December 3, 2019 – Giving Tuesday and Gratitude….

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(PLEASE SEE LINK AT THE END OF THE BLOG IF YOU’RE IN A HURRY-THANKS!)

It only seemed appropriate on many levels for me to publish a blog this year on Giving Tuesday as my last trip in September marked a landmark of sorts for me. It was my twentieth trip to Tanzania and, even more so, it has been a wonderful decade of working together with Frank and Susan and everyone at FAME. I have had so much to be thankful for given the opportunities I’ve had and not a day goes by that I don’t remind myself how lucky I am. It has become increasingly clear to me, though, that my true gratitude lies not in what it has done for me, but rather in what it has allowed me to do for others. For it is in this context that the full essence of gratitude becomes obvious. It is in the difference we make in other’s lives, now our own.

This year has also been marked by a number of other milestones that are well worthy of mention. Before I do that, though, I should also reassure everyone that our neurology project at FAME has continued to grow with each passing year. I addition to the four neurology residents (three adult and one pediatric) I bring twice a year for a month each time, we are now also traveling with one lucky medical student who accompanies us to assist with our registry data and observe the work we do there. Additionally, we were fortunate enough to travel with two other incredibly talented clinicians last March – Marin Jacobwitz, a pediatric nurse practitioner, and Dr. Dan Licht, a pediatric neurologist, both from Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia – who will both be accompanying us again this coming March for their second visit. We are also now having other neurologists fill in the time between our visits – Dr. Joyce Liporace was there in August and Dr. Branch Coslett is there currently – to continue training the doctors at FAME in the evaluation and care of neurology patients.

Dr. Annie, Marissa, Dr. Mike and one of our patients surfing in the hallway

During our last visit in September, we evaluated and treated more neurology patients than we ever had during our month clinic – 405 patients – all with the support and assistance of FAME and its staff. A special mention goes to Dr. Anne Ghati, an incredible caregiver who I have worked with now for many years and who, going forward, will be our neurologist on the ground, caring for our patients in between visits and new ones as they come. She is truly an inspiration and has had a positive impact on every resident who I have brought to FAME. They will all be better doctors having worked with her for her caring and compassion are truly contagious. And two other individuals who have been essential to our work are Angel and Katashu, FAME’s relentless social workers who have dedicated themselves to the success of our neurology project. They travel to the remote corners of Karatu district prior to each of our visits making announcements of our arrival to the communities and to ensure that everyone who travels to see us, often for days, understands what it is that we treat. And then when we arrive, they make sure that things run smoothly which is often a great undertaking considering the volume of patients that may show up on any given day. There is a tremendous amount of coordination and they do it seamlessly for us each and every time.

Angel and the rest of the neurology group in September 2019

A very huge milestone occurred for FAME this year in that the much needed 24-bed Maternity Center opened and seemed to almost immediately fill with women coming to FAME to deliver with a great number of them coming from outside our district, further validating the fantastic reputation for health care delivery within Northern Tanzania. Once perk for us of the Maternity Center opening was that for the first time in many years, our clinic in September had its own facility in the old Ward 2 that had previously served as the maternity ward, less than half the size of the newly opened one. Though this ward will soon be repurposed, we are hopeful that it will occur after our March trip so we’ll have that luxury on at least one other occasion. A future dream of mine will be to secure funding to develop a dedicated “specialty center” where we and other specialties visiting FAME can see patients and have a home.

Kitashu at home in his boma

As many of you know, my life has become irrevocably intertwined with that of FAME over the last ten years and, in March of this year, I was incredibly honored by being asked to serve on the FAME Board of Directors. It is a vastly different role for me than I have been accustomed to at FAME, but as the only other physician on the board beside Frank, I have become acutely aware of my responsibilities and am, once again, grateful that I have been given this opportunity to serve others.

Times Square

And finally, I’d like to mention the event that occurred this year that had the greatest impact on me personally. Last year, we had had the good fortune to work with a certain young medical student during our month at FAME who had greatly impressed me with his dedication and drive to learn as much as possible during our time together. Following this interaction, and through circumstances that I need not go into here, Abdulhamid Shaban was given the opportunity to travel to the University of Pennsylvania as a guest and to spend a month with our neurology service, a specialty that he had become totally enamored with after working with us in Tanzania. To put this opportunity in perspective, not to mention the sheer magnitude of traveling to the United States for a young man that had never left Tanzania, let alone flown on an airplane, you must remember that there are less than half a dozen neurologists in the entire country. There are virtually no neurologists on staff at the medical schools and there are only two neurology residency programs in all of Sub-Saharan Africa.

