chimpanzee in Mahale national park

Visiting Mahale’s chimps on a bicycle (almost). Cycling in Western Tanzania.

Zoom in to see exact roads we have biked.

We were very happy to get back on our tandem again. Prior to that, 3 days were spent getting ourselves to Kigoma from Dodoma on a train and another 4 to fully recover from unknown fever symptoms. In the meantime I took care of our troubled rear wheel – had to true and re-tension the spokes again. We have also managed to find a rather rare battery for our film camera. We felt very ready for our next adventure!

We estimated that the road ahead of us won’t be easy, but that is the main reason we wanted to ride it! The available information (Lonely Planet and a few web references) points that it is quite a neglected gravel road requiring 4WD. The section in Lonely Planet reads as follows:

“Saying you can get to Mahale by ‘road’ is a bit misleading, because there is no road and certainly no public transport – for the moment. However, it is possible to get to Lagosa and the park airstrip by private 4WD (and it has to be a serious 4WD) from both Kigoma and Katavi National Park. The easier route is from Kigoma. A reasonable road runs from Kigoma to Sigunga, leading to a very bumpy track on to Lagosa. Allow six to seven hours for this journey. The route from Katavi is one of the roughest, slowest and most jarringly painful you can make in East Africa. Allow 10 to 12 hours.”

Chimpanzee at Mahale NP – a must visit while in Tanzania

Mahale National Park is our ultimate destination and this Kigoma – Lagosa road is the main land route to get there from Kigoma.

To get to the start of this road we had to cycle some 15 km north/east towards Kasuku. It is a pleasant and paved hilly road that takes you out of Kigoma through various small villages where joyful locals wave at you and encourage you to keep pushing forward.

Just outside Kasuku village

At intersection with Kasuku village there is a sign with Mahale National Park wording, presumably indicating that this is the road if you want to visit the place! We bought some veggies and bananas there and pedaled further down south. The road was smooth and well maintained gravel. I must say, so far we have overwhelmingly good experience with Tanzania’s back roads. More often than not it will be smooth and firm gravel. In more remote areas you will get only very little car traffic, indeed Tanzania can feel like cycle tourist’s dream destination.

Our current road is called R332 (that is, on our Locus Map App) and it will be another ~20km until we reach the shores of Lake Tanganyika again.

Magical Lake Tanganyika in the distance.

We were surprised to learn that this African Great Lake is the longest lake in the world, second largest by volume, second oldest freshwater lake and the second deepest, in all cases only after Lake Baikal in Siberia.  A lot of interesting Dr Livingstone history is also related to Tanganyika lake/Kigoma region. Plus, you have mighty Congo lands some 50 km away and you can feel the special vibe in the air. Our friend Owen (who lives in Central Tanzania) says that people in Kigoma “seem more relaxed, somehow different than those around Iringa..” Due to extensive fishing activities all across Lake Tanganyika, people tend to travel between fisherman villages all across the lake including neighboring countries. Locals were telling us stories how it is sometimes impossible to distinguish local Tanzanian from also “local” looking Congolese – they all can speak languages/dialects that are used around, thus making their migration hard to track.

We rode through a lusher, greener and slightly more remote places again, local people and cultures differed slightly from what we’ve seen in the North/Central Tanzania. With fewer people and even less cars meant a true adventure in front of us. We separated from Owen in order for us to bike all the way to Lagosa while he takes dala-dala (mini bus taxi share) to get there. We needed two days to cycle the distance he will cover in 7-9 hours.

Just crossed Malagarasi river. Village north of it has a market and few places to eat.

Igna and I took our time and were just soaking in all the smiles, all the friendly shouts and hand waves, all the bird songs and the gentle wind breeze. That and the astonished children’s faces seeing a white person for the first time, are your guaranteed cycling companions when you pedal along Lake Tanganyika. Our plan was to cycle some 70-90 km and then try to pitch a tent discreetly. The “discreetly” part always borders on the territory of wishful thinking in these parts of Africa but nevertheless, we are always hopeful. Because once you are able to pitch your tent in the African bush in the solitude, then you are about to experience the ultimate bush camping experience. When slow sunset replaces the day’s heat with the pleasant warmth and thick orange shades take over even the brightest colors. That is the time when you can hear even the smallest birds chirping away their little secrets and everything just settles down inviting you to join their quite.

