Twilight of the Apes

On the remote eastern shore of Lake Tanganyika, Andrew Powell discovers the best—and perhaps last—place to see the vanishing world of the chimpanzee.

It's not often that I've had a feeling of flying into the complete unknown, but this was just such an occasion. I'd met Alex the pilot less than an hour before, on the tarmac at Arusha airport in northern Tanzania. It was a hot day and we'd become acquainted standing in a dwindling patch of shade beneath the wing of his single-engine Cessna 206, while a mechanic at the top of a precarious metal ladder wrestled with a heavy rubber hose, like a man in mortal combat with a python, as he topped off the wing tanks with fuel. Now we were flying a couple of hundred feet above the epic grasslands of Serengeti National Park, skimming over thousands of grazing wildebeest and zebra, while heading steadily southwest, in the general direction of central Africa.

"Three or four days at Mahale are an amazing contrast to all of this," Alex yelled over the din of the engine. "After the grandeur of the plains and the huge herds of animals, you're in thickly forested mountains watching chimpanzees at a distance of just a few feet. It's a great way to end an East African safari."

Nodding, I clamped a set of headphones over my ears and tried to make sense of a chart at hand. Apart from a number of mountain ranges and a vast tract of swamp, the information it provided was sketchy at best. For a start, there seemed to be hardly any roads. "That's where we're going," Alex said, jabbing his finger at a promontory about halfway down the eastern shore of Lake Tanganyika. "One of the great attractions of Mahale is its remoteness. When I get to the lake, I often feel as though I've reached the edge of the known world. The flight's about five hours altogether, but we'll stop in Tabora to refuel. It's a nowhere kind of place these days, but back in the nineteenth century it was a big town on the slave route from Zanzibar to the interior."

My knowledge of the relevant geography was hazy, and my information about Mahale itself was little more precise. Two things I knew: first, that a tented camp had been set up beside the lake by a flamboyant Irishman named Roland Purcell; and second, that Mahale Mountains National Park is considered the best place in the world to watch chimpanzees. Ever since reading the classic book In the Shadow of Man, by the celebrated primatologist Jane Goodall, and watching the wildlife documentaries of her former husband, filmmaker Hugo van Lawick, I had been trying to schedule an encounter with our closest living relatives. But somehow the occasion had never arisen. Years of turmoil in Rwanda and the murders, in 1999, of eight tourists in Uganda's so-called Impenetrable Forest had also inclined me to think twice. Fortunately, Tanzania is still a relatively peaceful place, notwithstanding recent interethnic conflict on the islands of Zanzibar and Pemba, so this time I seized my chance.

Apparently I had very little time to lose. Chimpanzees are nowadays officially classified as an endangered species, and while there are still around 150,000 left in West and central Africa, their numbers are in free fall due to rampant logging of the equatorial forests and the "bush-meat" trade. In West African markets, chimp meat now sells for around 21 cents a pound (its consumption has frequently and plausibly been suggested as the route by which the HIV virus first migrated from apes to humans). Some of the more gloomy assessments give chimpanzees just 15 years before they are extinct in the wild.

For the final 20 minutes of our flight, Alex followed the edge of Lake Tanganyika, where mud-walled, thatch-roofed settlements dotted the shoreline much as they must have back in the 1870s, when Stanley and Livingstone passed this way. Out on the lake, fishermen in dugout canoes waved energetically as our plane passed low overhead. We were clearly a major event. Having buzzed the strip to clear it of villagers and their livestock, Alex then banked steeply through 180 degrees, lowered the flaps, lined up the nose, and landed on a runway where the grass proved to be at least four or five inches tall. Our journey was not over yet, however, as Mahale Camp is located well inside the national park, and we now had a 90-minute boat trip southward along the eastern shore of the lake.

After stowing our gear aboard a 40-foot wooden dhow, Alex suggested a quick swim before leaving. The water certainly looked inviting and was clear enough for me to make out pebbles on the bottom, at least 20 feet down. "How about crocs?" I inquired. Alex dived in. "Not around here," he shouted. Although this didn't seem an entirely satisfactory answer, my desire to cool off overcame any misgivings and I followed him over the side.