Broad Street and City Hall

So, after our month in September, Abdulhamid traveled with two of us back to Philadelphia to spend a month observing the delivery of medical care in the United States. Without belaboring the point, I will tell you that he made the most of every waking moment he had here, spending time with multiple neurology services and seeing things that I believe he would never have imagined seeing. I could go on and on about his experiences here and I am not sure that I could truly convey the magnitude of impact that his visit had on him by his own admission. But I came to realize after a very short while, that as great as this impact on Abdulhamid was, it was equaled, and perhaps then some, by the lasting effect that he had on those of us here who had the privilege and honor of working with him. It was clear that what we take for granted was not so for Abdulhamid. I have so many fond memories of sharing new experiences with him, from the wonder of teaching him the neurologic examination to his first taste of shellfish during one of our nights out together. And when I wasn’t sharing those experiences, it was the residents or medical students spending those precious moments with him, whether it was at an Eagles Tailgate (yes, that’s true) with Leah or a day in New York City with Peter or bowling for the very first time after never knowing what it was before. This is what gratitude and thankfulness are all about, it is in those little things we do, often without our realization, that affect other’s lives, sometimes knowingly and sometime not. But most often without intentionally doing so. That is the true act of giving…..

Marissa, Abdulhamid and Leah in Philly

Abdulhamid’s first bowling experience

On this day of giving, I would ask each of you reading this to choose to make a difference in someone’s life and to share in that sense of gratitude and thankfulness that I have been so lucky and blessed to have known over this last decade with FAME. I would ask that if you are able, please go to the FAME website to share on this Giving Tuesday.

https://www.globalgiving.org/projects/fame-giving-tuesday/

Thank you!

 

Thursday, October 3, 2019 – Boats, planes and automobiles….

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It had rained very heavily over night, but not in the early morning hours meaning that most of the trails would be drying by now. Mike was sticking with his plan to relax until our boat ride back to Kigoma some time before noon and I had remained steadfast in my hope to see the chimps one last time despite have a pretty significant pulled muscle in my right hip area that had been bothering me and getting worse over the last several days. Probably from carrying all that camera equipment on the first day of hiking. If I had any intelligence whatsoever, I would have been relaxing this morning as well, but I’ve already made it clear that isn’t my personality, for better or for worse. Ahadi had wanted to go hiking early given our short window of opportunity and so Mike and I were upstairs in the dining area before 7 am in hopes of snagging and early coffee and tea, respectively.

Early morning playful baboons

The lights were again continually blinking in the dining area as the power was continuing with its normal pattern of cycling more off than on, but, thankfully, it was light enough outside this morning to see our feed. Juma continued on his string of wonderful meals for us and didn’t disappoint on our last breakfast even despite the lack of power. Most everything is cooked with gas here where the typical cooking appliance is the short gas cylinder with a permanently mounted burner on top (hence all the burn injuries more common in epileptics).

One of our trails through the dense forest

Ahadi came by early at around 7:30 to check in with us and I was ready to head out whenever we heard from the trackers. We couldn’t go high into the surrounding hills as I had to be back by 11 am to shower, pack and eat before leaving at 11:30. There was only one tracker again today and they hadn’t seen anything all morning, so we decided to head south along the beach in hopes of finding the family that we had seen yesterday, but without spending too much time hunting for them. We hiked just inland from the beach for the most part, crossing several streams still flowing with runoff from the heavy rains last night and basically ended up at a location just shy of where our boats landed the day before.

