From the dirt airstrip in Katavi, we boarded another 12-passenger Cessna with Tanganyika Flying Company, whose flights only visit Western Tanzania every Thursday and Sunday making for a minimum of 3 or 4 night stays (unless you charter a plane). After a short 30 minute hop to Kigoma to re-fuel for about 25 minutes, we continued on for another scenic 2.5 hours to the Mahale Mountains along the eastern coast of Lake Tanganyika. We were greeted at the airstrip with the warmest and whitest smile from our Nomad guide, Robert. He escorted us to our large wooden, motorized dhow (much like the fishing boats in Zanzibar, less the sail) for a fresh lunch and cold drinks before our calm and beautiful one hour boat ride down the coast to camp. (When the water is rough, this ride can take up to 2 hours.)
The weather gods were on our side as we soaked up the sun on the deck and lazily rounded the last bend on the bank for our first glimpse of the quintessential view of the main building of Greystoke Mahale, set on the sandy beach with a backdrop of lush palm trees and emerald mountains. I pinched myself to make sure that this scene was not just the photo from the website and stepped onto the warm sand to meet Bas and Suzanne (the Dutch managers) and their gregarious staff in a line.
Mahale National Park is set on the banks of Lake Tanganyika, the longest and 2nd deepest lake in the world, a truly remote destination and hidden gem. While the primary draw to visit these mountains is to trek the lively chimpanzee families, the gorgeous location, clear sapphire water and barefoot luxury will inspire you to write a thank you note to the chimps for your invitation to this unexpected paradise. The varied available activities also offer a nice reprieve from the many hours spent in a safari vehicle. Footsteps from camp, guests can snorkel in the clear fresh water and attempt to spot as many of the 355 species as possible, kayak along the shore in a single or tandem boat (no previous experience required), explore the open waters in a motorized dhow to fish ($50 permit required), swim or search for crocs and hippos, hike to majestic waterfalls, trek the curious chimpanzees (of course), or simply soak up the sun from the sandy beach – the options seem endless and the choice is yours.
We were escorted to our beach bungalows before meeting in the main building for our briefing. Greystoke Mahale, our home for the next three days, is the best camp in the park and comprises 6 stunning bungalows (plus one for the guide or pilot), each set along a sandy path and privately sheltered in the thicket of palms and beach brush. The details and creativity in designing these rooms was an artistic feat. Each Swiss-family Robinson-style suite is built on wooden platforms using walls and décor from old huts and boats from local villages with water-washed colors faded on the thick, well weathered wood. With a thatched roof and three solid walls to protect you from the elements, the rooms all have one open wall giving way to views of the clear waters ahead and to fresh, tropical breezes. Mosquito nets romantically wrap the twin or double beds made with crisp linens and colorful cushions, while an old writing desk invites a hand written postcard (compliments of Nomad) and a changing room and wardrobe in the back allow you to unpack and never want to go home. Up a few steps to your en-suite, treehouse bathroom is a basin with running water and a hot, solar shower with a rain shower head, which can be heated by a boiler on cloudy days. A private flush toilet peaks out into the thick rainforest behind, offering all the creature comforts yet still in line with nature and a wild experience. The bungalows are complete with a private wooden verandah with views of the lake and a loft balcony to escape with a book or enjoy a nap with a breeze.
Everyone gathers in the main building for delicious & fresh meals, tea time, or games and whose cross-shaped design mirrors the local villages and gives favor to any breeze blowing in. On the other side of the beach, a staircase leads you to a separate bar seemingly hung in the trees where guests gather for drinks and snacks before dinner (such as 1 hour fresh sashimi from the daily catch) and a briefing of the next days activities. Attached to the bar is a small curio shop known as the “Mahale Mall” where you can buy gorgeous handicrafts from the neighboring villages. A day at Greystoke Mahale would not be complete without circling the bonfire under the stars, recounting tales of Primus, Alofu, Darwin and all the chimp friends.
Over the next two days, I did my best to partake in every exciting activity on hand. We spent every morning hiking chimps and each afternoon on the water. I was a bit nervous for fishing, which is not my forte, but was ecstatic to to catch my first yellow belly fish, which we had for sashimi with pre-dinner cocktails that night. I must admit that fishing the traditional way with a hand line does not require much skill – more patience and balance with a cold G&T in the other hand! The second afternoon, we set out in kayaks to explore the shore and made it all the way down to the Japanese research station where many hours of chimp observation has been documented. We then enjoyed some snorkeling from the beach, which was a bit too cold for my taste in the late afternoon sun. The last afternoon, we went back out in the dhow and spotted hippos in shallow water, followed by some deep water swimming (well away from the hippos, of course) and a diving competition off the stern. But at the end of the day, the highlight by far was our time spent in the forest with the chimps.
Our first sunny morning seemed promising, and after a 10 minute boat ride up shore and about an hour of fairly steep trekking in the humid forest, we had our first magical moments with Darwin, a gentlemanly chimp, with his friends close by. We wondered why he and his pal kept looking to the sky until we heard a booming clap of thunder followed by thick, wet drops of rain. The African skies opened up, reminding us as to why November and December is deemed as the time of the “short rains” (and also why it’s pertinent to always bring rain gear and plastic bags for camera equipment). The torrential downpour, however, added to our adventure as the paths quickly turned to muddy slip & slides and newly formed rivers flowed by. Thanks to the lush rainforest and vines all around, we all found our inner Tarzan and made it safely back to the beach with soggy clothes, muddy bums, but high spirits from our time with the chimps.
The next day was more successful, as the chimps were lower on the mountain making for a quick 20 minute trek on flatter terrain to our first spot of Primus (the Alpha male) and a potential mate in the trees. We trekked a bit farther to encounter Orion, a majestic male known to not like humans. With trepidation, we sat and observed him for 10-15 minutes, while our knowledgeable and cautious guide, Robert moved rocks from Orion’s path to eliminate any temptation to throw them, which apparently he likes to do in order to excite us curious onlookers. Next up the path was our faithful Darwin, calm and serene, who lead us to Primus (the Alpha) and his second hand man, Alofu having a tete-a-tete regarding their destination for lunch. It was fascinating to watch them groom each other, and I learned that this behavior is very important for the socialization between chimps and especially for creating alliances within the hierarchy of the males, which can be quite manipulative and harsh.
It was incredible to hear the chimps communicating with whoops and cries and screams, reminding us that there were far more chimps around than those that we were currently watching. Primus’ group is about 60 chimps strong, all living together in their own territory. This is the only habituated group in the park, although there are different groups and hundreds of chimps unobserved. Some of the family walked by closely on the path giving real perspective to the differences in size and ways of walking between humans and our distant relatives.
It was an honor to spend time with these curious creatures in their forest home – moments that I will never forget. And while I am thankful to have spent 3 nights in this beautiful place, I highly recommend 4 nights if your schedule and budget allows. We met a young honeymoon couple from California who had the best idea and booked a 7-night stay for this special trip! As we said our goodbyes to some of the friendliest staff in Africa and I signed the guestbook, I remarked at one pointed comment which well sums up an experience at Greystoke Mahale: “What a truly remarkable place – the chimps are just a bonus. Mahale would be well worth a visit without them.” And now – on to the Serengeti!