“I don’t care two hoots about civilisation,” remarked Jane Goodall in the 1960s, to her mentor Louis Leakey. “I want to wander in the wild.”
As I fold up my laptop and pull on my boots, I can’t help feeling the same. Deep in the tangled forest beside Lake Tanganyika, our trackers have located some chimps. Everything else can wait.
As a student, I pored over Jane’s theories and was gripped by her tales from Gombe Stream, in Tanzania. It was Leakey, the brilliant paleoanthropologist, who spotted her potential, prompting her to study wild chimpanzees. In 1960, when she began, she didn’t even have a degree.
Despite her lack of academic training, or perhaps because of it, Jane’s findings changed primatology forever. Jane convinced the world that chimps were intelligent problem-solvers with unique personalities, inspiring others to discover more.
In the early years, Jane hated the idea of fragile African forests like Gombe being disrupted by tourists. But with wild spaces under increasing pressure to earn their keep, chimp-tracking opportunities have spread. Several remote forest reserves along Africa’s Albertine Rift now offer this experience. By exploring from Lake Tanganyika to Lake Albert, I’m hoping to learn how they compare. Could it be possible, in a short visit, to witness the kind of real-life wildlife dramas that experts like Jane have documented over the years? With their trademark mood swings and power plays, chimps can be fascinating to watch.
My first glimpse of Lake Tanganyika was a shimmer of silver-grey through the window of a tiny Cessna. “Get ready,” said the co-pilot, as we soared over the mountains, which tumble into the lake. “This is exciting every time.” Diving through a gap, we landed just short of the shore.
I was bound for Greystoke Mahale, a gorgeous lakeside hideaway so remote the only way there from the airstrip is by boat. It’s named after the fictional Lord Greystoke, better known as Tarzan, who Jane Goodall once confessed was her dream date. Over 100 miles of scattered settlements separate Mahale from Gombe, but it has excellent chimp-watching credentials of its own. Since 1965, experts have carried out fieldwork around Greystoke’s wild backdrop — a gently sloping forest, protected by a rampart of mountains. It’s the home range of the M Group, an 80-strong chimpanzee community, which, thanks to the constant, but low-key presence of researchers, don’t consider humans a threat.
The group is highly cooperative, supporting the theory that early man might have evolved in a dense forest such as this. They’re also sophisticated self-healers, with a diet that includes plants selected for their medicinal qualities. But sometimes, when there’s an abundance of ripe fruit in the forest, they simply chill out on Greystoke’s sandy beach.
Each day at Greystoke begins with a waiting game, while the trackers hunt for clues — last night’s leafy nests, perhaps, or joyful calls from a faraway fruit tree. Chimps can move like lightning, so no two searches are the same.
Local guides Mwiga Mambo and Butati Nyundo know the M Group’s life stories inside out, and are keen to fill us in on the gossip. Pant-hooting (a type of chimp call) with gusto, they tell me stories of chimp courtship, rivalry and intrigue that would suit a TV soap opera.
Suddenly, the quest is on. Grabbing cameras and binoculars, we hurry inland across sand dimpled with monkey tracks and plunge into the forest beyond.
Batongwe and Holoholo villagers once lived among Mahale’s xylopia and cordia trees, lacing the forest with paths. Silently, we follow these, stepping over vines and ducking through tunnels of leaves. A volley of red-tailed monkeys, clicking with alarm, flash through the branches. We’re close. We forge on.
Our guides keep one ear to the radio. Thunder’s in the air, big drops are starting to fall and the chimps are on the move. “If they head for the swamp, that’s bad news,” says Mwiga. “The hippos don’t mind chimps. But people? Not so keen.”
To our relief, the chimps have paused. We catch our first glimpse, and I gasp. High in a fig tree, with rain-beaded fur, is a mother nursing her young. As we watch, enchanted, another female descends nimbly from her day nest, settles herself on the ground and starts grooming her adult son. Then, I witness something wonderful. Together, they each raise one hand, clasp them high in a comfortable arch and resume grooming with practised ease. Typical of Mahale’s chimps, it’s exactly the type of cooperative behaviour I’ve been hoping to see.
Thirteen million years ago, in a forest just like this, our common ancestors probably did exactly the same. It’s like staring down a tunnel though time.
On the trail in Gombe
My visit to the Kasekela Community, Africa’s most famous chimpanzee dynasty, begins with another journey by boat. We skim across the gin-clear water of Lake Tanganyika to Gombe, where ripples of forest cascade to the shore. In a region where all too many hillsides have been stripped of trees, it’s like gazing on hallowed ground.
A few Kasekelans have been spotted in an area of steep ravines. We hop off the boat and head uphill through mossy trees. My young national park guide, Khalfan Kikwale, sets a brisk pace along a path so smooth and dappled, we could be exploring an English woodland. Perhaps this is why Jane Goodall felt instantly at home when she first arrived here.
I ask Khalfan what he enjoys most about spending time with chimps. “They’re like us in so many ways, only they don’t hold back,” he says. “They express themselves freely. There’s always something going on.”
Over the soft, repeated notes of tinkerbirds, my ears strain for chimp sounds. The radio crackles. They’re still in range, but moving at speed.
“Are you OK to take a short cut?” says Khalfan, indicating a thickly vegetated, near-vertical slope with no discernable path. And with that, we’re climbing up a dry waterfall, hacking vines away as we go.
When at last we find the chimps, they’re relaxing in the shade. I brush myself down, pull the biggest twigs from my hair and join two young women who are already there. They’re US graduate students linked to the Jane Goodall Institute, which has branches all over the globe. Watching silently, they make notes while the chimps groom, feed or whoop to others nearby. And when the group’s ready to move on, they follow nimbly, just as Jane did half a century ago.
