Steve Felton is the Communications Adviser for WWF in Namibia and NACSO. He is travelling through East Africa and shares some of his experiences with the NACSO family.
The longest and second deepest freshwater lake in the world takes its name from two fish found at Ujiji, on its eastern shore. The Tanga is a small fish and the Nyika a larger one, which gives off an electric shock. The fish gave their names to Lake Tanganyika where Stanley met Livingstone in 1871.
Ujiji lies just south of Kigoma, where my daughter and I stepped into a converted fishing boat before dawn, on a trip to see the chimps in Gombe National Park.
As dawn slowly broke, the lake came to life around us as we chugged north, hugging the coast. Lines of fishing boats were heading for the villages. Fishing is done at night by hundreds of boats using lamps to attract the fish.
We passed some buoys marking the border to the park. There is a two kilometre no fishing zone from the shore offering some protection to the 350 species of fish found in the lake, many of them endemic. Above us are mountainsides covered with tall trees. We spot monkeys scampering on the beach, and soon we are approaching the jetty to the park entrance where our guide is waiting for us.
Gombe was proclaimed a nature reserve in 1943 and a national park in 1975. It is the smallest of Tanzania’s national parks covering only 52 square kilometres. Jane Goodall started her chimp research there in 1960.
Khalfan, our guide, has a Goodall connection. His grandfather, Rashidi, was Goodall’s assistant and is mentioned several times in her autobiography. Khalfan decided to follow in his footsteps and has been a guide for six years. He loves “the people of the forest”, as he calls the chimps.
But chimps can be dangerous. Khalfan gives a talk in which he explains that we keep a ten-metre distance to mankind’s closest relation. But the chimps don’t do measurements, so if they approach – you back off. If they charge, stand behind a tree and hug it. Just how dangerous chimps can be, we only found out later.
There are three groups of chimps in Gombe: one to the north, comprising 17, one to the south with 47, and the central group which Jane Goodall habituated, comprising 52–56. It is this group we will be tracking.
We walk along a beach and cut off it, heading up a small trail through the rainforest. Suddenly we are in the gloom, under a canopy of huge trees. When the sun breaks through, it illuminates blazes of leaves in vivid green.
Admiration gives way to perspiration as the trail gets steeper. The ground is muddy, but mercifully it has not rained hard and the creepers across the track give our boots some purchase. There is always a handy branch or creeper to hang on to and pull yourself up with. Then there is another sound. “Whoop”. Khalfan is calling the trackers. There are faint whoops in return, and we set off again.
Just as the legs are complaining, Khalfan stops and says: “Listen!” Sure enough, we hear chimps shrieking some way above us. Khalfan gives a loud whoop and gets a reply. The trackers know where the chimps are, so we will see them.
But not before we have struggled up the steepest slope yet, before breaking out into a sunlit trail near the top of the mountain. We follow our guide along this trail, until without warning we have a hairy companion ambling through the grass to our right, totally unconcerned by us.
Not long afterwards we look down the slope to see half a dozen chimps, some leaping up and down trees and some watching a group of chimp watchers beyond them. Somehow, the group of white faces, each with a surgical mask to prevent germ transmission, was more exotic than the chimps themselves. Keeping a distance is important. And people with illnesses should not go near the chimps. In 1992 many chimps died due to polio, transmitted from humans.
The two groups, chimps and their nearest relations, moved on. The chimps are hard to keep up with, leaping from tree to tree or racing through thick grass as we use nearby trails, but soon some of them come to a stop in a very dark space under a dense canopy of trees. There are three adults sitting in a row, grooming each other, and two infants having a great time play fighting and chasing each other up a tree.
We are allowed one hour with the chimps and our time is almost up, so we move on, satisfied, when suddenly there is a shriek from behind and – Wham, an adult male claps both Khalfan and my daughter on their shoulders and bounces past. She is shocked and quickly feels the pain. Even Khalfan was taken by surprise. He has been attacked five times, he says.
This time it was Gimli. The guides and trackers can identify and have names for all the chimps. No great harm was done. We were in Gimli’s way and he wanted us to know about it. But things don’t always turn out so well. A few years ago a local woman was crossing the park – taking an illegal short cut – with her five-year-old daughter and a baby. She went to the lake to refresh herself and left the baby with the child – and a chimp found them. Frodo, as he was called, was an aggressive male. He carried off the baby, broke its skull on a tree, and began to eat its intestines. The park rangers were called and they recovered the remains. Nothing was done to Frodo. Sadly, the woman had been at fault, not the chimp. He died three years ago.
The climb back down the mountainside was almost as hard as the ascent. We were constantly slipping; even Khalfan fell. By the time we reached the boat we were exhausted – and elated.