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CHIMPANZEES OF MAHALE MOUNTAINS
your eyes and imagine . . . you have finished a five hour trip down
Tanzania's Lake Tanganyika on a comfortable boat. Open your eyes
and you will think you have died and gone to heaven or you are in
Shrangrila. Before you is a broad, white beach at Mahale National
Park, the site since the 1960s of University of Kyoto researchers
Before you is a large bamboo and thatch
open structure with comfortable furniture for relaxing, a bar and
a large dining area. Behind this, almost invisible in the trees
at the back of the beach are your luxury tents - not the Girl or
Boy Scout tents remembered from another time in your lives. Behind
these rises the thick forest of the 6000 foot high Mahale Mountains.
Over a glass of wine you pinch yourself and realize you are really
going to see chimps in the wild.
The next morning we start out. We were given sturdy walking sticks
which should have been our first hint. Trackers and rangers monitor
where the chimps nest the night before, and told us they were near
camp. This should have been our second hint. The hike was a challenge,
to understate it.
For four and one half hours we climbed
over thick, wet, slippery leaf litter, up and up, soon drenched
to the skin in sweat. Tree roots and scampering up slippery, muddy
slopes made it easy to fall down and I took advantage of every opportunity
to do so. When it started to pour rain it really didn't matter;
you couldn't get any wetter and all you needed to do was put binocs
and cameras in plastic bags.
And then, all of a sudden you were among 25 to 35 chimps: kids playing
with each other and with springy bush branches; adults grooming
each other with their arms raised and hands clasped, a grooming
style seen only at Mahale and an example of chimpanzee culture;
walking on the paths with you; mothers hugging and kissing their
younsters - and then there would be loud hooting and the chimps
would all run down the path out of sight. A minute or two later
we would come on them again. They all seemed unconcerned about us
and appeared to go about their chimp business as if we weren't there.
It is amazing how exhausted you can be and how fast it evaporates
when you are with the chimps. We stayed with them for over two hours,
which seemed like two minutes, and then slogged back to camp for
three hours. By then it was a beautiful sunny afternoon and we celebrated
our time with our closest relatives and, by this time, our friends.
The next day the report was the chimps built their nests "very
close to camp" but we knew better. The climb was longer and
steeper than it had been the day before but then there they were,
also in large numbers. One male, Darwin, was lying by the side of
the path with one leg hooked over his raised knee, watching us.
Then he joined us on the path and as
he walked by me he brushed against my bare legs and I felt his surprisingly
coarse hair. I had never felt chimp hair before so this was very
exciting. We joined the group for another two hours, again with
them unconcerned about our presence and that of our tracker who
cut paths for us with a panga and a park ranger.
Both days we saw a Japanese researcher with a notebook closely following
We also say red-tailed monkeys (guenons) and yellow baboons. As
we approached camp, the ranger and some of our group spotted a cobra
on the path, hooded, ready to strike. Fortunately it did not. After
a nearby trip to see the resident hippos in the lake, we went back
to Kigoma town to spend the night at the Kigoma Hilltop Hotel.
The next morning we took a thirty minute boat trip to Gombe Stream
National Park, Tanzania's smallest park. It is very different than
Mahale: much smaller with a fishing village right next to the park
boundary. Fish poaching takes place during the day right off the
There is more evidence of research
activities with many buildings near the park shore. At Mahale the
park headquarters and research headquarters are at the far edge
of the much, much larger park. Our camp was different as well, slightly
set back from the beach, but equally wonderful with an added attraction
of olive baboons for entertainment right in the camp, and by this
time we were good about closing our tents so they weren't able to
steal anything. Both camps had gourmet chefs: we ate exceedingly
The hike to the chimps was shorter and more level but did require
a long walk on the beach with the sun beating down, followed by
a short, steep climb to find three chimps feeding in a fig tree
and three grooming each other at the base of the tree. One of these
was Gimble, often mentioned in Jane Goodall's lectures and books.
He once, no longer, was alpha, with a big split on his right earlobe.
I sat on the ground watching them for a long time. Two researchers,
without notebooks, sat nearby. Soon the three came down from the
tree. One, Titian, walked right by me. The ranger told me I was
lucky: he often throws rocks and sticks at people. Since he was
named as a youngster, isn't it interesting he developed a personality
up to his name?
The next day we hiked to one of Gombe's waterfalls and watched the
baboons cavort on the path around us. These olive baboons look quite
different in appearance than the yellow baboons at Mahale. We also
saw red colobus monkeys, the chimps favorite prey. We heard chimps
on this hike, but did not spot them.
We visited Jane's house where she lives when at Gombe, a rare occurrence
Built of cement blocks with a thatch roof, wide veranda across the
front, no electricity, water or toilets - we were told Jane "would
have it no other way". It was, it goes
without saying, the house of an unusual person: full of books, chimp
and baboon skulls, artifacts, board games, posters on the walls.
You really wanted to know its occupant, even if you didn't know
it was Jane Goodall.
Our last night we had a feast with a formal dining room table and
chairs brought down to the beach. We celebrated our friends the
chimps under a full moon. It was heaven.
When I got back to LA I went right up to our chimps to tell them
about their relatives half a world away, peaceful in their protected
environments. If only that were the case for all the other chimps
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