By the steep slopes and river valleys that hem the sandy northern shore of Lake Tanganyika is where you can find the remote and fragile strip of chimpanzee habitat called Gombe Stream National Park. Gombe is the smallest of Tanzania’s national parks.
You can visit Gombe as a detour when you have been visiting Rubanda Island, or any of the other northern parks. Often we combine Gombe with its sister park Mahale Mountain National Park.
You feel the excitement rising in your body while walking through the ancient forests of Gombe Stream. Startled for a second by the excited whoop that erupts from deep in the forest, boosted immediately by a dozen other voices, rising in volume and tempo and pitch to a frenzied shrieking crescendo.
What you now are hearing is the famous “pant-hoot” call: a bonding ritual that allows the participants to identify each other through their individual vocal stylisations.
This spine-chilling outburst also indicates the imminent visual contact with man’s closest genetic relative: the chimpanzee.
We, as humans, share about 98% of the chimpanzee’s genes. You don’t need to be a scientist to distinguish between the individual repertoires of pants, hoots and screams that define the celebrities, the powerbrokers, and the supporting characters.
Perhaps you will see a flicker of understanding when you look into a chimp’s eyes, assessing you in return – a look of apparent recognition across the narrowest of species barriers.
Visiting Gombe you are also most likely to meet some of the other mammals. Most visible is the other primates beachcomber olive baboons, red-tailed and red colobus monkeys – the latter regularly hunted by chimps – stick to the forest canopy.
More than 200-odd bird species is colouring this small national park. Birds in range from iconic fish eagle to jewel-like Peter’s twinspots that hop tamely around the visitors’ centre is what you can expect to see.
After dusk, a dazzling night sky is complemented by the lanterns of hundreds of small wooden boats, bobbing on the lake like a sprawling city.
16 km (10 miles) north of Kigoma on the shore of Lake Tanganyika in western Tanzania.
How to get there:
Kigoma is connected to Dar and Arusha by scheduled flights, to Dar and Mwanza by a slow rail service, to Mwanza, Dar and Mbeya by rough dirt roads, and to Mpulungu in Zambia by a weekly ferry. From Kigoma, local lake-taxis take up to three hours to reach Gombe, or motorboats can be chartered, taking less than one hour.
What to do:
Chimpanzee trekking; hiking, swimming and snorkelling; visit the site of Henry Stanley’s famous “Dr Livingstone I presume” at Ujiji near Kigoma, and watch the renowned dhow builders at work.
When to go:
The chimps don’t roam as far in the wet season (February to June, November to mid December) so may be easier to find; better picture opportunities in the dry season (July to October and late December).
A self-catering hostel, guest house and campsites on the lakeshore.