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Mahale Mountains National Park

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Mahale Mountains National Park is chimpanzees’ home in Tanzania, a place mostly inhabited by chimps where you can watch the lives of humans’ closest relatives. It is located in the Mahale Mountains on the shores of Lake Tanganyika. The unique combination of forest, mountains, and lake scenery brought up an unusual fauna of the park - primates, leopards, and lions living in the same zone - which has attracted scientists from all over the world ever since the 1960s. Mahale is one of the few places where you can go on a walking safari.

Mahale Mountains Panorama from Lake Tanganyika
Mahale Mountains Panorama from Lake Tanganyika

Where Mahale Mountains Are

The park is primarily nestled amidst the sylvan Mahale Mountains of western Tanzania, right on the shores of the famous Lake Tanganyika. In fact, it is a mountainous peninsula overlooking the turquoise waters of the freshwater lake. The mountain range of Mahale is a chain of six hills, with the highest mount Nkungwe reaching 2,462 meters / 8,077 feet.

The part of the park lying on the opposite side of the mountain range is the savannah. The total protected area of the national park is 1,613 square kilometers / 1,002 square miles. One of the peculiarities of the Mahale Mountains is that no roads pass through this protected area, which makes Mahale the only large national park where walking safaris are allowed.

Unlike other national parks of Tanzania, Mahale Mountains is distinct in its widest diversity of landscape - savannah, flat tropical forest, mountain forest, alpine meadows, and even bamboo forest. The variety of habitats ensures the formation of unique flora and fauna, which undoubtedly attracts most of the researchers’ attention. Since the 1960s, scientists from Kyoto University have been observing wildlife here.

Mahale Mountains’ Jungle Forest
Mahale Mountains’ Jungle Forest

Mahale Mountains’ Diversity of Wildlife

This part of Tanzania is home to a surprisingly wide variety of animal species, particularly large animals such as buffalos, giraffes, antelopes, zebras, and even elephants. Predators like lions, leopards, hyenas, and jackals prey on the abundant grazing herds. The high grass covers the vibrant nocturnal activities, too, when smart civets and mongooses track small rodents and insects.

Here is one of the few places in Tanzania where you can spot “non-mainstream” cloven-hoofed ungulates - bushbuck antelopes. These are charming forest antelopes that prefer to settle in the bushes or among the trees. They are very good at cutting through the densest bushes and are excellent swimmers.

Hippos dive gracefully underwater off the coast of Tanganyika. They seem clumsy and heavy on land, but just have a look at them when they smoothly glide under the clear water.

A hippo in Lake Tanganyika
A hippo in Lake Tanganyika

In the Mahale Mountains forests, one can discover an array of unique birds. A “signature bird” of this landscape is the pennant-winged nightjar. They circle at dusk, waving their long "pennants" to attract females. These nightjars have extra long feathers flapping behind the body in flight, and the bird looks like it has all four wings instead of a regular pair. In-flight, these feathers are not as comfortable as one might think - they do not help control the flight, but during the mating season, male birds showing the most impressive pennants get the most-desired females.

Pennant-winged nightjar
Pennant-winged nightjar

Back in the days, people called these birds goatsuckers as they believed nightjars fly up to a goat herd at night and suck their milk. However, what actually attracted nightjars to cattle are tasty insects swirling around grazing goats and cows.

A good deal of the animal species inhabiting the Mahale Mountains has been described and well studied up to date. Researchers continue exploring the local fauna, adding to scientific databases.

However, as mentioned above, this park is known primarily for its huge number of primates. Baboons, colobus, red-tailed and blue monkeys, and numerous species of galagos live here. Finally, if there is an animal that’s studied from A to Z by humans, it must be a chimpanzee.

Mahali Mountains - a chimpanzee paradise

The closest human relatives of all primates, chimpanzees, are concentrated here in quantities that cannot be found anywhere else in the country. The Mahale chimps population numbers in hundreds (700-1000 animals). There are two things that give the chimpanzees a safe and comfortable habitat to live and breed - humans’ nature conservation measures and the natural features of the Mahale park surrounded by mountains and the lake.

Chimpanzees in the jungle of the Mahale Mountains
Chimpanzees in the jungle of the Mahale Mountains

Chimpanzees feel at ease here, forming groups of several dozen individuals. Each group has its own territory, and the group members protect it from outsiders. Chimpanzees are known to start long-term and quite brutal wars between the groups. Complex relationships within groups and families are also points of interest. People have long been observing the lives of these highly intelligent apes. Their behavioral patterns help to reconstruct the social life of early humans.

The first expedition of Japanese scientists to the Mahale Mountains took place in 1965. It took 20 years to convince the Tanzanian government to relocate the locals to other territories (there were several villages of the Holoholo and Tongwe peoples in the modern Mahale area) and to take all necessary ecological measures to protect the land. In 1985, the national park was established in the Mahale Mountains.

