Greystoke Mahale: monkeying around with chimps
Chimpanzees share more than 98% of our DNA - and time spent with them in the Tanzanian jungle reveals just how much we have in common
After a long light-aircraft flight and a leisurely cruise along the shore of Lake Tanganyika, a lucky few guests will round a mountainous headland and land at Greystoke Mahale, a surreal cross between a safari camp and a tropical island paradise. From its private beach, they will trek into the jungle for an encounter with a community of chimpanzees, our closest non-human relatives.
Where is it?
One of the most far-flung lodges in Africa, Greystoke is on the western edge of Tanzania. Hemmed in between the Mahale mountains and Lake Tanganyika, it is a long way from the nearest road. It is, in fact, accessible only by a four-hour flight on a light aircraft from Kilimanjaro Airport in the north of the country - or about an hour’s flight from Chada Katavi, a sister camp also run by Nomad Tanzania - followed by 90 minutes on a dhow (a traditional wooden boat). The journey is very much part of the adventure.
One species above all others brings visitors to Mahale: the chimpanzees. Game drives are impossible here (there are no roads and no vehicles), so guests head out on foot each morning, climbing from the camp into the dense forest of the Mahale mountains.
The length of the trek, which depends on the location of the chimps, will range from 15 minutes to three hours. A long walk is not necessarily a hardship: the forest is beautiful, if hot and steamy, and guides will point out other species of primate (including yellow baboons, blue monkeys, vervet monkeys and red-tailed monkeys), as well as countless birds, insects and plants. While chimp sightings are not guaranteed, most visitors spend at least three nights at Greystoke - and would be unlucky to draw a blank two days running.
Time with the chimps is limited to an hour, but the clock is stopped and started as they come and go. The encounter does not feel rushed, and both the Nomad Tanzania guides and the national park rangers go out of their way to help you enjoy the experience.
As you watch the chimps eat, play, swing through the trees or scream and shout in a vigorous “pant-hoot”, your guide will identify them by name and explain their place in the community, as well as their personalities and how they relate to other chimps. Back at the lodge, you can read up on the intricate power games that have played out - sometimes violently - on the slopes of Mahale.
Photographing the chimps
Perhaps the ideal way to spend time with the chimpanzees is to leave your camera behind and enjoy a one-to-one connection. Realistically, though, you will want a record of the experience. Phone cameras work well, especially when the chimps are nearby and on the ground. They also take excellent video clips. For close-ups, however, you will need more serious equipment.
A 70-200mm or 300mm lens is ideal, and the faster the better, as the chimps are often in dark areas of the forest. High ISO can compensate for a slower lens: it’s better to set a fast shutter speed for a sharp image, even at the cost of some graininess. Sunny days are easier in some ways, although the high contrast between bright leaves and dark chimps may require manual exposure compensation.
Also beware of lens fogging. Your camera will be cool after a night on the lake shore, and when it comes into contact with the hot, humid air of the forest it may steam up. Leave it out of your bag during breakfast to warm up, and either carry it as you walk or open your bag at water stops to help it acclimatise.
If your lens does fog resist the temptation to wipe it. The glass will keep steaming up until it has warmed anyway, and you’ll end up with smears. And don’t change lenses until everything has warmed up, or you’ll get condensation on the rear glass. Finally, remember that the surgical masks you have to wear to protect the chimps from human germs may cause the viewfinder to mist up - so even pictures that look foggy as you take them may in fact be crystal clear.
Accommodation and food
The focus of the camp is a great angular barn of a building, its shaggy grass roof providing shade from the sun, while its sides are open to the cooling breeze. Meals are served here at the rustic grandeur of the communal dining table - or else on the beach, by candlelight.
While the main building stands proudly onto the beach, the six guest rooms recede into the forest. Each one is a thatched two-storey banda - bedroom and bathroom downstairs, an observation deck up top - with an uninterrupted view of the lake. Exceptionally well designed and furnished, the rooms contain beds, tables, chairs and even a shower cabinet made from salvaged dhow timbers.
The food exceeds even Nomad Tanzania’s usual high standards. Evening meals included steak, chicken in a cream sauce and fish curry - all accompanied by fresh vegetables and salads. Ice creams and sorbets are a speciality.
When to go
The camp closes from mid-March to May, when heavy rains make forest tracks impassible. The end of the dry season, which runs from June to October, offers the easiest trekking conditions: paths are dry and firm and the chimps move closer to the camp (June tends to involve the longest treks). Temperatures sit in the high 20s all year, but humidity builds during the wet season. Nights are a little cooler in June and July, when temperatures may drop to 14C.
Price and booking
Rates for Greystoke Mahale start at about £600 per person per night in low season, including full board and most activities, but excluding flights and transfers. For more information and suggested itineraries, see the Nomad Tanzania website, and to book contact Yellow Zebra Safaris