Shadowing a ranger in Uganda
Most chimpanzee safaris allow you just one fleeting hour in the company of chimps. But there’s an interesting alternative. In two of Uganda’s protected forests, you can shadow a ranger from dawn to dusk, learning how to track a chimp community as the day unfolds.
I meet Kibale Forest ranger Charles Turinawe in the cool, grey light of dawn. Robin-chats and mourning doves are chorusing from the trees. Charles isn’t carrying a machete, but there’s a radio on his belt and a rifle slung over his shoulder. “The good news is we don’t have too much undergrowth to deal with,” he says, obliquely, when I ask about the gun.
“Do they ever charge?”
His eyes bulge. “We have to be prepared.”
It’s not just the chance we’ll bump into a touchy elephant that makes this all-day trek different. We’ll be venturing into the territory of some of Africa’s feistiest habituated chimpanzees. One of Kibale’s communities are such efficient hunters that they’ve practically wiped out the red colobus monkeys in their patch.
We’re concentrating on the Kanyantale community, whose range covers over 10sq miles. Charles has a good idea where they nested. Setting his mental compass, he confidently leads the way.
Giant mahoganies and Newtonias soar up from the forest floor. My sense of direction falters as we weave through the trees, but Charles can read the paths like a map. Occasionally, he stops to check the ground for knuckle prints and dung. “I’m sure if I was in your home town for the first time, I’d feel a bit lost,” he says, reading my thoughts. “All the houses and streets would look the same.”
A racket of screams and hoots confirms the chimps are near. The first ones we spot are calmly gorging on fruit, but a thunder of drumming and yelling suggests they’re not alone. One of the females is on heat, and tensions are high.
“Just stay still. Don’t run,” says Charles, as a bundle of fury with puffed-up black fur appears on the ground. It’s Toti, the troublemaker. He’s keen to shake up the hierarchy, and his colleagues are shrieking their support. Slamming the buttress of an African greenheart tree with his palms doesn’t seem to have the desired effect. So for good measure he barrels past us, slapping me loudly on the leg as he goes.
I grin, wide-eyed, at Charles.
“Are you sure you’re OK?” he whispers.
“I’m fine,” I reply.
“Has the future president given you a bruise?”
Secretly, I’m rather hoping he has.
Meeting Doctor Jane
When Jane Goodall walks into a classroom of East African schoolkids, she lights up the room. And when she introduces herself as Dr Jane and emits a lusty pant-hoot, she brings the house down.
Jane has invited me to join her at a chapter meeting of Roots & Shoots, the global conservation and humanitarian programme for young people she founded in 1991. Jane attends hundreds of discussions and events each year, accompanied by a small entourage of advisers and a cuddly toy mascot called Mr H. Half-chimp, half-monkey, where she goes, he goes. “He’s named after a dear friend, but the H is also for hope,” Jane says.
A slight, sprightly 81-year-old, Jane looks and sounds younger than her years. On the day we meet, her hair is in the practical ponytail she’s sported since childhood and when she speaks there’s a youthful twinkle in her steely eyes.
The topic is the environment and the kids take turns to stand up and express their views. “I want to motivate my generation to care,” says one 12-year-old girl in a passionate, two-minute speech. The atmosphere is electric.
Later, I ask Jane whether chimp safaris can make a positive difference to the lives of the youngsters we’ve just met.
“If they decide that tourism can bring them a useful, sustainable income, they’ll protect their forests,” she says. “And by doing that, they’ll safeguard the soil and water sources their communities need to grow nutritious crops. So, yes, that could make all the difference in the world.”
Kenya Airways flies direct from Heathrow to Nairobi, the hub for flights to Dar es Salaam, Kigali and Entebbe. British Airways also flies to Nairobi, from Heathrow.
Average flight time: 8h 30m.
In Tanzania, Zantas Air and Safari Airlink offer flights to Mahale for the boat to Greystoke Mahale (1.5h) and Air Tanzania flies to Kigoma for the boat to Gombe (2h).
In Rwanda and Uganda, Thousand Hills Expeditions and Great Lakes Safaris can arrange guided overland tours, including Nyungwe (5h from Kigali) and Kibale (6h from Entebbe); self-drive is also possible.
When to go
You can track chimps all year, but June-October, when it’s dry underfoot, is best. Greystoke Mahale is closed in the rainiest months (mid-March to mid-May). In Uganda, all-day Chimpanzee Habituation walks are available in the quieter months (March–May and November in Kibale; October–June in Budongo).
Need to know
Visas: Available on arrival. Current fees for UK citizen s are Tanzania US$50 (£34), Rwanda US$30 (£20), Uganda US$100 (£65) or the East Africa Tourist Visa for Kenya, Rwanda and Uganda US$100 (£67).
Health: Consult your GP, as vaccinations/antimalarials may be needed.
Jane Goodall Institute (JGI).
In the Shadow of Man, by Jane Goodall (W&N). RRP: £9.99.
Tales from Gombe, by Anup Shah and Fiona Rogers (Natural History Museum, 2014). RRP: £40.
How to do it
Natural World Safaris offers a bespoke Tanzania flying safari, including chimp tracking at Greystoke Mahale and big game at Chada Katavi Tented Camp, from £4,615 per person, sharing for seven nights, full board, including activities and all flights. Gorilla trekking in Rwanda or Uganda can be added.
Cox & Kings offers a bespoke overland tour of Rwanda and Uganda, featuring chimps, gorillas and big game in Nyungwe, Kibale, Volcanoes and Queen Elizabeth National Parks, from £3,995 per person, sharing. Includes nine nights’ full-board, activities, private road transfers and return flights from London.
Published in the March 2016 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)