Sweating, swearing and huffing like a pig I crawl on my stomach through the dense undergrowth of Gombe Stream NP. We have been proceeding like this for the last hour, struggling through the scrub trying to keep up with our guide/tracker who is slipping seamlessly through the undergrowth. It’s hot and frustrating, if we don’t find these elusive buggers in the next hour or so we will miss our opportunity to see them. It has been a long and somewhat arduous journey out to far western Tanzania and the shores of Lake Tanganikya and we will be crushed if we don’t even catch a glimpse of the “shadow of man”. Just then we emerge onto a trail, a lone figure is up ahead fixated on something in the trees, tentatively we follow his gaze and as we do we hear them, the unmistakable screech of chimpanzees...
The man is Carlos, an American primatologist and PhD student who has been invited to conduct research in Gombe NP home of Jane Goodall’s legendary Chimpanzee population and one of the last places in the world where Chimpanzees can be viewed in the wild. At this moment though we are not concerned with Carlos, in fact we are not concerned with anything but the sight of at least a dozen chimpanzees screeching and crashing through the canopy.
Seeing wild chimpanzees in the wild is a true privilege and for many people including myself an ultimate bucket list item. For those that are not familiar with the work of Jane Goodall , I urge you to pickup a copy of “In the Shadow of Man”, her seminary research into Chimpanzee populations in this very location opened the door to our understanding of our closest living relatives and in turn revealed insights into our own behavior. To stand on the very ground on which she lived and worked for so many years and to look upon the direct descendants of her original subjects is an awe inspiring experience.
Our journey to western Tanzania had been all about visiting this tiny and isolated NP on the shores of Lake Tanganikya. At just 52km2, this fragile ecosystem is the smallest of Tanzania’s National Parks and one of the least accessible. We had arrived yesterday from Kigoma, the nearest town, on a local water taxi, plying our way up Lake Tanganikya under a ferocious sun, stopping to unload supplies and passengers at each of lakeside towns. Private boat trips are available from commercial operators in Kigoma, however if your budget is limited I recommend taking the water taxi there for substantial savings, which trust me you will need later (just remember to bring some water)!
Arriving on the shores of Gombe NP you are confronted with what appears to be a borderline shakedown. Given the effort you have to go to visit Gombe NP you would think they would cut you some slack in terms of pricing, not a chance. Gombe is Tanzania’s most expensive NP, the park fees alone are a whopping $100 USD a day for non residents. Throw in $20 USD per person per night for accommodation and a fixed meal cost of $20 USD and you are already trying to work out how quickly you can see the Chimps and get the hell out of here. The kicker comes when you realise that the timing of the public boat means that if you arrive in the afternoon and go see the Chimps the following morning the public boat won’t be back in time to pick you up before your 24 hr permit expires meaning that you have to pay another $100 USD to basically sit there and wait for the boat for another two hours. Your alternative is to hire a private boat to come pick you up at a cost of... you guessed it $100 USD. So if you are a solo traveller it works out the same price although if you are in a group then you can at least split the cost of the return boat reducing the expense somewhat.
Once you have been sufficiently shaken down you are shown to your rooms which admittedly are lovely, with views across Lake Tanganikya. We immediately made arrangements to go with a Chimp tracker in the morning hoping desperately that we would see them within our 24 hour window without having to fork out for another permit. We covertly cooked up some left over pasta and bake beans in our room that evening on our camp stove to avoid the $20 charge for dinner. We woke feeling suitably fortified and met our tracker and set out into the hills. We had earlier impressed upon him that we were willing to do whatever it took to see the chimps and as the morning grew later and still no sign of them we abandoned the trails completely and opted instead to take a more direct route through the forest.
Our relief upon stumbling across Carlos and his tribe of Chimps was palpable, it was replaced almost instantly with a childlike sense of wonder. Nothing I have seen on safari anywhere in Africa touched me the way watching those Chimps did. Only up close and in the wild can you truly appreciate just how disturbingly human their behaviour is. We watched them for at least an hour, following them slowly through the forest, the presence of Jane Goodall and her successors has meant that these chimps are habituated to human beings and pay little attention their silent observers and the click of their cameras. At some point during our visit they came into contact with a tribe of baboons and a pitched battle occurred, the noise was unlike anything I have ever heard, a young baboon was isolated and captured before being ripped limb from limb and devoured, the smell of the baboon blood in the air will stay with me for a long time.
After finishing our visit with the chimps we took the opportunity to hike up to the view point and process what we had seen. The expansive views of the park and the lake provide a great spot to reflect, unfortunately as we had a boat to catch and a park fee to avoid we couldn’t stay long. Things in Africa don’t always come easy, Gombe is isolated , far from the traditional tourist trail and prohibitively expensive, it was also at least for me the single most memorable experience I have had in Tanzania. With chimp populations in decline across Africa the reality is that we will likely be amongst the last generations to have the opportunity to see these fascinating creatures in the wild. Anyone planning a trip to this remote region must pay a visit this unique and fragile national park, whatever the cost.
Prices above were from 2017 and may since have changed. If you have a recent experience in Gombe NP then leave a comment below.