Staff Picks: Chimpanzee Trekking at Mahale
Bushtracks expert safari planner Samantha Barbitta (pictured above at Katavi in front of a partially submerged hippo, not a boulder!) shares her fall 2016 safari to Katavi National Park and Mahale National Park, both in Tanzania. Among the many highlights of her adventure to these less-traveled destinations in Tanzania was the opportunity to go chimpanzee trekking in Mahale.
My mom and I arrived in Arusha and planned a two night stay to recover from our travels. I always love stretching my legs after a long flight, and so we were driven 45 minutes into the countryside to visit the IlKiding’a community. This was one of the most authentic, organized cultural experiences I have ever had. We walked past homes and fields with a backdrop of Mount Meru, watching people go about their day. After our two hour walk the elected Maasai chief invited us to share a really strong cup of coffee grown by the community. Back in Arusha we visited a beautiful art gallery supported by profits from the sale of Tanzanite. Another highlight was Shanga at Arusha Coffee Lodge, a gallery which employs artists with disabilities to create and sell a wide range of art. Well-rested, with our shopping complete, we were ready to see some wildlife!
Although it is a national park, Katavi hosts many fewer visitors than the Serengeti, so you rarely see other vehicles along the roads. The park has many habitats: flat plains, rivers, riverine forest, and even palm forests. Its plentiful wildlife is reminiscent of the Okavango Delta. All the big game is there except rhinos, and we saw elephants, a lot of hippos, giraffes, zebras, roan antelope, several lion prides, hyenas, and four different leopards over four nights. The plains had big herds of buffalo and zebra, but since they don’t see many vehicles, they were a little shy. We were able to take a walking safari with a park ranger and our camp guide, and also took a night drive. I really couldn’t have asked for a better classic game-viewing experience.
Then on to Mahale for the highly anticipated chimpanzee trekking experience! The only way to access the lodge from the nearest airstrip is via a one-and-a-half hour boat ride on Lake Tanganyika, the world’s second-largest freshwater lake, by volume. The water is so clear that in some channels you can see hippos walking underwater! It also is home to hundreds of species of cichlids, and snorkeling is a favorite way to see them. The lake and its sandy white beaches were only half of the story.
We came to see the chimps – although, it is probably fairer to say that the chimps came to see us, since they actually came into our camp to eat from a favorite fruit tree!
One of the groups of chimps at Mahale has been habituated by researchers for 50 years. They are so used to seeing people that they happily go about their daily lives in a very close proximity to visitors and are not the least bit shy. Each of our two days we were broken into groups of six, and set out into the forest with guides who know the individual chimps by name, can recognize individual faces, and even know whose mom is whose. We were very lucky and found the chimps both days, as well as the bonus camp visits. After our morning’s spent chimpanzee trekking we spent afternoons on a boat in the lake, swimming and sunning and having drinks. Everyone at the camp with us, between ages 30 and 70, loved this mix of activity and leisure, and agreed that it was a truly remarkable part of our safari.
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