PART 4: CHIMPS AT MAHALE

By Bert Duplessis

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FORECAST FOR THE DAY: WARM WITH CHIMPS

We woke up to what promised to be another warm and rather muggy morning on the shore of Lake Tanganyika.  And so it was, but with one significant difference, compared with yesterday.  At breakfast at 08:00A we were informed that the chimpanzees had been sighted and that they were about one hour’s ‘gentle walk’ away.  So off we went single file into the forest up and down but mostly just up and often rather steeply so.  We went through a couple of dry rocky streams with a little water here and there, sometimes scrambling up a slope, other times crouching beneath some low branches.

We stopped a couple of times for water (you carry your own water bottle & the guides provide refills) and to take a breath of air. Without exception, we were sweating heavily and feeling the strain of two days’ worth of solid exercise.

As we approached their position, we could hear the chimps long before we saw them.  They were being very loud, making a range of sounds including some exuberant whoops and screams.  And then, without much introduction, there they were.  First one chimp high in a tree, then another one sliding down a tree stump and soon enough there were seven or eight of them visible in every  direction.

Over the next hour or so we moved positions several times as the chimps either descended from or ascended into the trees. We observed quite a bit of interaction between individuals: young and old, they all apparently know their place and respect authority.

Photographic conditions were about as bad as they could be.  Very poor light inside the forest gallery, and severe backlighting issues against the sky.  Several of the younger chimps did their best to show off their acrobatic skills but in the poor light and with limited visibility (too many leaves and twigs!) it was just about impossible to capture the action.

I did manage a few decent portraits and some limited interaction, mostly feeding and grooming.

Every now and then we’d follow one or two of the chimps along one of the many footpaths in the forest.  Our guide Robert knew all the chimps by name, sex, age and rank, and gave us ample warning when a ‘naughty’ individual was close by.  We observed individuals of all ages ranging from about 6 months to well over 50 years.  They were mostly quiet and not very demonstrative.

When our allotted 1-hour viewing time was over, we lowered the cameras, took a last look at the chimps who were moving into thicker bush and re-grouped a short distance away to have a drink of water.  It was a happy group of campers who trudged back to the lodge.  We were all very tired, perhaps even a bit dehydrated because of the heavy exertion in the hot humid conditions…  Nobody cared – we saw the chimps!

By the time we got back to the lodge just over 3 hours had elapsed since we first set out earlier that morning.  It felt great to enjoy a cup of tea before we took the sandy path back to our respective rooms for a much-needed shower.

As usual, lunch was at 1:00P.  It was usually lighter fare such as pizza, salads, fresh bread, pilaf, meatballs with tomato sauce & pasta salad served buffet tyles.  Then it was time for a short siesta until 3:30P.  After a cup of tea and coffee and a cookie, we set out for another dhow cruise, first checking out some hippo a couple of kilometers to the south.  Followed by fishing for Yellowbellied Cichlid.  The fishing is quite good but with only two persons being able to participate at the same time (with hand lines being trawled behind the boat) it is a bit limiting for a bigger group.  The lodge needs some decent fishing gear which could turn this activity into a very popular draw.

OUR SECOND CHIMP TREK AT MAHALE

This morning’s chimp trek was every bit as much fun and exciting as the previous day.  Starting from the Japanese research station, the going was a bit easier than the previous day.  Even so, by the time we got onto the chimps, a good 45 minutes had elapsed and it was deja vu all over again.  We were hot and sweaty in the humid conditions.  Being overcast, the temperature was several degrees lower than the previous day, which helped somewhat.

On this day, the chimps appeared to be mostly quite relaxed, sitting around in the open just resting or feeding, or busy with mutual grooming.  Like the previous day there were individuals of all ranks and ages, including the alpha male Primus.  We were amazed at some of the facts imparted by our guide Robert.

It turns out that despite their seemingly idyllic situation, the chimps were far from living in a cocoon of innocence.  They are tangled up in political and sexual spats and fights on a never-ending basis, and the maneuvering and plotting can be Machiavellian.  Imagine pretending to be removing ecto-parasites from a rival, but not doing so in fact.  Thus setting up the unwitting beneficiary/victim for a long-lasting negative outcome and potentially debilitating illness.

For a while there, we became very much part of the troop of chimps, sitting around not far from them, and feeling their glances on us as they casually ambled by.  We took great care not to get in the way of some of the’ naughty boy’s such as Christmas, who is known to charge and scare an unsuspecting tourist every now and then.

An hour or so later we were all quite ready to take off our facemasks and to return to camp for some tea.  Just like the previous day, the total duration of the excursion was just over 3 hours.

Here are a few things which might be useful for future Mahale chimp trekkers:

BERT’S MAHALE MOUNTAINS CHIMP TREKKING HINTS

*  It is definitely a good thing to be fit and relatively agile as there is some scrambling (up and down) and rock-stepping to be done.

*  In the warmer months dress appropriately (long trousers to protect legs and lightweight long or short-sleeved shirt with good ventilation/absorption).  There were no tsetse flies or other biting flies present within the forest interior.

