The mountains are calling and I must go, and I will work on while I can, studying incessantly.

- John Muir


Adventure Travel

Sep 27, 2017

Searching for Wild Chimpanzees Part 2: Marvellous Mahale

Mahale Mountains National Park, Tanzania, on the shore of Lake Tanganyika, half-way between the Burundi and Zambian borders, is home to a thriving population of some of the last wild chimpanzees in Africa.


Sarah Kingdom

Mahale Mountains is one of the few National Parks in Africa that can only be experienced on foot. The only way in or out of the park is by boat and in the entire 1,613 sq km park, there is not a single road. This is a wholly unique wilderness, a long way off the beaten track; but the lake, the beaches, the extraordinary forest and of course, the chimpanzees make it a journey well worth making.

Fifty times the size, and infinitely more diverse than better-known Gombe Stream National Park (made famous by researcher Jane Goodall), Mahale is one of only two protected areas for chimpanzees in Tanzania. Mahale has a population of approximately 800 chimpanzees, though only one group, of about 60 individuals, have been semi-habituated to human visitors. ‘M’ group, named by Japanese researchers from Kyoto University who have been conducting research in the park since the early 1960s, was the group we would be spending our time with, in the park.

If trekking five to six hours a day up very steep inclines in humid jungle conditions is not for you, then perhaps cross Mahale off your destination list! ‘M’ group’s territory is approximately 39 sq km, and covers beach, lowland forest, hills and valleys, much of it almost impenetrable. The seasons determine where in their range the chimps are to be found. Different fruits ripen at different times and in different places. So knowing what is on the chimps ‘shopping list’ will determine where they are most likely to be found; this is where your local trackers are indispensable.

Photo: Migette and Steve Kraup


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Before Mahale became a national park, much of the area was inhabited by local tribes. In these previously inhabited areas, one doesn’t have to look far to see the cultivated plants people left behind—palm trees (cultivated for oil), mangos, guavas, and lemons. When these trees are fruiting they provide part of the diet of the chimpanzees, as well as some of the park’s other primates (including red-tailed, vervet and colobus monkeys and yellow baboons). When the human residents vacated, the decision was made not to eradicate the fruit trees, as their presence would help prevent too much competition between the rapidly growing baboon population and the chimpanzees. The fruit trees are concentrated primarily along the shoreline, where the camps are located. When the fruit is ripe chimpanzees come down quite regularly from the hills and dine right by the camps.

Unfortunately, ‘exotic’ fruits were not on M group’s ‘shopping list’ when we were in Mahale. Consequently day 1 was a long trek. Two hours hiking straight uphill, accompanied by Greystoke Mahale’s perpetually smiling ‘three musketeers’—Mwiga, Mathius and Butati. The group was dripping with sweat and our clothes clung claustrophobically to our damp bodies. Nothing can adequately describe the adrenalin rush that kicked in when we heard the calls of the chimpanzees in the forest. Time, distance, aching legs—all was forgotten—as shrill calls echoed through the forest canopy. Energy levels instantly revived and we carried on through the dense vegetation, getting closer to our target, anticipation growing. Suddenly there they were…

We had been too slow to catch the main group of chimpanzees, who had moved off by the time we clambered up the slopes. They had been hunting red colobus monkeys, and after a successful hunt had descended, at speed, back down the mountains we had worked so hard climb! Fortunately, a group of three had remained—mother, baby, and another female. Mum was eating the remains of the monkey carcass. Baby was clearly bored witless. He swung in the trees, hanging from one arm and then the other, performing aerial summersaults and occasionally reaching out to touch and play with the tail of the red colobus monkey that his mother was chewing…a gruesome toy.

Photo: Migette and Steve Kraup

After this tantalizing view, we didn’t see any chimpanzees for a few days and had to wait patiently for the trackers to find the seemingly elusive ‘M’ group. Finally, we got word on day four that the trackers had located them and off we set up the mountains again.