It was around 4 pm and we still had a couple of hours of daylight, thus slowly looking for the “discreet” hideaway spot for our tent. Although the surroundings were remote but at that hour we happened to pass some farm lands that were filled with joyous shouts and farming activities. Not much was visible from the first sight but you could sense that we were not alone.  So we kept pushing further. That is when we saw a white WD4 Toyota truck coming our way. The driver stopped to inquire if we were OK and out of the blue they offered us a lift. To our great surprise people in the truck were employees at Mahale National Park and they were inviting us to cover the next 90 km with them! According to them there were no good or safe place/motel up until the park. We doubted that but the knowledge that the highest mountain passes are still in front of us made it a very tempting option. Without much hesitation we placed our tandem and gear inside the truck and off we went.

These Mahale NP people were very kind to us!
Sheer excitement!

What a ride it was! The driver was speeding and everyone had to hold for their lives while the truck was swinging through a very winding and often bumpy gravel road. Igna and I had to ride in the open trunk and the only handle to hold on to was the truck’s rack. I think this was altogether the most dangerous and most exhilarating ride I have ever taken and it required all our physical strength to be able to hold on to the rack so we don’t fall out of the truck.  We had body bruises for another few days after this rollercoaster.

But the most interesting part was still in front of us! After a good hour drive, we approached the road repair section and had to take a very short but improvised detour. It was a wet and muddy stretch and our truck got stuck!

Yes, that was it for now!

Not even 4 wheel drive was able to get us out of there! Our crew tried digging and wheel supporting techniques but there was no prevail and the truck was helplessly sinking deeper and deeper until the whole bed was sitting on the ground. It was interesting to participate in this communal rescue effort. The local crowd got bigger but we could not pull it out neither there were other trucks or machinery available to help us out. Eventually, the night fell and around 7 pm we noticed car lights in the distance coming our way. This was the first car passing in nearly 3 hours. Igna flagged it down and the two men inside kindly agreed to pull us out. We had to wait for their other truck which was coming behind as that car had a front winch.

It took a village and 4 hours to pull our truck out!

In the mean time, we got to know one of the newly arrived men – Sheni – he and his crew were driving from Kigoma to his charity center near Lakoma. Sheni was preparing to host a dental treatment camp/clinic for local people to get a free dental check-up and treatment. They were hauling supplies and one cargo boat was on its way from Kigoma too.  We did not know at the time but apparently, Sheni is an entrepreneur who has a lot of connections across many layers of Tanzanian society thus making him quite an influential figure in Tanzania. He runs multiple luxury lodges across the premium safari parks in Tanzania including one in Mahale NP, his favorite. After getting to know us he invited us to overnight with him at his charity center. We gladly accepted his offer and after our truck was out our new friends from Mahale NP dropped us off by the mosque near Lakoma.

Sheni and his men were very generous and welcoming towards us. He offered us to stay at his center for another night until we wait for Owen to arrive. In the meantime, we got ourselves immersed in extensive prep activities for the upcoming dental camp.

Sheni together with the school children (second day at school).

Sheni’s center had a mosque, a madrasa teaching local kids. They have equipped multiple villages along the Tanganyika lake with solar water pumps. These centers were providing basic farming education as well and showing locals which crops and vegetables can be more commercially viable. The end goal is to educate and empower locals to fully run these centers themselves so they are sustainable and viable institution enriching the local life. Sheni says that his charity activities consume almost half of his time nowadays and the centers like this are needed as an alternative to extremist and aggressive schools of Islamic thought. We really liked his emphasis on education and leading by example spirit.

Yet the most interesting part was still waiting for us!

Owen arrived the following day and we were strategizing how to proceed next. We had to get to the park’s airstrip, another 15 km via a super narrow and barely passable road, where we had to arrange our permits and a boat to get inside the park. Once Sheni found out that we want to visit chimps at Mahale, he treated us with a stay at his high-class Mbali Mbali lodge, on top of that he even organized us a boat and a guide making our chimpanzee visiting experience unforgettable.

Helping with painting before the dental camp volunteers arrive.
A lot of ugali!
Children by lake Tanganyika.

The next morning, together with our guide Ramadan, we ventured to Mbali Mbali (means “far far away” in Kiswahili). It took us almost 3 hours to get there via combined truck/boat ride. The short 15 km stretch to the airstrip took us some time to cover due to it being very bumpy and narrow. Some sections of that road were unpassable and we literally got stuck while trying to navigate it. Thankfully our truck was equipped with a high lift this time and after half an hour we were able to continue the journey.

High lift is a must while driving around Mahale NP

At the airstrip, we paid all the park fees and the remaining traveling was finished by the boat. After an hour on a boat, we arrived at a remote and magnificent Mbali Mbali lodge.

This is called a tent. A very different tent from where we used to sleep before.

