For the chimpanzees (sokwe mtu in Kiswahili)
Published The East African Nation media 16-22 September 2017
Above: Playful young chimpanzee in Gombe National Park on the shores of Lake Tanganyika. Copyright Rupi Mangat
When l heard Dr Jane Goodall talk in Nairobi about her ground-breaking pioneering chimpanzee research in Gombe it became my mission to get there in search of our closest relative whose DNA is 98 per cent like ours. It was Goodall who first documented chimpanzees using tools for a purpose – inserting sticks in a termite mound to fish out the insects for a snack – that made Louis Leakey the Kenyan paleoanthropologist quote famously, “Now we must redefine tool, redefine Man, or accept chimpanzees as humans”
So Mama Safari was readied – our sturdy Toyota Crown Royal Saloon 1985 model with the nephew, Galib at the wheel. The journey was mapped out from Nairobi: Arusha, Tarangire National Park, Babati, Singida, Tabora, Kigoma and the final sail to Gombe National Park – a round trip of 3000 kilometers in nine days.
Goodall as a young woman had also arrived in Gombe from Nairobi having driven all the way in 1960. At the time, the roads were rough and untarmacked and beyond Nairobi, real African bush with few villages. It must have been a labour of love at that time to reach Gombe.
In the 57 years since, the Tanzanian road to Kigoma on Lake Tanganyika is beautifully tarmacked with only three sections between Tabora and Kigoma unpaved but good enough for a saloon car.
So we set off at 5 a.m. from Nairobi and reached Namanga. The one-stop border took two hours despite us being the first in the queue. Do NOT make the fatal mistake of carrying only your Kenyan ID for the border crossing into Tanzanians. Unlike Rwanda and Uganda, Tanzanians only accept Kenyans with a passport and a yellow fever card.
It was only a few minutes into Tanzania that we got our first taste of the Tanzanian police who made our otherwise fantastic safari a nightmare. The police-woman jumped into the driver’s seat to check out the mechanics and after 20 wasted minutes, it became routine to be stopped more than once every single day for the entire trip. The much-dreaded 50-kilometer signs every few kilometers by the road-side towns and villages have the hawk-eyed, over-zealous people waiting.
Arusha on the foothills of Meru
At Lake Duluti Serena, l get my first taste of how close free-roaming elephants are to the city. A 15-minute drive from the hotel by the crater lake and we’re into Arusha National Park where a herd of four male elephants cross the road near the gate. “Arusha National Park is one ecosystem with Kilimanjaro and Amboseli national parks (in Kenya),” states Zacharia Mbuya, the driver guide. Until the 1970s, the park was famous for black rhinos. With the new president Magafuli, the whip’s been unleashed on the poachers with elephants making a come-back.
Then it’s on to Treetops Tarangire – a stunning eco-lodge built around the baobabs in Rendilen, a community conservancy on the edge of Tarangire National Park famous for the humongous baobabs and elephants – both in plenty at the swamp including the lioness who stole the show making a dash for a passing zebra. The night-game drive in the Wildlife Management Area proved to be fascinating with nocturnal creatures including flap-necked chameleons and Verreaux’s eagle owls on a night hunt.
And then it was to Gombe – with a night at Tabora where in 1871-1872 Dr David Livingstone the missionary-medical doctor-explorer with a double agenda of fighting the slave trade and to settle the question of the Nile lived. Driving to the outskirts of Tabora along mango-lined avenues from the slavers times, we’re deep in a rural village of Kazeh with much of Livingstone’s story in the house – including relics of the slave trade like the infamous yokes that tied the slaves.
Modern day Tabora is much more civilized – we spend the night at Tabora Hotel that was built in the early 1900 to receive the German Kaiser – just that he never came to see his ‘kingdom’ for after the 1st World War, German East Africa fell into the British realm. Buildings built in the 1950s by Indians have their dates and names still on the façade. It’s a quaint town with a Cuban effect.
Then the long overhaul to Kigoma and onto the African Great Lake – Tanganyika that is filled with superlatives – Africa’s longest and deepest lake (including the world’s longest freshwater lake).
At midnight it’s impossible to see it as we drive into Kigoma. It’s the following morning that the enchanted lake with its stunning golden beaches open up and we set sail before sunrise for Gombe – three hours away by motor-boat.
Chimps in the Forest
It’s understandable that we’re impatient to see the chimpanzees. Iddi Kaluse, Gombe park’s guide and the chimp-trekkers are busy on the walkie-talkies to determine which way the chimpanzees are moving – up and further into the hills which would mean a really long hike or down into the valley a few minutes from where we are.
“Do you believe in God?” asks Kaluse. Sitting under the mango tree in the forest, l’m taken aback –and at that point the trekkers call in – the chimps are moving down.
We hear them before we see them. The forest echoes with the shrieks and chest-thumping of the chimpanzees and then everything is silent except for the birds.
The guides lead us along a path filled with oil palms, ferns and towering trees. And suddenly a chimpanzee stumbles down-hill with the rest of the family. For the next three hours, it’s just us and them – three families – that is the G, S and F – at different points from the Kasekela community that lives in the central part of Gombe and is habituated to people.
The dominant male thump’s his chest in a show of power, a mother – either Greta or Golden – nurse her new borne, the kids climbing and swinging on branches. Older ones tumble around and make low grunts. “They are laughing,” tells Kaluse. In chimp lingo, it’s called panting. As they move, we follow always keeping a healthy distance from them.
In a deep vale crowded with sky-high trees and a crystal clear stream flowing down, there’s a hunt on. The chimpanzees have seen the red colobus monkeys and give chase on the tree tops. “They will try and isolate the monkeys. The monkeys that fall to the ground will be grabbed by the ones waiting below,” tells Dr Anthony Collins of Jane Goodall Institute Tanzania. He’s been here 30 years – and like Goodall came only for a year. He speaks Kiswahili fluently.
In the next pulsating few minutes, there are shrieks and cries and then again – silence with the gurgle of the stream. The monkeys have gotten away – for now.
Go to Gombe
It’s Tanzania’s smallest national park – 56 square kilometres along the Great Rift Valley.
The only way to access is by boat. I hired a motor-boat at Ksh 25,000 for the day – the most expensive part of the journey.
At Gombe spend at least two nights to ensure you do see the chimps. Visitors have come away without seeing them.
The chimpanzee population has been going down – from 150 when Goodall started to about 90 today at Gombe. This is due to a range of problems from habitat being cleared so close to the park to infectious diseases – mostly respiratory – contracted from humans. Hence visitors with colds, cough or flu are not allowed trekking.
It’s very affordable for Kenyans – Conservation fee of Ksh 250 per person per day; guide trekking Ksh 125 per six people; Campsites, hostel and restaurant at about the same prices. Check out www.tanzaniaparks.go.tz
Clean, affordable hotels at Singida, Tabora and Kigoma– up to Ksh 4000 for room bed and breakfast.
Stay at the gorgeous Jakobsen Beach and Guesthouse – the best beach l’ve been on so far. It has family houses, tented accommodation and camping ground – Ksh 5,000 – a real bargain.