Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Fish & Chimps

There are few places on earth as unique as the Mahale Mountains National Park (NP) in western Tanzania. This protected area on the shores of Lake Tanganyika (the world's second deepest lake) is home to the largest surviving wild population of the eastern subspecies of common chimpanzees (numbering between 700 & 1000) and is among the best places in Africa to view mans closest relative in their natural habitat.

Often overshadowed by the much smaller Gombe Stream NP to the north due to the famous association of that park with Jane Goodall, Mahale is perhaps the best kept secret in a country rich in wilderness areas including Mt Kilimanjaro, the Serengeti NP and Ngorongoro Crater to name but a few. Unlike these parks and their accessibility on Tanzania's so called "northern safari circuit", access to Mahale requires a two and a half hour flight in a small plane to the far west of the country and a further hours transfer by boat.

What awaits the intrepid traveler is a global biodiversity hot spot (there are only 34 recognised worldwide) almost untouched by trappings of modern life with no road access or human settlements - an area rich in plant and animal life offering up unique experiences that are the highlight of any safari to Tanzania. And so it was on my 6th and most recent trip to this magical destination with 11 guests from the States.

On arrival at Nkungwe Lodge we were informed by Mahale's premier chimpanzee guide, Sixtus, that part of "M Group" - Mahale's long studied and only habituated group of chimps - were a short boat ride away and easily accessible from the shore. And so we set out with high expectations of getting our first look at these amazing apes! Barely 20 minutes into our walk along along a well worn path away from the lake, we were greeted by the first of many chimpanzees that we would have the good fortune of seeing over the next three days.

Each morning, the expert tracker from camp would leave before the group in order to locate the group or part thereof. The position is then relayed back to camp and the adventure begins, with groups limited to six people plus one guide. Depending on the distance of the group from camp, the hike can take anywhere from 30 minutes to four hours one way. We were lucky on this occasion as over the three days we never had to walk for more than one and a half hours. The ease at which Sixtus and the other guides and rangers not only located but identified each individual was astounding and added to what was already an awe inspiring experience. 

In addition to the extraordinary chimpanzee viewing on offer in Mahale, visitors also have the opportunity to fish for their supper, either from the shore or aboard the camp long boat. Tanganyika Perch and Yellow Belly Cichlids are just two of the many species on offer. As with the chimpanzee trekking, fishing is carefully regulated by the parks authorities and a daily license is required.