The lodge and its 9 luxury tents are intimately secluded and located inside the jungle on the shores of Tanganyika. With its private beach and surrounding lush forest, it is nothing short of a paradise on earth. I do not think that we could have ever ended up there without our lucky tandem and Sheni’s generosity.

Our ultimate safari started at this paradise lodge but things got even more exciting very fast. Ramadan checked in with the scout who was tracking the chimps since early morning and informed us that a relatively large group of apes was foraging some 45 minutes away. The chimps were about to move and we needed to go soon in order to catch them.

To get to the chimps we had to hike through a very lush and deep jungle. Sometimes we had to pass through small streams, other times to bend our heads and move almost in complete darkness until we will exit the occasional forest tunnels. Remember Kipling’s Mowgli Stories? Our trek and Mahale mountains on the shores of Tanganyika, in general, felt like one of these stories. And the most exciting things were yet to come.

The track followed up the hill and shortly we started hearing the chimps. Loud and everything piercing screams indicated that the chimps were probably alarmed. After another few minutes, we have greeted our scout and carefully followed him to see the chimps. As soon as we noticed the first individuals it became apparent that something unusual is happening.

First chimpanzee in our sight!

The big group of chimpanzees was spread out and screaming wildly while moving fast our direction. It looked very scary but our guides just told us to calm down as chimps were not interested in us. Their main target was a small colobus monkey running for its life above our heads.  We were shocked and just frozen while apes brushed past our legs on their way to the “dinner party”. Poor red colobus got disoriented by the large gang screaming around him and soon one of the chimps caught the monkey high in the tree and just smashed it into the ground. Unexpectedly another big colobus male appeared out of nowhere to help the smaller one. He managed to bite one of the chimps and briefly caused confusion but soon enough chimps regained control and chased their foe away. We just could not believe what was happening in front of us. For chimpanzees to hunt smaller monkeys successfully it requires a few conditions for it to happen. The main is to have more individuals in the hunting pack so you have enough help to disorient and surround much the faster and nimbler victims. Chimps keep migrating and moving, quite often a bigger family splitting into smaller groups and only a few chimpanzees are rarely enough to hunt down the witty monkey. Here are a few pictures of how chimps were closing in on their victim.

It is a gruesome scene but on the screen is less disturbing.

The whole hunt lasted 5 minutes max, but it took quite some time until chimps sorted out between themselves who gets to eat first. The dominating alpha male named Primus always has priority in this family and only he and his closest allies are enjoying the fresh meat. The rest of the chimps, no matter how hungry or angry they are, just have to accept this reality and hope for some scraps or bones at the end of their boss’s feast. Unless you are an attractive female who can trade some sex for access to the prey. Yes, we have even witnessed that.  After a feast, the whole pack calmed down. Somebody was sucking on remaining bones or skin bits of the colobus.

Primus and his lieutenants were lazily grooming themselves. Females allowed their youngsters to go out and play – the general calm and playful atmosphere could not contrast more with what we witnessed just 30 minutes ago.

It was time to leave the great apes alone. Everyone speechless, with our heads still spinning, we followed Ramadan back to the lodge. The jungle drama was still present in the air with various birds rushing to share what they have just witnessed, slight wind moving the small tree branches and the grass around us. Yet, at the same time, the familiar rain forest scents were working their therapeutic magic, and approaching the lake with more open spaces and the scorching sun were signaling that we were back into the human domain. We got back to the lodge where delicious dinner was waiting for us. After, we spent some time reflecting on what we have witnessed earlier and how everyone was moved by it. The night at the lodge was the perfect end stop to our amazing encounter with Primus and his tribe.

The next morning just before leaving Mbali Mbali I tried to find out if it is possible to travel to the South of Mahale NP via the lake. Initially, we were aiming to take a boat all the way up to Karema or even Kasanga. When MV Liemba – the main passenger ferry connecting Kigoma to Kisanga – is operating then you can do this rather cheaply and fast. At the time of our visit MV Liemba was out of service and undergoing major overhaul so we had to rely on ground routes or experiment with small fishermen taxis which take very long time and to reach Kasanga would take us multiple days plus no one was willing to guarantee the safety or even the basic comfort with these boats. The small fishermen boats do not have any sunshade and have to rely on the lake staying calm in order for them to be able to travel. To travel on a modern fiber boat would cost us around $400-500 and would take 10-12 hours. Hm… this was out of our budget so the only practical option was to reach Mpanda on a bicycle.

Stay tuned.

School children fetching water from lake Tnaganyika.

You can find many more pictures from our travels on our Flickr page.

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