What it’s really like visiting chimpanzees


For many wildlife lovers, seeing wild chimpanzees is a dream. But what is the experience actually like? Kush Patel describes his visit to Mahale, in southern Tanzania.

As I flipped through an article on human evolution, I wondered what Homo erectus would think about modern man. Apart from our obvious achievements (skyscrapers, medicine, moon landing), I was curious about our fundamental characteristics as a species: society, emotions, cognition and language.

I peered to my left as the Cessna banked, exposing Tanzania’s infamous Mahale mountain range. Perched on the shores of Africa’s deepest lake, Tanganyika, Mahale is a dense forest blanketing steep hills and valleys. Within its embrace lives one of our closest relatives, Pan troglodytes schweinfurthii, the Eastern chimpanzee.

Sharing 98 per cent of our DNA, these apes are a living link to our ancestors. I was keen on learning about their lives, understanding what modern humans may have evolved from and appreciating the similarities between us.

A wooden boat took us on the final stretch of our journey, leisurely cruising along the banks of Lake Tanganyika to Kungwe beach lodge.

Perched on a hidden tongue of sand, the rustic lodge consists of a lounge and a restaurant shaped like a Swahili dhow. Peeking through the trees are quaint cottages spilling onto the beach, where Kim and Des, our hosts, greeted us. Bearing ripe South African accents and brimming with enthusiasm, they made us feel right at home.

When the heat had dissipated somewhat by late afternoon, a man came striding towards us, bent on a mission. Rama, our energetic guide for this safari, was keen on introducing us to the forest with a short hike.

He showed us fruits and plants, some of which harbour medicinal properties, favoured by the chimpanzees. Interestingly, the apes also seek out specific mineral-rich clay that neutralise any ingested plant-derived toxins. We even came across a red colobus monkey’s tail – a grizzly remnant of a chimpanzee’s meal.

Back at camp, I washed off the equatorial sweat and settled with the rest of my family. With feet snuggled into warm sand, an Argentinian Malbec was uncorked and we toasted the setting sun.

The chef conjured up a hearty dinner of spaghetti and freshly baked bread before we retired for the night. Sleeping to the sound of waves ironing out the beach has always been hypnotic for me and within minutes I was snoring off the evening’s wine.

Unlike most safaris, where you get up at the crack of dawn and pile bleary-eyed into an open-sided four-wheel-drive whilst clenching your teeth against a bitter wind, in search of animals, Mahale does things differently.

I woke up lethargically to the sound of birds. And only after a full breakfast did we fall in line for the day’s activity. Rama informed us that trackers had sighted the chimpanzees two hours away. With my enthusiasm revving, we ventured into the forest. Gradually, a suffocating heat took over and what started off as a well-marked trail was swallowed up by an obstacle course of fallen trees, arduous climbs and treacherous descents.

As we drew closer to our quarry, inquisitive hoots could be heard. Then a piercing scream. Rama decided the best way to the chimpanzees was scaling up a 45-degree slope covered in tangled foliage. And sure enough, half way up, the undergrowth parted to reveal an adult female with a baby strapped under her, gambolling in the opposite direction.

We diligently gave way as she passed within touching distance. I was flabbergasted by the experience and it took me several seconds to regain composure.

Encounters with chimpanzees are restricted to an hour so as to minimise any chance of diseases transmitted to them or adversely affecting their behaviour. As the timer began we followed at a distance. The female led us through a Japanese-run research camp, which has played host to scientists since 1961. They have painstakingly habituated individuals of the M group to humans and contributed much to our understanding of chimpanzee behaviour and society.

In a nearby clearing we chanced upon several other chimpanzees. A beige-faced baby was playing in the trees. Two adults were grooming each other whilst occasionally uttering bird-like coos. From a distance, a hefty male strode boldly towards us with a somewhat Vin Diesel-like gait. This was Caesar, the dominant male. His arrival caused another chimpanzee to fret, letting out spine-chilling screeches. Another subordinate male descended a tree and greeted Caesar in appeasement. Rama reminded us about the importance of being on the boss’s good side.

