Words by Jurgen Egert. Pictures by Jurgen Egert and Fritz Ott.
Mahale Mountains National Park, Tanzania
We’d made it. Sitting on the beach of Lake Tanganyika in Mahale National Park, with a G&T in hand while watching the sun go down over the mountains in DRC, had given us the feeling of achievement. We’d made it to Tanzania’s most remote national park. The journey had begun four weeks earlier, in Joburg, when we’d driven north along the Mozambique coast and crossed the Ruvuma River to enter Tanzania in the south. We‘d visited Selous and Ruaha National Parks on our way to Mbeya, the last major town in southern Tanzania. From there, it is a long and tedious 1 000 kilometre drive to Kigoma, Tanzania’s only town located on Lake Tanganyika. Even though we speak Swahili, we struggled to organize a boat to Mahale. You need to know the right people and have the right connections. So we used a local tour operator to organize the visit to Mahale for us. We met Hussein, the owner of Lipi Adventures, at our campsite on the day before our departure from Kigoma. We discussed our food requirements and he went to make the necessary purchases.
The adventure started the next morning at 07h00. Hussein guided our cars to a safe place for parking before driving us in a Cruiser to Sigunga. The ferry over the Malagarasi River was out of order, but after waiting an hour or so, we secured passage across. We did not mind the waiting time as it had given us an opportunity to mingle with the local people. While waiting on the beach in Sigunga for the speedboats to arrive, we were entertained by local youths who tried to impress us with their acrobatic skills. And when the boats finally arrived, we made two surprising observations: the people on the boat were all dressed in long waterproof clothes – a good indication of what to expect on the lake – and were accompanied by a Tanzanian soldier with an AK47. We learnt later that this was for our protection against Congo pirates. Three hours later, wet, tired from the exhaust fumes, and happy to disembark, we reached the beach in front of the bandas of TANAPA (Tanzania National Parks Authority). The caretaker welcomed us and helped us carry our luggage to the bandas 200 metres from the beach. His wife prepared our dinner that night, from the provisions brought by Hussein.
The next morning, we were excited about going chimpanzee tracking: a ranger gave us instructions not to approach closer than 10 metres to them, and to restrict our sessions with them to 45 – 60 minutes. We were given breathing masks to wear when close to the animals, in order not to transmit human bacteria. As Mahale isn’t accessible by road, there are no roads; only footpaths through the jungle. The ranger, equipped with an umbrella, led us up and down the hills in search of a group of chimps. We crossed riverbeds and swamps, and climbed over rocks, all in the sweltering heat. The voices of the jungle were impressive and very new to us. A group of warthogs crossed our path, taking no notice of us.
Finally, after about two hours, the ranger became excited. He had noticed a place where the chimps must have rested only recently. They had to be close. We had to keep very quiet. We left the path, following our guide who was cutting a new way through the jungle. A warning about big ants came too late for some of us: they quickly found a way up the legs to the most intimate body parts, marking their way with itching bites. Then suddenly we could see what we’d been looking for: chimpanzees – in a group of more than 20 of various sizes. It was magic. (Even though we had to put on the masks, which made us sweat even more.) Some animals were still eating leaves and fruits of the forest. Others had finished eating and were having a rest, some on a tree, and others on the ground. It was quite amusing to see how one of the junior lady chimps tried to seduce a young male chimp, who was obviously too afraid to follow her advances in case of punishment by the more mature males…