Lake Tanganyika is the longest stretch of freshwater in the world, extending south more than 400 miles from Burundi to the northern tip of Zambia. At Mahale it's some 30 miles wide, and sprawled on cushions beneath the shade of a cream canvas awning, I could just make out a hazy ridge of hills in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The dhow chugged steadily on and I turned my attention to the nearby Tanzanian shoreline, where steep slopes, covered with dense primary forest, rose abruptly to the saw-toothed summits of the Mahale Mountains, one of which, Mount Nkungwe, is over 8,000 feet high. It certainly looked like a perfect habitat for chimps, and even though I knew it to be a futile exercise, I couldn't resist scanning the trees with binoculars, searching for movement, an outline, or a face peering out through the branches. The best-known of Tanzania's chimpanzee reserves is Gombe, a place made famous by Goodall back in the sixties. However, Gombe is just 21 square miles, with only about 90 chimpanzees and nowhere suitable to stay. Mahale, 100 miles south, is a 620-square-mile national park, with a resident population of close to 750 chimps.

Mahale Camp is nestled at the edge of a wide beach of golden sand, with its back to the encroaching forest. Aside from a covered dining area, there are half a dozen double tents of the classic safari type: large enough for their occupants to stand upright and walk around in, and furnished with proper beds and battery-powered electric lights. Out back, in separate areas enclosed by wooden fences, each tent has a gravity-fed shower, filled with hot water on request. Having unpacked and cleaned up, I sat watching the sunset light up the clouds stacked above the western horizon. It was that time of evening when nature seems to pause: The day shift is over, but the creatures of the night have yet to awaken. I became acutely conscious of the extreme remoteness of my surroundings, but rather than feeling intimidated, this isolation seemed strangely reassuring. After all, it is generally people, not animals, which one has to be wary of. Just at that moment, as the light began to fade, a family of warthogs wandered out of the forest and strolled in front of my tent. The male was an unusually hefty specimen with a vicious pair of tusks. When he came within 15 feet he suddenly noticed my presence in the gloom, but rather than bolting, as I had expected, he merely paused for a second, stared, snuffed the air, and then proceeded on his way without the slightest sign of alarm.

Precisely when we leave depends on how long it takes Moshi to find the chimps." It was eight in the morning, and I was sitting at the breakfast table eating poached eggs and drinking strong Tanzanian coffee with the camp manager, Ben Jackson, an expat from conventional life back in England. "He goes out at first light, and sometimes they are right by the camp. Other times they can be high up on the mountainside."

Fortunately we were destined to be lucky that morning; word soon filtered back that a small group of chimps had been located less than an hour's walk away. Wild chimpanzees normally flee at the first sound of human approach, but at both Gombe and Mahale, long-term scientific research projects have slowly habituated them to contact with people. Jane Goodall began her pioneering work at Gombe back in 1960, while at Mahale, a Japanese team led by Toshisada Nishida of Kyoto University has been studying one particular troupe, the "M-Group," since 1964.

Chimpanzees are primates—the highest order of mammals, which includes lemurs, monkeys, anthropoid apes, and Homo sapiens. Recent advances in our understanding of DNA have revealed that chimps share 98 percent of our genetic material and that they are much more closely related to humans than to monkeys. Some scientists now claim that chimpanzees have a level of intelligence comparable to that of a two-year-old child, being capable, in some rudimentary way, of understanding words as abstract labels rather than just labels for things. Today's researchers talk about chimpanzee "culture," meaning consistently repeated patterns of behavior. Chimps appear to have a notion of strategy while hunting, for example, and to make war on rival groups in a ruthless and organized fashion. And they even seem to possess some idea of the medicinal properties of plants. Certainly our knowledge is encyclopedic compared to 40 years ago, when Goodall first observed chimps employing grass stems to extract termites from their mounds—the first scientifically recorded use of tools by a creature other than man.

"M stands for Mahale," Ben explained, as we headed along a narrow forest path, between high green walls of vegetation. Up front, Moshi the tracker and Yasini, a park ranger, were energetically swinging their machetes and clearing a way through. "M-Group is an extended family of about fifty chimps, but we don't generally find them all together. This whole area is their territory and they tend to spread out. But nearly everyone who comes to Mahale gets to see chimps at some point during their stay. If you head farther into the reserve, into another territory, then the chimps all run away. But M-Group is completely unfazed by people."

