The magic of the Mahale Mountains

Old Nov 25th, 2008, 10:47 AM
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The magic of the Mahale Mountains

I recently returned from a month long journey to Tanzania including a stay in the Mahale mountains. A couple of people have asked me to answer some questions and share my experiences for that portion of my trip so I will start by answering the questions posed by Atravelynn and cover the basics of going to see the Chimps.... then I will dazzle you with tales of the magical mountains.....

Okay....
So we booked our entire trip to Tanzania including the Mahale portion through Africa Travel Resource out of London. Our experience with this company was excellent and I would not hesitate to recommend them to anyone. If anyone is interested in my dealings with ATR let me know and I will be happy to answer any questions.

ATR booked our flight to and from Mahale as well as our accommodation in advance. Due to the remote location you have to fly on a charter flight that only departs a couple days a week. We flew with Zantas Air, but there are a few companies who make the flight. There is also a boat that you can take from Kigoma, but it takes about 5 hours which does not sound like too much fun, plus you would still need to fly to Kigoma first.

Once you arrive you take a boat ride on lake Tanganiyka to your camp, depending on which camp you are staying in the ride is between 45 minutes to an hour and a half.
Since the Charters only come twice a week, this determines the length of your stay at Mahale. The minimum stay is 3 nights, we stayed 4 nights, but you could stay for 7 or 10 nights or longer. 4 nights was good, I wouldn't have wanted any less, but I could have easily stayed for 7 nights and not been bored. Many tour operators combine a trip to Mahale with a Safari at Katavi for a total of 7 nights.

In the time we were there we had four encounters with the chimps. You are allowed to spend one hour each day with them, but including the hike to find them and back the whole thing usually took between 2- 4 hours a day.

When you are not with the chimps there is plenty to keep you busy at Mahale. Lake Tanganiyka (the longest in the world) is a beautiful lake and we had a lovely sandy beach for relaxing. It is safe to swim and we were provided with snorkeling gear as well as kayaks and fishing gear. You can also ask your guide to take you on additional hikes and forest walks if you are interested in seeing some of the other abundant flora and fauna of the mountains. You can also take a short boat ride to visit one of the local villages.

As far as what other wildlife you will see at Mahale... we saw a plethora or primates including: yellow baboons, red tail monkeys, vervet monkeys,red colobus monkeys,and of course the stars of the show...the chimps!
If you like birds and butterflies well you will be in heaven. The forest was teeming with them. We had a family of warthogs who visited the beach daily, including a baby and there are bushpig around as well. There are hippos here, but it is not easy to see them as they are most active at night.
There are also leopards at Mahale and although we did not see one, but we had one visit the beach at night and had it's footprints in the sand meters from our tent in the morning.

We stayed at Kungwe Beach Lodge and this was about $600/night cheaper than staying at Greystoke. I really feel like Greystoke couldn't possibly have anything more to offer for that kind of price difference. We had some friends who stayed there a week after we were at Kungwe and they said it was nice, but it felt a little too stuck up for being in a remote rustic mountain setting. Kungwe was laid back and friendly. The food was amazing, the staff were brilliant and the tents were very nice.... built up on platforms with thatched roofs, four poster beds and en-suite bathrooms.
There is also a fly camp called flycatchers that is semi-permanent.... setting up and taking down the camp seasonally. We visited their camp and it was very basic, but probably a lot cheaper.

Mahale is an expensive destination, but worth every penny in my opinion. We paid $900/night (full board for 2 people) for our camp, our charter flight cost us $1000/person (return) and there were daily park fees on top of that. The experience does not come cheap, but this was just the most unforgettable, heart pounding, amazing adventure of a lifetime and I wouldn't hesitate to do it all over again.

