Glorious Gombe, A Few Goodbyes – 8 April 2018

Hiking, swimming, luxury tent, wildlife watching, rain and sun, storms and blue skies, camping food, a place of significant scientific history, and of course chimpanzees / sokwemtu – 48 hours felt like a full week!

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Leaving Kigoma, I had beautiful weather – sunny but still cool. The ride was gorgeous, breezy, and calm. When I arrived at the dock with the National Park sign, I met my guide, Isaya, who has worked in Gombe for 9 years. I then decided on my lodging, splurging to stay in one of the luxury tents – the farthest one in the line along the beach away from the main guesthouse, kitchen, and offices (away from the other humans).

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After some food and baboon watching by the lake, Isaya and I set off down the beach. The goals for the afternoon: 1) try our luck finding a group of chimps that may or may not be findable, 2) climb Jane’s Peak, 3) go to the nearby Kasekela Waterfall – “Jane’s sacred place” or so Anton told me, and 4) visit the feeding station where a great many observations of the chimps were made throughout the years.

Who is Anton? The head baboon researcher at Gombe who started working with Jane Goodall in 1971 – an older British man who was quite a joy to speak with. After leaving the beach and before heading off into the forest, we stopped by Jane’s house, where Anton is staying and doing his research right now. We chatted for about 10 minutes, and then were on our way, to catch up with Anton later.

The hiking is difficult in Gombe, especially the area Northeast of the camp where we spent that first afternoon. Up up up, down down down, steep trails in every direction. I was soon sweating in the humid sun, but thoroughly enjoying the physical exertion.

Soon enough, and with unbelievable good luck, we found a group of chimps at the top of a hill we’d climbed! We watched for about 5 minutes, surgical masks over our faces (to protect the chimps from human illness), the sun shining, the chimps shaded beneath the trees. The two youngest were playing, hitting each other and others in the group, and then bounding away, hanging and twirling in the trees, wearing the biggest grins I’ve ever seen. The faces of the younger chimps – such a light tan, the color of the rocks in the Gombe streambeds – seemed almost unreal.

Soon the group was off down the hillside and we did our best to follow. The slopes off trail and down to the rivers are STEEP – like 80 degree angle steep. Plus, climbing down through branches, between vines, past thorns is slow going for humans! We caught up eventually and started to watch the group again.

Suddenly the sun slipped behind some rather dense clouds and it became quite dark. Then a storm rolled in. It started raining and thunder rumbled, echoing through the hills. An interesting thing that male chimps do when it rains and/or storms is their “rain dance” – actually what it is called, a display of strength, they race and jump around, grab and tear at branches and vines, hit trees and the ground, throw big rocks, and break things in general. Some think this is to make the rest of the group feel protected when the thunder rolls, but who knows for sure…

As the rains really started, the older female, Gremlin, made her way over towards us to sit beneath the thick branches of some low trees/bushes. Then the male in the group, Gimli, about 17 or so, started his rain dance. When “dancing” the males usually circle around their group, traveling the perimeter. Well, we were right next to Gremlin, so Gimli started his way up the hill in our direction eventually.

While we tried to scramble up and out of the way, the now very muddy and slippery slope was exhausting to navigate, and we had no choice but to stand our ground. Isaya told me to grab a sturdy root and hold on in case Gimli wanted to grab my leg and shake me like a vine/tree branch. Then he positioned himself between me and Gimli, sheltering me from the crazed chimp. Luckily that time nothing happened, Gimli passed by a few feet away and went to go beat on some actual vegetation.

As he continued further away, we continued trying to scramble up the slope. We didn’t get far however before he had made his rounds and was back again. This time I held onto a sturdy tree, and Isaya, just below me was on guard. Gimli came right up this time and smacked Isaya on the leg. He then went to grab Isaya’s leg to shake like a vine, but Isaya was too quick and delivered a solid kick to Gimli’s ribs. After falling back, Gimli bounded off down the hill as if Isaya’s kick had given him even more energy. Crash, bang, boom – rocks were thrown, trees shook, and we scrambled further up the hill. The rains soon ceased, and Gimli calmed down, much to my relief.

Apparently then it was time to hunt some monkey! In the trees above us there were some Red Colobus monkeys. Gremlin and Gimli climbed up slowly into the branches to observe the group. There was a baby among them, the target, and Gimli made a half-hearted attempt to grab it at one point, but soon gave up and just sat on a branch. Gremlin moved off, and we went downhill to reach a narrow trail near the streambed below.

We thought the show was over for the day and started away on the trail once we reached it, but immediately a younger female, Gaya, and her 2-year-old along with 7-year-old Google, hopped onto the trail with us. The started walking up the path towards us, and we did our best to get out of the way. Due to the fact that the trail was about two feet wide, and the slope below and above it basically like a wall, we only got about a foot off the trail, and the group of three passed by within inches. As they passed, the two-year-old, riding on Gaya’s back, calmly looked up and into my eyes…

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They settled onto the root of a tree just beside the path, then the young one started playing. He would hang from the tree by one arm, twirling back and forth, bouncing off the trunk, flopping upside down, hanging and twirling some more… He also went to cuddle with Gaya and she sorted through his hair, grooming. Google was also around, a bit more adventurous, up and down in the trees.

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Eventually, they saw Gimli making moves, and started back down the trail towards us. We got off the trail as best we could, and they passed by again nearly touching us. The 2-year-old ran and climbed up on Gaya’s back again, then another mother with baby joined from the forest, then one other female, Google trailing behind, Gimli in the lead… The last image of them: all 7 walking gracefully and slowly in a line away from us down the trail, the late afternoon sun shining perfectly down on their backs as they disappeared into the forest. Wow.