The ground was slippery from a recent shower, and the air felt clammy and slightly oppressive. My shirt was already stuck to my back with sweat. "This isn't real rainforest," Ben said, in what sounded like a slightly defensive tone of voice. "It's too light and too dry. In fact, from June to October it hardly ever rains around here."

Exquisite turquoise and yellow butterflies flitted through shafts of sunlight, while a million unseen cicadas created an unremitting cacophony, rather like an orchestra made up entirely of chain-saws. Suddenly Moshi stopped and pointed to the ground. There, in a patch of damp earth, was a perfect leopard paw print. "Listen to those baboons," Ben said. "They're making a hell of a racket, and it's not us that they're worried about. The leopard is still around. It must have passed this way just a couple of minutes ago."

We'd been going for about 45 minutes when Moshi and Yasini abruptly stepped off the path and began hacking their away into the undergrowth. Ben and I followed behind, bending low underneath branches, trying not to trip over creepers or disturb the webs of a particularly sinister-looking species of spider. After about 50 yards our guides stopped, squatted down, and pointed into the branches of a nearby fig tree. There, no more than 20 feet away, an adult female chimpanzee and her baby sat calmly chewing fruit and occasionally spitting out bits of carefully masticated pulp.

"She's about thirty-two years old, and the young one is about nine," Ben said, sotto voce. At this, the female scratched her stomach desultorily and stared down at us with an expression that managed to convey both mild puzzlement and profound boredom. Clearly she felt not the slightest mistrust or alarm. Getting comfortable on a patch of dry leaves, I pulled out my camera and binoculars. The minutes ticked by, and my mind began gradually to attune itself to the timeless world of the forest. Other chimps were around, as I could hear them crashing about in the trees overhead, but they always contrived to remain invisible behind a dense screen of leaves. This was starting to become a little frustrating when, out of the corner of my left eye, I caught sight of a hind leg searching around for a foothold. This was immediately followed by the other leg and then the rest of a second female chimp, which rapidly shinned down the tree trunk before wandering to within ten feet of where I was sitting. Our eyes met. It occurred to me that I ought to feel some instinctive kinship, but the six million years since apes and hominids went their separate ways seemed, on this occasion at least, to preclude any such empathy. The smell was also a bit of a problem, personal hygiene clearly not being much of a chimp priority. Having checked me out for a moment or two, the newcomer decided it was time to join mother and child in the fig tree and began to head purposefully in my direction. This seemed alarming, but before I could react, she had passed so close that I felt a tug at my shirt as her arm brushed my shoulder. It was an extraordinary moment, one in which I experienced a complex mixture of surprise, apprehension, exhilaration, and wonder.

That afternoon, as a complete contrast to hiking through the forest, Ben suggested a trip on the lake in the dhow. Mahale would be a remarkable place were it just for the chimpanzees, but the camp's other great amenity and resource is Lake Tanganyika itself. Not only is it a colossal freshwater swimming pool, but you can also fish and even snorkel in it, the water clarity being similar to that found at a tropical beach. We set off around five, when the heat had started to go out of the sun and a balmy breeze kicked up. Ospreys and fish eagles patrolled the shallows for their evening meal and a huge palm-nut vulture drifted lazily past. We were trolling spinners for sangala and kuhe, the two local fish that make the best eating, when I glanced down into the water and noticed three hippos swimming along parallel to the boat, about five or six feet below the surface. Hooking a hippo seemed both likely and highly inadvisable. Luckily they turned aside and surfaced, blowing spray. The fish were uncooperative, but eventually Ben did succeed in catching a sizable kuhe, a handsome bright yellow fish of approximately five or six pounds. This he expertly sliced into strips of sashimi, which, washed down with vodka, was surprisingly delicious.

Back at camp, the staff had lit a fire on the beach and set a table at the edge of the lake. There we ate a dinner of spinach-and-eggplant soup, spareribs served on a bed of the local rice, and, improbably enough, a mousse au chocolat that would have passed muster in Paris.

Over the next few days I hiked for miles accompanied by Moshi, Yasini, and their indispensable machetes. Overall, M-Group proved fairly elusive, but we caught up with them on two more occasions. The first time Yasini spotted a mixed group of around 15 chimps, about 50 feet up in the forest canopy, and we lay watching them through binoculars for more than an hour.

