Found deep in the far west of Tanzania, along the border of the Congo and nestled up against the mighty Lake Tanganyika, is the beautiful Mahale Mountains National Park. Concealed beneath a vast canopy of trees are the inhabitants which have made Mahale famous – around 1,000 chimpanzees that call the mountains home.
In this article:
- Mahale Overview: Lake Tanganyiaka crouses and fishing, rainforests
- Chimpanzee trekking
- Weather and best time to visit
- Getting here
Mahale Mountains National Park – Chimpanzees, Lake Tanganyika and More
Adding to its exceptional beauty is the fact that Mahale is incredibly remote. Along with the neighbouring Katavi National Park, the two are the least frequented parks in Tanzania. As difficult as it may be to reach the park, the lack of distractions creates a truly immerse wilderness experience in this unspoiled terrain.
Lake Tanganyika – Fishing, Cruises and Conoeing
Lake Tanganyika is the world’s longest freshwater lake. Known for its jaw-dropping sunrises and sunsets, the azure waters of the lake are home to over 250 species of cichlid fish. The lake is every fisherman’s dream with the option to spend tranquil days relaxing by the water’s edge. Alternatively, the adventurous can explore the pristine waters by taking a dhow for a sundowner cruise or renting a canoe.
For the water babies, there’s the opportunity to either dip into refreshing, inland mountain springs or snorkel/scuba dive into the magical underwater world of the lake. Be warned – make sure to check with locals where the safe spots are to swim as hippos and crocodiles enjoy the lake too.
Rising steeply from the white, sandy beaches of the lake are the densely wooded slopes of the Mahale Mountains.
The lush, tropical vegetation of the rainforest hums with activity and is interspersed with alpine bamboo and woodland areas. Created with the purpose of protecting the thousands of chimpanzees that inhabit the region, Mahale has established a reputation for itself as one of the best places in the world for chimpanzee-tracking safaris.
What makes the area especially unique is that it does not boast the usual Tanzanian safari suspects such as lions and elephants. Instead, it is famously known for having Tanzania’s densest population of primates with yellow baboons, red colobus, chimpanzees, blue, red-tailed and vervet monkeys all frequenting the park.
Chimpanzee Trekking Safari
The chimpanzees in Tanzania make up a large proportion of the world’s wild chimps. This species can only be found in Africa, with most chimps living along the equatorial belt in the rainforest areas.
It is an utterly enthralling opportunity to get to be able to get up close with a family of chimpanzees and watch them go about their daily routine. Visitors will look on entranced as they tumble over each other, forage for food, and swing lithely between the tree branches.
Any chimp social group is made up of a dominant male, adult females and subservient younger males and females. The most famous group of chimps in the park is the Mimikire clan, which has been studied by various groups of researchers since the 1960s. There are approximately 56 chimps in the group.
Chimp families follow a fission-fusion social organisation, which means that the groups periodically break into smaller subgroups and then reunite as they wish – so don’t bank on seeing all 56 together at the same time. The clan has become increasingly relaxed around humans over the years, making it an absolute treat to spend time with the chimps in close quarters.
Although it is not a guarantee to have exquisite chimp sightings, it would be extremely unlucky to not at least encounter a few on a trip to Mahale. Chimp safaris range between half an hour leisurely strolls to more gruelling multi-hour treks to try to find the primates. If you’re lucky, some chimps can be seen from the comfort of the lodges.
Chimps share 98% of their DNA with humans and can, unfortunately, catch and be infected by human diseases. With their name on the endangered species list, the park coddles the immunity of its primates and requires visitors to don surgical masks when approaching the chimpanzees.
Weather in Mahale Mountains National Park
With its proximity to the equator, the park is mostly hot and humid all year round with temperatures of around 17°C (63°F) at night and around 27°C (81°) during the day. The most notable change in the park’s climate takes place during the wet and dry seasons.
Wet season (November-April): This season is renowned for its high humidity. It generally doesn’t rain throughout the day, but thundershowers can be expected most days.
Dry season (June-October): The month of May usually signifies the end of the rainy season with occasional showers. From June onwards rain is very rare. The temperature at night dips slightly (especially in June-August), but only to about 14°C (57°F). October marks the gradual return of humidity and occasional rainfall can start to be expected again.
