Hippo campsite to the chimps in Tanzania
19.10.2009 40 °C
Leaving behind the friendly hippos and cuddly lion cubs we pressed on. Our friends in their 4x4s zoomed passed leaving us pedalling in a cloud of dust. The first day took us to Mpanda a dusty little town with a wonderful atmosphere and a surprisingly good internet cafe which opened only a month ago. We had a bit of a panic when the first few shops we went in didn't have powdered milk and they informed us that the town had ran out. When we did then find a shop with some tins we got a bit carried away and bought enough to supply a small orphanage!
Leaving Mpanda in the morning we filled up all our available water containers as we knew there would be no sign of habitation for a long way (180km!). The road was beautiful. We drank plenty and passing a stream late afternoon re-filled for the nights camping. Directly after the stream the road began to climb. It zig-zagged sharply through the trees in an attempt to dull the ascent. As we panted up the track to the sound of 16 litres of water splashing rhythmically around us we heard the rumbling of a vehicle below. Looking down we watched a minibus taxi pause and a stream of colourful people file out laughing and shouting as they took a path into the trees. It was slightly odd to see such a disproportionate number of people emerge from the tiny taxi not least because there had been no sign of any houses in a long while. They marched purposefully along chatting all the while and the minibus grunted and pulled away. When the minibus reached the first “zig” we realised what was happening as it strained round the bend and laboured on up the hill. The passengers marched on straight up the hill cutting the bends and met the exhausted vehicle at the top where they piled back in. The door slammed and the muffled shouts and laughter were covered by the coughing of the engine. The taxi rushed away and we were left in the silence of the wood – still panting our way up the hill.
Not long after the road flattened out at the top of the hill it took us over a beautiful river of crystal clear water. With not a soul in sight it was the most perfect spot to camp and we spent a beautiful evening by the river.
The irony of camping next to a river after lugging 17 litres of water around all day was not lost on us.
We packed up quickly in the morning. Too quickly in fact as we had 15 minutes to kill before it was actually light enough to pick out our way along the track. The sand thickened and the cycling was tough but the road was beautiful. As the morning went on we refined our “cycling in sand” skills and before long we got the hang of it and were actually pretty good.
We had an added incentive for pushing along that morning. We were headed for “Alex and Fiona's camp” where we would be staying that night. Alex and Fiona are out in the bush in the middle of nowhere researching chimpanzee behaviour. Our directions were “well, about 80 miles after Mpanda there's a track that goes off to the right. If you reach the telkom tower you've missed it and you'll need to turn back”!
About mid morning we met a group of guys and a digger doing some work on the track. We stopped to chat and asked them if they knew of an american umZungu who lives in the bush. “Ah yes, yes, umZungu working with gorillas. Not far. Maybe 5km. Telkom tower too far.” This was music to our ears!! The sun was scorching and the idea of breaking in 5km was positively uplifting. So we set off with renewed vigour. But soon 5km became ten and ten, fifteen. Many kms later after ascending several hundred metres we saw what we thought could be the track on our right but it was so unused we could easily have missed it. However since there had been no other tracks to the right and there was nothing but bush for miles all around we took the chance and veered off down the hill.
We teared down the hill appreciative of the shade,
and managed to stop ourselves in time to navigate across the gaps in a couple of bridges along the way.
And eventually we rounded a rocky outcrop to see 4 or 5 thatched shelters and assumed we must have arrived! The camp was empty apart from a man named Ndai whom we later discovered was the chef. He was very welcoming but what with our 5 words of Swahili and his total lack of English our interaction was brief. We hadn't arrived 5 minutes however when Alex and Jane (his mum just over from the States) came back from their morning hike. They couldn't have welcomed us more warmly. We had a quick tour of the camp including a wander down to the stream where laundry and bathing is done and learnt the toilet etiquette – drop the barrier as you pass it on your way to the long drop. Barrier down = occupied, barrier up = vacant.
The kitchen and pantry. Alex with his mum Jane and Shadrack one of the chimp research assistants.
The camp couldn't be more well-organised and ran. There are 5 permanent occupants; Alex and his wife Fiona who are leading the research, Shadrack and Busoti who assist them and Ndai who keeps everyone well fed. There is also a new pHD student who arrived a couple of weeks before we were there. She had gone off deep(er) into the bush to find another group of chimps to study. Being her first trip out she couldn't judge how long her supplies would last and so she planned to return whenever they ran out. This was a source of slight concern for the guys back at the camp who were wondering after 16 days when would be an appropriate time to start worrying................ She didn't return whilst we were there!
Our tent pitched happily under the “guest shelter” at the camp.
After a much needed bathe in the river, a laundry session and the organisation of our tent we headed off into the bush to see how Fiona was getting on measuring the chimpanzee nests.
Hard at work studying chimp nests.
Alex's work is concerned with the communication of the chimpanzees. He has microphones placed at various points throughout the area and the camp is at a high point where the mics can communicate with the receiver in the “office”.
The view from “upstairs” - the office sits at the top of a rocky outcrop. What an awesome spot!!
The guys at the camp have no vehicle. About once a month one of them will hike about 6km to the “main road” to hitch to Uvinza, a small market town 70km away, where they stock up on their supplies. We didn't fancy anyones chances of getting a lift on that road since we had seen barely anything else on it but Alex very matter-of-factedly said “there's usually a vehicle goes past every day or so and they always stop when they see an umZungu.”
We were lucky. Alex had been to pick up his mum Jane and they had returned the day before we arrived laden with fresh supplies. We feasted on pineapples and bananas and there was plenty of rice, beans and matoke (green bananas).
The next day Alex invited us to join him on a search for the chimps.
We set off into the bush with Alex, Jane and Busoti.
We went down a valley and up a valley and then at the top we heard the chimpanzees. We followed their cries and eventually we found them and managed to get a really good look.....
Oh, no, that's just Rob changing the battery in one of the microphones!!
These chimps are completely wild. When we found them we had to be careful not to stare too much and after a while we had to groom one another to assure the chimps we were harmless.
Basuti, Jane and Alex looking non-threatening – and also hiding from the swarm of “sweat bees” that had found us. Tiny, innocent,even cute, - looking flies they seek out any moisture on you and consequently congregate around your eyes, up your nose and in your earholes!!! Very irritating.
After a good session watching the chimps playing and eating about 40metres in front of us the group moved on. We shortly followed.
Tracking chimps through the undergrowth.
We had the most amazing time and really enjoyed hanging out with the guys there. Jane was an absolute legend. Inspite of claiming several times that she wasn't very adventurous and was even quite nervous here she was in the most remote place we had been in. Not only that but she hiked vigorously up and down the very steep hills of the valley that left Rob and I completely exhausted by the end of the day.
All good things come to an end and the next day we headed on our way.
An early fairwel to the chimp guys!!