Of Chimps and Men

Chimpanzee browsing for food
A visit to the Mahale Mountains National Park in Tanzania, the remote home of man's closest cousins, the chimpanzee... Mahale Mountains National Park in Tanzania is tucked onto the shores of Lake Tanganyika, the world's longest, second-deepest natural lake, a perfectly clear, dazzlingly blue stretch of water, stretching all the way to the mountains of Congo on the far shore, and lined with perfect white beaches. Beyond the beach lies a tract of thick lowland forest, set between two 8 000-foot mountain peaks - believed to be the sacred home of ancestral spirits - and the lake.Our first glimpse of this earthy paradise came from the small plane that flew us in, piloted by the camp's owner Roland Purcell. Roland discovered the idyllic shores of Lake Tanganyika and the forest that adjoins it over ten years ago as a safari guide, and returned to build his fantasy camp, Greystoke, for the few lucky travellers who visit every year.

The Mahale forest, rising up the mountain slopes into wisps of cloud, is home to approximately 700 chimpanzees, a population less well known but just as closely studied as the chimps of Gombe Stream further north. One group of chimpanzees, known familiarly as M group, has been completely habituated to the presence of man, and has had its daily movements followed and recorded by a team of Japanese scientists since 1965. It was these we'd come to visit.There are few places in the world as achingly beautiful as Kangwena Beach, one of the chain of bays that fringe the edge of Lake Tanganyika close to where Henry Morton Stanley pitched camp in 1876 during his legendary crossing of Africa from East to West. Soft white sand slopes gently towards the endless shimmer of the turquoise lake, a body of water so pure that the hippos that live along its shores can be clearly seen walking along the bottom.

Floating in the water, we could look back beyond the beach to the towering hills, covered with green forest, which reach up into the wisps of cloud far above. Over the gentle lapping of the water, the screech of exotic birds wafted faintly back from the shore, accompanied on occasion by the unearthly, primeval hoots and shrieks of the chimpanzees that rule the forest.To put a camp in an Eden like this is a fearsome responsibility - it must be as perfect as the glittering lake, as relaxed as the rhythms of the forest. As Roland put it: 'If I dare to put an imprint on this paradise, I'd better get it right.'

Greystoke camp is irresistibly, magically right. Six double tents, simply furnished, pitched slightly back into the whispering palms at the edge of the beach. Forest bathrooms with suspended bucket showers set among the trees, or a bath in the lake, rinsing out soap suds while gazing back at the misty peaks.

The mess tent is a sculptured palace of wood, canvas and thatch, modeled on the design of a Tongwe chief's hut and decorated inside by drapes of unbleached cotton and freshly picked green palm fronds. A ladder leads up to the cool mezzanine floor, with overloaded bookshelves standing under the eaves among scattered cushions on which to nest, like a chimp in a tree, during the heat of the day.Chimpanzee of Mahale Our afternoons were spent lazing in oversized deckchairs or floating indolently in the water, until the sun sets in ribbons of gold over the lake's surface and the mess tent glows against the dark green mountains like a great jewel. As the air grews cooler, a fishing trip beckoned in the camp's 45 foot sailing dhow, the Isabella, with the passengers reclining on cushions while eating lake-fresh sashimi as the glassy twilight water slipped along the hull. At night, when the lights of Congo twinkled in the distance, the drama of the camp's setting was enhanced by the great dining table set out on the sand, surrounded by flares and lit from above by the moon and stars.Every morning, while the air is still cool, we trekked into the forest, a magical kingdom of sunlit ferns, dangling creepers and still pools above smooth scattered boulders. But a trip to see man's closest relative is not without effort - these muscular forest primates can move at great speeds through the forest canopy that houses them, and keeping up for us mere homo sapiens is not easy.

Stepping off the dazzling whiteness of the beach, we seemed to enter the enchanted forest of a fairytale. Shafts of watery sunlight danced through the trees and fell onto the rocky, leaf-strewn ground. Butterflies flitted around a forest pool, crystal clear water bubbling over smooth grey rocks. But the climb into the hills was steep and strenuous, especially when carrying several pounds of camera equipment, and looking back down the slope, the iridescent turquoise of the lake glittered temptingly beyond the ocean of greenery.But just when the effort seemed too much, spine-chilling shrieks came echoing down from above, floating eerily through the foliage. Scrambling breathlessly upwards, we rounded a corner and were suddenly face to face with a pair of benevolent brown eyes in a wizened face, hairy black arms scratching absently at the chin, and a wide-eyed, curious baby resting like a tiny jockey along its mother's back. We had found them!!

The next two hours were spent scrambling breathlessly around between rocks and gullies, trying to keep up with the group as they swung exuberantly between the trees, fed contentedly on fruits and leaves, or napped, entirely unconcerned by the presence of mankind, on the side of forest paths.The chimps are so used to the presence of humans that one has the sense of being invisible, a sort of spirit abroad in another, earthier world. Ants or butterflies receive more attention from the chimpanzees than the hordes of researchers, guides and tourists that follow them awkwardly through this alien terrain.

A sense of privilege goes with being allowed into the chimps' domain, a feeling that they allow humans to join them in the wild forest only from grace and curiosity, a goodwill that seems particularly poorly earned when one considers the ravages that mankind has carried out on this most fascinating of species, leaving only isolated groups to live their complex and highly adapted lives in small pockets of forest such as this.Copyright Gemma Pitcher 2004
African Safaris Guide to South and East Africa
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