* Good boots with grippy soles are 100% necessary.  You could be in for a tough time with the wrong shoes. No flip-flops!

* Light is an issue in the forest interior so to get decent pics of the chimps, bring a fast (f2.8) lens in the 70-200 mm range, and preferably a camera that can produce acceptable images at a high ISO setting.  Long telephoto lenses are not essential – you will get closer to the chimps than you might anticipate.

*  Drink plenty of water before the start of the trek and also during.  Dehydration is a major concern during the warmer months and it can sneak up on you with very little warning.

*  Definitely go on more than just one chimp trek as they are all quite different & the chimp behaviour and interaction vary greatly day to day.  If you’ve seen one you certainly haven’t seen them all.

Our last afternoon outing at Mahale was yet another dhow cruise devoted to swimming in the lake and fishing.  We had our best fishing outing to date, landing several good-sized yellow-bellies and quite a few smaller ones as well.  All good: sashimi with cocktails and freshly sautéed fish for dinner. Less than one hour from the lake to the plate. Can’t beat that.

Dinner was under the stars on the beach, right in front of Greystoke Lodge.  It was a perfect, cool night.  I think we were all 10 a bit sad to see our Mahale experience come to an end.

ARUSHA AND NAIROBI INTERLUDE

A visit to Mahale Mountains and to Greystoke ends just like it started, with a 90-minute boat trip along the Mountains, just off the shoreline of Lake Tanganyika.  Just like on the day we got there, we marveled at the sight of the thick green forest clinging to the slopes like feathers on a bird.  From a distance it looks like a soft, inviting cushion of leaves.  Having been inside of it, of course we knew that the forest was a lot more robust than that, with some giant (species?) trees making up the bulk of the vegetation.

Photo Credit: Miles Barber

Back where we started at the airstrip, we piled into two Caravans and powered into the air, turning back for a last, long look at beautiful Lake Tanganyika.  From there the pilot headed back to Tabora in a ENE direction.  It took 90 minutes to reach Tabora, where we refueled and then a long 1 hr 55 minutes to Kilimanjaro Airport.

Then a final short hop to Arusha Airport from where we were driven to the Onsea House.  Our room for the night was at the adjacent Macheo Wellness Center.  It was one of the best rooms on the trip to date, complete with a big bathtub (what luxury!), and a TV (which didn’t work).  Other nice features in the rooms were lots of storage space and hangers as well as a mini-bar.  And free WIFI!

We enjoyed what turned out to be the best meal of the entire trip, in the excellent company of Lizzie who heads up Sales for Nomad Tanzania.  It was a really nice evening but we were rather bushed after flying a few hours too many, that day.

A BIRTHDAY ON THE MOVE

Kathy’s birthday started 90 minutes earlier than planned when we were woken up at 5:30A instead of at 7:00A due to a mix-up of wake-up calls.  Some decent coffee and a breakfast out on the patio got us going.  Just after 9:00A we were picked up by Zubeda for a bit of a shopping tour of Arusha.  We just shook our heads in amazement at Arusha’s traffic and the manner in which handcarts, goats, taxis, sedans, motor bikes and dozens of matatus (mini-bus taxis) run helter skelter all over the place in every direction.  Somehow – miraculously – nobody seems to get hurt too often.  It is a study in chaotic synergy.

As I said, it was Kathy’s birthday so we bought her a Tanzanite stone (to be turned into a pendant) at the Cultural Arts Center.  It has the appearance of an art museum but everything is for sale. After a quick walk-through viewing of some of the paintings, masks, statuettes and other artefacts, we picked up a delicious lunch to go from the restaurant.  It included some samoosas, excellent hummus with fresh pita bread and an order of delicious vegetable curry with rice.

Not too much later, we were in the rather dismal, dirty departures hall of JRO (Kilimanjaro) Airport, for the short flight to Nairobi.  I was pleasantly surprised by how quickly we were able to obtain a transit visa (from a downright bubbly immigration official, go figure!), and collect our luggage.  Much more efficient and faster than Johannesburg and miles better than Kilimanjaro and  Houston’s George Bush Airport.

Our very friendly transfer driver Spencer dropped us off about 20 minutes later at the impressive Boma Hotel.  We were on the 7th Floor in a spacious, well-lit room with everything you’d expect in a good 5-star hotel.  It was quiet, comfortable and spotlessly clean.

The only down note:  service at the Johari restaurant was glacially slow.  It took more than an hour for our a la carte order (nothing out of the ordinary) to make it to our plates.  Also the barman did not know how to mix a dry gin martini.  Never a good sign.  Otherwise no complaints.

Breakfast was good and available very early (at 05:30A) and checkout was speedy and painless.  Getting out of JKIA was more of an effort than arriving.  A chaotic security check right where you enter the building (no time at all to prepare) and then a lengthy wait in a dismal holding area.

Our Kenya Airways flight to Brazzaville took off 15 minutes early but otherwise it was uneventful.  Congo here we come!

 

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