Knowing what to expect didn’t make our climb up through the rainforest any easier! We could hear the spine-chilling calls of the chimpanzees hunting colobus monkeys. Another successful hunt and we heard the whoops of excitement, reaching the group in time to witness group politics playing out. The alpha male took possession of the kill and dragged the progressively bedraggled corpse through the forest with the others in hot pursuit. Once in sole possession though, the alpha male was obviously having difficulty deciding his priorities…eat his prize or ‘romance’ one of the females…clearly quite a dilemma!

To prevent interference with natural behaviour, time in close proximity to the chimps is limited to one hour. When our hour was up it felt like we had been with the group for both seconds and hours. The adrenalin and excitement followed by time to observe group dynamics and get really close to so many different individuals was an amazing experience.

Researchers have been studying chimpanzees in Mahale since the 1960s and the success of this research depended on the habituation of chimpanzees to humans. This was initially achieved by feeding chimps sugarcane and bananas, but once good levels of habituation were established, feeding was decreased and by the late 1980s totally abandoned. Researchers now follow the chimpanzees as they range freely in the forest, monitoring their activities, social structure and learning about our closest genetic relative’s use of medicinal plants in the wild.

Chimps in Mahale use plants to treat a variety of ailments; a good example of this is roundworms. Chimpanzees have been recorded eating two different plants to treat themselves for worms. One plant contains a chemical that kills the worms and the other is a fibrous leaf that the chimps fold up, swallow, and ‘evacuate’ whole; physically scraping the adult worms from their intestines.

Sadly though, whilst chimpanzees are adept at treating a number of ailments with plant medicines, they are not immune from human diseases and in some cases, these have been fatal. A number of years ago flu, transmitted from humans to the chimpanzees, resulted in the deaths of large numbers of the community. For this reason, everyone in proximity to the chimps now has to wear surgical masks, not eat or drink, and if unwell refrain from visiting them at all.

Humans are supposed to maintain a minimum distance of 10m from the chimpanzees at all times, though this is sometimes easier said than done. The groups are constantly on the move, completely indifferent to us humans, regularly passing and sitting very close by. We had been warned not to be startled or to run away if charged at by any of the chimps and whilst this seemed good advice, it was not as easy as it sounds! Chimpanzees are many times stronger than humans and rather intimidating when charging downhill, whooping and screaming. Holding my ground as six young males rushed past close enough for their hair to brush against my bare legs took considerable will-power.

Every morning chimpanzees descend from their night nests to feed on fruits, leaves, buds, and blossoms. Once their tummies are full they become vocal and this is the best time to locate them. Rama, another of our knowledgeable guides, this time from Kungwe Beach Lodge, told us that at 10 am we should expect to hear them. At 10.05 am we heard the first calls. Chimps are amongst the noisiest of all wild animals and this certainly makes finding them in the dense undergrowth a little bit easier. We located a group of around 15 individuals under dense foliage. Too dark and too confined for photography, we put aside our cameras and focused on their behavior and mannerisms. Watching an infant playing with his elder sister, we laughed as we watched him pretend to be a ‘grown-up’; stomping on the ground and doing mini displays with puny twigs and leaves. Some of the older males arrived and we saw another side to them, as they tickled and patted the infant in passing, before settling down to groom one another.

Another day and another five hours of trekking. Having started the day on a visible path, as soon as we heard the chimps vocalizing, right on cue at 10.01 am, we veered sharply off the trail and spent at least two hours ‘bush bashing’ through prickly vines and thorny vegetation. Samjee, another of our guides, took the lead, machete swinging, hacking a trail through the undergrowth. We spent much of the day on hands and knees crawling under bushes, scrabbling through dense undergrowth and using vines like ropes. When we had first heard the chimpanzees that morning they were clearly celebrating another successful monkey hunt, but by the time we reached them there was no sign of the meat. Many of the group were high up in the trees and we only caught glimpses of them. We sat down and focused on the ten or so individuals on the ground close at hand. This was our last day in Mahale and we used the opportunity to quietly observe the group relaxing in the shadows. Eventually, it was time to leave, and we headed down to the lodge. But Mahale had not finished with us yet. Halfway back we found a lone female chimpanzee with her baby up a tree beside the trail. The baby bounced up and down on branches, trying his best to intimidate us, performing some daredevil midair stunts. We could have watched him for hours, but time was up and we had to go. We returned to camp bruised, battered and bleeding, but content.