Another trail

Ahadi left me on the beach while he went inland looking for the tracker and listening for any sounds of the chimps that he might be able to hear. I waited for close to 30 minutes for him to return which gave me plenty of time to dwell on this amazing opportunity we’ve had to visit such a place as Gombe as it is tremendously more remote and less traveled than all the other sites I’ve been to in Tanzania. To see the chimps in their natural habitat and in a place where one of the greatest conservationists had studied them was more than I could have ever hoped for and was as meaningful to me personally as much of what I’ve done here in Africa to date. As a young child, my heroes were Heinrich Schliemann (discoverer of Troy and Mycenae), Louis Leakey and Jane Goodall, and one of my favorite books was The Last Days of Pompeii by Edward Bulwer-Lytton. I didn’t follow sports, but rather explorers and adventurers, and still do to this day. (Yes Leah, definitely a nerd alert!). Here I was standing alone on the shore of one of the most ancient lakes in the world in perhaps the most remote place I had ever been.

The beach I stood along, alone and pondering the future of the world

Yet here, in this incredibly remote location in the middle of the Dark Continent and directly across from the Congo, I found the telltale signs of man’s destruction of this planet – washed up plastic and Styrofoam. The World Without Us is a well-written book about the true legacy of man and how long it would take the man-made structures and pollutants to disappear if we suddenly vanished from the Earth. Tiny plastic beads that are byproducts of plastic production are probably one of the widely distributed pollutants currently known and can be found in the furthest reaches of the most remote oceans and sees and will take hundreds of thousands of years to degrade. Here I was on the shore of Lake Tanganyika, remote for me, but certainly not the most remote place on the Earth, so why I was so shocked, I’m not certain. It is total naivete, yet it was still there and seemed just so out of place to me to be depressing.

The wicked scourge – styrofoam

Ahadi found the tracker who hadn’t yet located any chimps and it was too far for us to walk to the next valley, so we started back along the same trail. It was a gorgeous day and the weather was even a tad breezy and cool. About half-way back, Ahadi still made an attempt to find the chimps as we walked up into the forest several hundred meters where he left me again so he could race upwards, but there were no sounds of the chimps. This time, I was left along a forest trail in the deep overgrowth, listening mostly to the sounds of the birds until one of the other guides we had run into earlier and was with the two women who arrived to camp yesterday walked up along the same trail having left his clients down on the beach to wait. This just didn’t seem to be the day for chimps, though I remained satisfied that we had three excellent days of trekking and absolutely no regrets.

Beautiful roots and vines

We got back to camp early and I was able to pack and shower in leisure (still no hot water, though) and Juma made us another lunch for we had to leave. As we were saying our goodbyes to Ahadi, a day group arrive from a nearby country wanting to head out at noon with the hope of seeing the chimps. By the looks of the group they weren’t going to be very happy if they did see them and they also didn’t look like the type that were ready to hike up in the mountains as we done for the last three days. We wished Ahadi luck and I hoped for his sake that he would be successful in finding them.

Looking back towards Gombe

Our bags were loaded into the boat and we began our journey down this prehistoric coast towards Kigoma. Juma was with us as his job had really just been to take care of us at Gombe and, for that, he had been overly successful. One our way south we passed the local water taxi, a much larger though similarly designed craft as ours, that is packed with people and is half as fast, taking four hours to Kigoma. As the boat came closer, I could see one non-African on it and it was Dr. Collins returning from two nights in Kigoma. We both spotted each other and waved our goodbyes. We landed at the Hotel Tanganyika on the south west side of Kigoma and found our ride so that we were to the airport in plenty of time. We were screened for Ebola with a temperature scan and were allowed to board as if either of us had a fever we might still be there.

Fancy boats on the beach again

Our flight was leaving at 3:25 pm and was surprisingly on time and as we lifted off the runway, the beautiful waters of the lake remained visible out the window for the longest time. In fact, they were visible for much longer than I would have imagined until I realized that were heading due north when Dar es Salaam was far to our east. I had thought the flight was stopping in Tabora, a small city half-way across the country in a direct line to Dar, but when I pointed out to Mike that we weren’t heading in that direction, but rather due north along the lakeshore, it became just a little concerning as to where we were actually heading. The terrain became far more mountainous than it should for Tanzania and when I looked at the map on my phone, sure enough, we were no longer in Tanzania, but rather had entered Burundi en route to their former capitol city of Bujumbura.

A coastal scene

We were on the right flight, but had no idea we were heading there and we were also starving since it was now a bit late, both in time and for the flight to reach Dar. We now had a very short connection and needed some sustenance so bought the last four samosas at the snack bar and inhaled them before they announced that our flight from Dar to Kilimanjaro was actually delayed by an hour. I immediately got up to buy some sodas since we were going to be there for another hour, but the snack bar mysteriously closed just as they made the announcement delay. To make matters worse, our flight was stopping in Zanzibar (the opposite direction), so we wouldn’t be getting into Kili until after 10 pm.

