So after a crazy adventure of only travelling, Anand and I finally arrived in the early evening at Gombe National Park. To say the least, we were definitely relieved. We hopped off the lake taxi onto the small section of beach that separated the forest/jungle from the lake. Scattered across a quarter-mile section of Gombe National Park are various cement buildings. Several structures are for the researchers, one is the park’s office, another is a guesthouse with four rooms on the lower level and a kitchen and dining area above, and the others are housing for the local park attendants and chimp trackers (I believe all Tanzanian). We registered at the park office and then checked into our room. Interestingly enough, the outer door leading into the guesthouse is to remain locked and they told us to always keep our room doors locked.
After dropping our stuff off, we walked along the lake (because this is the only portion of the park you don’t have to pay to enter). The whole time I was really disorientated. Looking out at the lake, I felt I was along Lake Michigan, but turning around I thought I was on the island from Swiss Family Robinson. Inward, forest faded into dense jungle, and misty clouds covered the canopy of trees and hills.
We also thought that we would only see maybe five or so chimps the whole time we were here. We were very wrong. The first evening during our walk, I saw something small and black walk past on the path near the forest. “Chimpanzees!” I cried out and Anand thought I was lying. I assured him that I wasn’t as we ran up to the path. Sure enough a whole family of chimps were actually walking along this path. I started taking pictures like crazy until I heard a voice from down the path, saying, “Move far from the path. He is very aggressive,” as a large male chimp sauntered past. The voice came from one of the researchers that was following the chimps along the path. Two other researchers walked past as well, each distanced apart in the walking line of chimps and researchers. That night alone we saw about 20 chimps and began to laugh at how we were already lucky enough to see so many.
Once arriving back at the guesthouse, we finally ate our first real meal in two days. It was rice and cabbage, but it was delicious. We also turned in early for the night, wanting to get rest for the next day of chimp tracking and hiking. Later that night, I woke up to what I thought was only a dream to realize that I was hearing hoots and howls and the door to the guesthouse trying to be pried open vigorously. I felt like I was in Jumanji. The park attendants had cautioned us to not take any food out of the lodge because the baboons would steal it, but now we also figured out why they told us to always keep the doors locked. The baboons know how to open the doors! For a large portion of the night, I lay in my bed haunted by the echoing hoot from one baboon out my window and the commanding grunt of the other baboon trying to open the door to the guesthouse.
The next morning we awoke eager to start our day of hiking and chimp trekking. Our guide was Tanzanian and carried with him a walkie-talkie, in which he communicated with the real chimp trekkers about where the different groups of chimps were located. After about twenty minutes of walking, we already met up with the chimp trekkers, several researchers, and two other Australian tourists. They were all sitting or standing on the small foot path feet away from the chimps watching them groom each other, play in the trees, or eat a mid-morning meal. It was so surreal to have about 15 chimps around us and we felt that our day was already complete.
Little did we know that we would be several of the lucky tourists and see almost 30 chimps at one time later in the day. After about ten minutes, one of the large male chimps gave a big hoot and the rest of them joined in with a howl. It was absolutely terrifying, but it was their signal to move on. They maneuvered their way through the forest and up the paths, with the chimp trekkers, researchers, and Anand and I in tow. The researchers would stop every now and then to collect stool samples or jot down notes in their charts.
For the next three hours, we followed the chimps as best we could. Sometimes the chimps would stop and rest for a while, other times they would fight and dart into the jungle. They managed to move quickly into deeper areas of the jungle, leaving us to follow as quickly as possible. We ended up crawling and even running up sides of hills (actually small mountains) only with small plants or branches to grasp onto. Many times, Anand and I would slip on the lining of leaves that covered the forest floor and slide down several feet. We were pretty filthy and absolutely drenched with sweat during this whole pursuit so don’t ask what happened to me in the pictures. After following them for 3 hours up the mountain sides and down into the valleys, they finally stopped in one large group on a tall plateau.
About 20 chimps sat there for about a half an hour and we just watched them intently (as well as trying to get some good pictures). These chimps are really quite unphased by humans as the researchers following them constantly. It was also not unusual to have a chimp jog past you, inches from your legs, while walking down the path.
