Lords of the Wilderness
I have just returned from a magnificent fifteen nights guiding a wonderful family from California through my very favorite parts of Kenya and Tanzania. The expedition was extremely varied in landscapes and experiences and incredibly joyful throughout. For me, our grand finale in the Mahale Mountains National Park was the highlight of all.
Arriving in Mahale is an overwhelming experience. A light aircraft descends through a gap in the highlands and comes to a welcome stop on terra firma right in front of Lake Tanganyika. A vast and ancient crack in the African continent holding an astounding 16% of the worlds freshest water, Tanganyika is something to behold. I’ll admit as a group our first glimpse was somewhat breathless, our praise was mostly for the pilot and our appreciation for the lake was more a thankfulness for not having landed in it.
We were met by Matheus Nelson, a dear friend and our guide for the next four nights on the very western edge of Tanzania. Matheus is a ex-student of mine, we met for the first time in 2013 in the Northern Serengeti where he came to join in a course for the next generation of Nomad Tanzania’s Guides. I have had the great privilege of meeting and training with him once per year since and have watched him evolve from a charming, though very shy, tracker to become a brilliant, charismatic guide. Forgive me for gushing about him here, but I’m immensely proud of all he has achieved and the experiences I describe below would not have been mine to share without his talent and dedication.
We eat lunch on the traditional Dhow boat and begin our journey south hugging the lake shore. The immense water stretches out to our starboard side and we trace a faint outline of the highlands in Congo beyond. My eyes, however, are fixed on port as we wave goodbye to the delightful village of Katumbi and enter national park waters. It’s surely one of East Africa’s most precious gems, a wall of broccoli covered, jagged mountains plunge straight down into this colossal fissure that continues beneath those “gin clear” surface waters to a depth of one thousand, four hundred meters. We are floating above the western arm of the great rift and it is geologically epic.
Greystoke Mahale is our new home and as ever the welcome to camp is fun and heartfelt. A cold beer and sunset over the lake waters are the perfect tonic to unravel from the journey and allow the excitement to build for the coming days. I won’t prattle on about the lodge here but in a nutshell Greystoke is unique, boutique and probably Jana’s favorite place on the planet. We truly love and wholeheartedly recommend it.
Set aside the lake and lodgings. We have come to this remote location to follow Matheus up into the Afro-Montain Rainforest in search of a habituated community of Chimpanzees named “M-Group”. This is precisely what we set out to do the following morning.
Our day starts with breakfast at a very leisurely eight o’clock in the morning, a welcome rest after the typically early starts on the savannah. Matheus and Mwiga (Greystoke’s head guide) come to brief us while we sip our coffee. A team of three trackers began their day in the mountains just before sunrise, they have each been stationed at strategic points awaiting the cacophony of vocalizations that explode at intervals throughout a chimpanzee’s day.
Please make no mistake about the phrase “habituated” I used earlier. These are wild chimpanzees with an exceptionally large home range that consists of some seriously tricky terrain. The M Group have been part of a Japanese research project, founded in 1965 by Professor Toshisada Nishida, and have become so used to the presence of humans in there close proximity that for the most part they ignore us entirely. But you have to find them first and in this mountain forest that is no mean feat. When you visit yourself please take the time to ask one of the trackers to show you the traces, tracks and signs that guide them to the chimps, it will blow your precious little minds!
We have no news, it’s all been quiet on the mountain since six this morning. One of the guys is heading higher up and another down into the valley to cover some of the “dead spots” that can conceal their calls. It’s an exercise in patience, which is good for those of us from the control freaky instant gratification parts of the planet. At ten o’clock we change into our swimming things and prepare to head out on the boat, the lake is beautifully calm and a swim in the deep water will keep our minds off the elusive Great Apes. As we are about to embark Matheus joggs down to the beach and instructs us to put our hiking gear back on, the trackers have heard a ruckus from up high and they want us to make a start straight away.
After forty-five fairly gentle minutes we arrive at a cross road of trails. The radio crackles back and forth between the head guide Mwiga, Matheus and the trackers. They have heard the chimps but they are mobile, we are instructed to wait in situ until we have a better handle on their direction. It’s another exercise in patience for us but a disciplined choice from a team who fiercely want us to make it, I’m so utterly impressed by the methods they employ not only in locating the M-Group but in getting us to them. Over the next half an hour Matheus and Mwiga enthrall us with explanations of unique behaviors only observed within the Mahale Chimpanzees, leaf grooming as a way of flirting and joint hand grasp for mutual grooming, specific methods of fishing for cocktail ants.
Before we know it we are hitting the trail again. Another twenty minutes and Matheus turns to address the family and I.
“Now we begin our hike!”
There is a gentle expletive from an unnamed source who had for an instant expected him to say we were almost there and couldn’t fathom that the first bit was not considered “hiking”. It was always going to be the most challenging point of our trip.
Matheus tells us to expect two and a half to three hours of trekking ahead and these are some hard yards. We hit a steep incline after ten minutes or so and begin to fully understand his meaning. Matheus and Hussein, our National Park Ranger, each take two of our less sure footed hikers by the hand and from this point on for the rest of the day they guide them step by step with astonishing care and patience. It’s actually quite moving for me to re-picture this now.
Two and a half ours later, it’s hot, humid and in parts very tricky underfoot, but I see no sign and hear no murmur of anyone giving up on the goal. The radio crackles, they are on the move again. I understand the Swahili, the family don’t. This is the only point at which Matheus has not shared the full information with us, and I understand why. He doesn’t want us to become demotivated and disheartened here, rather he urges us on by marginally picking up the pace. Five more minutes and the radio crackles again, I couldn’t hear it but this time it’s clearly good news.
“Almost there guys” has never been received with such joy.
In no time Matheus stops us, asks us to put on our surgical masks (to protect the chimps from the threat of infection by human disease) and prepare our cameras. He leads us past a granite outcrop and we approach three adult male chimpanzees lazing around, lips smacking with pleasure as they groom one another. The intensity of being in such close proximity on the forest floor with these large, powerful males is showing in everyones eyes above the masks. I can feel the adrenaline course through my body and the fatigue of the hike disappears in an instant. We are about seven meters from them when they all suddenly look up and in the same direction.
Sure enough within seconds the serenity of the scene has vanished. The three boys, Orion, Catta and Emery are up and a wild, loud pant-hooting display sends them screeching through our midst. It’s a sudden, chaotic moment of intimidating power that leaves hearts pounding. Within minutes Primus descends onto the pathway ahead of us and surges past in pursuit of a female in oestrus.
The next forty minutes are a blur of chimpanzees shifting around our position. Bonobo, the beautiful older male with his grey beard. Shy Ako with her nine month old infant gripping onto her belly and Asahi her older, more confident daughter trailing behind and inspecting our group. Pale faced Devolta who appeared in the community only last year and youngsters Kinoku and Ayu full of mischief and play. All in all we saw more than twenty individuals, Matheus new each of them by name, could explain their current position and recount their history within the community. It was an extraordinary sighting, one of the most pleasurable wildlife encounters I have ever had and all the better for the strenuous efforts in arriving at that precise point in the forest on time.
We set Greystoke Mahale apart from any other Great Ape experience we have ever had and this recent trip has reaffirmed that tenfold. Thank you Matheus, Mwiga and all of the team, it was outstanding!