Published Dec 22, 2011

Lake Tanganyika is the second-longest freshwater lake in the world, and contains 17% of the world’s fresh water — or so it said in the brochure in our resort, the Nkungwe Lodge in the Mahale Mountains. Easy-to-believe statistics, given that the lake stretched almost as far as the eye could see in all directions, a deep, clear blue to rival any Caribbean or South Pacific ocean. I say almost because, while we couldn’t see Zambia to the south or Rwanda and Burundi to the north, we could see the misty hint of the Congo’s eastern forests on the far horizon, and the rain over there would hide it all behind a curtain of dark blue in the eggshell sky.

We’d gotten to the Mahale Mountains area on what was practically a private plane, a scheduled charter that only had the two of us and one other passenger on it. The 12-seater Cessna Grand Caravan shot right into the sky from Arusha’s runway and took us on a scenic, smooth trip over deep-green jungle. (In an old blog entry from my trip to Southeast Asia, I said that Thailand had a yellowish-green jungle and Vietnam a bluish-green one; Tanzania has a black-green one, like the platonic ideal of a tree color but with the shadows clipped straight to black, so that brightness drops into murky darkness straight away.)

From there we were picked up by a guide in a little, fast boat that sped us down Lake Tanganyika to our resort, where they welcomed us warmly. There aren’t many resorts in the Mahale mountains — actually, only three, all offering mountain jungle safaris to see a group of chimpanzees native to the area. One of these is apparently incredibly famous but would’ve had us blowing practically our entire budget in just a few days; we picked the camp, Nkungwe, that many called the second-choice. As the boat pulled up to Nkungwe’s glowing golden sand beach, expansive thatched-roof lounge, and little tents tucked up in the edges of the forest, it was hard to see how this could be a second choice.

Straight off the boat we were offered the chance to trek into the forest to see chimps — wholly unexpected, since we’d heard they were often hours away from camp and we’d arrived just after 1pm. Today, the tracker who follows the group for all the area lodges told us they were only about 45 minutes away, so, after a delicious lunch, we were off!

It took us what seemed like no time to hear their first hoots and screams echoing from only a few hundred yards away. The sound made my heart race — the chimps were close! Maybe we’d catch a glimpse! Oh, how low I set my sights at the beginning of that first trek!  

Within twenty minutes we’d come on a group of about a dozen chimps — a mother with a baby just under two in the crook of a trunk about four feet off the ground, the rest up to about thirty feet up in the surrounding trees. We were silent and hesitant as our safari guide, Given, encouraged us to get closer. Finally, I mustered the courage to work to my left and get the chimps so they weren’t backlit and I could start taking photos. The youngster, joined by two friends, was swinging and leaping wildly, testing herself while her mother looked on.

Then there was an enormous hooting and hollering, and a crashing of chimps up to the top of the trees: the alpha male had caught a good-sized monkey and was prepared to share it with the group. We saw four other males tear the monkey — who was already limp and, I presume, dead — into roughly equal parts and chow down. There are no choice pieces, Given explained; they just eat it all.

Soon I was at ease, walking down to where a game warden stood with a machete (more for hacking paths than for defending us from chimps I think), and shot more photos. But, as I climbed uphill to my earlier spot, we were startled by more screaming and general activity as a female in heat came through the group. I could feel the testosterone and aggression around me and suddenly felt very alone, by myself halfway up a forty-foot slope, between the warden and Given. I stood still, as I’d been told, and soon they’d calmed down. 

The next day we were out again in the morning, taking a somewhat different path to the chimps. This time they were further up in the hills that rose steeply away from Lake Tanganyika, but fortunately not all the way to the mist-shrouded tops, a good nine-hour hike. About an hour later, we’d crossed a stream and clambered up and down the muddy faces of a rise, tree roots carving the path into natural steps. We ran into the chimps at an intersection, and watched, again, a baby gambol as he and his mother waited for the rest of the group.

Then the alpha male came by — right behind us. We were between the two adult chimps, with no way out except along the path they were sitting directly next to. Given told us to calmly walk right past, and I past close enough to the group’s Alpha that I could’ve brushed him by accident. Later, we saw about another dozen group members together, and even caught two mating, before, with a sudden roar, a downpour enveloped the jungle and drove us home (just as it drove the chimps, who hate to get wet, up higher in the trees). 

When we returned to Nkungwe, the staff offered to dry our clothes for us. “Oh no,” we answered, “we’re sure you must have other people to take care of!” (Although, we hadn’t seen any!) “No,” answered the manager, “you’re the only people at any of the three camps in the Mahale.” “Also,” Given expanded, “during the dry season, people usually trek up into the hills, taking 8 hours and having to wait their turn with many other groups to see just one or two chimps. With more than 40 tents at the three camps, and a maximum of 6 people looking at a chimp group at once, and a limit of an hour a day per group, dry season safaris are lucky to see a baby playing, much less something special like a hunting or mating.”

Thus we discovered that the ideal ratio of tourists to national parks is 2:1, just as the ideal ratio of tourists to resort staff is apparently about 2:16. And that even a place that you can’t get to from Europe in less than eleven hours is still packed full at high season.

In all fairness, we did have three other people on our flight back to Arusha, so it wasn’t all a private affair. Also — probably in some kind of penance for our ridiculous luck — I came down with a bit of stomach trouble on our third day and missed the last chimp safari. Anybody who knows my wife knows her luck, and would be unsurprised to learn that, while she and Given were out without me, they saw nearly thirty chimps and even were menaced by a less human-friendly member of the group.

But the lodge fixed me up right that evening, with the traditional cure of soda water and white rice. The rice, as you might guess, was outstanding, as was all of the food served at Nkungwe. Of course, it’s all unfair because they started with fruit of a freshness that’s unimaginable even from a farmer’s market; I don’t believe any fruit was picked as long ago as yesterday, or eggs laid either. And the chef had a deft touch with flavors, mixing spices from southern and western Asia, as well as unexpected techniques like shaved bell pepper (awesome!) into everything.

So, the summary of Mahale Mountains: the only problem is, can any other part live up to this? We’re headed back to Arusha to overnight, then it’s a vehicle safari through Nogorongoro Crater, one of the largest craters on land anywhere. And, to be honest, I fear I’ll find Moivaro’s adorable bar to be rather dull tonight.