By Bert Duplessis
MAHALE MOUNTAINS NATIONAL PARK
It is barely over 40 minutes by air from Katavi National Park to the Mahale Mountains National Park but the two areas could not be more different. In fact they might just as well be 1,000 miles apart, they are so dissimilar.
Greystoke Mahale is tucked into a narrow sandy strip along the edge of Lake Tanganyika, below the densely forested Mahale Mountains with the mountains of the Democratic Republic of Congo visible about 30 miles across the lake. The mountain and the lake – most people would be hard pressed to pick a favorite or to guess which of the two is the most dominant feature. They are both equally impressive and both essential to the Greystoke experience.
Mahale is best known as a sanctuary and research area for a group of about 60 habituated chimpanzees, plus several hundred more wild ones which inhabit the national park. Having trekked for chimpanzees before in two different areas of Uganda I can say that the Mahale experience was by far the best I have experienced. The chimps are very well habituated and hence very tolerant of humans being close to them. The leafy ever-green forest habitat is superb and makes for a perfect backdrop. If you’ve never seen chimps before and want to do so, or if they are your favorite animals, a visit to the Mahale Mountains National Park should definitely be on your short list.
Even if there were no chimpanzees here it would be a more than worthwhile destination. Amazing views, the super deep-water swimming opportunities, fishing, kayaking, birding, hiking – the area has it all and more. We spent quite a bit of time boating (on a motorized kayak) but it is also possible to just relax and take it easy. The beach at Greystoke rivals many a coastal resort area, with the prettiest lake imaginable spilling out onto a white sandy beach.
On our first afternoon we spent 30 minutes or so suspended in what is estimated to be 17% of all of the fresh water in the entire world. Lake Tanganyika is one of the world’s cleanest lakes due to the absence of industry, and that is not likely to change soon.
Over drinks that evening, we received a thorough and entertaining briefing from Robert about chimpanzee trekking, correcting some of the TANAPA brochure advice regarding tree-hugging (don’t do it) and making eye contact with the chimps (don’t worry, it is ok).
Soon after we retreated to our room, we knew that we would have no trouble falling asleep that night. Why? Because we were going to be lulled to sleep by the most hypnotic sound of all – waves gently crashing on the sand in seemingly endless procession. Just like being at the ocean. And so it was. Safely ensconced behind a large mosquito net (there were no mosquitoes), we drifted off to sleep happy in the knowledge that there would be no elephants scraping the seeds off our roof tonight.
The rooms are large A-frames – open to the front and very airy – with a connected bathroom/shower (hot water on request) and toilet. The room has an upper level lookout deck & relaxation area as well, but we only ventured up there once. The view from our room could at best be described as a ‘partial’ lake-view room. But it really didn’t matter – the rooms are great and perfect for the place and the environment.
NOT THE BEST OF DAYS IN PARADISE
Sometimes even an idyllic place can turn out to be disappointing, just for a day. So it was at Mahale this day. It started with the chimps not putting in an appearance. Having been told that they had been right inside the camp the previous day, we were expecting this chimp trekking thing to be a total breeze. It didn’t quite pan out like that.
Breakfast was early (07:30A) with no word on the chimps’ whereabouts. So we had another cup of coffee. And waited. And waited some more. No messages from the scouts that the animals had been seen, no calls to be heard, nothing. About 2 hrs 30 minutes later I think the guides decided to send us out on a walk just to keep us occupied. And sane.
It was nearly 10:00A and already quite hot & very humid in the forest interior, by the time we set off. 2 hrs and 15 minutes later we traipsed back into camp after a tiring trek through the bush and gallery forest of the lower slopes of the Mahale Mountains. We had seen some up and down paths, some impressive trees, many shrubs and lots of rocks but – no chimps.
It was a somewhat dispirited group that sat down for lunch. Of course the unspoken thought was, what if the same thing happened again the next day, and the next? Would we be the first group ever not to see the chimps at all? The Swahili-style lunch with ugali and beans, a great mixed green salad and vegan pizza improved the tenor of the day quite significantly.
And just then we got word that one of the guests had spotted two chimps at bungalow #5. We looked at each other in astonishment. Excellent! Grabbed our face masks and scurried over the hot sand to bungalow #5. Where we didn’t see anything except other would-be chimp watchers looking around for chimps. Clearly, the chimpanzees had scampered back into the thick bush and were not seen again that day. Drat. Chimps 1, Tourists 0.
I took the afternoon off to nurse some tsetse fly bites from the previous day. Regrettably I had not followed my own tsetse fly protection advice (link) while on the swimming outing and had received several nasty bites. It seems that my black lycra/polyester swimming trunks made a nice target. Bullseye. It was a bit of an unpleasant surprise to find out that the tsetses were active along the shoreline of Lake Tanganyika and even well into the lake itself. The little devils are seemingly quite keen to take a boat trip themselves. So by all means venture out into the lake for a swim and some fishing – you don’t want to miss either of those activities – but go prepared. Cover up well until it is time to go into the water. And take your Peaceful Sleep spray as well as the Dettol mix, just in case. The TF are more active on bright sunny days than when it is cool or overcast. Also they are not found inside the forest canopy – so don’t worry that the TF will spoil your chimp trekking. It is not an issue in the forest itself.
I rejoined the group for sundowners at the bar built into a small rocky outcrop on the northern side of the property. Kathy and a few other guests had gone out swimming and fishing and she caught several nice-sized Yellow-bellied cichlid, much prized locally for its culinary qualities. Dinner was couscous, green beans, broccoli and a very nice chickpea stew. The regular menu included a lamb tagine as the main course. And some fresh fish!
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