So I hope that answered some of your questions....
more to come on our magical stay at Mahale

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Old Nov 25th, 2008, 05:51 PM
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Magic indeed. Thanks for all the answers.
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Old Nov 25th, 2008, 10:15 PM
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Great to hear that Mahale is worth the expense, as I am looking at visiting there in the future. I would love to have a unforgettable, heart pounding adventure as you did! I was looking at Flycatchers to save some money, but wonder if it would be too basic. Looking forward to hearing more about your trip.
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Old Nov 26th, 2008, 05:42 AM
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I've longed for the Mahale Mts and am glad to hear it lived up to its reputation.
And thanks for the Flycatchers mention. I never though Mahale would be something I could afford but the Flycathcers option just might be possible for me.
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Old Nov 26th, 2008, 06:33 AM
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Great report.
As I have a new aversion to the cold - what are the approx. temps. during the day/evening and the swimming water?
Would love to see pictures, if your able.
Thank you.
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Old Nov 26th, 2008, 07:27 AM
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Cybor,

I am from Canada so my definition of cold may be different than yours. We found the temperatures pleasant. During the day it felt like a mild summer day. I'd say between 22-24 degrees celsius. At night the temperatures cooled down a little, but it still was not cold (maybe around 18-20C). We ate dinner on the beach and they always lit a bonfire for us. I wore a light sweater, but I did everywhere even if I wasn't cold. I was never cold sleeping at night. We swam everyday and the water was beautiful. I think it all depends where you are from. For us it was like Summer in the mountains at home so it was lovely.... if you live in Florida you might not agree.
I do have to say when you are hiking up to see the chimps you don't want a really hot day. Depending on how high up they've gone in the mountains the hiking can be quite physically demanding. The temperatures were perfect for staying comfortable and that was very important.
Here's a tip about when to go..... we went in October and we had the very unique experience of being the only guests staying in our camp. Apparently they get very busy during the North American/European Summer holiday season and then come Autumn the crowds drop away. I had mixed feelings about being the only guests in camp... who would we talk to? In the end it all worked out great. We got to spend time talking to the staff and the managers and the fabulous part was we had the chimps all to ourselves. We were not fighting for best spot on the trail to get photos, we didn't have to wait for other people on the hikes that may have been less physically fit and we sort of felt like we had this amazing paradise all to ourselves. Now obviously this doesn't happen everday, but if you are looking for a more quiet and private experience you will definitely have better luck finding it if you go in September, October, November.
Greystoke I think had six people in camp while we stayed and flycatchers only had one lady. So all the camps were quiet at this time.
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Old Nov 26th, 2008, 07:56 AM
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ley
 
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Thank you, Ella, for sharing your magical experience and providing details of your trip into the Mahale Mountains. I am hoping to visit next October and had a few additional questions which I am hoping you can answer for me.

- What was the weather like when you were there? Do you know what is typical for October/November?
- Were the mountain trails fairly dry or slick and slippery and how strenuous was it? Do you recommend hiking boots and walking sticks?
- Were mosquitoes or flies a problem?
- I am guessing that your flight to Mahale was out of Arusha did it make many stops along the way and how rough was the flight? Also, was the boat ride to the camp smooth sailing or over choppy water? I am sensitive to motion sickness so I am wondering if I should pack anti-nauseants.
- Was the camp fully booked when you were there and if so, how far in advance did you have to book?

Thank you.
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Old Nov 26th, 2008, 08:28 AM
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From what I've read Sept or Oct are ideal for weather conditions too. A bonus.
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Old Nov 26th, 2008, 08:34 AM
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Thanks ellam,
I'm from the NE part of the US. My area is a fairly temperate coastal area. Not much snow in the winter but lots of cold - thusly, I like to trade my winter for a warmer climate.

DH will no longer allow us to leave our summers behind to go to a cold climate.
We did that this summer (Zimbabwe/Bots.) and he's still whining.
Of course, our cold gear was lost in transit and we had bad colds/bronchitis which didn't help.

Mahale/Selous/Rwanda in some form are on my list. None seem to be particularly weather dependent.
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Old Nov 26th, 2008, 09:59 AM
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Ley,

I definitely recommend bringing good footwear. I wore a a light weight low cut boot with good ankle support and I was glad to have it. The trail was very steep in places and having the extra ankle support especially hiking down made it a lot easier. We had rain on one morning and it didn't seem to affect the trail much. It wasn't slippery perhaps because of all the tree coverage. I think a walking stick is probably a good idea. We didn't have them, but I think one would have been helpful. You just don't know how far you are going to have to hike, it all depends on where the chimps are. Our first 2 days they had gone high into the mountains and our hike was over 2 hours to get to them. It is quite arduous as the trail is quite steep in places. We also had a day where the chimps had come right down near our camp and it took us only 10 minutes to find them. Another day it took about 45 minutes so you just never know. If you come prepared then either way you will have a good time.

