Mahale Mountains National Park
Mahale Mountains National Park is located in one of the most remote locations in Tanzania, on the western bordered with the Congo, against the dramatic shores of Lake Tanganyika. Accessible only by small aircraft, the park is the home to a large chimpanzee population that is well acclimatized to human contact. Although the nearby Gombe Stream National Park is more famous, the primate population in Mahale Mountains is more numerous and sightings are more frequent and prolonged.
Observing the chimpanzees in their natural habitat, one cannot help but be touched by their natural grace and anthropomorphic features. Although remote, a chimpanzee safari to Mahale Mountains National Park is well worth the effort. Hikes to their habitation areas are accessible and not strenuous, though being in good physical condition will ease the strain of walking through the jungle! Close up, observing the endangered primates is a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
Set deep in the heart of the African interior, inaccessible by road and only 100km (60 miles) south of where Stanley uttered that immortal greeting “Doctor Livingstone, I presume”, is a scene reminiscent of an Indian Ocean island beach idyll.
The remote and mysterious Mahale Mountains: Silky white coves hem in the azure waters of Lake Tanganyika, overshadowed by a chain of wild, jungle-draped peaks towering almost 2km above the shore.
Mahale Mountains is home to some of Africa’s last remaining wild chimpanzees: a population of approximately 800 (only 60 individuals forming what is known as “M group”), habituated to human visitors by a Japanese research project founded in the 1960s. Tracking the chimps of Mahale is a magical experience. The guide’s eyes pick out last night’s nests – shadowy clumps high in a gallery of trees crowding the sky. Scraps of half-eaten fruits and fresh dung become valuable clues, leading deeper into the forest. Butterflies flit in the dappled sunlight.
Then suddenly you are in their midst: preening each other’s glossy coats in concentrated huddles, squabbling noisily, or bounding into the trees to swing effortlessly between the vines.
The area is also known as Nkungwe, after the park’s largest mountain, held sacred by the local Tongwe people, and at 2,460 metres (8,069 ft) it is the highest of the six prominent points that make up the Mahale Range.
In addition to the chimpanzees that are the star attraction, the slopes support a diverse forest fauna, including readily observed troops of red colobus, red-tailed and blue monkeys, and a kaleidoscopic array of colourful forest birds.
You can trace the Tongwe people’s ancient pilgrimage to the mountain spirits, hiking through the montane rainforest belt – home to an endemic race of Angola colobus monkey – to high grassy ridges chequered with alpine bamboo. Then bathe in the impossibly clear waters of the world’s longest, second-deepest and least-polluted freshwater lake – harbouring an estimated 1,000 fish species – before returning as you came, by boat.
About Mahale Mountains National Park
Size: 1,613 sq km (623 sq miles).
Location: Western Tanzania, bordering Lake Tanganyika.
Charter flight from Arusha, Dar or Kigoma.
Charter private or national park motorboat from Kigoma, three to four hours.
Weekly steamer from Kigoma, seven hours, then hire a local fishing boat or arrange with park HQ for pickup in park boat, another one or two hours.
What to do
Chimp tracking (allow two days); hiking; camping safaris; snorkelling; fishing for your dinner.
When to go
Dry season (May-October) best for forest walks although no problem in the light rains of October/November.
Three seasonal luxury tented camps.
Two small resthouses, large campsite.
The same rules for chimpanzee viewing at Gombe Stream apply at Mahale