Mondays and Thursdays are ‘rest days’ for the chimps, there is no trekking on those days. Rest days coincide with the twice-weekly flights at the Mahale airstrip (a 90-minute boat ride away). Our last morning in Mahale was on one of these ‘rest days’. We spent the early morning in a wooden dhow out on the lake. Whilst there are lions, zebras, giraffes, roan, sable, and hartebeest on the almost inaccessible side of the Mahale Mountains and we, like most people, wouldn’t get that far. To round off a perfect trip though, we did find a lone leopard sitting calmly on the beach, watching us pass by in the boat, looking like the cat that got the cream.

Accommodation partners:

Nomad Safaris at their Greystoke Mahale Lodge

Mbali Mbali Safaris at their Kungwe Beach Lodge

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Oct 01, 2018

The Forbidden Zone: Mongols, to Your Horses

The rolling green hills, rocky passes, flower-laden meadows and clear streams of Gorkhi Terelj National Park in northern Mongolia is the birthplace of the Mongols. The Outdoor Journal spent a week on horseback with Stone Horse Expeditions in the heart of this country’s vast wilderness.



Apoorva Prasad

Tdrihe Khan Khentii mountains stretched before us, from one end of the azure sky to the other. Tegri, the Great Sky God, watched us with his infinite panorama. From here, I could see miles and miles into the distance. This was the “Forbidden Zone”, that unknown wilderness where Genghis Khan was born. As a child and then again much later on, he hunted here, his true home, on a horse, sheltered in a ger or under the blue sky. When he was a boy, exiled with his family into the cold and harsh wilderness of the northern Mongolian hills, his only friends were what these lands contained. After he built an empire and died, it became a sacred and taboo zone, left to the deer and wolves. For decades the area had been closed off. The Soviets enforced it as a Highly Restricted Area to allow them to do what they wished with it – from logging and military exercises, to also countering any potential rise of Mongolian nationalism around the great Khan. Despite those years, the Area remained wild.

No wonder the Mongols worshipped it.

A day before, we had crossed fresh bear tracks. There were no signs of human presence apart from our train of horses and riders. And now, this vista lay in front of us, green and yellow grassy hills, long valleys, meadows of flowers stretching to higher mountains all the way to Siberia, some still snow-dusted despite the summer sun. Burkhan Khaldun stood further behind higher peaks. And that incredible sky. No wonder the Mongols worshipped it. We all lived once under this blue infinity. As we’d ridden northwards away from Ulan Bator, the city’s pollution had faded away long ago, the gray curse had lifted and my eyes had once again accustomed themselves to what they had evolved to do – see long distances, look for hares, deer, bears, navigate passes and ford streams, climb rocks, and watch falcons circle on thermals above. And over the last few days, we had done all these things.

The weary horseriders arrive in the ger to refresh themselves.

We had left our last camp around mid-morning, some hours ago. One half of the party broke away to ride into another valley out west, while Keith and I wanted to ride up and to the pass in the range of hills that separated the Gorkhi Terelj from the Khan Khentii. We skirted the granite mounds which punctuated the ends of this valley, forded a marshy grassland below the campsite, fought off the bloodsucking horseflies that made our horses’ lives miserable for a little while, eventually entering a tall forest of larch and birch. The ground began to rise as we entered a narrow rocky trail that started to wind uphill. Jerry, my sturdy, stubborn little Mongolian horse plodded on. This easy gait was infinitely more comfortable than the long trots of our previous days in the saddle. Keith Swenson, a taciturn, the 64 year-old owner of Stone Horse Expeditions along with his wife Sabine Schmidt, showed none of the wear I felt – my skin of my thighs were quite literally raw after 50 kilometers of riding and trotting in the wilderness. After a few days Keith opened up with wisecracks. “People ask what do you do, and I say I’m a rider”, says Keith, punning on his American accent. “They think I mean ‘writer’, “and they ask, what have you written?” “So I say, Blackie, Brownie, Ol Dirty Face…”, naming his horses.