Best Time of to Visit Mahale Mountains
The dry season – ideal weather and best time to spot chimps
The best time of year to visit the Mahale Mountains is during the dry season, from June-October. The sunshine provides the ideal snorkelling and swimming conditions, and the climate isn’t as humid. Another major plus is the reduced chance of catching malaria with fewer mosquitoes during this time.
Expeditions to see the chimps are also most fruitful during this time, especially towards the back end of the dry season (August-October). The chimps are normally closer to shore and forest paths, which makes looking for them easier to negotiate.
The wet season – lush vegetation, butterflies, and best time for birdwatching
A visit in the rainy season (November-April) can also be memorable as the forest abounds with everything from excess fruit to electrifying blue butterflies and forest birds. Migratory birds make the Mahale Mountains their seasonal home during this time as they arrive from Europe and Northern Africa.
Afternoon thunderstorms often light up the lake during this season and make for excellent photographs.
A downside of the wet season is that foliage in the forest becomes slippery and harder to navigate. The chimps also become harder to spot as they move to higher ground. The humidity of this season may be unpleasant for some travellers and careful malaria precautions should be taken.
How to Get to Mahale
Mahale and Katavi are notoriously difficult to reach, with no official roads servicing the area. The only driving option involves an incredibly arduous and daunting 4×4 mission through the heart of Tanzania. So the more viable options are to either catch one of the many boats leaving from the towns along the lake (north of Mahale) or to travel by air.
Flights on small aircraft take place twice a week for the duration of four to five hours from Arusha or Dar es Salaam, and land on an airstrip just outside the park. Flights from Arusha in the north leave on Mondays and Thursdays, and while this is the most economical way to reach Katavi and Mahale, the price is still high. Flights can also be chartered from Dar, Selous and Ruaha to and from the parks in the far west, also on Mondays and Thursdays.
All flights go via Katavi National Park, making the neighbouring reserve part of many combination packages.
The expedition to reach lodgings doesn’t end with the flight – guests that have pre-booked at the lodges will be met by a traditional dhow and make their way to their accommodation via the lake. Otherwise, transport from the airstrip can be organised via the park headquarters.
An alternative way to enter Mahale is by catching a boat from Kigoma or one of the other settlements in the north. Multiple options are available, with charter boats (speedboats), lake taxis, ferries and the Tanapa boat (or park boat).
Charter boats take around 4-5 hours each way. Lake taxis are extremely cheap but slightly rickety and unpredictable. Most leave from Ujiji, but one would need to get in contact with the park headquarters or the tourism warden to get a better understanding of where and when they depart.
An incredibly scenic and relaxing way of getting into Mahale is via the ferry. While it is affordable, it is not fast – but going slow in this part of the world is never a bad thing. Lastly, the park boat can be arranged with the Gombe-Mahale Visitor Information Centre and the park headquarters.
Should your budget allow, an easier and less stressful option may be to book a planned tour of Mahale where the trip logistics are taken care of for you by guides and tour operators beforehand.
Accommodation: Where to Stay
Adding to Mahale’s exclusivity is the scarcity of accommodation options, with only three available.
Nomad Greystoke Mahale
The world-famous Nomad Greystoke Mahale, sprawled along the banks of the lake, has an enchanting Robinson Crusoe atmosphere about it. With the six units surreptitiously tucked into the treeline, Greystoke is tailormade accommodation for an intimate, romantic getaway. A stay at Greystoke will require guests to dig deep in their pockets but comes with the benefit of all the tricky logistics being taken care of.
Mbali Mbali Mahale
The other luxury option is Mbali Mbali Mahale. Consisting of nine permanent beach tents set on a wooden veranda overlooking Lake Tanganyika, Mbali is a dream come true. With rates being all-inclusive and slightly cheaper than Greystoke, this is a genuine contender to Greystoke’s status as number one.
Mahale Mango Tree Bandas
Lastly, the government-run Mahale Mango Tree Bandas offer five well-equipped units. These self-catering units are a much cheaper alternative and while they would not be described as luxurious, they are well-appointed and comfortable. The friendly and highly knowledgeable park guides also offer excellent tours to see all Mahale has to offer.