Mahale Mountains National Park in western Tanzania is an outstanding African travel wilderness on many counts. It is inaccessible by road and must be reached by boat along the coast of Lake Tanganyika, the longest, deepest, oldest in Africa, and second largest freshwater lake in the world. The park comprises of 623 square miles (1613 sq. km), and begins with an idyllic coastal strip of silver sand approached through a shallow lagoon where the lake ferry, 100 year old MV Liemba, cannot venture but must transfer passengers and cargo to smaller boats to land. Behind the beach, the Mahale Mountains range rises to a dramatic peak at Mount Nkungwe, almost 2500 meters above sea level. Above the cliffs stretch high altitude plains carpeted with wild flowers at first seasonal rainfalls. Cold air at the summit meets warm, moist air rising from the lake. Beautiful waterfalls tumble from the heights, cutting deep ravines filled with lush flora, stunning butterflies and rich avian life. This produces a complex range of eco-zones which accounts for its great diversity of mammalian life. Amongst these are tropical rain forest dwellers: Giant forest squirrels, scaly giant pangolin, shaggy red and the other black and white Colobus monkeys, brush-tailed porcupines and Sharpe’s grysbok. The park is justly famous for over 800 wild chimpanzees, more than any other East or Southern African park including the famed sister Gombe. Apart from the wild chimps, there is the M group of 60 or more who have been comfortable to human presence by Japanese researchers headed by the late Dr. Toshisada Nishida since the 1960s. These can often be seen on a Mahale chimpanzee tour, but since they are vulnerable to many human diseases, strict rules are in place for the safe conduct of primate safaris in Tanzania.
Current research depends on following and observing the behavior of these chimps under natural conditions. Much has been learned, and activities identified that had previously only been encountered in human beings, such as self-medication by swallowing folded leaves with small spines to remove intestinal parasites, and eating medicinal herbs to counteract infections. Chimpanzees use tools such as grass stalks to poke in termite mounds for edible insects, make improvements, stripping straight sticks for the same purpose, and additionally pass on their evolved experience to others. In a second isolated habitat, extensive Miombo woodland with brachystegia and acacia, mammals include magnificent chestnut sable and stocky roan antelopes with thickly banded horns are hunted by highly elusive mountain leopards. In a rare and highly inaccessible third area of flat savannah grasslands, plump zebra, impudent warthogs and supercilious giraffe are prey for prides of lordly but extremely rare lions. Fishing is permitted in the deep waters outside the offshore lake conservation area and away from the Mahale park lake boundary. In the dark night, lamp-lit flotillas of sardine fishing dhows make a romantic picture seen farther out from the shore.