TREKKING WITH CHIMPANZEES AND WILD OPEN SPACES OF WESTERN TANZANIA
Nothing quite prepares you for that moment first hear the chimpanzees calling. You trek a little further and finally, the discomfort is totally forgotten as you look a wild chimpanzee in the eye. I have been lucky enough to have trekked to see both mountain and lowland gorillas – but chimpanzees? I wasn’t quite sure. I was a little apprehensive after watching documentaries about wild chimps and their hunting behaviour. How would they react to me? I felt a little intimidated, a little apprehensive – but at the same time the anticipation was great.
I needn’t have worried. That feeling of sheer elation was there at meeting wild chimpanzees for the first time. They behaved impeccably and carried on with their own entertainment, grooming, playing or just showing off. The thrill experiencing close up, another primate, was still there and I didn’t want my hour with them to end.
The Serengeti and the Ngorongoro Crater are on many people’s bucket lists for travel to northern Tanzania and the northern circuit of Tanzania is stunning, diverse and offers some of the most extravagant wildlife experiences to be enjoyed on the African continent.
The southern parks of Selous and Ruaha are a fabulous option for second time safari enthusiasts to Tanzania and have the benefit of being mostly quieter than the northern parks and close to Dar es Salaam which is the jumping off point to the Tanzania islands of Zanzibar, Mafia, Pemba and the little visited Fanjove in the Songo Songo archipelago. Selous is huge – one of the largest wildlife areas in Africa – and a real highlight here is that the reserve is home to the endangered wild dog. Ruaha is rugged and remote with fabulous wildlife and a very unique geography.
But few people have discovered the far western areas of Tanzania – the huge wild and open expanses of Katavi and the remote Mahale Mountains and Gombe Stream National Parks perched on the sandy shores of Lake Tanganyika. Relatively difficult to access, these areas have remained quiet and unspoilt as just a few intrepid visitors trickle through to enjoy a pristine area full of surprises.
We accessed Katavi and Mahale via Arusha on a charter flight - but you can also fly via Dar es Salaam. Either way it is a long journey with multiple stops – from Arusha you could stop a couple of times in the Serengeti before heading to Tabora for a refuel stop before heading on to Katavi or Mahale. Accessed from Dar es Salaam the routing is via Selous, Ruaha, Katavi and on to Mahale. Both long – and reasonably expensive – flights. Both the effort and expense are absolutely worth it – to experience a very different side of Tanzania. Katavi is one of the last really wild and remote wildlife areas and currently has just 3 tented camps to choose from – Foxes, Nomad Tanzania and Mbale Mbale. Katavi was our first stop and it didn’t disappoint.
Located in western Tanzania in the heart of one of the biggest and richest wildlife areas in Tanzania, Katavi is a remote and often overlooked area of wilderness with sensational wildlife viewing. Set along the rift escarpment in western Tanzania, Katavi offers incredible scenery including immense wetlands, roaring waterfalls and original miombo woodland where Sable antelopes often hide.
During the dry season, huge herds of buffalo, zebras and impalas gather with elephants, waterbucks and duikers around the drying water reserves of Lake Katavi and Lake Chada. Animals concentrate along remaining pools of the Katuma river full of hippos and crocodiles. Here, at these remaining water sources, lions, leopards and wild dogs search for prey, watched by patiently waiting vultures which share the trees with fish eagles, storks and vervet monkeys.
As soon as the first rains start, Katavi transforms again into a flowering paradise with enormous swamps, lakes, rivers and waterfalls, attracting an incredible diversity of bird life.
After Katavi we boarded our prop charter plane again and this time landed on the shores of Lake Tanganyika. The approach to the airstrip is stunning – the routing takes you over a remote mountainous area and suddenly the short airstrip is in view and you are making the quick descent towards the lake. On arrival it is a quick walk to the dhow bobbing on the water and a peaceful two-hour cruise to either the Mbale Mbale or Nomad Tanzania camps perched on the white sand beach bordering the lake with a vivid green mountainous backdrop – the chimpanzee’s home territory.
Both camps are superbly situated not only for chimpanzee trekking but other water-based activities – boating and kayaking – and hiking in the beautifully cool forests and are a complete contrast to Katavi which Is typical rift valley savannah. It would be easy to relax here and just enjoy the camps and the lake. But the chimpanzees are the star attraction here and the draw to trek to see them is overwhelming.
Which is how I found myself boarding the dhow again early the next morning after a good breakfast – a little nervous at the thought of the difficult hike ahead and what I would meet at the end. Light long trousers and good walking boots are essential. The chimpanzees may be just 5 minutes stroll from the boat or a long and strenuous 4 hour hike up into the mountains depending where their food is and where they were the previous day. The paths start off quite idyllic but soon we are trekking uphill on small, slippery paths, climbing up near vertical ascents pulling ourselves up using the roots of trees – all the time the adrenalin of the promise of the chimpanzees pushing us on deeper into the forest.
We walked for three and a half hours. Our walk was difficult – far more so than I had imagined. Finally, we heard the chimpanzees but they were moving away from us up into the mountains. We were urged on by the thought of missing them after all the effort – just a little further. And then suddenly - we were there. The chimpanzees were busy grooming and resting. We had caught them up!
The hour we spent with the chimpanzees was magical – they were gentle and calm and carried on with their business. The babies played, and the adults groomed and the whole experience was peaceful and uplifting. The long walk back to the dhow flew by as we chatted elatedly about our experience and celebrated with a dinner on the beach under a blanket of stars with the waves lapping gently at the shore.
Our next stop – another dhow boat ride – took us to the top of Lake Tanganyika and to Gombe Steam National Park – home to the Diane Fosse Research Centre and a tiny tented camp again on the shores of the lake. And another trek into the rainforest to meet the residents – this time a shorter walk where we were lucky to meet some young chimpanzees who were very happy to pose for photos whilst they played and larked around. We ended up following a group of females and their young along a forest path for around half an hour, peacefully watching their behaviour whilst they stopped and fed their young and the little ones tumbled on the leafy floor in play.
Western Tanzania really does offer something very different – the chance to safari, to walk, to reflect, to canoe and swim in the lake and of course – meet the chimpanzees! Katavi offers anyone willing to endure the long journey a wildlife wilderness with absolutely outstanding wildlife viewing.
Want to go too? Then call us on 01984 or email [email protected] and talk to someone who has been there and can offer expert advice. Don’t leave it too late – visit whilst the area is still so unspoilt!