Jambo from Tanzania! I hope everyone is doing well that reads this blog! As mentioned previously, we had to skip Kenya because of the unstable political situation that started around the beginning of January. So, MOST of us flew from Addis Ababa to various parts of Tanzania for our two week hiatus. But, one daring person (can't mention the name yet but I can tell you it was a male) decided to brave the notorious northern Kenyan desert and impassable roads to test his might! We are not sure if he has made it through yet. Kenya represents the crown jewel for this chap and he has dreamed of coming to Kenya as a little boy so he decided to go alone and see this crazy wilderness and risk the Somalian gangs (shiftas) for himself. I can't wait to hear his stories...that is, if he makes it to Arusha in time. We have only 2 more days in Arusha before we depart.
So, what have I been doing with my time off? I took a couple of rest days in Arusha just to sort out gear, use the internet and try and get some sleep without being woken up to the IPOD music that goes off at 6:30 am every morning! We saw an amazing acrobatic show at the Masai Lodge where we are camping for free (TDA has organized this as our base camp) where 5 men took turns doing cartwheels, back flips, swallowing fire, handstands on blocks of bricks, all to a galvanizing drumbeat! We sampled vegetable curries as there is a fairly large Indian population here. Besides chilling out in Arusha, a fellow rider and I decided to visit Kigoma and Lake Tanganyika (the second deepest freshwater lake besides Lake Baikal).
The main objective was to see the chimpanzees of Gombe Stream National Park, the area that Jane Goodall made famous through her chimp studies since 1960! It was quite the expensive trip as it turned out! But, like most expenses on this trip, I can always justify it with "well, this is a once in a lifetime opportunity" and "I'll probably never get back to this part of Africa." With that said, we bought tickets to Kigoma, the main city on the Tanzanian side of Lake Tanganyika and we were off on March 6th. We stayed at the Kigoma Hilltop Hotel which sits in a strategic piece of land in a gorgeous setting. The Hilltop sits on a "hilltop" which is like a small peninsula; you have a great view of the city of Kigoma and you can see water 270 degrees around. It was/is paradise. For $80 a night, you get a great room, with a bath (yep, mom-finally had a bath), a balcony over-looking the lake, mini-bar stocked with water (no alcohol is sold on the premises b/c the owner is Muslim), and they have a pool and beach. We organized our "chimp safari" for the 8th. You have to charter one of their boats for $400 and then pay a $100 fee at the park entrance. Of course, you also have to pay for guides and have tips available as well.
The trip to Gombe was great. So serene. We didn't have a fast boat and that is why it took 2 hours and 10 minutes but at least it was pretty quiet as we didn't have a loud motor. We passed fishing villages that have no roads connecting them to Kigoma. It is hard for me to imagine being SO isolated but at the same time it sounds romantic. They have to "boat" over to Kigoma to get supplies every week. And, literally, all they do is fish. You see men coming back in the morning from their overnight jaunt on the lake. We exchanged thumbs up signs and they showed us their catch. It never seemed that much-like 10 fish or so-but it must add up somehow and allow them to at least have a subsistence living. Steep, green hills greeted our view as we motored to Gombe. I have figured out why things are so green here: it rains a heck of a lot--in fact, we experienced a severe pounding about 30 minutes from the entrance to the park. I don't know how the captain could see anything but luckily we were pretty close to the shore.
By the time we reached the shore it had abated to a slight drizzle, we were led to the "luxury tented camp area" to pick up our guide and waited with a nice cup of coffee (I haven't suffered on this trip for lack of coffee-maybe for lack of GOOD coffee, but not for instant--which in my mind is better than nothing). We paid our fee, picked up our "official chimpanzee tracker" and our guide, our tracker, and Joachim and I were off to see the famous chimps! Gombe National Park is only 52 square miles and is the smallest park in Tanzania; however, it hosts quite a bit of diversity: baboons, monkeys, snakes, chimps, lots of birds, mongoose, and insects. It is a series of steep hills (highest is approx. 4500 ft) and low valleys. And, it is ever green. This piece of land and lake is at a nexus too for you can see Burundi to the north (very close to Gombe), the DRC (Democratic Republic of the Congo) to the west, and although you can't see it, you can take a steamer to Zambia to the south.
