Mahale National Park
Accessible only by boat or by air, Mahale Mountains National Park is among the least accessible, least visited and most beautiful parks on the African continent.
Mahale covers 1 613 km2 of rugged rainforest about halfway down the eastern shore of Lake Tanganyika. With around 700 resident chimpanzees, it’s rivalled only by Gombe Stream National Park for chimpanzee viewing.
Moreover, successive teams of Japanese researchers have quietly conducted some of the most important scientific work on primates; the chimps are therefore reasonably habituated to humans, allowing for excellent encounters with a species that shares 98% of our known DNA.
Mahale also combines well with the big game viewing of southern Tanzania’s wildlife gems: the Selous Game Reserve and nearby Katavi and Ruaha National Parks.
Not that you won’t see big game at Mahale – the park also protects at least 50 other mammal species, many of which are primates but the number also includes different species of antelope as well as small numbers of leopard and lion.
As if that isn’t enough, Mahale is dominated by the brooding presence of Nkungwe Mountain with vegetation ranging through almost the entire gamut of African botany. From lowland forest to miombo woodland), Mahale’s scenery is second to none.
You’ll also find clear, blue water in Lake Tanganyika, squeaky clean sandy beaches and tangled rainforest on the slopes of the mountains. In fact, the remote Mahale gets so few visitors that the chances are that you’ll be the only ones there.
The premier accommodation in Mahale is Greystoke Mahale – set in arguably the most dramatic location of any camp in East Africa: a white sandy beach at the base of the Mahale Mountains overlooking the turquoise waters of the lake. This was supposedly the favourite place of Bill Gates on his visit to East Africa a few years ago. The camp has a hardwood dhow for gentle sailing trips over the lake in the evenings, and guests can also enjoy snorkelling.
Unless you are on a fly-in safari to Greystoke Mahale, you are pretty much on your own. Catch the south-bound steamer from Kigoma and disembark at Mugambo (also called Lagosa), from where you will need to find a local boat to take you to Kasongo – the park’s headquarters. You can also inquire at the hotels in Kigoma for a boat transfer, but be prepared for a ten hour journey – unless you take a four hour speedboat at a hefty price.
The best option is to radio the park headquarters in advance from Kigoma and arrange a pick-up (either the Kigoma Hilltop hotel or the Liemba office in Kigoma).