In the extreme west of Tanzania are two national parks that aren’t well known: Mahale Mountains National Park and Katavi National Park. These reserves are exceedingly remote, tricky to access, and costly to visit – but they’re very different from anything else in Tanzania, and totally magical. Mahale is also probably the best place in the world for chimp safaris!
Perhaps the best guidebook to Tanzanian safaris describes Mahale Mountains National Park as “quite simply one of the most beautiful parks anywhere in Africa”. The lakeshore here is a beach of the finest powder-white sand, behind which rises a range of imposing mountains, clad in verdant tropical vegetation. Big electric-blue butterflies flit above the streams and the forest is alive with sound. It’s not only beautiful, but it also harbours Tanzania’s densest population of primates: yellow baboon, red colobus, blue, red-tailed and vervet monkeys are never far away – and then, of course, there are the chimpanzees.
Covering about 1,600km² of the Mahale Mountains, this national park is home to around 1,000 chimpanzees. Most significantly, one group of Mahale chimps – the Mimikire clan – has been habituated by researchers since 1965. Currently led by an impressive alpha male, Alofu, the M-group, as they are commonly known, has around 56 chimps. They go where they want and when they want but are relaxed near people, so it’s possible to track and observe them from very close quarters. For the good of the chimps’ health, all human visitors on chimpanzee safaris are required to wear surgical masks – which will be provided for you.
The hike to reach the Mahale chimpanzees can vary from a leisurely wander of 20 minutes to a more strenuous hike lasting up to three hours. Towards the end of the dry season (August to October) Mahale’s chimp safaris are at their easiest, as the forest paths are at their driest and least slippery, and the chimps are usually at their closest to the shore. Walking boots, long trousers and small backpack (for cameras and binoculars) are always wise for safaris to see the chimpanzees.
We can’t guarantee sightings of the chimps in the Mahale Mountains, but it’s normal to see chimpanzees on most days; you’d be exceedingly unlucky to stay here for several days and not find them. More usually, you’ll be able to sit and watch them foraging, grooming, tussling, bickering and taking care of their young. Sitting in the forest, watching chimpanzees getting on with their daily lives is an unforgettable animal encounter – and that what makes the chimp safaris in Mahale so amazing.
Getting to the Mahale Mountains
Their isolation has helped them to remain untouched; by light aircraft it takes four or five hours to reach here from Dar or Arusha. However, the result is that whilst the Serengeti National Park sees around 120,000 visitors per annum, Katavi and Mahale have just a few hundred visitors between them.
The least expensive way to get to Katavi and Mahale is by using twice-weekly scheduled flights which link these parks with Arusha, in northern Tanzania. Operating on Mondays and Thursdays, their relatively high cost helps to make these parks two of Tanzania’s most expensive destinations!
There are flights routing Dar-Selous-Ruaha to Katavi/Mahale, and back. These also run on Mondays and Thursdays. Sadly, the costs for these are similar to the costs of chartering; certainly no lower than the schedule flights from Arusha.