We awoke in the morning to a very heavy downpour made louder bouncing off the roof of our tent. The power had gone out sometime overnight and given the early hour, it was difficult to see anything in the dark, and even more so in the bathroom so showers were out for the morning. Given that we had decided not to worry about the boiler situation and the lack of hot water, we all elected to move the timing of our showers until later in the day after our trekking. We had actually planned for an early departure, though this was move back due to the rain and the need for the trackers to locate the chimps for us, otherwise we’d be searching the wet forest floor most likely for naught. Juma had prepared our breakfast which was eggs, toast, crepes and more delicious fresh fruit – watermelon, pineapple, melon and avocado – the latter going incredibly well with the eggs and toast.
Once finished with breakfast, we were ready for another long hike in the forest once Ahadi had heard from everyone regarding the hopeful whereabouts of the chimps. The forest here is incredibly dense with an immense canopy reaching skyward and thousands of vines of every size either soaring down from up high or reaching across the trail at foot or waist level. At times you felt as though you might become hopelessly wrapped up in the undergrowth, never to be seen again. There are more than a thousand trails that wind and crisscross through the valleys and up the mountains here and it amazed us all at the incredible skill Ahadi demonstrated in navigating them. Other than up and down, it was difficult to tell which direction we were traveling most of the time.
We started our hike today by heading towards Jane’s Peak in an almost reverse of what we had done yesterday. After reaching the peak, we continued on a different tack going up and up into the mountains until we finally came across a very huge family of chimps, eleven all told, that were all in the same tree and feeding. It was extremely exciting to hear, though, that one of the chimps in the family was Gremlin, a name I remember quite well from hearing about these amazing animals for so many years in books and films. What was even more extraordinary was that Gremlin, having been born in 1970, was now 49 years of age and had an infant with her (chimps are named at 3 years of age, so the infant did not yet have a name), having been the oldest known chimp here at Gombe (or anywhere as far as I know) to become pregnant and deliver a baby.
We learned later, that most chimps have babies about every 4-5 years, though some can speed up their reproduction rate and it all depends on the type of mother she is. Infants will usually stay with their mother for four years or slightly more, so to speed things up means that though you are generating more offspring (i.e. getting more of your genes into the coming generations), they will have less instruction and supervision from their mother which could become evident in those chimps survivability later. So, it really depends on what type of mothering and upbringing you have that will shape your personality and your ability to integrate successfully in society. Sound familiar?
We sat and watched the chimps for the longest time as they moved about in the tree looking for more food as it’s the dry season here and food is scarce for them. One of the chimps was looking for a bit more as there was a female in estrus and one of the larger males would continually seek her out to mate, an act that was extremely brief but occurred numerous times in the tree while we were there.
At one point, the leader of the family decided that it was time to move and the entire group slowly descended from the tree, most walking directly past us only several meters away. When this happens, you don’t back up or move and you try to avoid eye contract as that can be threatening for them. It was incredible at just how close they were to us and we all just stood incredibly still. I did notice, at one point, that Ahadi, who was standing close to Leah, grabbed her arm just to be certain that nothing would happen to her as being so near, you realized just how big the adult chimps were, and especially the males.
I would have to say that I had both a sense of eeriness and excitement as the group slowly moved by us in the forest. We had come to see them in their natural habitat and to spend a few moments with these glorious beings, yet they were also our ancestors, distant relatives who share so much in common from genes to behavior, though who have been hunted for food and captured for research or zoos over the years. It was a haunting revelation at that moment and I was unsure of whether I was looking through a window or into a mirror as I gazed upon these nearly human forms moving past us in the tall grass. For someone whose interest has been in physical anthropology for so many years and considers Olduvai (Oldupai for those purists like me) Gorge the center of my universe, or Mecca, I could only envision Australopithecus moving through the same forest grasses more than two million years ago.
The chimps moved along at a pace we could initially follow, finding another tree to feed in so that we had another excellent chance to sit and observe their behavior. The one male who had been mating earlier was at the base of a smaller tree and soon began shaking the limbs and beating the bushes in a curious fashion when Ahadi informed us that he was telling the female in estrus that he wanted her to come down from the trees to mate with him. This went on for perhaps several minutes (perhaps she was playing hard to get) when, finally, the female who he had mated with previously slowly came down out of the tree to meet with him and succumb to his demands. There was absolutely no coincidence in her actions nor his as this was clearly a behavior well recognized to Ahadi and now something that we were also lucky enough to observe.