These lands, however remote, are important.

Halfway up the trail was a shaman’s totem, poles placed on the ground to make a conical structure, wrapped with bits of fabric and ribbons. But at the base, and near a tree, we also found broken shards of glass, vodka bottles drunk and thrown by unknown travelers who no longer respected their old ways. We’d been riding for an hour or so and we stopped for a short break in the little opening in the forest. It was quite warm in the strong sun, perhaps 30C like every day of the summer, but cold at nights, often dipping below freezing.

These Mongolian horses play a huge role in making a trip across the steppe easy and fun for riders. Each horse has a unique personality. Big Dirty Face pictured here loves coffee and will drink it straight from your cup if you let him.

The Mongols invented the modern world*

The old ways are important. These lands, however remote, are important. The Mongols invented the modern world*. When, at the age of 55, Genghis Khan rode out into Asia and Europe, he created the largest empire known to humanity, as well as its first international postal system, and the largest free-flowing network of ideas, trade and culture. But today, Mongolia feels relatively isolated and far away, landlocked in the Eurasian continent. And getting there turned out to be a greater adventure than we’d expected. Instead of flying, we took the famous Trans-Mongolian from Beijing to Ulan Bator. At 11pm, the train pulled into the last station on the China-Mongolia border to change the undercarriage (the railway gauge is different in Mongolia). Three hours later we got back on the train and waited patiently for the Chinese guards to hand us all our passports back. Our intern’s passport was returned ripped from its cover. Before anyone could make a move, the train entered Mongolia… where the Mongolian border guard insisted that the 18-year old girl get off the train because she wasn’t allowed to enter on an invalid passport. Twenty minutes of arguing later, at nearly three am, we got off and watched the train leave without us.

Mongolian cuisine is typically meat and dairy products. Vegans beware.

Fifteen hours later, after many phone calls and emails to various embassies and important officials, she was finally allowed to enter the country. The Trans-Mongolian having long gone, we finagled an eight-hour taxi ride across the great steppes (on a second-hand car coming off a goods train) for $45. Welcome to Mongolia.


I did not have much riding experience, but I usually don’t let a little thing like that deter me from a trip. Keith, once also a climber, agreed that anyone up for adventure would be perfectly fine on a Mongolian horse. They were sturdy and forgiving. We all gathered at their staging camp an hour’s drive from Ulan Bator – a Singaporean couple on their second trip with Stone Horse, their friend from Hong Kong, a French diplomat from Swaziland, our team of three, Keith, Sabine and their crew – Nyamaa, Buyana and Jackson, the American intern. Soon, our team of 16 horses and Stinky the Mongolian Dog, a most genuine companion if there ever was one, were off towards the north. Day one went reasonably well, with a short four hour ride to our first campsite inside the Gorkhi Terelj National Park. The other experienced riders asked me various questions about how I felt and whether my horse had cantered or galloped, and I said I didn’t know, but the horse seemed to know what it was doing. Apparently, they have many gaits.

Nomads Yadmaa and Tavaasurn inside their summer ger, just outside Gorkhi Terelj.

I learned what that meant the next day.