I hope you enjoy the pictures that I took, because I really enjoyed taking them. Videos will come when I have time to download them.
So a little history and information about the chimps and the park (from our guide and the park brochure) before I continue on with the rest of the day: Gombe National Park is the smallest national park in Tanzania and only covers 32 sq miles.
Jane Goodall began her study with the chimps in this area in 1960. She gained motivation for her work after meeting with hominid archeologist Louis Leakey who felt that the chimpanzee may be the “missing link” in the evolution chain. Since then, the chimpanzees of Gombe are “the most closely and continuously studied populations of wild animals anywhere.” There are several different groups of chimps that live in the park and surrounding areas. We visited the Kasekala group. This is the group that Jane Goodall studied and it is the largest group, comprising around 70 chimps (we saw about half). Within this group, there are about six families: G family, F family, B family, E family, T family, and A family. The families are designated with a letter and the names of each chimp in that family begin with the family letter. We saw at least one member from each family.
The F family seems to be the domineering family because it has produced two of the alpha males in past years. Frodo was an older alpha male that was beaten by Chris who was in turn conquered by the current alpha male, Ferdinand. Freud is the oldest of the chimpanzee group and is a brother to Frodo. Frodo was also the one who killed a researcher’s small child when he was alpha male. Consequently, there is now an age limit to enter the park—fifteen years. Frodo also used to attack humans and beat them with his arms.
The current aggressor is Titon and he is expected to battle Ferdinand soon to be the next alpha male. Most of the close-up pictures that I took are of Titon. The F family is also the best family at hunting (largely Colobus monkey) while the G family are the best termite fishers. Termite fishing includes finding a small stick and probing it into a hole on a termite mound and fishing the ants out to eat. Strangely enough, a few years back the G family was also known to practice a form of cannibalism. Now it is mostly unheard of.
After following the chimps, we and our guide decided that we should move on to the rest of the park sites in order to see everything before dark. We continued hiking through the jungle under the huge canopy of trees, birds, and butterflies. Occasionally, we would hear the hoots and howls of the chimpanzees from other areas of the jungle. To me it was a very unsettling and eerie noise to hear. The cries come at you from many different directions and echo throughout the jungle. It sounds as if a war party will soon be upon you and all you should do for the moment is turn the other direction and run! I didn’t run, however, but tried to calmly hike up the steep paths taking in the majesty of the misty clouds that settled over the mountaintops of the forest surrounding me. The diversity of the vegetation and butterflies was also very enchanting and I felt utterly (except for the howls of the chimps) at peace and in awe of this amazing creation.
We hiked up to Jane’s Peak, which is a tall point where Jane Goodall used to sit on a stone and map out the chimps migration through the jungle. Her first years were filled with frustration as she eagerly tried to find the chimps, but found it extremely difficult. She eventually found this point where she could see the surrounding areas of the jungle, hear the chimps’ hoots, and map out their location.
On walking down from this point, we ended up at Kakombe waterfall. It is the tallest waterfall in the park and used to be a place where the native people would come to meet with god because it is a source of life for the park. After leaving this place, we stopped at an old feeding station for the chimps. It was finally closed in 2000 to deter chimp dependence upon humans for food.
Along the path back to the guesthouse, there were so many butterflies all over and I began to feel the need to get pictures of at least one of each kind. Sadly and strangely enough, an unresolved childhood feeling came back to me as I remembered being shamed by my butterfly collection. I could only collect monarch butterflies, swallowtails, and moths due to central Minnesota’s lack of extensive butterfly diversity. My two best friends in elementary school, however, would pay the missionaries from their church to bring back bright, exotic butterflies the size of one’s hand. They would mount them in impressive glass cases while I had pins and Styrofoam. To say that my butterfly collection did not compare would be a huge understatement. Now, however, I was face-to-face with these exotic butterflies in a tropical jungle in central Africa. I think it’s fair to say that I finally resolved this feeling of butterfly inadequacy.