Plain breathtaking is the best way to describe this park, with its clear blue waters and white sand beaches backed by lushly forested mountains soaring straight out of Lake Tanganyika, plus some of the continent’s most intriguing wildlife. And, visitor numbers are low, adding to the allure.
The rainforest blanketing Mahale’s western half is, in essence, a small strip of the Congo that got orphaned by the rift that became Lake Tanganyika. It’s most notable as a chimpanzee sanctuary, and there are around 900 of our primate relatives residing in and around the park, along with leopards, blue duikers, red-tailed monkeys, red colobus monkeys, giant pangolins and many Rift Valley bird species not found elsewhere in Tanzania. There are also hippos, crocodiles and otters in the lake, and lions, elephants, buffaloes, and giraffes roaming the savannah of the mountains’ difficult to reach the eastern side.
Most come here to get personal with wild chimpanzees, but the area also has amazing hiking opportunities, snorkelling and chances for seeing other wildlife.
The main reason most people make a considerable effort to visit Mahale is to see chimps. Kyoto University researchers have been studying chimps here since 1965 and their M’ group is well habituated to people. Mahale’s size and terrain mean chimp tracking can take time, and it requires steep strenuous walking, but almost everyone who visits has a successful sighting. Mahale is widely regarded as one of the best places in the world to see wild chimpanzees.
Only one group of up to six people are allowed with the chimps at any one time. This means that you might have to wait for several hundred metres back from the chimps before you get a turn. Each group is allowed only one hour a day with the chimps and this is strictly enforced (with calls of 10 minutes remaining, five minutes remaining). If one hour is not enough, then it’s possible to pay an extra fee for a photographer’s experience and get three hours with the chimps. You’ll also have to pay a negotiable extra fee to your guide.
Face masks are provided and must be worn at all times when in the presence of the chimps. Children under the age of 12 and anyone suffering from a cold, flu or other illness are not allowed to visit the chimps, as some have died in the past after they caught the flu from a park visitor.
During June and July, the chimps come down to feed around the lodges almost daily.
Climbs of Mt Nkungwe (2462m), Mahale’s highest peak, must be accompanied by an armed ranger. The usual arrangement is two days up and one down, camping midway and again near the peak. Trekkers must bring their own camping gear and food. The climb requires a reasonable degree of fitness, but the trail is in decent shape. A two-day option requires a willingness to scramble and hack your way through the bush.
Mahale has fine snorkelling and swimming off its powder-white beaches, but unfortunately, humans are not the only ones to enjoy such beachside beauty, a large crocodile population here means that swimming and snorkelling are only allowed in certain places, and maybe banned at times.
Accommodation in Mahale National Park
Mango Tree Bandas
The cozy Mango Tree bandas are set in the forest about 100m from the shore in Kaisha, about 10km south of the park headquarters. While they lack lake views, the night sounds are wonderful. You will need to be completely self-sufficient with food and drink, and bring everything you might need with you. The kitchen is well equipped.
Kungwe Beach Lodge
This is a low key and enjoyable luxury camp with well-appointed safari tents that boast big four-poster beds, weathered storage chests, and piping-hot showers, all hidden under the trees fringing a lovely beach. The centerpiece of the camp is the dhow-shaped dining area. The price includes daily chimp tracking and a boat safari.
Situated on a beautiful sandy bay, this is a real Robinson-Cruscoe-in his happier years kind of place where all the rooms are made of knocked-together, weathered, old ship timber. There’s a gorgeous multilevel clifftop bar for essential evening drinks and a tame pelican. You can reach there by air, water, and road.