In addition to being one of the best places in the
world for up-close encounters with chimpanzees, Mahale
Mountains National Park, nestled on the Lake Tanganyikan shoreline in western
Tanzania, is absolutely stunning. Forested mountains cascade down to the lake shore,
the mist-covered peak of Mount Nkungwe rises up in the background and
crystal-clear waters teeming with fish lap against white sand coves.
The park, Tanzania's most remote and one of its most
alluring, is first and foremost a chimpanzee sanctuary. About 1,700 chimpanzees
live within its 1,613sqkm area, but the focal point for visitors is the 60-strong
Mimikere, or “M” group, which has been the subject of research for more than four
decades. While the M group chimps are well habituated, spotting human’s closest
relatives is almost always a challenge. Don long trousers, sturdy boots, a hat
and a surgical mask (these are distributed to all visitors by park guides at
the beginning of a tracking expedition) and prepare yourself for some sweaty,
steep climbing through often-dense vegetation.
You may not spot any chimps on your first try, but it
is rare to spend two or three days in the park without seeing one. The
experience itself is captivating: almost without warning, a chimp brushes past
you on the trail, several individuals become visible in a clearing just ahead
or high above in the tree tops. Time stops, and the one-hour viewing period
permitted by park authorities is over in a flash.
During the wet season, from November until May, the
chimpanzees spend much of their time in the trees and can be difficult to find.
In the height of the rains from March through May, the trails become
unpleasantly muddy. In the dry season months of June to October the undergrowth
is less dense and the chimps frequently come down near the main lodge area to
In between chimp tracking expeditions, Lake Tanganyika
beckons for snorkelling, kayaking and hippo- and crocodile-spotting forays. The
forest around the main lodge area is full of birds, with guinea fowl,
hornbills, kingfishers and many more all readily seen on short walks. In the
evening, the setting is magical as the sun sets over the Congo Mountains in the
distance, and tiny lights from fishing boats flicker across the lake.
For anyone with additional time and energy, the
brooding peak of 2,462m-high Mount Nkungwe is eminently climbable and makes a
fine adventure. Depending on the time of year, you may need to hack your way
through high grass and brush for part of the climb, but the remoteness and the
stillness are wonderful. Elephants, giraffes and even lions wander around the
eastern slopes of the mountain, and it is essential to be accompanied by an
armed guide, although encounters with these animals are rare. More common are
roan and sable antelopes, porcupines and the ubiquitous warthog. Allow two days
to climb up and one day to return for Nkungwe climbs, camping en route, although
a more strenuous two-day option is also possible.
Kigoma, the closest major town, is about 130km north of
Mahale along the lakeshore, and this remoteness makes getting to and from the
park half the fun. You can take a scenic scheduled charter flight over the back
ridge of the Mahale Mountains from Arusha (four hours) with Zantas Air or from Dar es Salaam (six
hours) with Safari Airlink. You
can charter a speedboat from Kigoma (four to five hours, book through Mbali Mbali) or from Lake Shore Lodge in Kipili
village, south of the park (five to six hours). A leisurely, albeit adventurous
option would include going down the lake on the ageing MV Liemba steamer from
either Kigoma (10 hours) or Mpulungu, Zambia (30 hours) to the tiny Lagosa
village (north of Mahale), from where you would need to arrange a boat transfer
in advance with park authorities for
the remaining distance (about one hour) to Mahale. First-class cabins on the MV
Liemba can be booked at the port in Kigoma or Mpulungu, or through your lodge.
There are currently three lodges in Mahale, all along
the lake shore: the Swiss Family Robinson-esque Greystoke Mahale, with its wonderful two-storey
bandas and mountain views; lovely Kungwe
Beach Lodge; and the rustic Flycatcher
Camp. Alternatively, you can bush camp accompanied by a park ranger, or
stay at the park-run and budget traveller-oriented Mango Tree Bandas.
Entry fees at Mahale Mountains park are $80 per adult
per day, and guide fees are $20 per group per excursion. There are no
additional permit fees.
The article 'Tanzania’s Mahale Mountains National Park' was published in partnership with Lonely Planet.