Mahale Mountains National Park
Like its northern neighbour Gombe, Mahale Mountains National Park is home to some of the last remaining wild Chimpanzees in Africa. Around 1,000 of these fascinating animals roam the isolated rainforest of Mahale, a chain of dramatic peaks draped in lush vegetation falling to Lake Tanganyika’s beaches far below. Visitors are led on guided walks in search of the Chimpanzees, following clues such as the previous night’s nests, shadowy clumps high in the trees, or scraps of half-eaten fruit and fresh dung. Once found, the Chimpanzees preen each other’s glossy coats in concentrated huddles, squabble noisily or bound effortlessly into the trees, swinging nonchalantly through the vines.
In addition to a hike on the trail of the Chimpanzees, visitors can trace the Tongwe people’s ancient pilgrimage to the Mountain spirits, trekking through enclaves of rainforest to grassy ridges chequered with alpine bamboo. After a hot walk in the forest, the clear waters of the Lake, home to 250 species of fish, beckon for a refreshing swim. The best time for forest walks in Mahale is during the dry season, from May to October. The light rains of October and November present no real obstacle to visitors.
Mahale offers a number of outstanding attractions for visitors, from tracking wild habituated chimpanzees, to mountain climbing, snorkelling, fishing, kayaking and relaxing on deserted, pristine, white, sandy beaches.
- Walking safaris in the beautiful, lowland forest allow close encounters with a vast array of birds and animals, including a group of habituated chimpanzees. The opportunity to track chimps in their natural habitat is Mahale’s foremost tourist attraction.
- An ascent of the highest peak in the Mahale Mountains ridge, Mt. Nkungwe, is one of the most spectacular activities available to tourists. It takes 2-3 days to reach the summit, and the best time for climbing is during the dry season (May – October). Whilst camping on the mountain at night, it is often possible to see the spectacle of ‘fishing fire’, as the kerosene lamps carried by small fishing boats light up across the Lake.
- Lake Tanganyika contains more than 250 species of fish found nowhere else on Earth, many of which can be viewed by snorkelling in the shallows along Mahale’s shoreline.
- Long walking trips can be arranged for viewing big game such as lion, elephant, hippo, buffalo, giraffe and leopard. These safaris may require up to 7 days.
- Sport fishing on the fresh waters of Lake Tanganyika is possible under special licences available to visitors.
- Cultural tourism activities entailing visits to the nearby villages can also be arranged. Kigoma town and the historical town Ujiji are worth a detour. Kigoma is the capital of the Kigoma District and the economic centre of the region. Ujiji is a historical town dating back to the days of German colonial rule in Tanganyika. In the 19th century, Dr. Livingstone travelled to Ujiji in a bid to stop the slave trade.
- Other tourist destinations in western Tanzania that can complement a visit to Mahale Mountains National Park include Gombe Stream and Katavi National Parks, lying north and south of Mahale respectively.
Mahale is accessible by air and boat only. However, there are several different flight and boat options, to suit most budgets and timeframes:
Direct flights to Mahale
This is the easiest way to reach Mahale. During the peak tourist season (June to October) the three tour operators with camps in Mahale schedule regular flights between the park and Arusha town. Between October and March flights arrive and leave twice each week. Only during March, April and the first half of May are there no scheduled flights, since the camps close for the heaviest rains.
It is also possible for visitors to arrange their own charter flights. Tanzania has a large number of charter flight companies (for example, Air Excel, Northern Air and Regional Air). Private charters can be arranged from Arusha, Kilimanjaro, Dar es Salaam or Zanzibar and visitors should expect to pay between $5 000 and $10 000.
The airstrip at Mahale is suitable for light aircraft only. The largest planes able to land can carry up to 12 passengers.
Travel to Mahale via Kigoma
Kigoma can be reached via several routes:
- By Air: Precision Air schedules daily flights from Dar es Salaam to Kigoma. The flight takes about 3 hours.
- By Road: Road provides accessibility to Kigoma, but it can be rough and impassable, especially in the rainy season. From Arusha it takes 2 or 3 days to reach Kigoma by car, and a 4-wheel drive vehicle is essential.
- By Rail: Trains from Dar es Salaam leave 2-3 times per week. The journey takes about three days and two nights.
From Kigoma, Mahale can be reached by boat or by light aircraft:
- Transport to Mahale by speedboats or timber boats from Kigoma can be arranged with the Park or private operators in Kigoma. The speedboats take between 4 and 6 hours to reach the park while timber boats can take up to 15 hours.
- A large steamship – MV Liemba – leaves Kigoma each week on a Wednesday afternoon, carrying passengers and cargo the length of the Lake to Zambia. It makes numerous stops along the way, including one for Mahale, which is referred to as Lagossa (the old name) or Mgambo. A Mahale Mountains National Park boat meets the Liemba each week and transfers passengers to park headquarters. The Liemba takes around 10 hours to reach Lagossa-Mgambo from Kigoma, and it passes Mahale again on its return journey each Saturday.
- Mahale is 45 minutes from Kigoma by light aircraft. A few safari companies offer private charter flights from Kigoma to Mahale and other National Parks in western Tanzania.
Best time to visit the park
The dry season (mid-May to mid-October) is the best period in which to visit the park. During this period, chimpanzees are likely to be seen in big groups, the sunshine illuminates the fish in the Lake and the beach is an inviting place to relax. However, Mahale Mountains National Park is accessible all year round. A visit in the rainy season can also be a memorable experience, made remarkable by views of Congo across the water, and by incredible lightning storms that light up the lake at night.