All night long we were lulled by the constant sound of Lake Tanganyika’s waves on the beach with the water being only perhaps 15 meters from the front of our tents. It had been cool enough overnight for us to need the comforters, but only just so. It would not be completely accurate to say that we all enjoyed our cold showers in the morning, but we were all quite tolerant of the circumstances and the fact that we were in such an incredibly remote region of the globe where such conveniences cannot really be expected. Lake Tanganyika, as verified by Mike, a man of statistics, is the second oldest and the second deepest, but the longest freshwater lake on earth. Directly across from us is the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the DRC, which brings a whole new level of remoteness and intrigue to the table when you imagine crossing this lake. At times, the opposite shore is fully visible with its tall mountains, jungles and, of course, the Congo River.
We had planned to meet with Ahadi at 8 AM which meant we would be sitting for breakfast an hour earlier which we confirmed with Juma the night before. The way chimpanzee trekking is conducted here is very interesting as it isn’t as easy as just going out into the forest and looking for them or making an appointment with them. The families of the central group of chimps located here at Jane’s camp are constantly moving up and down the nearby valleys in search of the various fruits they seek which is their main diet. They will also eat small mammals, most commonly babies of both the local colobus monkey species and baboons, which are somewhat of a treat for them. There are both government researchers and local trackers that follow the chimp families on a regular basis here and, most importantly, the chimps are habituated, meaning that they do not run from humans, nor do they interact for the most part.
After checking with the trackers and researchers by radio to learn the approximate location of one of the families, Ahadi spent some time going through the rules of chimp trekking here which are very important for the continued ability to do what we are doing, as the chimps in Tanzania remain an endangered species. Visitors are to always remain at least 10 meters from the chimps and are to always wear surgical masks when nearby so as not to possibly transmit any illness to the chimps which is believed to be the main cause of death for a number of chimps in the past. There is no food allowed on treks and you have to keep any bags or loose clothing close by so as not to temp them. If a chimp approaches you in a threatening fashion, it is usually their intention to take a swipe at your leg and knock you down and the best way to protect yourself is to hug a tree so you don’t get your feet knocked out from under you.
We started our trek a bit after 8 AM. As I had planned to bring both of my cameras, one for me and one for Mike, along with my binoculars and extra lenses, I had my large photography backpack which I’m suspecting probably weighed in at over 10 kilograms. Our hike took us up and down through one valley and over into another and after about an hour or so, it was clear to me that the backpack was more than I could handle and I was getting quickly exhausted. Also, I was becoming dehydrated quickly as sweating profusely was an understatement and I was already completely soaked from head to waist. My ballcap was literally dripping and I was losing fluid very quickly. We hadn’t brought a lot of water, totally my mistake knowing how much I sweat, and we still had a long way to go.
The trails were totally amazing. At times they would be perfectly passable and, at other times, you were completely bushwhacking through the thickest of vines, some with thorns, and others so strong you couldn’t break them even with all of your body weight. They grabbed at your feet, constantly trying to trip you up and often coming very close to doing so. Much of the uphill and downhill movements were side slope so you would have to place your feet just so to prevent them from slipping downhill. It was truly remarkable hiking through the dense underbrush, and when we were breaking new trail, must have been what it was like for the original explorers of this continent. We obviously didn’t have machetes, but it would have felt natural if we had. We eventually came to a wonderful waterfall that was fully flowing and fell 25 meters from above us and into a wonderful pool with a heavy blowing mist above. I was just too exhausted to explore, but Leah checked it out for us and verified that the mist was delightfully cool.
After the waterfall, we finally met up with the trackers who were following a family of chimps that were up in a tree. It was part of the “G” family – Gaia, the oldest daughter of Gremlin (who I will mention later), along with two of her children, Google, born in 2010, and Gabo, born in 2015. We continued to watch the three chimps in the tree for some time along with some of the other guests at the camp until finally, the chimps decided to move on up the hill faster than we could follow them. We hiked down from the high point where we were and ended up crossing a steep ravine whose trail led us to Jane’s Peak, where there is an incredible vantage point to the valleys below and where she had spent a considerable amount of time following the chimp families with her binoculars prior to her being able to approach them much closer. From this point, we continued west towards camp, skirting along a ridge top before slowly, or sometimes more rapidly, towards the lake which we could often see in front of us and well below.
Having departed camp in the morning at 8:15, it wasn’t until after 3 PM that we finally returned making it an almost seven hour trek and though some of it was surely spent watching the chimps, it wasn’t more than an hour meaning that we had been hiking for approximately six hours in this reasonable hot and very humid climate with nothing to eat and, for me at least, not enough water to drink. We all desperately needed showers and were now looking very much forward to the cold showers in our tents that were just so incredibly refreshing.
I felt terribly dehydrated and, at one point, nearly passed out in the bathroom, so during our lunch I did my best to rehydrate as much as possible. After lunch, we all decided to take long naps and then later walked north along the beautiful beach in front of our tents to use the internet on our phones as this was the only place in camp where we could do so. The WiFI here had been working only intermittently and we had been unable to check email or text on it leaving us only with our phones at an outcropping on a most lovely beach and perfect spot for sunset. Since we had eaten so late, dinner plans were for 8 PM after which we all went to bed and prepared mentally and physically for another hike tomorrow.