We immediately ascended a steep hill to a clearing area and heard the chimps! Exciting to hear their hoots and howls. We laid still for an eternity to hear their next call so we knew where to go. We up and continued along the steep path. Along the way, our guides would point out trees and local fruit that the chimps like to eat. The mubungu fruit littered the forest floor; it is a small, yellow fruit that turns bright red when too ripe, whose insides are like a tangerine yet the flesh is skinny and you have to eat around a pit or eat the pit which is very sour. I must say that this fruit is delicious and has both a sweet and sour taste. Seeing half-eaten ones is one clue that chimps have been around here. Here and there, our guides would motion for us to be silent, we would wait for a seemingly long time, and start again. They said it is tough to find the chimps and if they go to the valleys then it is a lost cause. I was hoping that we would be successful not only b/c we paid so much money but I wanted to come back to NCMC with pictures for my students. And, of course, I wanted to see these famous chimps that I was captivated by when I was an undergrad taking Anthropology classes at Univ. of Michigan. There are clients who pay all this money without ever seeing one chimp.
All of a sudden, the tracker's radio went off and another tracker was relaying information about a chimp sighting. We immediately ran up this steep path but didn't come across anything. We went down again to intercept them another way but were out of luck. The radio went off again, we hurried up the incline, and this time we saw GAIA, a female, idling walking up the path, showing us her swollen butt. How exciting! We tooks pictures, followed her, and then she joined another male, Apollo. We lost them in the dense forest. Our guides told us that since we weren't having much luck sticking to the well-worn paths, that we would hack through the forest. Great! I almost fell several times due to the small strangler vines that find their ways around your legs. It was all worth it though as we came upon two more male chimps: Wilke and Frodo. We had about 15 delightful minutes with them. The chimps here are habituated b/c of all the people that have studied them so they didn't seem to mind our presence. Wilke was the closest one to us; we were about 10 feet away. He was super-relaxed, had one foot balanced on a tree, groomed himself repeatedly, and occasionally would look our way to see what we were doing. To actually look in their eyes and have them do the same is magical: you have an instant recognition that we are not too far off the evolutionary chain. Most of the pictures that I posted are of Wilke, who at one time was an alpha male: now, he is 34-my age!--that is considered a bit old in chimpanzee life!
I can't say enough about chilling out with the chimps. Go if you have a chance. I would go back in a heartbeat. And, the forest itself, is unbelievably gorgeous. Not too buggy at all. The only thing that bugged me were the little safari ants that somehow crawled up my pant leg and began biting me. Oh well--I squished those little suckers!
Our guide and our tracker invited us to have a drink with them afterwards to celebrate and share comraderie. It was fun. There were two other people from Tanzania that joined us and wanted to ask me about American politics. Surprisingly, they were well-informed and were voting for Obama! I told them that he was a likely winner.
We got back to the hilltop hotel late; I lost track of time because I was enjoying the bantering and we didn't leave until 6:30 pm. That meant one hour on the lake in total darkness. You would think that the boat has lights; of course not!-we are in Africa. Luckily, the captain and his mate know the lake very well.
The rest of the time in Kigoma, we relaxed at the pool, went swimming in the lake, and read! I am almost finished with Paul Theroux's "Dark Star Safari" which recounts his overland travels from Cairo to Cape Town. He tooks trains, buses, taxis, and planes whereas we are taking much slower transportation. Amazingly, a lot of his observations are dead-on! A book to recommend.
While 23 of my fellow riders are on safari for the remainder of our vacation, I am in Arusha, having some alone time, catching up on email/blog, and thinking about my research and the next plan of action. I couldn't afford to go on a safari. Bummer, but thankfully I did go on safari here with my team of Mt. Kili climbers 2 years ago! It was an incredible experience then and in some ways I didn't want to "ruin" the memory.
We depart in a few days. For the rest of the time, I will be organizing, reading, figuring out my research, and enjoying some unparallelled alone time!