It was Mafia Island that originally drew us to Tanzania and in particular another chance to see whale sharks. However, from the moment we started looking into travelling the mainland there has been one place that has been dominating our thoughts.
Gombe National Park
Our interest in Gombe first came about in probably the same way it does for 99% of the tourists who visit the park. We read and learnt about the incredible life (so far) of Jane Goodall and in particular – her book ‘Shadow of Man’ and couldn’t come all the way to Tanzania without visiting Gombe and its inhabitants, no matter how tough the journey to get there.
It takes two hours to reach Gombe National Park from Kigoma and given our limited time there we were happy to have met our guide and and be setting off on our first trek within 10 minutes. We passed through the living area of the parks staff and it was interesting to see all the buildings surrounded by cages. With the local wildlife becoming so used to humans they have no fear of coming into camp and taking your stuff. Baboons in particular had even started copying people and learnt how to use door handles so now everything is under lock and key – even the laundry.
As we entered the thick tress to begin looking for the chimpanzees it was everything I had hoped for. It was humid and we were sweaty within minutes, the paths were steep and blocked by plenty of fallen trees to climb over. I was ready to finally do some hard work on this trip after the ease of our safari and this was giving me everything I wanted.
Out of nowhere our guide started making chimp noises as we marched along, Kirsty and I exchanged a confused glance but sure enough his calls were answered. Not by the chimps which was a little disappointing but by the parks trackers. These guys set off before sunrise each morning to find and follow the chimps, recording everything they do for the on site researchers to analyse. Their other purpose is to inform the guides where the chimps are so people like us are able to see them.
Our first glimpse of the chimpanzees we’d travelled so far to see did not disappoint. We found a mother and two children fishing for termites. Not only were they doing something so fascinating to watch but the mother was none other than Gremlin, one of the chimps mentioned in ‘Shadow of Man’ although she was just a baby at the time. Forget the Kardashians this was a real celebrity spotting!
Gremlin was part of the community that lived in the centre of the park and who Jane Goodall had first been accepted by. There are two other smaller groups living in the park but they are much harder to find. The group in the north are also not concerned by humans but those in the south will run as soon as you get close, our guide had apparently tried to get to them and experienced this a few times.
We sat watching the three of them for around 20 minutes. The only other people there were a small crew filming for ‘Inside Africa’ all the proof we needed that we go to some pretty cool places. Once the rain started pouring down Gremlin and her kids took what little cover they could, this gave us a great opportunity to take some clear pictures while they were sitting still. Staring through the viewfinder one began to come towards me, eventually I had to pull the camera away form my eye, had I zoomed in without realising? As I looked up he wandered right up to me and round my legs before following his mother and sibling who had already began moving off down the hill. Ideally if you can you are meant to move out of there path but as we experienced a few times during our 24 hours in Gombe that isn’t always possible, especially when you don’t even see them coming.
What happened next may well never be beaten as a travel experience. We followed the three chimpanzees through the trees, obviously they don’t follow the paths so neither could we, more satisfying sweaty work. This went on for about 15 minutes, all very calm and relaxed until suddenly everything changed. The area filled with noise and you’d have thought we were following 10 chimpanzees rather than 3, the branches overhead were rustling and we’d lost sight of Gremlin and her family.
Kirsty and I were standing alone as our guide and the trackers had gone ahead to see what was happening. Right above our heads a small monkey jumped between trees and the older child went chasing after it, then out of nowhere Gremlin appeared right in front of us no more than a metre away, breathing heavily from the chase and calling up at the trees. After the calmness of fishing for termites it was exciting to see them looking so alive and strong. She stood there for a few seconds, eyes focussed on what was going on above before giving another loud call and darting past us like we didn’t exist. We were standing smack bang in the middle of a hunt. For the next 10 minutes the trees around us were mayhem, the monkey was flying between the trees too fast for us to keep our eyes on him and every now and then the chimps would appear briefly trying to cut him off while making a lot of noise in the process. It was incredible to be so close to the action, we were buzzing.
Unfortunately for the chimpanzees the hunt was unsuccessful and we soon found them resting in a tree nearby having settled for fruit instead. With our time limited to an hour in close proximity to any one group of chimpanzees that’s where we left them, devouring a tree of all it’s fruit while a tracker sat below trying to remember and note down everything we had just witnessed.
Later on that evening after a trek to Jane’s old feeding station and viewpoint (heavily mentioned in the book and great to see) we were speaking to one of the researchers who was very surprised by our hunting experience. Apparently it’s unheard of for a mother and children to go hunting, especially in such a small group, and it’s usually only done by males and with the main pack when they can work together easily. It seems we’d witnessed something more special than we realised.
The next morning the news from the trackers was that the whole central community was back together including Gremlin and her children, although we’d have to walk a lot further to find them today.
If we thought the noise the day before was impressive then this was something else. After cutting in from the lakeside we were greeted with an incredible volume of chimp calls. We couldn’t see any of them but the noise suggested we were surrounded in all directions amongst the trees. A very surreal moment that was a highlight of our time in Gombe despite no actual visual contact with anything. We came back out of the trees to find the alpha male, also just a baby in the book (celebrity spotting no.2) clearly enjoying his role being groomed by the lakeside.
Another loud set of calls and everyone was on the move again, it was time for breakfast. As the alpha male entered the trees there was a loud screeching an apparently this to alert the others that he had rejoined the main group after his pampering session on the beach. All around we watched chimpanzees climb high into the trees to feast on the fruits above. Later, as we watched one group descend back down to move on we turned to follow and found another group had snuck up behind us and were sitting on a branch just a few feet away, another example of how sometimes it’s hard to keep your distance.
I’d wanted sweaty hard trekking and that’s what I was given towards the end of our time in Gombe. After the usual loud calls to signal the chimps were moving on we followed them through the trees, or tried to. We scrambled, climbed and at times almost ran to keep up with them as they seemed to take the hardest, steepest routes possible. We thought we’d lost them a few times but the trackers who do this daily were better at keeping pace. We arrived at a clearing in the trees to find a large group of chimps relaxing in a tree, grooming each other and eating as they pleased. As we sat down exhausted from the climb more and more chimps were joining the group and not only in the tree but laying in the shade all around us.
The journey to Gombe had been awful, it was anything but cheap and we’d sweat bucket loads since arriving but sitting there surrounded by chimpanzees being completely themselves in the wild and after everything we’d seen in the last 24 hours it was completely and we’d have gone through the pain twice over again if we had to.
Gombe National Park is going to take some beating.