Clever, curious, sociable and energetic... The chimps of East Africa are absolutely fascinating, and a highlight on any safari.
The leaves rustle, and you hear a whisper. At least, you think you did - it's hard to be sure amid the peaceful cacophony in this lush rainforest. It's as if the humidity lubricates the vocal cords of every little winged beast, and the birds and the bugs never stutter. The guide takes your arm and motions for you to step around a tree, and suddenly there they are! After trekking through one of the wild, remote corners of Africa, your efforts are rewarded, and the playful young chimps hoot aloud as if in camaraderie with your efforts.
Chimpanzees were brought into the spotlight by the lifetime of work of renowned researcher Jane Goodall, but we feel that these intelligent, complex creatures deserve even more attention. The genetic overlap between humans and chimpanzees is roughly that between horses and zebras, and it is hard not to feel a form of recognition when observing their behaviour. From the gentle, such as teaching the use of tools and grooming hard to reach spots, to the stronger moments such as a mother defending her infant, their behaviour is fascinating, and familiar.
From a traveller's perspective, chimpanzees make for a brilliant focus to a safari, because the locations in which you find them are so delightful. The chimp safari that we prefer at Cable & Grain starts in the Queen Elizabeth Park in Uganda, which is the mountainous country's most popular tourist destination and for good reason. This park offers classic safari experiences on 4x4 vehicles, including a famous population of tree-climbing lions, and scenic boat cruises that tend to include a boat load of game viewing. Of course, the chimps are the highlight, and a guide will take you trekking into the forest to find them. The next stop is Mahale National Park in south-western Tanzania. Situated on a peninsula that juts into Lake Tanganyika, this mountainous park is one of the more remote and private offerings in Tanzania. With no roads running through the park, your (guided) exploration will be on foot, which is an intimate and rewarding experience. Mahale hosts the world's largest population of chimpanzees, and you may also see lion, leopard or buffalo, as well as a variety of other monkeys and birds.
Our recommended chimp safari is only 6 days long, as we think this trip is perfect to combine with a week in the Serengeti. This is left, however, to your discretion - if you would prefer to see more of Uganda or Rwanda, or take a beach break on tropical Zanzibar or the Seychelles, then we would gladly arrange this as well. Feel free to discuss the possibilities with us by clicking 'Contact'.
Tucked away in the section of the Albertine Rift Valley that runs through western Uganda, slap bang on the equator, Queen Elizabeth National Park is an extraordinarily diverse and beautiful reserve that encompasses golden savannah plains, lush green woodland, mystical rainforests, wetlands and round volcanic craters. Situated between Lake Edward and Lake George, with the dramatic Rwenzori Mountains as a backdrop, it is clear to see why the park is Uganda’s most popular tourist destination. The varied range of habitats has allowed an equally varied range of wildlife to flourish. 95 species of mammal can be found here, along with an incredible 611 bird species – the second highest number of any national park in Africa. Classic safari experiences can be had in the Kasenyi, North Kazinga and Ishasha sections of the reserve, where sightings of buffalo, elephant and antelope are virtually guaranteed on guided game drives. The Ishasha section is especially famous for its prides of tree-climbing lions, which laze in large fig trees watching the endemic Uganda Kob antelope grazing on the open plains.
Perched on a peninsula jutting into the majestic Lake Tanganyika on Tanzania’s western border, Mahale Mountains National Park is one of the country’s lesser known and most remote wilderness areas, but this hidden gem is remarkably scenic and unique in its appeal. The rugged Mahale Mountains stretch up from the idyllic white beaches of Tanganyika, with the patches of verdant rainforest playing host to the world’s largest population of chimpanzees, numbering over 1 000. The park can only be reached by air or by boat from the towns of Kigoma or Arusha, and there are no roads, so walking is the only way to explore the forests, mountains and savannah. The effort is well worth it for wildlife enthusiasts though, who have the chance of seeing lion, buffalo, giraffe and leopard amongst others. Tanganyika is the world’s longest, second deepest and least polluted freshwater lake, and visitors can enjoy swimming, kayaking and snorkelling in the crystal clear water, in the company of more than 1 000 species of fish.
Jacana Safari Lodge is raised above the ground in a tranquil, lush forest on the edge of Lake Nyamusingiri, a large crater lake on the border of Queen Elizabeth National Park. Surrounded by a variety of primates and a dazzling array of birds, guests at this extraordinary venue will enjoy treehouse-style luxury accommodation, soothing lake views and facilities such as a swimming pool, massage area and sauna.
