Family time with chimpanzees

December 2018
I looked out of the window of the Cessna Caravan 12-seater aircraft as it banked and descended. The aquamarine waters of Lake Tanganyika contrasted with the emerald vegetation of the fields.

A couple of days ago Laurence and Alana, my two eldest children, were at university in opposite corners of England. Gillian and I, and our youngest daughter Ollie, were at home in the Spanish Pyrenees.

Soon the hum of the turbo-prop engine was but a fading memory. My family and I were relaxing on a dhow, and imagining what creatures inhabited these mountainous slopes cloaked in virgin forest that begins at the shoreline.

A troop of yellow baboons were combing the beach. A palm-nut vulture, a bird hard to see in the northern part of the country but common here, flew to its nest. A pied kingfisher hovered in search of a sardine. However, this remote national park in Tanzania, Mahale Mountains, is most known for its wild chimpanzees. Where were they?

My family were enjoying being together. While Gillian and I have been here more than once, my kids had little concept of what it would be like in a days´ time: to be surrounded by and to be inches from our nearest relatives.

Shortly we could see the characteristic main structure of Greystoke Camp on the beach. The camp conjures the magic of Robinson Crusoe. We are so remote from supplies and the rest of the world, that it seems this island of civilization could only have been achieved by utilizing what was already there – timber and thatch and other resources from the forest.

Over the next three days we kayaked on the lake, swam in its crystal clear waters, lounged on beds in open-sided cottages while in turn being observed by red-tailed monkeys. We read novels, played cards, and hiked in the forest. We listened to the calls from the jungle and scanned for hippos from the deck of the dhow. We sipped cocktails at sunset, told stories around the campfire crackling on the beach, watched flashes of lightning rip through distant storm clouds at night, and we were humbled when gazing at the stars and planets.

We did get close to chimpanzees. We were surrounded by them at times. We saw them grooming each other, and performing a “rain dance” (when they get excited at the onset of rain). We witnessed the young playing, and we watched the males make impressive charging displays.

When the dhow rolled past the shoreline heading back to the airstrip, conversations were interspersed with long silent pauses as we listened to the forest and reminisced. We had all changed in the last days. Each of us left something there, and we came away with something new.


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