-Mosquitoes and flies were not a problem.... there were tse tse flies, but we only noticed them when we went out in the kayaks and were paddling near the shore. I don't think I even noticed one mosquito here.

-Our flight going to Mahale was a little rough. Unfortunately, our pilot was in training and that may have had a little bit to do with it. He was off course on the approach for landing and had to circle round and do it again (it is a very difficult landing I will admit... I actually thought we were going to crash and we might have had the pilot who was in charge of training not grabbed his controls and pulled the plane back up, not to scare you or anything).... this was after we had already had a very turbulent 15 minutes coming into Mahale. I actually got sick, which has never happened to me before. It was not pleasant. Our plane was tiny... a six seater (including the pilot and co-pilot)... the back seats had been removed for luggage. So yes.... take your motion sickness meds....I wish I had of had them.
We flew from Arusha and had one stop in Tabora to get fuel.
The boat ride was fine. Our boat was huge.... (you could walk around on it), and the water was pretty calm, although it can get rough..... Having just been sick on the plane, the boat ride actually felt nice.

-If you stay at Kungwe or Flycatchers I don't think you will have trouble booking it. Greystoke apparently can fill up years in advance. I booked in June for our October stay and like I said we were the only guests in camp.
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Old Nov 26th, 2008, 03:11 PM
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Ellaminnowpea, I am also Canadian, living on the westcoast of B.C. (White Rock). Where do you live? Was this your first trip to Africa?
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Old Nov 26th, 2008, 04:12 PM
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Good Lord, what a flight. Turbulence is one thing, but missing the runway is another.
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Old Nov 26th, 2008, 04:33 PM
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ley
 
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Thank you for all of the great information it will be valuable in planning my trip. Im sorry to hear that your flight was so rough, I will definitely take my meds and cross my fingers that either we dont get the pilot-in-training or that hes vastly improved after a year of flying!! Im glad to hear that October will likely be quiet. It must have been quite special to have the camp all to yourselves I hope to be as lucky. Thanks again for all the info & details, I appreciate it.

PS Im also a Canadian from Vancouver.
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Old Nov 26th, 2008, 05:22 PM
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Even if Mahale didn't hold the alluring promise of viewing it's primary inhabitants... the chimpanzees... in their natural setting, this place is still stunning enough to warrant a visit on it's own. Riding in the boat on the the way to camp you can't help but feel you are entering relatively uncharted territory. There are no roads here...no safari vehicles clambering for the best photo position.... it is serene and pristine and feels almost entirely untouched by man. Sleepy Fishing villages rest along the shores of Lake Tanganiyka, their banks illuminated by the silver sparkle of thousands of sardines drying in the golden glow of the afternoon sun. Fishing boats dot the horizon and children play joyfully in the lake, climbing in and out of their parents fishing boats, waving happily and calling Jambo to us as we pass by. You can't help but be touched by their smiling faces and welcoming hearts.
On the shores of our camp a white sandy beach glistens brightly in the late afternoon sun and gives way to the verdant forest which transforms itself into the steep rising slopes of the mysterious Mahale mountains beyond.

