Herofel Logo The Chimpanzees of Mahale Mountains
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Travel Articles > Tanzania Safari Articles


Close 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 studying chimpanzees.

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 one chimp.
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 park beaches.

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 well

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 these days.
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 in Africa.

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