Our Air Tanzania plane out of Kigoma to Dar by way of Bujumura

Thankfully, we had a transfer already arranged so wouldn’t have to bother Pendo and Leonard with picking us up given house dangerous it is to drive at night here. No sense risking everyone’s lives. We arrived to their home well after 11 pm, but, of course, in typical Tanzanian fashion, and, even more so, “Pendo fashion” as anyone who has had the pleasure of her hospitality knows, there was a full meal on the table waiting for us of spaghetti and meatballs. Knowing Mike to have never turned down a meal in his life regardless of how tired he was, we both sat at the table and enjoyed our midnight “snack” in this incredible country of the most loving and gracious individuals I know. Pendo and Leonard are, of course, family, but their generosity still goes far above and beyond!

 

 

Wednesday, October 2, 2019 – Leah departs for home and another day for us with the chimps…

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Leaving boarding her boat and saying goodbye to Ahadi (Promise)

For reasons that I won’t go into here, Leah was scheduled to depart Gombe this morning as she had an early flight scheduled out of Kigoma en route to Dar and then home. We had all agreed that leaving by 8 am would be more than enough time for the two hour boat ride back south and short drive to the airport so we had set breakfast for an hour earlier. Once again, the power was out in our tents and as we arrived for breakfast, it seemed to blink on for a few moments and then would mysteriously vanish for a much longer time so as to be of little use for anything constructive. We eventually concluded that it was most likely an issue with the solar panels and storing power overnight as that seemed to be when things really went south. No matter, though, as it all added to the ambience of Gombe and made us feel more as though we were in the incredibly remote location that we were. Our clothes had been drenched, and remained so, either from the sweat of our treks or the intermittent, and at times, heavy downpours that occurred during the days. They were not a nuisance as it gave the place a magical feeling whether we were in our tents or on the trail trekking through the dense forests with vines that seemed to reach for the sky.

Beating on the pull cord cover in hopes of it recoiling (it did not)

One of our friendly baboons

After a wonderful breakfast of French toast, crepes and fruit, we went to the tents to get Leah’s baggage which included an impressively large and blocky suitcase that doubled as a steamer trunk (sorry, Leah) and carried, or really dragged, everything out to the boat. She was heading back to Kigoma in the same boat which we had come in, though this morning, there seemed to be an issue getting it started, but not for lack of effort. The pull cord didn’t want to fully recoil necessitating that the cover come off, but it took some time to locate the correct wrench, or spanner as it is known here, for one of the three bolts holding it on. The pull cord was playing coy as it then decided to recoil and once everything was put back together, decided to not again leaving the boat hand to start the process all over again. This went on for several more tries and I know that Leah was probably stressing out horribly, but we were trying to joke about it as much as we could knowing that she really had plenty of time and I was pretty, though not completely, confident that they would get the engine started and be on their way. Sure enough, it did eventually start, though they did have to resort to their backup pull cord with the cover left off (those of you motorheads will know what I’m talking about with outboard engines) to get it going.

The fancy boat carrying the elderly couple

With Leah on her way, it was left up to Mike and I to travel with Ahadi in search of the chimps. While we were waiting for news from the tracker (there was only a single one today where before there had been two), a very fancy boat pulled up on the beach from one of the more exclusive camps north of us and unloaded an elderly couple. Mike and I both joked how much better we liked our boat as it had more character and fit more with what our expectations were. Years ago, when I had volunteered with the kids at a school in Karatu, we had said the same thing about Gibb’s Farm in that it was fine for lunch, but way to fancy and out of place for what we were doing. Once Ahadi had rounded us up, though, we were herded onto the fancy boat along with the elderly couple for a short trip south towards the place where we had landed on Sunday looking for a hot trail.

