It's all politics with chimps. Not the hidden subtleties of its human version, but full-on shouts, arguments, tussles and fights. On both of my recent visits to the chimpanzees of Mahale National Park in southern Tanzania, there were arguments in progress, as a new alpha male struggled to control dissidents in his group. But there were also gentler moments, as young chimps gamboled across our path and females tended to newborn babies.
Mahale National Park in southern Tanzania has half the world's chimpanzee population, but it says much for its remoteness that just one group has been habituated. Meeting them was an honour, a pleasure and, above all, an experience. The Park is bordered on its Western boundary by Lake Tanganika and looks across this vast expanse of water to Congo. Most chimp trekking takes place in the cool of the morning. A scout from the camp is with the group when they start to build their nests for the night and another will find them first thing the next morning, allowing you to enjoy morning coffee and breakfast before setting off. Once their position and any direction of movement is determined, you set out into the forest with a National Parks ranger and camp guide. Of course, sightings can't be guaranteed, and if the chimps are up high, reaching them might entail up to five hours tracking.
Much of the walking is on relatively smooth paths but there were certainly some steep sections and occasional river crossings, though these are dry for most of the year. There are paths, but if the chimps aren't near to these there may be a bit of 'bushwhacking' to get to them. Generally, I thought it easier going than gorilla trekking and walked in shorts and trainers, although I suspect most people would prefer long trousers and reasonable walking boots.
The chimps' behaviour varies from day to day. They were very vocal and agitated on our first visit, apparently due to the proximity of an ex-alpha male, recently deposed. Aside from shrieks and lots of movement there was also playfulness as they swung from vines and wrestled on the path in front of us. On our second day the second male and many of the other group members had disagreed with the alpha male. There was a lot of stamping and rock throwing, while the alpha male patrolled up and down the riverbank trying to root out the insubordinate group.
Although visitor regulations mean you're not allowed to approach close, the chimps don't work to these rules and on many occasions walked right past us as we stood just off the side of the paths. It was pretty daunting since the big males probably stand two-thirds the height of a human and have incredibly well built upper bodies. But the chimps were so lively and their interaction so dramatic that the hour you're permitted to spend with them passes all too fast. Almost everyone who visits here is quick to take up the opportunity to try to see them again the following day.
Apart from chimp tracking, the Mahale National Park is simply a great place to be. My base was the simple but beautiful Greystoke Camp. Like all the finest safari camps it is small and fits naturally into its surroundings, with rooms under shaggy thatch and furniture made from old dhow wood. Located on one of the few sandy beaches on the lakeshore and with forested mountains rising behind, it is difficult to imagine a more stunning setting.
When not out in the forest you can swim and snorkel in the fresh, clear waters or simply sunbathe on the beautiful beach, while there's a dhow for fishing trips or gentle excursions on this vast inland sea, birdwatching around the coastal swamps and reeds. Either the beach or the chimps would be great on their own. Together they're a pretty unbeatable combination.
Julie Clark travelled with Africa specialist Aardvark Safaris.
Transportation, visas, health, maps and temperature
Airlines (Wikipedia): http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_airlines
Embassies/Consulates (Embassy World): http://www.embassyworld.com/
Health precautions (WHO): http://www.who.int/ith/en/
Google interactive map: http://maps.google.com/
Temperature (Temperature World): http://www.temperatureworld.com/