The morning begins easily and we move along a gentle valley. At a stream, the horses bend to drink. They’re herd animals, comfortable only in their own numbers. Suddenly, there’s a commotion as one of the pack horses spooks and bolts. We’re unprepared, and good old Jerry decides to follow the bolting horse too, suddenly turning 180 degrees and galloping wildly. I have to pull firmly on the reins to stop him, while the teamsters have to get the other fella back. He’s bucking around wildly, his unshod feet stamping, his grass-eating brain telling him that that bee sting he felt on his hind was a wolf’s nip. Stinky ignores the commotion, running ahead happily back in his favorite hunting grounds, chasing ground squirrels to their holes. We continue, entering a forest and then riding uphill to a pass. On the other side, a wide open valley, and our first real gallop. Now I feel the sensation, riding with the animal as one, gently cycling my feet in the stirrups and gripping with my knees, all of it coming naturally to me and I urge Jerry on, on, on. Chhoo, Jerry, Chhoo! We stop at a babbling brook in the valley below where we wash our faces. Are we in paradise?

And then the long trot begins. For a horse, it’s the most comfortable way to move. But it’s bouncy. I try to “post” like all the real riders. Watching me grimace in agony, Keith smiled and said, “real men trot,” as he rode along comfortably with that rolling ankle movement to compensate for the horse’s bumpy ride. “Trotting is how the Mongols moved such vast distances. If you make him gallop, you won’t get very far, you’ll kill the horse”.

a melting pot of humanity and ethnicities

But Mongolia changed the course of human history since long before the great Khan and his riders, the ultimate, self-sufficient soldiers. Apart from the Mongols, it is also the original homeland of the Huns and the Turks. It is a melting pot of humanity and ethnicities, where thousands of years ago two language families met and separated – the Indo-Europeans and the Altaics – and possibly where the wild horse was first tamed, thereby changing the course of history. When men on horses first raced out of Central Asia, first ancient Mesopotamia, then Egypt fell. Europe’s original ‘mother culture’ and India’s Harappan civilization disappeared. Humans, moving incredible distances on horses, spread across Asia, from the western end of Europe to Korea, all the way down to Arabia and India, creating nearly all the cultures we know today. Some of the languages they spoke evolved today into English, and others evolved into Japanese, but some of their words have become so intermingled that it’s hard to distinguish which came from which. Hindi is an Indo-European language, but today the common Hindi word for “home” is “ghar” (from the Sanskrit “grhá”) which is nearly identical to the Altaic Mongolian’s word for home, ger.

When the Hunnu (“Huns”) fought the Chinese Hans, the clans that lost fled towards Europe, creating Hungary, as well as leading to the downfall of the Western Roman Empire. Centuries later, the Turkics originally from the Mongolian steppes came hurtling into Constantinople, wiping out the Eastern Roman Empire.

We ride through rocky hills and rock formations, up and down defiles, over passes and across shallow streams, through meadows of flowers and knee-high grass. We ride all day, and every evening set up our traveling camp like the Mongols of old. We sleep in modern-day lightweight tents, under trees or under the stars, breathing cold clear air, drinking from fresh rain-fed streams, eating atop rocks while falcons circle above and the horses graze.

The Stone Horse team from left to right – Jackson, Keith, Buyana, Nyamaa and Sabine.

The world has continued to change, but horses and men will forever ride together.

One day we stretched out the ride to reach a farther campsite, a Hunnu gravesite. We set up our tents atop 2000-year old graves, low mounds of stones marking the places where men, women, children and horses were laid to rest. “I believe that these people would have loved us to be here, living like they did,” said Keith. When they hear our horses, they’ll feel alive”. The next morning, I pulled my horse off to a side and to a vantage point to shoot the group riding further down the valley. Jerry stomped and neighed angrily as the herd passed him by, but I held him back. When the group disappeared into the distance, I quickly packed my camera gear back into the saddlebags. Then jumping back on, I let the horse fly as he wished, back to his herd. Jerry, the funny but tough little horse, galloped madly a mile north over the gently rising slope. Our hooves rang out in the valley, as two large round mounds, Hun graves, emerged in front on the mountainside. Neither Jerry nor I needed to veer, and we galloped directly over the centre of the mounds, the sound of our hoofbeats gladdening passed Hunnu souls. Their ancestors, our ancestors, had once tamed wild horses, and together changed the world. The world has continued to change, but horses and men will forever ride together.

Images by Madhuri chowdhury.


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