Ahadi listening for chimp sounds

Once on land, the three of us immediately marched off into the canyon, heading pretty much uphill for some time, much of it going side slope on very steep and slippery hillsides where a simple misstep could put you down on your side if not down the hill. And then there was the bushwhacking, which, simply put, is traveling straight though the dense underbrush without the aid of a machete require you to constantly untangle yourself from the vines that feel like they’re grabbing at you or the ones that have thorns and really are. As we continued to go up, we eventually ran into three or four members of the T-family high up in a tree above us where we had plenty of time to watch them before they decided to move on.

At that point, we continued to follow them and were eventually reconnected with them down much lower on the hillside, where the elderly couple and Scandinavian family met up with us to continue watching them. We all stood below a big tree in which they were feeding with several youngsters moving about the branches and playing. They eventually decided to descend which meant that we needed to move a bit to give them room, though the elderly couple were so mesmerized by the moment that they really didn’t give them enough room nor did they see the guides motioning them to move back. We were all wearing our surgical masks, which, if I didn’t mention it before, are required whenever you are viewing the chimps nearby as they have learned that over the years the most common killer of the chimps are diseases that were directly transmitted by visitors or researchers. The most famous of these was a polio epidemic that killed and disabled a number of chimps in 1966 during the initial years of Goodall’s research.

Several of the chimps were sky high in a palm tree eating palm nuts and could barely be sees as anything other than black blobs at the top of the tree. When the chimps did descent the trees nearby, they took off at a fast enough clip that it was difficult for us to follow them further given the steep terrain, so we decided to return to the boats. Initially, though, they were taking us through the brush in a short pursuit that would have been very perilous as neither the elderly couple nor the Scandinavian family looked to be either fit enough or dressed  in preparation for the bushwhacking and side sloping we had done earlier alone with Ahadi. Thankfully for all of us, as it would have been quite a slog for the others, we turned around and were on the beach in no time, ready to board the fancy boats (the family had come in another) to head back to camp.

It was early and both Mike and I were quite ready for lunch so we showered and met Juma to our lunch shortly after noontime. We were the only two in camp now, though somewhat later, two American women arrived, but did not go out for the afternoon as there were no chimps found by the trackers nearby. It was a quiet afternoon for the two of us and I spent most of it catching up on some blogs, though was neither able to post them or upload photos as we had no internet other than the weak signal we could get around camp, that is when both the power was on and the WiFi was working or we could hike to the end of the beach to download our email and that was about it. Dinner was a wonderful beef stew and large helping of rice and greens. Everything that Juma made was amazingly delicious and both Mike and I commented to each other that there was no way either of us could cook like that from scratch using whatever ingredients you had around the kitchen without a recipe.

Tomorrow, we were to leave camp for a flight out of Kigoma at around 3:25 pm, which meant there was enough time to perhaps get one more chimp trek in if we returned by 11 am. Mike had decided that he would prefer to relax and who could blame him as we had had three incredible days of seeing chimps where there are some visitors who never see them this time of year. I am more the type to squeeze every last moment of opportunity, to leave nothing left on the table, but I will gladly admit that it is very, if not most, often to a fault where I wear everyone else out and, of that, I need to be more cognoscente in the future.

Tuesday, October 1, 2019 – A trek with the chimps and a visit to Jane’s house….

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Chimps, chimps, everywhere

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.

Jane’s living room with Dr. Collins sitting at his desk and Ahadi nearby

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.

Jane’s bedroom

An appropriate postcard in Jane’s house

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.

Jane’s kitchen

Baboons on a fallen tree as we walked close by them

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.

Looking north down our beach

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.

A long exposure on the iPhne

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.

 

 

 

 

Monday, September 30, 2019 – Our first trek to see the chimpanzees of Gombe Stream….

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Leah and Mike on the trail

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.

Amazing foliage

Ahadi contacting the trackers

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.

Leah and Mike on the trail

A gorgeous 25 meter waterfall

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.

One of the chimps we followed today (B+W)

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.

Gremlin and Gabo

Bushwhacking on the heels of the chimps

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.

The main valley for the chimps

A valley too steep to descend

Mike and Ahadi following the chimps

Mike and Ahadi

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.

A view from our dock

Our beautiful little spot at the far end of the beach where we watched the sunsets and connected to the internet

A view south from the dock

 

Sunday, September 29, 2019 – It’s off to Gombe, but first Kigoma….

