A pair of M group chimpanzees groom each other in the Mahale Mountains National Park. Visitors come to this remote area of Tanzania to observe the chimpanzees in their natural habitat. Liz Wishaw lwishaw@thenewstribune.com
A pair of M group chimpanzees groom each other in the Mahale Mountains National Park. Visitors come to this remote area of Tanzania to observe the chimpanzees in their natural habitat. Liz Wishaw lwishaw@thenewstribune.com


Searching for chimpanzees in the Mahale mountains


January 30, 2016 6:05 AM

The dhow slowly makes its way south down Lake Tanganyika, the Mahale Mountains in the background. The captain keeps the boat moving extra slow, and his crew hands me sodas to combat my motion sickness. We are halfway through an adventure trip trough Tanzania — and I am focusing on the horizon to squelch the queasiness.

We pass a fishing village of Watongwe people. The fishermen are laying out their dark red nets with catches of sardines to dry. Our tour operator, Tom Lithgow, points out the camp that was abandoned over a year ago by other tour operators. Only two tour operators remain, along with the Tanzania National Parks Authority and a group of Japanese researchers, to inhabit this remote area at the south end of the lake, which borders Tanzania, Zambia, Burundi and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

My grandmother Karen Jackson, Lithgow and myself have traveled here to track and observe the M group of chimpanzees. A Japanese research group has been studying this family of about 60 chimpanzees since the mid-1960s, developing a relationship to better understand their behavior in a natural habitat.

Our young Tanzanian guide at Kungwe Beach Resort, Adam, has just completed his university studies and has been with the staff for six months. He takes Karen and me for an introductory walk on our first afternoon at the camp. We watch red colobus monkeys jump so fast from tree to tree, chattering to each other, that we cannot catch them with our cameras. Red-tailed monkeys are just as fascinated with us and pause in a tree to separate the branches and peek at us below.

Adam stoops down to show us what the chimpanzees eat. He points out the palm nuts that get the bush pigs drunk from too much indulgence. As we head back to camp, the yellow baboons are finishing up their afternoon scavenging, seeking bugs in the sand. Over a few days, I use my siesta time to hang out under the bandas and watch the baboons’ fascinating behavior, eating, playing and excluding a male from their activities.


We gather after breakfast and after Adam consults with our chimpanzee tracker via two-way radio. “They are on the move today,” Adam tells us. “They are looking for food.” We pack our small bags and get moving.

The trail is dusty and dry, with leaves covering the trails, making some climbs a little slippery. After an hour of walking, Adam updates us on the chimpanzees. “A little farther. They are climbing up the mountain.” He and Peter, who works for the national parks and is required to be with us, encourage us as the trails get steeper. At this point both men — who are small but strong — are aiding Karen and myself by almost pulling us up some of the trails. The tracker is now cutting new paths to get us closer to where the chimpanzees are located.

Hot and soaked in sweat from the humidity and climb, we finally spot the first of the M group. We don masks provided by Adam that we are required to wear within 10 meters of the chimps so we do not transmit any human diseases to the family. Two males, Teddy and Ceasar, are the first we spot, lying on the ground, grooming each other.

Their behavior is very human-like. In the two days we spend with them, we watch them groom themselves and each other, drink water, use tools to feed themselves, briefly mate, carry their babies and lounge around as if they have no cares in the world.

When the alpha male, Primus, comes through the group, we stop. His presence sends a quick chill through my body. “Stay close and still,” Adam tells us. Primus’ appearance draws long cries of frenzy from the others. “They are paying their respect to him.”

According to our guide, their diet consists of about 68 percent fruit, 28 percent leaves and 4 percent hunting — they hunt some of the smaller primates, such as the colobus monkeys. They wake at 6 a.m. from the one-time nest they built the previous night. They gather, eat their first meal of the day, groom, have lunch, take a nap and then eat dinner, repeating the nest building in a new place and starting over the next day.

After spending an hour with them that first day, we follow them back down the mountain led by our tracker, Rama. Rama learned the trade from his father, who also worked with chimpanzees in Gombe, where Jane Goodall studied them. Rama has spent so much time with these primates that he can imitate their calls with an accuracy that makes you think they are beside you.