Eventually, the chimps began to move quickly down the very steep slope into the valley below where we were unable to follow them and, so, we began our hike back down in the opposite direction towards Jane’s Peak where we would again pass and then descend down into camp. Thankfully, we arrived back at a much earlier time than yesterday and in much better shape. I was not dehydrated and there were no pre-syncopal symptoms nor a necessary gallon of water to drink. We had paced ourselves on the trail and were now ready for a nice lunch from Juma and a quiet afternoon. Ahadi suggested that we go to see Jane’s House after lunch and some short, or actually not so short for me, naps.
I had planned to sleep for only 30 minutes, but that didn’t happen as it was so nice in the tents and the waves and intermittent rain were so relaxing in the background. We had planned to meet Ahadi at 4 pm and I was awakened by Mike telling me that Ahadi was waiting out front for us. A quick splash of cold water (remember, we have no hot water) on the face allowed me to become quickly coherent and presentable and the four of us walked down the beach a short way to the cinderblock building where Jane had lived all those years while doing her research here at Gombe and hosting graduate students, most of whom were from Stanford, where she became faculty and spent up to half of the year.
Ahadi had planned for us to speak with Dr. Anton, who we had met briefly and were all made aware that he was a baboon researcher and had been here at Gombe for many years. Dr. Anton is actually Dr. Anthony Collins, a primate researcher specializing in baboons who has been here at Gombe for many, many years and has firsthand knowledge of many of the events that took place in the past here as well as a very detailed knowledge of the chimp families despite his primary interest in baboons. As we sat in Jane’s living room and in her easy chairs with the waves softly crashing in the background (not softly enough, though given my unilateral hearing loss), it was so easy to listen to his stories of the past here at Gombe and imagine what life here must have been like in those days.
As many know, Jane and Hugo van Lawick, a nature and wildlife photographer already in Africa and encouraged to go to Gombe by Louis Leaky to film the chimpanzees, married after several years and had a son, whose nickname was Grub. Their son spent a number of years with his parents in Gombe, where they essentially created a cage for him to play in for fear of the chimpanzees harming him given their behavior of hunting and eating other baby primates in the forest. There had actually been a documented occasion of the Gombe chimps having taken a human baby earlier and this was enough for them to take the necessary precautions. To this day, small babies ae not allowed at Gombe and staff housing still has very strong wire cages on the fronts of their homes to prevent not only chimps from causing harm, but also to prevent baboons from wreaking havoc.
Dr. Collins also told us of the kidnapping that occurred in 1975 of three Stanford students and a Dutch woman by rebels that came across the lake from then Zaire and were eventually paid a ransom to release them unharmed. There had also been a death at Gombe when, in 1969, a young researcher was found dead days after having gone missing and without any clues. So, in addition to the continuous work that had been occurring at Gombe Stream and the Kasalela Valley, there had also been a fair share of controversies, though, through it all, the research institute that Jane Goodall had created has remained and continues to record the lives of these most famous of chimps.
In the living room, there were many books by Goodall as well as about her along with those on the various aspects of similar research being done elsewhere, all of which we were free to look through and read while we were there. Dr. Collins actually lives in the house and his work desk sits in the living with all of his papers and projects. Jane’s bedroom is off the living room and remains intact as do the kitchen, storeroom and the room currently used by Dr. Collins. What so impressed me about visiting the house was not the thrill that I received being there which one would have totally predicted knowing me (I have lived and breathed this this work since I was a small boy and was inspired by my mother), but rather the remarkable interest that both Leah and Mike demonstrated for a subject I thought was so narrow, yet so incredibly dear to my heart. If there was ever a “nerd alert,” this was it and I was so proud that we were all members of the same club at that moment.
The rain had abated well before our visit to Jane’s house, and when we said goodbye to Dr. Collins, we all headed back down the beach, our beach, to the distant point where we had been told to go no further, though Mike continually questioned this, as if there were something lurking in the underbrush, waiting to snag us if we dared even set foot in this forbidden zone. The reality, of course, was that there were no monsters there, and the real reason we visited these rocks each evening wasn’t to push the limits of survival, or even to watch the sunsets, but rather to get the only cell service nearby other than the tops of the nearby hills that were not accessible to us other than when hiking with Ahadi, when there was little time to rest, let alone to sit and download email.
The sunset this night was brilliant and you could easily see across the lake to the DRC, with its mountainous terrain raising up about its mysterious shores. We hiked home in the dark then went for dinner in the dining area where Juma had another delicious meal ready for us to eat.