After that adventure, Isaya and I spent a good while climbing out of the valley to a trail above. We made it out of the brush along a stream coming from a little waterfall, then worked our way around and up to eventually reach Jane’s Peak. In that spot, she was first able to observe the chimps and their movements, and she first saw a chimp, Graybeard, eat meat (a monkey he had caught and brought into a tree to share with a female way back in the early 60s). It really was a great vantage point, and beautiful looking down into Kasekela Valley, and up at the rolling hills above, storm clouds building… time to go.

We made it down into the forest before it started pouring again. The thunder was louder than the storm earlier in the day, and I imagined Gimli at work. Hiking through those trees in the rain was beautiful, though rather slippery on the steep slopes. We made our way down to the waterfall eventually, which is about 25 meters tall, a narrow falls coming from a small opening in the cliffs above – quite a green and peaceful alcove for those pounding waters.

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After enjoying this spot, we started off on flatter ground through the forest and along the beautiful rocky stream to arrive at the old feeding station where the chimps were given bananas back in the day. Researchers made it more and more difficult for the chimps to get the bananas, and learned a great deal observing the different strategies different chimps used to get their sweet treat – figuring out latch systems, or faking out/distracting other chimps to get a banana for them selves.

That ended our action-packed afternoon! I took an ice cold shower in my fancy tent, cooked some dinner of rice pasta and baked beans (with hot sauce that was way too spicy – cleared out my sinuses!), and then fell asleep at about 8:30pm, listening to the waves wash up on the shore of Lake Tanganyika.

Day 2 began with rumbling thunder and rain. I made and ate my breakfast of oatmeal, then digested as the rain stopped, watching baboons again on the beach – so many of them! At one point as I looked off down the beach at the distant mountains along the water (Burundi way to the North), Anton came pealing around a curve in the beach about 150 yards away.

He was following three noisy baboons specifically, one male fighting another to reclaim a female, documenting with his camera. “Nasty business,” he said with his British accent as he reached where I was standing – click click click of his camera. The one male succeeded in reclaiming the female, mounting her frequently to emphasize the point. Anton and I chatted for a bit, but then it was time to head back into the forest to look for more chimps!

Isaya and I spent the morning searching in the same general area as the previous afternoon, but with no luck. It rained some more as we walked, and I was able to enjoy the glistening green leaves of the trees and bushes tipping as raindrops fell. I also totally zoned out to the deafening sound of cicadas, my senses succumbing to their shrillness…

After returning to camp for some food and more water, we set off to the South along a trail that followed the shoreline to search an area about 90 minutes away where another group of chimps live. It wasn’t raining when we left and we enjoyed the dark forest of wild mango trees, and palm nut trees, and trees with great buttress roots, etc. We nearly stepped on many “rivers” of ants – yuck – and a few vine snakes, deadly poisonous – yikes. Also found some blossoming aloe vera plants though!

We walked and walked, climbing back into the hills, and then heard a few chimp hoots. Soon Isaya spotted one chimp through a window of leaves, sitting in a tree. Then we saw others as well, all huddled on their branches. We watched, it started to sprinkle a bit, and they soon made their way down the tree trunks into the valley.

It then promptly started pouring. We thought we may be able to find them again, but the slopes were far too steep and dangerously slippery with the mud, so we simply started back to camp. I was not disappointed – any view of the sokwemtu, even from afar, was magical in my book.

When we returned to camp, I requested some hot water for a bath, and then went swimming in the rain. The thunder was far off, so I enjoyed myself, watching the dark gray clouds wrapping the hills, and the way the raindrops hit the surface of the lake… When my hot water came, I took a nice long bath, dressed warmly, and then cooked some more rice noodles with baked beans.

After that I returned to my tent to sit on my bed and look out at the water as the light of the day faded. The rain slowed. I drank some red wine from the plane, had some chocolate, and read my kindle until my eyes could no longer stay open. Then I once again fell asleep to the peaceful water washing up on shore.

In the morning, I awoke to the hoots of baboons on the beach. It was a relaxing morning of oatmeal, reading, and watching the lake. Anton passed as I was leaving my tent with my bags, and we said farewell. Then I was in the boat and on my way back to Kigoma. It rained as I departed, shrouding the hills in beautiful shades and tints of gray. All-encompassing nature – the sights and sounds, the smells: so peaceful. It was an exhilarating, but such a relaxing adventure for me – 48 hours I will never forget.

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I enjoyed my evening in Kigoma when I returned with an old friend from my village who there. We grabbed some dinner and reminisced. The following morning, I left my hotel at 4:30am to get to the bus stand and head to Mwanza, the city of boulders on Lake Victoria. The ride was long. 9 out of 12 hours were on dirt/mud roads. And my seatmate was a mother with 4 children – don’t ask how that works… I don’t have an answer. But we made it eventually, the ride ending on a ferry across part of the lake.

I spent the next two days wandering the city, eating good food (especially the fresh tilapia), hanging out in coffee shops writing and reading. I also wandered down to the boulders by the well-known Bismarck Rock – the city’s icon – where I met a family of three who were taking pictures and of course wanted a few with me because I’m famous didn’t you know. There were quite a few lake birds around: Marabou Storks (they are massive!), Black Kites, and the lovely little Pied Kingfishers.

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I flew back to Dar last Monday. My week of adventure felt like a full month, the worries of work forgotten, my mind revitalized. This past week, while back at the office, was lovely. Some of my best friends closed their service, and we spent some quality time together, though not enough, never enough, in my opinion.

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At least this time after saying goodbye to my friends, I will soon be following them! I have about one month left of my own service, and then I will head out
for two months of travel. These next four weeks will fly by…

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