Studies of chimpanzees in the Mahale Mountains have greatly enriched our knowledge of these intelligent animals. Now that the park is open to the public, it is not only scientists who can see the primates in their natural habitat. Local guiding companies arrange walking safaris into the jungle, and any traveler can take part and get closer to the life of chimpanzees.

The search for groups of chimpanzees begins with a careful inspection of the area and finding traces of their recent stay: uneaten fruit, droppings, and "beds" made of branches and grass in the trees. Once you find the animals, you can watch them for a while and carefully take a few pictures. There is at least one group of chimpanzees in the park that is used to visitors and is totally indifferent to humans’ presence.

Things To Do in Mahale Mountains

In addition to watching chimpanzees, Mahale offers a wide range of entertainment and recreation. For example, these include hiking through the forest with an experienced guide or birdwatching (there are more than 350 bird species in the Mahale forests).

On the shores of Lake Tanganyika, you can enjoy stunning views of sunsets. The orange-pinkish sun slowly sets behind the turquoise waters of the tropical lake, which gives you a feeling of absolute serenity. When the evening skies are clear, you can see the distant cliffs on the opposite shore of Tanganyika.

Apart from that, the staff at camps and lodges on the lakeshore can help you arrange a few other water activities:

  • sport fishing;
  • kayaking;
  • boat trips.
A boat trip in Mahale Mountains Park
A boat trip in Mahale Mountains Park

Finally, you can just rest under the sunshade on the sandy lakeshore, sipping a cold drink, enjoying the view of palm trees and lush tropical vegetation, letting your mind go and watching the birds and small animals that occasionally go out of the dense bushes towards the cool Tanganyika waters.

Best Travelers’ Shelters in Mahale

In the Mahale Mountains, a common accommodation is bungalows set right on the lakeshore. Inside the Mahale Mountains park area, there are a couple of unique and cozy eco-lodges designed for a small number of guests and ultimate privacy. The lodges are truly authentic in decor and construction: plank flooring, wickered walls with huge windows, thatched roofs forming a hut, and private terraces overlooking the water views. Wooden furniture, lockable chests for personal belongings, and canopies over beds complete the ambiance of authentic conventional life in an African hut.

Everything here serves the purpose of escaping from the bustling civilization, immersing yourself in a meditative state, and finding yourself tete-a-tete with the beautiful nature. No wi-fi and infoglut! Only you and a real jungle paradise!

Here, you can walk on the sand barefoot and have dinner right outside under the canopy. One can hardly ask for more romance. For many, it is a surprise to discover such a hospitable and romantic spot in the African outback, far away from the touristy Zanzibar, where you simply indulge in this urge to hide from the hustle and bustle at least for a few days.

The five-star eco-lodge Greystoke Mahale tucked away on the pristine shore of Tanganyika’s Kangwena beach, is the place to stay. The Mbali Mbali Mahale Lodge also welcomes guests with its dhow-shaped premises reminiscent of a traditional Arabian vessel that can be seen on the Zanzibar coast.

A Way to Mahale Mountains

Mahale Mountains National Park is reachable only by water across Lake Tanganyika. It takes five hours to get there by a speedboat from Kigoma. Tourists sometimes arrive by the MV Liemba steamboat sailing in Tanganyika a few times a month. Departing from Kigoma to the south, the steamboat makes a stop in Lagos (Mgambo), where travelers are picked up by a national park’s boat.

Regular flights on small-size aircrafts are operated to the Mahale airstrip, from where you would also need to take a boat ride for about an hour and a half. When no regular flights are available, which often happens during the rainy season, a charter flight can be arranged. Before your trip to Tanzania, you can discuss all the details with our managers so that we can help you arrange your trip at its best.

Traveling to the Mahale Mountains with domestic airlines
Traveling to the Mahale Mountains with domestic airlines

Best Time to Visit

The Mahale Mountains National Park is at its best in the dry season from June to November. The park's trails are comfortable and safe to explore during this time. The forests are teeming with wildlife, birds are active and vibrant, and chimpanzees gather in large groups in the jungle.

The skies over the Mahale Mountains and Lake Tanganyika are clear, and the sun shines beautifully over the green peaks of the Mahale mountain range and the waters of the lake. This means you can admire the flocks of fish that abound in the unique ecosystem of Africa's oldest lake while boating. Not to mention a heart- and body-warming relaxation at the lakeshore beach - you must have imagined it all in detail already! 

In fact, the Mahale Mountains National Park is open all year round and always ready to welcome guests. During the rainy season, the wildlife and scenery are no less striking. The rainy season can bring a fresh and surprising vibe to your jungle vacation. Nighttime thunderstorms over Tanganyika are an impressive sight! However, keep in mind that hotels on the shore are closed from March to the end of May.

If you want to plan a long-awaited trip to the Mahale Mountains that would make up for your expectations, do not hesitate to talk over the details with Altezza Travel managers beforehand.

Revised on 12 July 2022
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