Mahale National Park
The green-carpeted mountains rise dramatically into the sky, their tops wisped with steamy clouds. Eagles wheel across the peaks, the sacred burial grounds of Tongwe chiefs. Deep in the forest, with its trailing vines and tangled creepers, a high, shrieking hoot is heard, followed by a wild screaming and a deafening crash of branches. Suddenly a chimpanzee appears on the rock-strewn path, teeth bared defensively and massive shoulders hunched in aggression. This is the alpha male of the group, Fenana, making his presence felt to the fifty or so chimps that are presently feeding in this part of the forest. He breaks off a branch and charges, flailing the leaves wildly around his head in a wild display of power. The second and third ranking males, who had been enjoying a nap in a pool of sunshine at the edge of the trees, hastily make way, shrieking placatingly and stretching their mouths into deferential smiles.
Unconcerned by the din, an elderly female and a young adolescent clasp each other’s hands above their heads as they painstakingly groom the skin parasites from their armpits. A young female with a baby appears suddenly from the undergrowth – as she joins in the grooming, her baby jumps down from his jockey-style position on her back and amuses himself turning somersaults and chasing the giant blue butterflies that flutter past in the shafts of sunlight that filter down through the trees.
Just another ordinary day for the Japanese research team who have been studying this group of chimpanzees continually since 1965, doing work just as valuable as their better-known neighbour, Jane Goodall, a few hundred kilometres away in Gombe Stream. Thanks to their work the chimpanzees, while still 100% wild, are fully habituated to human beings, and can be joined in the forest by small groups of visitors, who make the steep climb up through the humid forest to the apes’ domain. Untroubled by their observers, the chimps play out their family struggles and political campaigns in the safety of the National Park forest, demonstrating behaviour that shows how closely related they are to humans as they strip twigs to use as tools and hunt monkeys or bushpigs for meat, sharing out the spoils according to a complicated social system. Visitors can squat unnoticed on pathways as the chimps nurse and play with their offspring, squabble among themselves over the choicest fruits and berries, or build nests of leaves and twigs in the treetops for a tranquil afternoon nap.
Walking in the forest, with the turquoise waters of Lake Tanganyika twinkling tantalisingly through the trees far below, is sweaty, humid work. But an hour or two observing the chimpanzees going about their business, waiting breathlessly for the upshot of a hunt, or pressing oneself back into the bushes as a big male shoots by, is one of the most profound experiences to be had anywhere. And after the sweaty exertions of the morning, the clear, fresh waters of the lake beckon, fringed with beaches pristine enough to rival any on earth.
Mahale Mountains Wildlife Highlights:
The highlight of Mahale is undoubtedly the chimpanzees. One of the last strongholds of our closest ancestors, Mahale provides the best viewing in Africa. Other highlights include the amazing birdlife and insect variety – especially brightly coloured butterflies. Numerous other primates can also be seen.
Katavi National Park
The million acre Katavi National Park in western Tanzania is a place for the safari connoisseur - the African insiders’ destination of choice. The tiny number of visitors who arrive have worked hard to get there – a four-hour flight in a tiny Cessna, or five days’ bumping through hard roads in a Land Rover. But the reward is a perfect, unspoilt wilderness where rules are left far behind – one can set off on foot along river banks, or track game cross-country across the plains in any direction, far from the nearest road.
In streams, creeks and muddy pools, hundreds of hippo lie packed together, their silage smell thickening the air and the marshlands resounding with their symphony of grunts and snorts. Calves wallow next to their obese mothers, tiny, unformed snouts resting along the backs of their elders to avoid being squashed into the mire. The hippos of Katavi don’t huddle defensively in the water during daylight hours, as though besieged – so confident are they in their vast habitat that they roam the plains contentedly in the sunlight, trotting purposefully across the grass.
It is fitting that the crocodile, that most prehistoric of reptiles, thrives in the primeval atmosphere of Katavi. The slim, yellow and brown spotted females wriggle on their bellies up the riverbanks to sunbathe, skidding back into the river at the first sign of disturbance. The larger, thick-skinned males slither in and out of the holes they’ve excavated in the soft mud, gimlet eyes coldly surveying the muddy waters for prey.
Away from the plains, in Katavi’s sun-dappled, mysterious woodlands, white cape chestnut trees glow among the acacias and wild figs. A moving mass of shadow becomes a herd of elephant, padding silently along between the trees on their way to the plains, relaxed trunks swinging like pendulums between their forelegs. The silent, graceful form of a giraffe sways away in alarm across a clearing, and on rare, lucky occasions, the honey-coloured shape of a rare puku antelope is glimpsed at the edge of the trees.
Driving in dry season across the primeval swamplands, with the dry leaves of Borassus palm trees rustling eerily in the wind, it’s easy to believe one has entered a lost world, a world in which the beasts rule and man is merely an insignificant mammal, tolerated only at the mercy of the animals. Massive herds of buffalo, visible in the distance as an endless line of black dots wavering in the heat haze, scatter across the yellow dry season grasses. Prides of lion, glutted with prey, roar in the darkness every night. In the wet season, the plains turn brightest green, with the buffalo mired happily in black mud and thousands of birds soaring above the flooded riverbanks.
In any season, though, the lack of human visitors means that the game is still as wild as it was at the dawn of time. The elephant still charge, the impala still leap gracefully into the air as they skitter away through the trees at the approach of a human. This is Africa as it once was – pure, wild and endlessly exciting.
Katavi Wildlife Highlights:
Vast plains of untouched Africa are home to huge herds of buffalo and other antelope. Predators abound and during the dry season the massive concentration of hippos in the drying pools is a once in a lifetime sight. Birdlife is prolific.