When I heard Dr Jane Goodall talk in Nairobi about her chimpanzee research in Gombe it became my mission to see man’s closest relative whose DNA is 98 per cent like ours.
In our sturdy car, with my nephew Galib at the wheel, the journey was mapped out from Nairobi: Arusha, Tarangire National Park, Babati, Singida, Tabora, Kigoma and the final sail to Gombe National Park – 3,000 kilometres in nine days.
The road to Kigoma is mostly tarmacked, with only three sections between Tabora and Kigoma unpaved but still good enough terrain for a saloon car to drive on.
We set off at 5am from Nairobi. The officials at the border stop at Namanga took two hours to process our documents, despite us being the first on the queue. Unlike Rwanda and Uganda, Tanzanians only allow in Kenyans with a passport and a yellow fever certificate.
A few minutes into Tanzania we got our first taste of the police, who made our otherwise fantastic safari a nightmare. A policewoman jumped into the driver’s seat to check out the mechanics. It became routine to be stopped more than once every day for the entire trip. There are 50km speed limit road signs every few kilometres.
At Lake Duluti Serena, I got my first taste of how close to the city free-roaming elephants are. A 15-minute drive from the hotel and we’re in Arusha National Park where four male elephants crossed the road near the gate.
“Arusha National Park is one ecosystem with Kilimanjaro and Amboseli national parks,” said Zacharia Mbuya, the driver guide.
Then we were off to Treetops Tarangire — an eco-lodge built around the baobabs in Rendilen, a community conservancy on the edge of Tarangire National Park famous for its huge baobabs and elephants; both are in plenty at the swamp, including a lioness who stole the show making a dash for a passing zebra.
On the night-game drive in the wildlife management area, we saw flap-necked chameleons and Verreaux’s eagle owls on a night hunt.
And then it was on to Gombe — with one night at Tabora. We spent the night at Tabora Hotel that was built in the early 1900s. Then we took the long drive to Kigoma and on to Lake Tanganyika, Africa’s longest and deepest lake, and the world’s longest freshwater lake.
Shrieks and chest-thumping
Before sunrise the following morning, we set sail for Gombe — three hours away by motorboat.
The guide at Gombe park, Iddi Kaluse, and the chimp-trekkers were busy on their walkie-talkies determining which way the chimpanzees were moving — up and further into the hills would mean a really long hike, down into the valley was just a few minutes from where we were.
The trekkers called in — the chimps were moving down. We heard them before we saw them. The forest echoed with the shrieks and chest-thumping of the chimpanzees and then everything was silent except for the birds.
The guides led us along a path lined with oil palms, ferns and towering trees. And then suddenly a chimpanzee tumbled downhill with the rest of the family right behind.
For the next three hours, it was just us and them — three families — the G, S and F — from the Kasekela community that lives in the central part of Gombe and is habituated to people.
The dominant male thumped his chest in a show of power, a mother — either Greta or Golden — nursed her newborn, the “kids” climbed and swung on branches. Older chimpanzees tumbled around making low grunts.
“They are laughing,” said Kaluse. In chimp lingo, it’s called panting. As they moved we followed, always keeping a healthy distance.
In a deep vale crowded with tall trees and a crystal clear stream, the chimpanzees saw red colobus monkeys and gave chase.
“They will try and isolate the monkeys. The monkeys that fall to the ground will be grabbed,” said Dr Anthony Collins of Jane Goodall Institute Tanzania. He’s been here 30 years.
In the next few minutes, there were shrieks and cries and then silence. The monkeys got away — for now.