In addition to being one of the best places in the world for up-close encounters with chimpanzees, Mahale Mountains National Park, nestled on the Lake Tanganyikan shoreline in western Tanzania, is absolutely stunning. Forested mountains cascade down to the lake shore, the mist-covered peak of Mount Nkungwe rises up in the background and crystal-clear waters teeming with fish lap against white sand coves.
The park, Tanzania's most remote and one of its most alluring, is first and foremost a chimpanzee sanctuary. About 1700 chimpanzees live within its 1613sqkm area, but the focal point for visitors is the 60-strong Mimikere, or 'M' group, which has been the subject of research for more than four decades. While the M group chimps are well habituated, spotting human’s closest relatives is almost always a challenge. Don long trousers, sturdy boots, a hat and a surgical mask (these are distributed to all visitors by park guides at the beginning of a tracking expedition) and prepare yourself for some sweaty, steep climbing through often-dense vegetation.
You may not spot any chimps on your first try, but it is rare to spend two or three days in the park without seeing one. The experience itself is captivating: almost without warning, a chimp brushes past you on the trail, several individuals become visible in a clearing just ahead or high above in the tree tops. Time stops, and the one-hour viewing period permitted by park authorities is over in a flash.
During the wet season, from November until May, the chimpanzees spend much of their time in the trees and can be difficult to find. In the height of the rains from March through May, the trails become unpleasantly muddy. In the dry season months of June to October the undergrowth is less dense and the chimps frequently come down near the main lodge area to feed.
In between chimp tracking expeditions, Lake Tanganyika beckons for snorkelling, kayaking and hippo- and crocodile-spotting forays. The forest around the main lodge area is full of birds, with guinea fowl, hornbills, kingfishers and many more all readily seen on short walks. In the evening, the setting is magical as the sun sets over the Congo Mountains in the distance, and tiny lights from fishing boats flicker across the lake.
For anyone with additional time and energy, the brooding peak of 2462m-high Mount Nkungwe is eminently climbable and makes a fine adventure. Depending on the time of year, you may need to hack your way through high grass and brush for part of the climb, but the remoteness and the stillness are wonderful. Elephants, giraffes and even lions wander around the eastern slopes of the mountain, and it is essential to be accompanied by an armed guide, although encounters with these animals are rare. More common are roan and sable antelopes, porcupines and the ubiquitous warthog. Allow two days to climb up and one day to return for Nkungwe climbs, camping en route, although a more strenuous two-day option is also possible.
Kigoma, the closest major town, is about 130km north of Mahale along the lakeshore, and this remoteness makes getting to and from the park half the fun. You can take a scenic scheduled charter flight over the back ridge of the Mahale Mountains from Arusha (four hours) with Zantas Air or from Dar es Salaam (six hours) with Safari Airlink. You can charter a speedboat from Kigoma (four to five hours, book through Mbali Mbali) or from Lake Shore Lodge in Kipili village, south of the park (five to six hours). A leisurely, albeit adventurous option would include going down the lake on the ageing MV Liemba steamer from either Kigoma (10 hours) or Mpulungu, Zambia (30 hours) to the tiny Lagosa village (north of Mahale), from where you would need to arrange a boat transfer in advance with park authorities for the remaining distance (about one hour) to Mahale. First-class cabins on the MV Liemba can be booked at the port in Kigoma or Mpulungu, or through your lodge.
There are currently three lodges in Mahale, all along the lake shore: the Swiss Family Robinson-esque Greystoke Mahale, with its wonderful two-storey bandas and mountain views; lovely Kungwe Beach Lodge; and the rustic Flycatcher Camp. Alternatively, you can bush camp accompanied by a park ranger, or stay at the park-run and budget traveller-oriented Mango Tree Bandas.
Entry fees at Mahale Mountains park are $80 per adult per day, and guide fees are $20 per group per excursion. There are no additional permit fees.