When someone says the words safari in Tanzania, you picture open plains and grasslands with open spaces; you think of the classic national geographic visuals of a big cat hunting down an antler under a setting sun with the silhouette of a baobab tree leaving you feeling moved and humble. While a safari in Tanzania could encompass all of this, there are other hidden treasures that might leave you with much more than what you ought to receive. The predator-prey relationship is certainly enamoring, but a close encounter with a group chimps might be an experience that lives with you for longer thanks to our ancestral link with them. This is exactly what you can find if you make a trip into the dense and relentless mountain of the Mahale Mountains National Park. if there was ever a definition of isolated and peculiar, the Mahale Mountains National Park would be it. Read on to get a clearer idea of this national park and why it should be part of you itinerary the next time you visit this grand continent.
Location and History
On the western edge of the Tanzanian landmass lies the Lake Tanganyika. This lake is often used to mark the border of the country, but it is also the only entry point to the national park. Situated just east of the lake, Mahale Mountains National Park is the most remote of national parks within Tanzania. Originally set up for the protections of the vast groups of Chimpanzee found here and in the adjacent Gombe Stream National Park, the park has become one of the most elusive places due to several reasons. Approximately 1600 square kilometres in size, the Mahale Mountains National Park seems to be pulled right out of the scenes of the dense mountain forest of King Kong fame. The chimpanzee research was intensified in the 1960s with the first camp set up in 1965. It was officially gazetted as a national park in 1985. The national park is accessible only through Lake Tanganyika and is one of the only national parks that is non-motorable and accessible only by foot.
There are so many things about Mahale Mountains National Park that make it one of the most alluring and peculiar national parks in the entire country. Starting with the sheer remoteness of the park, it doesn’t get any more isolated than this. It is one of only two areas that have been reserved for the protection of chimpanzees. It is also heavily untouched by human infrastructure, owing to the need for maintaining the habitat that is suitable for the chimpanzees that reside here. Apart from this, there is a mysterious element added to the park owing to the access only through Lake Tanganyika. It is also one of the only places in the entire world where populations of chimpanzee and lion co-exist. While it is not easy to spot the big cats, reports suggest that this is the case. Another feature that sets it apart from any other national park is the fact that there is no other way to access the national park than on foot. There are no motorable roads and the only way you can get here is by air or water. The sandy beaches looking out to Lake Tanganyika make for spectacular sunset viewings while the Mahale mountains tower over you.
As you would’ve guessed by now, Mahale Mountains National Park is a safe haven for chimpanzees. With some of the most important pieces of research performed here since half a century, the chimpanzees residing in the national park are quite habituated with human beings. There are more than 1000 chimpanzees that reside in the national park and make it one of the most important acts of conservation and protection when it comes to the closest ancestors of humans in the wild (98% of our DNA matches that of chimpanzees).
Most visitors come to the national park for the chimp trekking and must endure quite an intense hike before they can do so. There are only certain seasons that are suited for normal trekking, owing to the dense vegetation that characterizes the rolling Mahale mountains. While there are several hundreds of chimpanzees that reside in the mountains, the group that is usually the focus of most tourist visits is the Mimikere group of approximately 60 chimpanzees. A lot of research has also been conducted with this group of chimps, due to which they are well habituated with human populations.
The trekking experience requires resilience and stamina as you walk through patches of dense vegetation and slopes. You need to wear long pants, boots and cover your face with a mask in order to make the trip deep into the lush mountains where the chimpanzees reside. Make sure you are wearing the right equipment as the trek can become quite sweaty, steep and suffocating. However, the experience of watching a chimpanzee flash past you in unmatchable and worth every step you take. While you might not be assured a sighting the first time you make a trip, a couple of trips might be enough to give you a clear sighting of a group of chimpanzees hanging from trees, eating and interacting with one another.
While the major attraction is the chimpanzees and they are the reason every tourist makes the trip to Mahale Mountain National Park, there are other animals that also reside here. The most common sightings are those of the Angola colobus, the red-tailed and blue monkeys as well as the red colobus monkeys. The blue duiker, Sharpe’s grysbok as well as the brush-tailed porcupine are some of the other animals that are often sighted in these mountains. There have been rare sightings of lions as well as leopards that have been made deep inside the mountains away from Lake Tanganyika. People also estimate that there are over 1000 species of fish that you find in the clear waters of Lake Tanganyika – the second deepest and least polluted freshwater lake in Tanzania. If you’re extremely patient and lucky, you might be able to do what very few people have done and spot a chimp as well as a lion in the same visit.
Plan Your Visit
The best time to visit the Mahale Mountain National Park is during the dry season between May and October. This is largely because the trails leading into the forest become wet and slimy during the wet season while some parts of the forest are extremely dense due to the overgrowth of vegetation. This might be a bit cumbersome for many hikers while also making it that much harder to spot chimpanzees during that time. Not only this, with lush greenery around during the wet season, it is highly unlikely that the chimpanzees will trek down from the upper reaches of the mountains for feeding purposes, reducing the chances of spotting them unless you make deep and long treks into the mountains.
Tour operators that function in the national park often organize flights that bring you to the national park from Arusha so as to save you the time and trouble of making the trip by water. Personally, the experience of traversing through Lake Tanganyika to get to the mountains adds an element of detachment and allure to the experience, which is why I would prefer the boat ride onto the clear sandy beaches that line the mountains. Tour operators are also shut during the months of March and April when the weather is inhospitable for tourism activities. Itineraries are generally made for two to three days with at least two long treks included. The forest officials allow for a maximum of one hour of viewing experience with the chimps at a stretch.
A visit to Mahale Mountain National Park is one of those that will never be replicated in your life. There are hardly a few other places in the world that have such offerings, and the experience of making tiring treks through dense forests to arrive at the homes of your nearest neighbour in the animal kingdom is something that will live with you for a lifetime.