Set against the shores of Lake Tanganyika in the far west of Tanzania, Mahale Mountains National Park is one of Tanzania’s most remote and isolated parks, accessible only by small aircraft and by boat, and deep in the jungle of the Mahale Mountains live over 800 wild chimpanzees.
Having spent the previous day trekking for 7 hours through the jungle with no luck in finding these fascinating creatures, we were keen to try again that morning.
The paths through the jungle crisscrossed through thick bush, muddy patches of swamp, and across the numerous small rivers that rushed towards the lake. Overwhelmed by the sheer beauty and sensory experience of being back in the jungle, I found myself forgetting our main objective, until our guide stopped suddenly to listen closely to the cacophony of sounds the creatures of the jungle were making.
“Did you hear it?” He pointed up into the dense forest ahead of us. We listened closely for a few minutes until we heard the unmistakable cry of the chimpanzee.
We scrambled and climbed through the thick trees and bushes with our guide masterfully hacking a path ahead of us with his machete, hop, skip and jumping across the boulders of the rivers, getting our feet wet as would be expected, clambering up steep ravines, grabbing branches and rocks to keep our balance.
Stopping again to listen for the call of the chimpanzees, and our guide went ahead and scrambled up the next steep climb, telling us to wait and he will call on us if there were any further signs of the chimps. We sat on thick tree roots in the midst of the jungle, listening to the the screeches of the baboons and vervet monkeys up in the trees around us, the rattling of the termites and ants that we had disturbed under our feet, the musical warbling of the huge variety of birds in the trees.
“Come!” Our guide yelled from the top of the hill and we hurried up the steepest climb yet, scratching and bruising our legs and arms on the branches and we pushed them out of the way or climbed over them.
Our guide pointed up into the tree and we saw a dark shape swinging across the very top branches – we had found a chimpanzee. Our guide told us to put on our protective face masks before we got any closer, ensuring these wild creatures would not be exposed to any of our germs. We climbed down through the base of the tree, trying to get a better view. Suddenly, we heard the loud shriek of another chimpanzee and the bushes ahead of us shook as the alpha male swooped through the trees towards us. We froze as our guide hurried towards us to make sure he was not in an aggressive mood but our fears were quickly allayed as the alpha male sat down across the ravine from us, keeping us in his sight but seemingly quite comfortable with our presence.
We could not believe our luck – sitting under the trees just metres away from an alpha male chimpanzee. But our luck was just about to get even better as some researchers arrived and told us to come towards them.
As the guides hacked a path down the side of the steep ravine for us, we came across a group of young males grooming themselves, content with the presence of humans merely a metre away from them.
Chimpanzee DNA is 98.3% the same as human DNA. As we watched them, it wasn’t hard to tell the similarities and those essential differences. Their clever hands and feet, while almost the same as our own, were acutely adapted for their environment and needs, perfect for gripping onto trees and reaching into anthills. Their ears shaped just like ours but larger and more defined for helping protect their tribe against those almost silent predators.
“If we look straight and deep into a chimpanzee’s eyes, an intelligent self-assured personality looks back at us. If they are animals, what must we be?”
― Frans de Waal
What I found most intriguing was their wise faces. With folds and wrinkles around their eyes, their furrowed brows suggested continual thoughts racing through their minds. Their deep, dark eyes seemed to gaze off into the distance at times. They studied us and studied each other – it wasn’t hard to believe that there were questions running through their minds about these strange creatures with the blue and white surgical masks snapping photographs only feet away.
We were only allowed to spend an hour with the chimps – a rule that is kept strictly to protect these creatures and their habitat.
As we returned to our camp, elated after our close encounter with these wild and beautiful creatures, I felt so privileged to have spent that precious hour with them.