Up, close & personal with chimps

Up, close & personal with chimps

For a fun tryst with chimpanzees and other primates, head to Gombe National Park in Tanzania

The oldest female chimpanzee of Gombe National Park, Gremlin, with her kid, Grendel

Gombe National Park is the second smallest national park in Tanzania and its name is closely associated with the pioneering research work conducted by primatologist Jane Goodall for decades. It is located 16 km north of Kigoma town in the northwestern part of Tanzania. Situated by Lake Tanganyika, the second largest lake in the world, Gombe National Park is spread across 52 sq km and can be accessed only by a boat. 

Meet & greet

My family and I were very excited but wary on our way to the park, which is home to three chimpanzee communities — Mituba, Kasekela and Bwavi.  After a two-hour flight from Dar es Salaam to Kigoma, we drove to the shores of Tanganyika. My first thought on seeing the rickety chartered boat was worry peppered with some regret. As we all hopped onto the boat, my fears mounted as the boat engine gave out a disconcerting roar. To make it worse, the lake was choppy, which made the ride bouncier. We reached Gombe National Park in the evening. We checked into our rooms after completing the formalities at the Tanzania National Park Authority office.

A view of Gombe National Park from Jane Peak
A view of Gombe National Park from Jane Peak

The serene atmosphere transported us to a different world with its lush green background and the melody of the splashing waves of the lake and the occasional howls from monkeys and the chirping of birds. After swimming in the crystal-clear waters of the lake and enjoying a beautiful sunset, we retired to our rooms.

Next day, as we were getting ready for the chimpanzee trail, a shock awaited us. Hearing a gentle knock on the door, I opened it only to see a huge baboon ready to raid the room. I screamed and shut the door immediately. That was our first encounter with a wild monkey. Thankfully, our frequent encounters with different kinds of monkeys in the next two days were incident-free.

At  8 am, our guide Issaya Paul, who has been closely tracking chimpanzees for nearly nine years, was ready. The briefing was impressive and to the point. “Do not be scared on seeing chimps and monkeys. They will not harm you. Make way for them if you come across them. Do not stare into their eyes. They feel threatened. If you are close to chimps, wear a mask as they may contract infections from human beings.” He mimicked as to how chimps react to different situations and send danger signals to the rest of the community. He said that the park had over 95 chimps, and the youngest was about eight months old.

A twig snake in Gombe National Park
A twig snake in Gombe National Park

As we walked, he explained about the history of Gombe, which became a national park in 1978. He said that the Kiha tribes called the area ‘Gombe’, meaning cave. Our first stop was Chimp’s Feeding Station, where the original thatched hut has been replaced by a metal structure. Two boxes used for feeding chimps with bananas are still in the station. The display boards here give details as to how Jane used bananas to habituate chimps. They also explain how chimps tried to outwit researchers when they changed their tactics to prevent fighting among them. One of the boards said, “Chimps born after 2000 have not seen bananas at all!” Though bananas are available in plenty in Tanzania, they are not grown in Gombe National Park.

As we were busy reading the boards at the Chimp’s Feeding Station, we heard strange sounds only to learn later that our guide was trying to ascertain from a tracker where the chimps were visible. We realised that the park had no mobile connectivity and vehicles and guides depend on age-old communication methods. We sauntered down the hill and he showed us a big chimp with an infant enjoying a slow meal atop a tree. Issaya identified her as Gremlin, the oldest female in the park at the age of 58, and her three-year-old son, Grendel. “Have patience and wait for them to climb down,” was his instruction. Soon, the two climbed down the tree and ambled along the foot track. They decided to groom each other.  

Wild, wild times

After this, we hiked up to Kakombe Waterfalls to see milky white water cascading down from a height of 60 feet. The guide goaded us to visit Jane Peak. It turned out to be an adventurous one, though Jane had hiked it countless times during her work in Gombe. The track was slippery because of dry leaves and loose gravel, and at times, very steep. We had to latch on to trees or vines for support.

It was great fun when we reached the peak, and it was time to take snaps and selfies seated on two small rocks called Jane’s seat. She had spent days together at that place watching chimps, and once had to spend 10 nights at a stretch. During that stay, it is said that she protected herself from a leopard by hiding under her blanket.

The trail on the second day also proved lucky as we came across Samson and Gremlin’s daughter Gaia with her two children. Gabo, at eight months, was suckling his mother and was refusing to leave her while her older child, Google, was on his own jumping from tree to tree in search of delicious food. Issaya was very good at spotting snakes in the forest. As it was slightly hot, not many reptiles were on the ground or hanging from tree branches. We almost fainted when he pulled us aside near a bush. He wanted us to observe something. None of us could spot it until he carefully pointed out the head of a highly venomous twig snake. Barring the triangular head with some stripes on it, it looked exactly like a plant twig and was very well camouflaged. 

Besides chimps, we saw baboons, red-tailed monkeys, blue monkeys and red colobus monkeys. We also came across wild fruits, pepper, nutmeg, robusta coffee and several kinds of flowers. The park is visited by 1,000 tourists a year. As the boat left for Kigoma, we wished goodbye with fond and fantastic memories and tons of photos.