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On the tarmac – arriving in Kigoma

We awakened quite early to meet our driver at 6 AM for our drive to the Dar airport. As I had mentioned earlier, we had requested bringing breakfast with us since the kitchen wasn’t opening until 6:30, but the breakfasts, which left much to be desired, were comprised of a piece of white bread (not toasted) with some jam, a banana, and a juice. Needless to say, we were all still quite hungry when we arrived at the airport. We went to check in, but were told that check in would be 7 AM for our flight, so we sat and waited. Thankfully, Leah noticed that the small sign about the check in desk had changed and now had our flight so we weren’t last in line, but after having checked in, found that our “new” departure would not be until 9:30 AM, much to our frustration. Thankfully, there was a small snack bar where we were able to get something to eat or drink given our less than satisfying breakfasts. I ordered two samosas and a diet Coke, a very hearty breakfast indeed.

Welcome to Kigoma

Ebola warnings in Kigoma, across the lake from the DRC

It was time for our departure and we all boarded the plane which was a prop plane similar to what we had flown in from Kilimanjaro. The flight was two hours long as it completely crosses Tanzania from east to west, essentially following the same path as the railroad that was built here a number of years ago and can still be taken from Dar if you’re more adventurous. The railroad had been built to help bring goods not only from Western Tanzania, but also from the Congo, DRC, to the ports for export. Kigoma is still a business center for the region and it is the only access point to Gombe Stream National Park, famous for the site of Jane Goodall’s extraordinary work on the wild chimpanzees of Tanzania that began in the early 1960s and still continues today.

The baggage “carousel” at Kigoma

None of us had any idea of what to expect since none of us had ever been to this region before nor did we have much of a description of the area. I guess you can say that we all came based on the thought of visiting such a remote area and getting to see the chimps. But first, we had to land in Kigoma, which is probably one of the tiniest of commercial airports that I have ever been to. The single small building there says “departure lounge” on the right half and “arrival lounge” on the left half. There was nothing in between. The plane taxied onto the tarmac and let everyone off on the opposite of the place from the “lounges,” meaning that we had to first negotiate our way around the plane before we could head towards the terminal building. We had to show our passports to enter, which they recorded asking our destination, while informational signs warning of Ebola symptoms were on the wall behind the desk and at other locations. With the DRC being so close and reported cases of Ebola, no one takes anything for granted around here.

A scene along the “docks”

Our water taxi to Gombe awaits us

The arrival lounge had no chairs or other conveniences, but was really just a square room with a big opening on the tarmac side with a large platform on which they placed luggage as it came in, necessitating that passengers get their bags before they could put additional ones onto it. Of course, our bags were at the bottom of the cart they used to unload everything and then wheel over by hand. Regardless, we all had or baggage, which was a huge plus, and we were now ready to step outside and find our driver. Given the size of the aircraft (small) and the fact that were nearly last to get our luggage, this was a simple affair as there were few drivers left standing in the parking lot. We loaded everything and drove through the outskirts of town, towards the place where we’d find our transportation for the next leg of trip – a boat to take us to Gombe. We pulled up to an area where there were many, many boats of all sizes in the water and pulled up to shore. All were the very common wooden boats of this area, most with engines and some that were very much bigger than others. Joshua, from Gombe Safaris who we had booked with, met us there and introduced us to Juma, who was the captain of the boat we were to take, which though it was one of the smaller ones, looked quite sea worthy and had tarp over the top that was reassuring.

One of Juma’s assistants on our way out to Gombe

Leah and our captain, Juma, who I later discovered can’t swim

Our bags were loaded onto the boat and we all found seats for the two hours that would be necessary to reach the central part of Gombe where we were staying. It was immediately clear to me that we were also bringing the groceries to camp as there was a large basket in the middle of the boat which contained all sorts of fresh produce. There was also a string of freshly caught fish hanging on a nail on the inside of the hull which I was also pretty certain that we’d be eating either tonight or the next day. At some point as we were heading out of the harbor, Juma did suggest that we put on life vests which was probably more appreciated than not given the small size of our boat, the massive size of the lake and the length of our trip. Thankfully, there were no mishaps during the journey as we plied close to the heavily wooded shore, occasionally passing a small fishing village or boats out fishing with their tiny crews. Once we reached the park boundary, though, there no more villages to be seen and we still had quite a ways to go.