Built from wood, rock and thatch, elevated amongst the tree canopy, Jacana Lodge has a very natural treehouse-style feel. A variety of monkeys and birds are always close by, creating plenty of interest for nature lovers. The 12 cabins are spacious, featuring comfy double beds (or twins if you prefer) and en-suite showers, along with bathroom amenities and tasteful Ugandan decorations. The enclosed verandahs are lovely chill spots with large windows that showcase picturesque views over the lake. Two of the cabins are connected to accommodate a group or family of four.
This is an exceptionally peaceful, secluded place for romantics and nature lovers. Most areas of the lodge boast stunning views over the crater lake, especially the Virunga lounge, the bar and the swimming pool. Adventurous guests can go kayaking on the lake’s calm, emerald waters, stopping off for a delicious picnic lunch on the way. The ten comfortable cabins are secluded in the thick forest, and have enclosed verandahs which offer more beautiful lake views.
The Kazinga Channel bisects the park from west to east, connecting Lake Albert to Lake Edward. Boat cruises along the channel are a wonderful way to enjoy a laidback safari. The boats launch from the Myewa Peninsula, which showcases stunning views over the channel and surrounding savannah. The dramatic Katwe Explosion Crater, which marks the reserve’s highest point at 1 350 metres, is a short hop from here too, as are the dozens of smaller explosion craters, carving out round basins in the terrain.
Visitors can track chimpanzees in the Kyambura Gorge or the Maramagambo Forest, looking out for some of the nine other primate species that occur here too. In addition to a mouth-watering array of birds, Maramagambo also features a bat cave with a viewing room that allows visitors to watch the comings and goings of these erratic avian mamals. East of Kyambura Gorge, the Kyambura Wildlife Reserve features beautiful crater lakes with a splendid array of nesting water birds. Lake George, a Ramsar wetland site, has scenic papyrus swamps that are home to the elusive Sitatunga antelope and the much sought-after Shoebill Stork.
In addition to its incredible wildlife attractions, the park has a fascinating cultural history, offering many opportunities for visitors to engage with the local communities, experiencing their energetic dances, hard-working demeanours and friendly attitudes.
The park has two rainy seasons, occurring from March to May and September to November. Although visits can be made throughout the year, the dry seasons are the best times for game viewing, as animals gravitate towards rivers and waterholes.
Occupying one of the most stunning settings in Africa, Greystoke Mahale is situated on a pristine beach on the shores of Lake Tanganyika, in Tanzania’s remote Mahale Mountains National Park. Only reachable via a boat trip across the turquoise waters of the lake, the unmistakable thatched camp is shadowed by forested mountains that offer some of the best chimpanzee viewing in the world.
With only six double rooms - called bandas - the camp is exclusive and intimate. Each double-storey banda is privately situated, and is open-fronted to make the most of the beach and lake views. All the wood used in the construction of the camp was reclaimed from retired dhows bought from local villages on the lakeshore. Guests can kick off their shoes and slip into a comfortable provided kikoi, while beach towels are also on hand, as well as water bowls to wash the sand off your feet. A charming ladder made from an old canoe leads up to a wonderful little deck with a day bed.
There are no roads in the Mahale National Park, making it one of the most pristine wilderness areas in Tanzania, although the well worn animal paths make this one of the easiest places to get in close contact with chimpanzees. Apart from this once-in-a-lifetime activity, guests can go on boat cruises, dhow cruises and fishing trips on the lake, often viewing hippos submerged in the crystal clear water.
Walks through the lowland forest will allow close encounters with a variety of monkeys, forest birds, and most notably, chimpanzees. Researchers have studied the chimps here for decades, and this is arguably the easiest place in Africa to view them at close quarters, with sightings virtually guaranteed on the guided treks. As an interesting side-note, Mahale is the only place where lions and chimps co-exist, so ticking both species off your list is a special accomplishment. Multiple day walking safaris, camping along the way, increase your chances of seeing a wide variety of wildlife and habitats.
The adventurous at heart can scale the slopes of Mt Nkungwe, the highest peak in the Mahale ridge, during a two or three day hike through the forests and rocky patches, with a variety of wildlife to keep participants interested. From the 2 500 metre summit, hikers will be rewarded with fantastic views over the lake and the entire reserve. Those with a love for history can take a boat trip to to Ujiji, Tanzania’s oldest town, which is just over 100 kilometres north of Mahale. The town features a monument at the site of the famous meeting between Henrey Stanley and explorer David Livingstone in 1871, where the phrase ‘Dr Livingstone, I presume’, was reputedly uttered.
Although Mahale is never overcrowded, May to October (the dry season) is the peak tourist period and the best time to view chimps, while the sunny weather is perfect for idyllic days at the lake.