When grooming, the chimpanzees in Mahale NP clasp their hands together and raise their arms. It is called the ‘Mahale handshake’ and no other chimpanzees, anywhere in the world, do this. The Mahale chimpanzees are also the only ones who use sticks as a tool to fish for carpenter ants so they can eat them.
The Mahale chimpanzees were also special, to us, as we went to visit them. We were going to spend some time with the M-group, a group habituated to humans since the 1960s. Around the time Jane Goodall started her research with the chimpanzees in Gombe Stream NP, the Japanese settled in Mahale to do the same. And although nobody has ever heard of them, they too have been studying these great apes for more than 50 years.
In Mahale NP there are currently believed to be between 700-800 chimpanzees, split over 13 family groups. Outside the national park another 800 chimpanzees are thought to be living, that’s why it is important to protect those areas as well, as soon as possible, to stop degradation of their habitat. The M-group, the community that is habituated to humans, currently has 65 members plus another 5 babies which were only 2-3 weeks old when we were there. The alpha male is called Primus, a gentleman who occasionally makes sure they still know he is boss by making a lot of racket. He is however pretty lousy in romancing as he just tries to bully the females into mating when they are in heat.
Mahale NP, like Gombe Stream NP, is also located on the shores of Lake Tanganyika in the far west of Tanzania. It is possibly one of the most beautiful locations in Tanzania, and Greystoke Mahale, where we were staying, is perhaps the most stunning lodge in the whole of Tanzania (in fact, it was awarded Africa’s leading safari lodge by the World Travel Awards a week after we were there).
We met our fellow travellers en route to Mahale, and were welcomed to our home for the next four nights by Barbara & Fabio plus their wonderful team, enthusiastically waving to us from the beach as we were approaching in our big dhow from up the lake.
Petra was travelling alone, spending 5 weeks in Kenya and Tanzania. Natalie, who works for an American tour operator, was in Mahale so she can better sell it to her customers, and to celebrate her birthday. The only other couple was Frank and Lisie, likewise from the USA, who were enjoying a trip through a few countries in Africa. Lucy, also travelling alone, works for Nomad and was there to check on the projects they run in the communities around the national park. Strangers when we arrived, it felt like we were all one big family by the time we said our good-byes.
As Lucy was working she didn’t join our treks to the chimpanzees, so our little group was exactly six people, the maximum number allowed to be with the chimpanzees at one time. This was lucky, with more groups you have to share the chimpanzees, meaning you might spend 20 minutes with them, swap with the other group, wait, and repeat until you have reached your 60 minutes.
The first morning in Mahale we enjoyed a leisurely breakfast at 8am, and left as soon as we were finished. The chimpanzees were not too far away on the lower slopes of the mountain. We cruised closer in the dhow and hiked up into the hills. Soon we spotted Darwin, a 30-year old male who is very used to people. He was orphaned around 4 years old and spent a lot of time with the researchers who would groom him and play with him. This is no longer acceptable, but back in the early 90’s it was. Darwin sat down in the middle of the path and Mwiga, our guide, told us to walk past him so the other chimpanzees, who were behind us, would hopefully join him.
Jude went first and Darwin grabbed her hand to shake it! His hand was super soft and smooth.
Mwiga told us later he wanted to play (Jude would have happily played with him, but this is no longer allowed…). It was an amazing privilege, so special! You can watch the short video of the handshake below.
We then watched as Darwin picked up a leaf, stripped it, but didn’t eat it. It was an invitation for a grooming session, Mwiga explained. Another specialty of the Mahale chimpanzees. Unfortunately we weren’t allowed to join him, but luckily Emory (another male aged 18) and Ichiro (a 16-year old male) came over and they started a grooming train. Linda (a 38-year old female) and a female who had recently joined the M-group also joined, but females without babies are quite shy and the slightest movement in our group sent them off into the bush.
Darwin and Emory then showed us the other Mahale handshake (the one they are famous for, not the one with Jude), we were super lucky! Our allotted time of 60 minutes had ticked away too fast, but fortunately we still had two more days.
The next day breakfast was interrupted before it really started. The chimpanzees had been spotted nearby, did we want to go straight away or have breakfast first? Is the pope catholic? Of course we went out straight away and enjoyed another hour with them. This time we spent a lot of time with the females, including Yuna (female of unknown age) whose baby is only 2 weeks old. They are so cute and helpless when they are that young, just like their human cousins…
Just before we left they found a large tree with enough fruit to share and the excited calls were heard from far. We arrived just as Primus, the alpha male, decided he wasn’t impressed they had started without him and threw a tantrum. It was quite impressive to watch and a lot of the others (chimpanzees) were impressed too and there was a lot of commotion up in the tree.