Unbeknownst to us at the time, we were looking at tonight’s dinner

At one point, we pulled up along the beach and some guides and visitors came out of the forest and tall grass. They had apparently been looking for some of the chimps, but hadn’t seen any, which was unfortunate as most of them were only on a day trip from Kigoma and were heading back home empty handed. One of the visitors, though, did come back to camp with us. He turned out to be an anesthesiologist from Ireland who had been working in Tanzania and was now traveling on his own before heading back home. He would be spending the next two nights with us in camp and we enjoyed his company. There was also another group of three women who were in camp for two nights, but other than that, we were pretty much alone here. Before we arrived to camp and while still on the water, it began to rain on us, but there were no issues as it was quite refreshing.

The marker on shore announcing that we were now in the national park

A view along shore

On our way here, Katherine from FAME had texted me that she spoke with a friend of hers who works here at Gombe as a guide and that she had told him we were coming so we should look out for him. “Promise” was his name and as we initially got off the boat and were welcomed, I mentioned that we were looking for Promise as he knew that we were coming. Everyone looked at me like I was a bit crazy and seemed to have no idea who Promise was until finally, one of their faces lit up and then said, “Oh, you mean Ahadi!” Of course, Promise in English translates into Ahadi in Swahili which is what everyone here knew him by. Once we figured that out, all was well and, in very short order, we were able to meet Ahadi, who was as pleasant and reassuring as anyone I could imagine and he proceeded to help orient us to camp.

Tying up the boat as we wait for the trackers

We stopped off before arriving to camp to possibly trek, but only picked up a passenger

One of the first things we learned was that the baboons, who populate the camp along with the staff, can be very pesky at times and are well adept at opening the zippers of the tents requiring that they be locked at all times when you’re not present, unless you’d like to see them playing with your camera equipment high up in the trees or possibly wearing your clothes. Since neither of those things rank high on my to do list, we decided to keep the tent religiously locked when not present. The tents, though not entirely glamping as it was in the Serengeti, are really quite comfortable with two large beds on a permanent platform with running water and electricity (though not 100% dependable which I’ll go into later), a toilet and a shower. Unfortunately, the hot water is not currently working for the tents, but we all pretty much decided that was more than reasonable at such a remote place and cold showers would have to do.

Our boat waiting on shore as they decide whether we’re going to look for chimps

Meals are eaten on the second floor of the rest house (you can choose to either stay in the rest house rooms or the tents with the latter being ever so slightly more expensive) and the food is cooked by, none the less, Juma, our captain. On our way here, he had handed each of a bag lunch on the boat that was a vegetarian burger on a huge bun with secret sauce that was really delicious, along with some mango juice to wash it down. When we finally arrived to camp, we were also offered lunch, by Juma, who must have thought our stomachs were bottomless. Of course, we had to eat the lunch so as not to offend anyone, and considering it was the amazing fresh fish that we had traveled on the boat with us, we weren’t about to argue. Later, though, when Juma asked us about dinner, we all immediately agreed that we were just fine for the evening and really didn’t need anything else to eat.

Making our tent “baboon proof”

Tomorrow would be our first trek to see the chimps and I think that all of us were very excited over the possibility of seeing them in the forest, though at the time, we really had no inkling of what that was going to involve.

Saturday, September 28, 2019 – From FAME to Arusha and on to our various destinations….

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Thankfully, Marissa and Andrea had checked their flights on Air Kenya the day before to notice that they had been moved up an hour. We had originally intended to depart at 8 AM, but given their new departure time, it made more sense to leave a bit earlier so as to make sure we had plenty of time. We had people flying out at various times during the day and given that it is about an hour to get to the airport at Kilimanjaro, I had planned to arrange a shuttle for the Marissa and Andrea who were leaving the earliest. Leah, Mike and myself actually had transport from Arusha as part of our package of travel to Gombe Stream National Park and our flight was leaving at 7:40, while Kyra was departing at 10 PM on Emirates to eventually head to Morocco by way of Dubai. I had asked if Kyra could just come along with us since that made the most sense, and heard back that she could ride with the three of us for no extra fee. And in the end, we didn’t need the shuttle for Marissa and Andrea, who were heading home, as Pendo had to drive to Moshi for a funeral at the same time and could drop them off at the airport which was far better than taking a shuttle, not only in cost, but also for reliability.