The best sighting, however, was reserved for late in the afternoon of my final day. Alerted to the presence of either monkeys or apes by discarded fruit peel being dropped from a tree, we quickly identified two large male chimpanzees, which then obligingly climbed down a vine and allowed us to follow them, 20 feet behind, for 15 minutes or more. I kept expecting them to step aside and let us pass, or at least swing around to protest at being so closely tailed, but our intrusion didn't faze them. Suddenly, some long-dormant synapse flipped my imagination back a few million years, and just for a moment I felt a thrilling and mysterious connection to an otherwise incomprehensibly ancient past.

Wandering peacefully along the forest path behind that broad, hairy, muscular back, I was filled not only with a sense of privilege, but also one of deep foreboding. It is surely one of the most desolate commentaries on our stewardship of the planet that, less than half a century after we first began to understand them, we are on the verge of wiping out the last surviving populations of our closest genetic relatives. But as with most of Africa's wildlife, it is tourism and the money it brings that will provide the only realistic hope of long-term survival for chimpanzees. So maybe all is not yet lost. Certainly it would be nice to think that a hundred years from now Mahale will remain remote and unsullied. And that, setting out early in the morning, you might still hear the magical hooting of the chimpanzees somewhere up ahead in the forest.

The Chimp Trail

Accommodation Mahale is a traditional East African safari camp—comfortable but by no means luxurious. The tents are spacious and screened, and the beds have sprung-metal supports. However, those expecting the modern bathroom facilities offered nowadays by many camps in South Africa, Botswana, and elsewhere will be disappointed. At Mahale, excellent hot showers are available, but there is no bathtub (other than the lake, for which a special kind of fish-friendly soap is provided), and the toilets are adequate but simple outhouses. A communal mess tent provides a complimentary bar and a small selection of wildlife and safari books. Considering the location, the food is astonishingly good, varied and well-prepared. Excellent fresh fish is always available from the lake. However, for some reason the chef has a total blind spot when it comes to soft-boiled eggs.

Getting There Mahale is remote, which is of course half the point. Guests generally fly by private charter from Arusha, which is the usual base camp for safaris in the Serengeti National Park, the Ngorongoro Crater, and the vicinity of Kilimanjaro. By Cessna 206 the flight takes five hours, including 30 minutes on the ground in Tabora to refuel. This is not quite as arduous as it sounds—providing you are happy in a small airplane—as the view out the window is invariably spectacular. It is also possible to reach Mahale by scheduled Precision Air flights from Dar es Salaam to Kigoma (two hours 45 minutes), on a 60-seat, twin-prop ATR. The camp's Cessna can then pick you up in Kigoma and fly you down the lake to the camp's airstrip (about one hour).

When to Go The best months at Mahale are during the dry season, June-October. November, the end of March, and April are wet and should be avoided. February is the classic month to visit the southern Serengeti to see the wildebeest migration. It is possible to visit Mahale at this time of year, though there are likely to be occasional heavy showers.

What to Take The forest is sometimes muddy and the trails can be steep, so a strong pair of walking boots with cleated soles is essential. Depending on the season, you may want a rain poncho. (Yasini, the resident park ranger, prefers a Royal Stuart tartan golfing umbrella, and he may have a point.) You'll also need a bathing suit, binoculars, and film. Flash is not permitted in the forest.

Health Requirements Tanzania requires the full range of tropical inoculations. There is little or no malaria at Mahale, but antimalarial drugs are still recommended. Powerful insect repellent is essential to ward off tsetse flies, to whose bites many first-time travelers prove allergic.

Reservations Mahale is represented overseas by London-based Worldwide Journeys and Expeditions, Britain's leading adventure travel company, which can put together a complete East African or Tanzanian itinerary. Rates: three nights at Mahale, $1,483 per person; round-trip air charter from Arusha, $5,678 for up to four passengers. 27 Vanston Place, London SW6 1AZ; 44-207-386-4646; fax 44-207-381-0836; e-mail: To contact Mahale, it's best to use e-mail, as the phone lines in Tanzania are unreliable:

Andrew Powell wrote about trout fishing in the chalkstreams of England in Departures' May/June issue.