We had only just sat down for lunch when we heard the same excited food call again, but this time right in our own camp! Hassan, one of the trackers, had already predicted the chimpanzees would be in camp around 1pm. He was only off by half an hour…. These guys know the chimpanzees so well, it is truly remarkable.
We all grabbed our cameras and ran to the kitchen area where a very large waterberry tree towers over the surrounding buildings. It is full of fruit, some of it already ripe. Michio (a 22-year old male) and Emory were already munching away and yelling to all their friends about it. It didn’t take long before more arrived. Alone or in small groups they ambled from between the buildings and the drying laundry, and up the tree they went.
The entire staff was there too, it is quite special when they arrive in camp, and we all enjoyed watching them find the ripe berries to eat before returning to our own amazing lunch nearly an hour later.
We joked about breakfast and lunch being interrupted, and that surely dinner would have to be interrupted too, maybe by some bush pigs rummaging early around the bandas for palm nuts instead of the usual midnight appearances. But it weren’t the bush pigs who interrupted dinner. Jude had forgotten to bring a hairband and after drinks in the bar with the sun setting over Lake Tanganyika, she decided to pop in to banda tatu (three) to quickly grab one on her way to dinner under the stars on the beach. As she exited the banda, she spotted a genet drinking from the footbath at the entrance of the deck!
It walked off and she found it again sitting in the bush before she quickly dashed to the table. Nearly everybody joined for the search of the genet, and luckily Jude found it again in the bush before it scaled a large palm tree. It looked down on us and we all managed to have a good look before we left it in peace, they are so beautiful. But, it wasn’t a large spotted genet as we initially thought. Barbara studied the photos and realised it was a miombo genet, a new mammal species for us!
The rest of the meals were all gobbled up without any interruptions, and after every dinner we sat by the fire, reminiscing about yet another day in paradise underneath a star-filled sky.
We did see another new mammal species, a red-legged sun squirrel, on one of our forest walks with Butati, another amazing guide. And even managed to spot some new birds, although we only managed to take a photo of one of them. The others, all forest birds, are impossible to get in front of the camera…
We also went out twice with the boat and once were lucky enough to spot a hippo. What’s so special about that you might wonder, you must have seen hundreds of hippos by now? And yes, we have seen many before, but, normally they live in murky river water, or a dark pool full of poo and mud. However, in the crystal-clear water of Lake Tanganyika you can actually see them running along the bottom! It was pretty cool to see them elegantly dance under water, they are not clumsy at all when in their element…
Greystoke Mahale is paradise. The setting is idyllic with the thatched mess area on the white sandy beach, every open banda hidden in the tree line but still with a view of the beach and the lake. The meals were delicious and a great time for sharing stories. The bar area is located perfectly with a view of the sun setting over the lake, and a great place to come together at the end of each day. Barbara and Fabio were lovely hosts who certainly know how to entertain, their team runs like clockwork and is always there to assist you with whatever it is you might want or need. The boat trips were relaxing, the swims invigorating, the forest walks educational, and our time with the chimpanzees magical.
Mwiga and Butati are by far the best guides we have ever had in Tanzania (together with Lorenzo in Ruaha NP). They understand these incredibly smart animals and have spent so much time with them that they can explain every bit of their behaviour. It was an honour to spent time with them and to be able to absorb just a tiny bit of their knowledge. We could listen to their stories for hours.
We didn’t want to leave and are already plotting our return… hopefully one day we will make it back! If you haven’t been, put this on your bucket list, you don’t want to miss it.
Flights in little planes across this vast country are expensive, and a cheaper way to reach Greystoke Mahale is using a car partway there.
You can reach Kigoma with a scheduled flight directly from Dar (a lot cheaper as these flights use larger planes). After spending the night in Kigoma, you hop in a car with driver (approximately USD500 for the return trip), which will take you to the Mahale airstrip in around 5 hours.
Once you reach the Mahale airstrip you transfer to Mahale Greystoke by dhow, the same way when you fly in on a small plane directly to the Mahale airstrip.
We can help you connect with a driver in Kigoma if you want to take this route. Leave a comment and we’ll get in touch.