We left FAME at about 7 AM, with Phoebe getting up early to say goodbye to us. I know it was sad for everyone to leave, though it was time for them to get home to their family and their other lives. I’ll be back in six months and, besides, FAME has always been constantly on my mind and even more so these days given my new commitment as a board member. We drove through Karatu with all the early activity of the merchants and the buses being boarded for far reaches of the Tanzania – Arusha, Dar, Dadoma, Loliondo – all destinations for everyday travelers on their way for business or to rejoin families. I have never taken a long bus ride in this country, and though it might seem exciting and adventurous, it can also be very dangerous as there are bus accidents all the time here.

We drove down to Manyara and had planned to stop briefly at the African Galleria to say goodbye to Nish and several people had wanted to get a few last pieces of Tanzanian artwork. Though I had said 10 minutes, it turned into closer to 30, which wasn’t a crisis, but I knew that traffic in Arusha can be a problem at times. We eventually left and stopped briefly for gas in Makuyuni, before continuing on to Arusha. The drive was reasonably fast until we reached the outskirts of Arusha and the traffic became a problem. I took a few shortcuts, but even with these, we arrived around 10:30 rather than the 9:30 I had anticipated. Pendo, of course, had a full breakfast on the table waiting for us and we were all starving, given the lack of breakfast items in our house, so it was very much appreciated. After breakfast, Marissa and Andrea gathered their things, loaded them into Pendo’s van and they were off for the airport.

Dr. Anne preparing for an important talk in Arusha

The remaining four of us were left at home with the Gabriella, Gabriel, and another young family member, but in very short order, we all fell asleep on the couches in their family room, sleeping quite soundly for well over an hour. When we awakened, I realized that we’d all need something to eat before going to the airport, so we drove over to the Cinema, which is a small upscale mall that has an outside food court where there are a number of restaurants that all vie for your business by putting about six menus on the table, each with different waiters to take your order. This is somewhat of a mzungu hangout as there are lots of expats and young travelers who come here to eat a meal without the fear of getting ill which can often happen at some of the local restaurants if you’re not careful. We each ordered from one of the menus and then had a delicious meal that we finished just in time to head back to the house where Leonard’s sister-in-law, Grace, was waiting to drive us to Impala Hotel nearby where we had planned to meet our ride to the airport. I think everyone commented on what a welcome change it was to finally be in something other than the squeaky and bouncy Land Rover after an entire month, but I took absolutely no offense as I had a bit of the same feeling, though was already missing Turtle.

At the airport, Leah, Mike and I checked in for our Air Tanzania flight to begin our journey to Gombe, while poor Kyra had about four hours to wait for her Emirates flight and they hadn’t even begun checking passengers in yet. She had a long trip to Morocco, but we received word later that she made it safely to meet her husband. Our flight to Dar was uneventful other than a stop in Zanzibar which we had been aware of beforehand. As it was already nighttime, we did not even get a good view of the island.

Mike reaches Nirvana

In Dar, we met our airport shuttle that took us to the Tanzanite Executive Suite, the long awaited highlight for Mike as he had been talking about this ever since we booked our trip months ago. It was obviously more of a joke, though at times he seemed quite genuinely serious about it. After all, it was an “executive suite.” We drove from the airport to what seemed to be the main area of town and the driver eventually delivered us at the hotel after driving through a number of very narrow and bumpy streets. Our bags were brought up to reception, one floor above the street and we were given our rooms on the 8th floor. Everything was extremely clean and we were greeted with a very cold and very fresh glass of mango juice. Since our flight was at 8 AM the following morning, we did ask if we could have breakfast to go (since breakfast was included but would not begin until 6:30), as we’d be leaving for the airport quite early. I think we were all asleep quite quickly despite the long naps we had taken earlier in the day. Tomorrow, we’d be flying to Kigoma and it would be off to Gombe Stream National Park after that.

There had been a tremendous amount of moving parts today given everyone’s different flight times, the travel from Karatu, and the distance to the airport, but all went incredibly well and, amazingly, everyone made it to their destinations as scheduled. Marissa and Andrea would be home tomorrow, while Kyra was on her adventure in Morocco with her husband. Leah, Mike and I were just beginning our expedition to the see the famous chimps of Gombe.