A large part of a chimpanzee’s day is spent feeding, and several of them had congregated around a giant mulberry tree. Rama led us around the group providing a summary of each chimpanzee’s history and their rank in society. It was fascinating to learn about individuals of another species in such great detail. I felt like we were being introduced to guests at a party.

Just before we left, a commotion drew us through some bushes and onto a path where a female chimpanzee, Christina, was courting a subordinate male. They mated briefly, nervously throwing glances over their backs before parting ways. And with good reason: any dominant male would not have allowed this younger male to mate with her. Rama shook his head whilst smiling and pointed out that Christina was a big flirt but a highly successful mother. In fact female chimpanzees are often quite promiscuous, even seeking members of neighbouring groups.

Afternoons were spent chatting, reading and having a snooze on the beach. Thankfully, for the restless amongst us, kayaks were available. As Rama helped us launch the kayaks he casually remarked, “watch out for the crocs!” I wasn’t sure if he was joking or not.

Nevertheless I forced out a half-nervous laugh as he shoved my kayak on its way. It was late afternoon and the sun was about 20 degrees to the horizon. The normally tormenting heat had transformed into a warm cuddle. The clear water revealed miniature sand dunes on the lake floor and a remarkable menagerie of colourful cichlids scuttled past. Isolation has led to diversification among this fish resulting in more than 250 species of cichlids; most of them endemic to Lake Tanganyika.

A distant shriek drew our attention back to shore where the forest canopy was shaking violently. There were chimpanzees close to the lake! We paddled enthusiastically to a rocky cove where we found six chimpanzees settling in for the night.

They were busy building nests out of branches and leaves, meticulously folding them over to make a comfortable bed. The scene was painted in warm light from a dying sun. We felt incredibly privileged to experience a slice of Africa all by ourselves.

The next morning the trackers had sighted the chimpanzees deeper within the forest. This meant a strenuous four-hour hike. My backpack felt much heavier. Beads of sweat dripped off sweat.

Then a man-made call resounded from the top of a hill. One of the trackers was signalling us to follow him. With arms lodged firmly into my waist and breathing like a steam engine, I crested a ridge to be met by a splendid view of the forest. And to top it off, three chimpanzees were sat there grooming each other and enjoying the same view.

I sat down with them, each of us watching one another and the view. We were all enjoying the serenity when it was shattered by Primus, second in command. He silently snuck up on us and, because one of the other males didn’t greet him, charged towards him chasing him through the undergrowth.

The younger male quickly returned and began kissing Primus on his lips in a show of appeasement. It was fascinating behaviour to watch and demonstrated the importance of rank and maintaining it within chimp society.

Several other chimpanzees joined us before the group split. We followed a few of them down a steep hill, which they pretty much rolled down effortlessly. We came across our old friend Caesar, who was sat on his haunches, ravenously eating a lemon.

As we approached another group eating mulberries, Orion, third in command, decided that he needed to show us he was in charge. Without warning, he came thundering towards us in a blur of leaves. He dragged a large branch to show off his strength and tore past us, just inches away.

We were all shocked but thankfully left unhurt. Rama’s face spelled out that he had seen this all before. We gave Orion his space and made our way back to camp.

Overhead, the clouds split open and for an hour we were pummelled by rain. Luckily, in this oppressive heat it was quite refreshing. A warm shower and some dry clothes were in order, after which we had a delicious lasagne paired with a homemade peach chutney.

We capped off the day with cold beers, gently undulating on the dhow, in the middle of the lake. The distant mountains were masked in clouds. A breeze tumbled down from them carrying the sweet scent of rain-rejuvenated earth.

My thoughts drifted to the chimpanzees I had met. Their lives were governed by politics, love and violence; similar to ours. Their eyes revealed a curiosity and intelligence that were uncannily familiar.

Perhaps Homo erectus was not that different from us after all. Although we have evolved anatomically and intellectually, we probably shared similar traits from sociality to emotions that ultimately define us as hominids.

All images by Kush Patel.