That first trek took us about 10 miles roundtrip and five hours out in the mountainous rain forest. We were a little short of water and walking sticks for that strenuous of a day — one of the reasons children under 12 are not allowed on these treks. But those who are relatively fit will find this a worthy, adventurous challenge.

The dark clouds roll in swiftly the next morning as we walk from our beach tents to the main dining quarters. As we sip our morning tea, I watch Peter barely make it from the park boat to the dock as the waves swell. Our morning trek is on hiatus — the storm comes in swiftly from the Congo side of Lake Tanganyika.

A few hours later, after some book reading in the main hut, we get the all-clear sign from Adam and Peter. They are going to ferry us by boat to the abandoned camp up the lake, cutting an hour roundtrip from our trek. The second day’s trek is much easier with walking sticks and more water provided. The rain also helped the trails, making them tackier and easier to climb.

And the chimpanzees seem happy to stay in one spot during the hour we can observe them. One of the Japanese researchers also joins in the observations. A teenage chimp is using a stick to feed himself ants from the tree. A female, Christina, guards her newest baby above us in the trees, while the yet-to-be-named toddler tries to sneak away to watch us more closely. An older male, Bonobo, with his distinctive white beard, stretches out and relaxes on a branch high above us. With reluctance, our guides tell us our time is up and we must go back down to the boat.


A sunset cruise on the lake yields no sightings of the underwater hippo families. We are joined by the boat from the Greystroke camp next door. Someone is fishing on the boat, and it has attracted their resident pelican, who is trying to steal the fish. When we return, dinner is set up on the beach under a clear sky of stars. We share our trip stories — a highlight different for each of us. Plans are made for the morning wake-up call and departure.

The next morning, we board the boat — and after a small engine problem — are off and headed back to the rural dirt runway. Our plane will take us back to Mwanza, and then on to Dar Es Salaam for an overnight stay before heading back to the States.

The next day, we hire a driver to take us to shop for some local artisan souvenirs. My grandmother fell in love with metal warthogs at Lithgow’s camp in Katavi National Park, so we are off to find their workshop. We get to see the local way of life as our driver takes us in circles for an hour, looking for the location and stopping several times to ask locals where it might be.

The gates open to reveal a cacophony of recycled art and materials in a courtyard that employs women and men living with a disability. They use waste materials to create recycled art, sun-dried paper, wooden toys, soaps and glassware. It is easy to spend a a few hours here, watching them work. The larger artwork is amazing, but after a short discussion, shipping would be a little out of my price range. We do find smaller works that can be boxed and sent through as luggage — and the kissing giraffes sit now on a table at home reminding me of my recent Tanzania adventures.

Liz Wishaw: 253-597-8516, @lizwishaw

How to get there

Tourist visa: $100 for U.S. citizens. It can be paid on arrival in Tanzania or ahead of time through the consulate. tanzaniaembassy-us.org.

International travel: Delta, Emirates, KLM, British Airways, Lufthansa, Kenya and Swiss all fly from Seattle to Dar es Salaam. Flights range from $1,550-$2,635 with travel time from 23 hours to almost 48.

Overnight accommodations: Available in Dar es Salaam. We stayed at the Southern Star (1 Garden Ave., P.O. Box 80022, Dar es Salaam, 2000, Tanzania, ‏800-491-9657) on arrival and departure. Prices average about $200-$250 per night, depending on the time of year. tsogosunhotels.com.

Tanzania by Firelight: The Lithgows can customize your safari to include stops at Katavi Park, Mahale Mountains and trek with gorillas in Rwanda. Packages start from $6,000 and include internal flights, transfers to and from all airports, hotels and camps, accommodations, meals, park fees, alcoholic beverages and daily laundry service at their properties. Extra fees are possible with beverage and laundry at other properties. 800-524-7979, tanzaniafirelightsafaris.com.

Wonder Workshop: Local handmade artisan crafts. Plot 1372 Karume Road, Oysterbay, Dar es Salaam, 8:30 a.m.-6 p.m. Mondays-Fridays, 10 a.m.-6 p.m. Saturdays. 255 (0) 754 051 417, wonder-workshop.org.

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