Tucked within the craggy hills of the Mahale Mountains is humanity’s closest relative: the chimpanzee, one of earth’s most iconic, endangered species.
You can see these social, sophisticated apes in person on an extension to your safari or Kilimanjaro trek. It’s one of nature’s rarest, most emotionally-charged experiences–and you don’t have to leave Tanzania to have it.
Here’s what to expect.
What’s It Like?
Chimp trekking is an awesome journey. You wake around dawn to venture into Mahale’s mist-shrouded forests, led by a tracker guide who hacks a trail through the undergrowth. He’ll employ his deep knowledge of the chimps’ behaviors to track their location and bring you to them.
About 1,000 chimps live in the Mahale Mountains, but only a few–the Mimikire clan, or M-group–is habituated to human presence. That’s the group your guide is looking for.
Once you find them, you have one hour (strictly observed to protect the chimps) to watch them grooming, tussling, foraging, bickering, swinging through the trees and tending to their young. All guests must wear surgical masks to protect the chimps from communicable viruses.
While you are asked not to touch or interact with the chimps, they might interact with you! Members of the M-group are extremely comfortable around humans and have no problem looking at you eye-to-eye, brushing your shoulder as they pass or even sitting on your foot.
While most trekkers do see chimpanzees, it’s important to note there are no guarantees. A leisurely 20-minute walk may take you directly to them, or you may find yourself on a more strenuous hike that lasts the better part of the day.
Thomson guests usually have two chimp trekking opportunities built into their itinerary, to maximize time with the primates.
How Difficult is Chimpanzee Trekking?
Trekking Mahale is not for the faint of heart. Expect to walk anywhere between 1-6 hours a day, sometimes through steep, humid mountainous conditions. The difficulty largely depends on the location of the chimps: They may stay near your lodge, in the lowlands, or move continuously throughout the day.
Generally, a moderate level of fitness goes a long way on Mahale. Lightweight hiking shoes with traction are a must.
Why It’s Worth It
It’s hard to overstate just how much chimpanzees have revolutionized our understanding of the natural world. Just north of here, at Gombe Stream, Jane Goodall observed chimpanzees using tools (sticks for termite “fishing”) and flora for medicinal purposes. These discoveries forever changed the way we think about what it means to be human and what it means to share our planet.
But also, it’s simply thrilling to watch chimpanzees in their natural habitat. Young chimps may perform daredevil midair stunts for fun, or practice grooming with their siblings. You can witness the complex social hierarchies of chimp society and the politics therein: does the alpha male eat the last of his food, or share it to woo a female?
“People talk about the wow-factor of chimpanzee trekking, and I thought I had a good idea of what to expect,” Thomson guest Annika Cecile said. “I didn’t. It’s an experience beyond words. The bonds they share, the care they exhibit and the depth of their expressions touched my soul.”
It’s hard not to see yourself mirrored in these incredible primates; we share over 98% of our DNA with them, after all. Your guides can identify individuals by their personalities, enriching your understanding of them and their lives. For many guests, observing these highly intelligent animals at such close range carries an emotional heft that stays with them long after they leave Mahale.
When you’re not chimp trekking, you’re at the Greystoke: a grass-thatched, high-end lodge sitting where the Mahale forest meets the beach of Lake Tanganyika. You can only reach this area by boat, but your arrival is nothing short of an event: the staff greets you with your favorite cocktail. You can have freshly caught sushi right there, if you’d like.
Given the white-sands and turquoise waters, you’d be forgiven for thinking you had anchored in the Caribbean or the Amalfi Coast, rather than the heart of Africa. But this secluded lakeshore paradise–think luxury Robinson Crusoe–offers jungle-chic accommodations and easy access to the forests where chimpanzees roam.
In your downtime, you can relax in your beach house’s hammock while the sun sets over the water, or you can sip a sundowner on the candlelit sands. It’s wild. It’s serene. For nature lovers, it’s pure bliss.
You also have plenty of opportunities to explore at the lodge during your free afternoons. Walk the shores of Lake Tanganyika, fish, bird-watch, swim, snorkel, kayak or sail the waves on the camp’s private dhow. Spend your time as you please!
Mahale is extremely remote, practically as remote as it gets while still being in Tanzania. You can’t reach it by car. Visitors must take a charter flight, then boat across Lake Tanganyika just to reach the park. Depending on the weather and availability, you may sail by speedboat or traditional wooden dhow, meaning the ride can take anywhere from 20 minutes to 2 hours.
Given these logistical details and the limited number of available trekking permits, a Mahale extension requires a few months’ notice to plan. But it can be added to nearly any safari or Kilimanjaro trek.
Few wildlife experience can match the levels of awe and luxury available on a Mahale chimp trek. Call us to add a Mahale extension to your safari or Kilimanjaro trek.