It takes time and effort to get there, and the appeal of ‘chimping’ – as aficionados call it – remains niche compared to classic East African safari experiences such as looking for lions and leopards in the Maasai Mara, or admiring the teeming herds in the Serengeti or Ngorongoro Crater. But for those with the stamina to hike briskly through the type of jungle in which Tarzan would have felt at home, chimping can be thrilling and fascinating. Western Tanzania is one of the best parts of Africa to try it, with a range of rustic accommodation, from simple to sumptuous. The attractions don’t stop there: if you’d like to swim in the gin-clear water of Lake Tanganyika, the longest freshwater lake in the world, or you’re simply seeking a crowdfree safari experience, the region delivers, and it can make a great addition to a few days in the Serengeti, or as a precursor to relaxation time on Zanzibar.

Lake Tanganyika

My adventure included a stop at Katavi, another western Tanzanian national park that dodges the spotlight. There are no chimps here, but with elephants, hippos and buffaloes in abundance plus rarities such as roan and sable antelopes, it’s the stuff of wildlife-watchers’ dreams. Nonetheless, annual floods and the expense of flying in keep visitor numbers low: the Serengeti receives around 100 times more tourists a year than the 300 or so who make it to Katavi. As I peered through the window of our tiny plane on its final descent to it, I saw buffalo splashing through the waterlogged reedbeds of the Katisunga Plain while hippos, with wet bodies dark and round as commas, lounged in the shallows of a natural pool. Soon, I too was immersed in that wraparound landscape, bumping along in an open-sided vehicle, scanning the grass for big cats and wild dogs while cranes whooped from the wetlands.

Next came the Mahale Mountains, a highland national park which, like Gombe, clings to the steep shore of Lake Tanganyika and is cloaked in dense, sweaty jungle. I was heading for Greystoke Mahale, one of those legendary African bush lodges that’s impossible to reach by road. The answer is to take to the water. With a portable canoe, strong shoulders and lashings of sunblock, you could paddle to Greystoke from the nearest airstrip. Bill Gates has been known to drop in by private seaplane. I opted to arrive by dhow. Slender, hand-built boats like these have plied the waters of East Africa for centuries, loaded with fish, fruit, freshwater and, in darker days, ivory and slaves. But instead of a traditional mast and lateen sail, Greystoke’s boat has a softly purring engine and a captain with a broad smile. And instead of a deck stacked with cargo, it has space to stretch out, cool bottle of Kilimanjaro lager in hand.


Greystoke Mahale © Nomad Mahale

I boarded at the lakeside village of Katumbi, where bright sardines were drying in the sun. “Karibu, welcome!” said our effusive guides Mwiga Mambo and Butati Nyundo. “We’ll be there in less than two hours!” As we pulled away and the scenery began to unfold – busy fishing communities, green hillsides – the time quickly melted away. Named after the fictional Lord Greystoke – Tarzan himself – Greystoke Mahale faces towards the haze-softened mountains of the Democratic Republic of Congo from a beach so wild and alluring you could mistake it for the South Pacific. Its lakeside bandas are built from shaggy makuti thatch and weathered timber, rescued from derelict dhows.

In the heat of the afternoon, the draw of the forest was strong, and we crept into its shade to explore. Close to the lodge, palm trees and a spreading mango tree offered reminders that once, Mahale was home to Batongwe and Holoholo villagers who lived lightly in the forest, cultivating its fringes and fishing from the shore. As we made our way deeper into the trees, there was a flurry in the foliage and we paused, alarmed. “It didn’t leap away, it ran. So it’s not a bushbuck”, said Mwiga. “Could be a leopard”. Tantalisingly, these elusive cats are present, but almost never seen.

Elephants in the Serengeti

Elephants in the Serengeti

Mahale’s primates, by contrast, are anything but shy; primatologists working in parallel to Goodall’s team in Gombe have been observing them for decades. We watched, delighted, as red-tailed monkeys leapt through the branches. Chimps flourish on Mahale’s living salad bar of nutritious and medicinal fruit and leaves, and several of their number made an appearance on our hike the following morning – a female nursing her infant high on a branch, a muscular brotherhood of males parading across a path and another male reclining comfortably in the shade.

Later in my trip, I was lucky enough to meet Dr Jane Goodall herself. She was guest of honour at a school which belongs to Roots & Shoots, her international youth conservation network. “This is how chimps say hello”, she said, launching into the longest, loudest pant-hoot I’d ever heard. It brought the house down. In her 80s, Goodall still makes occasional visits to Gombe, and you can almost feel her presence even when she’s away. Just stroll along the lakeshore to the narrow beach where her modest house still stands, and listen for pant-hoots reverberating through the trees.

Recommended C&K tour: Wonderful Western Tanzania / 11 Days & 9 Nights from £6,295
Venture west to the raw wilderness areas of Katavi National Park, for an exceptional wildlife safari, combined with Lake Tanganyika, to witness chimpanzees in the wild on its shores. The lack of many other visitors makes this truly the trip of a lifetime.

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