Gombe Stream National Park: boat adventures and chimpanzees

Posted by Jayne McElwee on 23 April 2013

My man and I had this deal. Each one of us could choose a Tanzanian National Park to visit. It may sound a tad prescriptive, but at a rough cost of about $100 a person a day, we couldn’t afford to indulge in all the conserved natural wonders of Tanzania.

Gombe Stream National Park

My choice was Gombe Stream National Park, the chimpanzee reserve that Jane Goodall founded, which is situated on Lake Tanganyika 20 kilometres north of Kigoma in western Tanzania. My man was somewhat unmoved by my choice, which was quite stressful. It kind of sucks for someone to have to fork out $210 (we needed a boat to get there too) for something that they’re largely indifferent to, which was made even worse when we had to board a basic fishing boat after a night of fierce storms over a now-very-upset Lake Tanganyika. I believe he resigned himself to a compromised experience.

Almost immediately after leaving, the boat started coughing and spluttering while it was simultaneously rocked furiously from side to side. I felt sick, yet smiled confidently at my man and secretly wondered whether my bag (with my beloved camera inside) would be too heavy to swim with to the shore if the boat capsized or sank. I decided I’d take it with and swim to the shore half drowning despite the logistical survival debate that might arise. I faked another smile.

After a challenging half hour we were told we had to stop to change the spark plugs. My heart sank. I’m not entirely fearful of travelling in rough conditions on a body of water, but when you haven’t slept properly, haven’t eaten, probably have a minor hangover, are dehydrated and mentally aren’t quite prepared for an angry lake, a drunk boat that isn’t moving forward and that is at the mercy of the lake’s enormous swell is not fun.

It took eons of my staring at stationary land to try and cope, but eventually we got going again to a very obviously relieved guffaw from the boat driver. After three hours and some serious mental begging to the Tanganyika weather gods, the storms passed, the wind started dying down and we arrived at Gombe Stream National Park in one shaky piece.

A slightly upset Lake Tanganyika

We then climbed a mountain.

Naturally, I wasn’t particularly prepared having not had the nutritious breakfast my body demands nor a great start to the day, for that matter. At about the point where I thought I was about to faint or die of heat exhaustion and dehydration and roll down the mountain, we were casually passed by a troop of chimpanzees that came out of nowhere.

I survived and so did my man. In fact, his indifference was conquered by what I imagine aren’t exactly the most common encounters humans have with chimpanzees. First, he witnessed an alpha male launch itself through the forest on a hunt for flying Colobus monkeys. Second, because he and a group of researchers were in the way of aggressive, hunt-minded male chimpanzees, he was a spectator to a researcher being beaten up by one of them (the chimp got a fright when he saw the researcher at the bottom of the tree he fell out of mid-hunt).

Alpha male chimpanzee eating a Colobus Monkey

I had luckily decided to stay on the path and when I saw the limping researcher with a gashed eye looking somewhat stunned, I secretly started questioning my own safety and practically froze and looked away whenever any chimp walked past us (which they did frequently and nonchalantly).

The male chimpanzees are not necessarily aggressive – our encounter with the troop just happened to coincide with a very adrenalin- and testosterone-fuelled monkey hunt. In general, the females and babies are a lot more relaxed and do not seem to be at all intimidated or perturbed by human presence. Considering this, you’ll likely get to encounter them up close and personal and, like us, find the experience immensely rewarding.

A baby chimpanzee exploring the tree

One of the female chimpanzees with her baby

Despite pretty steep prices for the entrance and conservation fees, a slight indifference to our visit, and the dull atmosphere and facilities at the park’s headquarters, we had a good day at Gombe Stream National Park, which ended off with a two hour serene and picturesque boat ride home.

A perfect and beautiful ride home

I probably wouldn’t make a dedicated mission to see these chimpanzees unless you’re fortunate enough to be in the Kigoma area. If you are, then I think it’s worth the visit.

More information on visiting Gombe National Park

Cheap boat rides are available to the park via local water taxi, but because of the departure and return times, you’d then be required to spend two nights at the park at $20 a person a night. The park has some beautiful turquoise beaches, but considering the severe lack of atmosphere at the base or headquarters near to where you’d stay, I’d sooner suggest clubbing together with your travel partners and arranging your own fishing boat. If you cut out the middlemen, you’ll likely get one for a lot cheaper than we did too.

At the entrance to Gombe Stream National Park

Public transport to Gombe Stream by water taxi

A fishing village along Lake Tanganyika

Click here to find accommodation in Kigoma

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