The whole Chimpanzee experience is so incredible...so special, I think because of how intimate your encounters are with these primates, our closest relatives in the animal kingdom. Even though there are rules in place about distances to be kept and procedures to be followed, nobody relayed these rules to the chimps and so it is often that you find yourself mere feet or even inches from these fascinating beings. To see them in a way that few people have ever had the privilege of doing is most certainly a perception altering experience. Their eyes may just hold the secrets of our evolution and their DNA the key to our past. They have a wisdom in their faces that is hard to describe. Why they even tolerate our presence in their forest is mystifying and the fact that they carry on with their daily lives completely unbothered by our presence is shocking.Seeing babies being carried on their mothers chests, feeding and playing, being cared for, not just by their mothers, but by brothers, sisters and other female members of the group. Watching as the group organizes and attempts to hunt colobus monkeys, or charge by you feet away hollering and barking as they beat their chests and the ground beside you, grabbing trees and branches, pulling them down with their powerful arms, leaving destruction and chaos in their wake. Watching intimate family moments as they groom and care for each other, play, relax, nap,gather food or just sit in contemplative poses that make you wonder just how much they know. It is all so touching and so private and you feel privledged to be watching it all only feet away.Personalities are easily distinguised and just like us they have their leaders, comedians, loners, lovers and troublemakers. Over the few days you spend with them you get to know them, you have your favourites, your heart stings are pulled by the faces of the babies, your sense of humour is struck by their silliness and your heart races in fear at the sight of their power.
We had some moments of spine tingling, hair raising, hearts pounding, palms sweating craziness where charging hollering chimps were so close that you could feel the air move around you as they passed forcefully by inches away...trying to keep your head lowered, avoiding eye contact...it is humbling to know that if he so chose this chimp could level you with one blow.... and yet, they don't. Their conflict does not involve you, you are a mere witness to the event. It is hard to remember this sometimes when the hollering starts, but it is an undeniable truth... the chimps are just not that interested in human beings.
It was really hard to say good-bye to Mahale and we sort of reasuured ouselves by promising that we would return some day. If you get the chance...go...it might just change your life and the way you perceive the world. At the very least you will have some gret stories to tell and photographs to share.
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Old Nov 26th, 2008, 05:38 PM
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I'm from Sylvan Lake, Alberta near Red Deer. Yes this was my first, but hopefully not my last time in Africa.
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Old Nov 26th, 2008, 11:37 PM
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Ella: wonderful report and the emotion and passion that chimps provoke are evident in your words. I found a similar magical connection and there really is nothing else like it and Mahale is the perfect setting for it.

I just checked yesterday and unfortunately Kungwe Beach Lodge is closed from January to June this year, normally they just close from March 1 to May 15. It's ashame as the rates are best for January and February and it combines with the calving season in the Serengeti.

I hope you are going to post some photos, I'll be looking through for the familiar faces of Orion, Darwin, Primus, and Kalunde. Thanks for taking time to write the details.
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Old Nov 28th, 2008, 07:08 AM
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Hi there, I was at Nkungwe last October, we were also the only guests in the camp. Who is hosting/managing the camp, and who was your guide? Are Jonathon and Natalie still there?
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Old Nov 28th, 2008, 07:35 AM
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jenack,

Yes the managers are still Jonathan and Natalie. Our chimp guide was Sixtus who was just fabulous. Did you enjoy your experience at Mahale? Did you find it kind of strange being the only guests in camp? We kind of got used to it, but it was a funny feeling knowing the staff were sitting around waiting for you to need something.
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Old Nov 30th, 2008, 09:35 AM
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Our guide was Sixtus, what a solid dude. We were on a long trip through Kenya/Tanzania, with a lot of fly camping, so we had spent a lot of time 'alone' at our various campsites, so we were used to it by the time we reached Mahale. We had a lot of fun and good laughs at meals with Jonathon
and Natalie, and enjoyed just relaxing, so we did not mind being alone, but having other parties around would have been fine also, I was even wondering if they would take us up the lake to the Greystoke bar for a night of drinking and conversation, although I did not figure that would be an option!!!....although, apparently just before(or just after) we were there at Nkungwe there were a few different groups together in camp, and at one point IN FRONT OF THE CHIMPS, two guests almost came to blows because of all the friction b/t them in camp, so, who knows????
Mahale and Katavi were the most wild, untapped places I have ever been, so the memories will always be magical, and the chimp experience was a true highlight of the trip, but I don't think I could have done more than our 4 nights there. We got lucky and saw the chimps every day, including one night when they came down to camp, so that certainly helped, but I am in pretty good shape, and I was tired of climbing after 3 days, and there was not that much to do around camp, especially if it was raining.
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Old Dec 26th, 2008, 07:15 AM
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I am so excited to so your posting. My husband and I leave for Tanzania next month and are booked at the Kungwe Lodge. I have wanted to see chimpanzees in their natural habitat all my life. We stumbled upon the Kungwe Lodge, but it sounds as though we will not be disappointed. Many thanks for your posting. If possible, I'm more excited than I was a few minutes ago.
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