By Michelle Munro
What to do with a weekend between Kigoma and Dar es Salaam? I could join the other “week in the field” development hacks, take the Friday flight to Dar and enjoy vibrant markets, the Indian Ocean, a pedicure, and a hotel with a pool, gym, decent internet, consistent showers and exotic breakfast choices like real coffee, whole-wheat bread and yogurt. Or I could stay in Kigoma, capital of the region with the same name in western Tanzania, almost as far as you can get from Dar but only 2 hours from Gombe National Park, which, like Kigoma town, borders Lake Tanganyika. Across the lake is what used to be known as Katanga Province of the Democratic Republic of Congo, rich in minerals and corruption. Zambia and Burundi also border the lake. The almost 250,000 refugees who have fled civil unrest in Burundi have arrived in a region where underfunded and poor public services fuel opposition to their influx. Fast boats with big engines and interesting cargoes speed across the lake. Kigoma is a bit tense, but bustling. There’s shipping, a rail link to Dar and its seaport, government services and commercial fishing in the second-oldest, second-deepest and second-largest (by volume) lake in the world. And a little tourism.
Jane Goodall researched chimpanzee behaviour in Gombe. Access to Gombe on the north-eastern shores of Tanganyika is by boat only — a perimeter prevents fishing or commercial lake transport close to its shores. One can book a National Park Service tour, which leaves daily at 9 or so (when it has customers), picks up those whom it dropped off the previous day, after their night in a tent and two forest walks in search of chimps, and gets back to Kigoma in the late afternoon. Not an option if I was to make a 2 pm Sunday flight. Having spent the week in rural Kigoma, I had not been able to scope out tour offices, but I had done a search before leaving Canada and continued negotiating over Whatsapp while upcountry (consuming less data when there is a wireless signal, but no wifi or other internet). So at 6 am I was met by a taxi driver, exchanged a few US$100 bills for a flimsy receipt and was driven to the local fishing port. The captain and his crew of one (who looked about 15 and did all the work) fired up a fishing boat and we put-putted north. After helping to negotiate a tangle of anchor lines, the captain pulled a red blanket over his head and slept.
As advertised, after about 2 hours, small, traditional and large, commercial fishing boats, deforested hills and villages gave way to thick vegetation, rocky outcrops and steep hillsides. My first task on arrival was to provide passport application–level details in a table-sized registration book at the Gombe Park Office. Next was the briefing – must go with a park guide, no assurance that we’d find chimps; if we do find them, we can stay up to an hour but must stay a metre away; don’t try to communicate; no food; photos are fine; and stand behind a tree if a chimp charges.
I and my personal guide, Albert, started trekking along forest paths with tangled growth creeping overhead and underfoot. He gave me a rundown of the park’s history, described where we might find chimps, identified some of the flora and dismissed as uninteresting the baboons who were shrieking and throwing fruit at us. Once he heard what I do, he asked, for a “friend,” about safe contraception options.
After about an hour in, we met the only two other tourists in the park that day along with their guide. They had arrived the day before, had not seen chimps their first day despite a 4-hour search, had found a group that morning and were now rushing back to make their boat. Their directions, another half-hour of walking and some careful listening by Albert led us to a fellow harvesting termites and, a little later, we found a group of about 15 chimps, one dominant and a couple of lower-ranking males, females and little guys.
Two PhD students found us a little later, one was examining male behaviour during his second 2-month stint of field research and the other, a young woman, was studying chimp movement with an array of GoPros. As my new post-grad friends were staying for the day, I got to hang with them for three hours until it was time to head back to the boat. This prevented me from doing the waterfall trek that is part of the usual package, but it was the right choice, I think.
Our group of chimps displayed all the behaviour one could hope for: playing, foraging for and opening fruit, fishing out termites, childcare, showing off, reciprocal grooming and a bit of aggression. Numbers grew and shrunk a couples of times; new arrivals announced themselves with lots of noise and rushing about — sneaking up is a chimp faux pas. We on the other hand fell back from our metre perimeter and whispered, but I was still close enough to get a few decent iPhone snaps.
It was a fabulous day, after which Albert and I slowly hiked to catch my relatively luxurious (compared to the local option shown below) and covered put-put back to Kigoma and a fried lake-fish and chips supper.