Safari in Tanzania 2015

Day 11 Friday September 18, 2015

Next PagePrevious PageTrip Menu
Home Page
Left-click on a picture to open a larger version in a new window.

The actual digital photos have much better resolution than the enlarged photos.
The group that we viewed was Group M.

One peculiar thing about the coastal areas of Mahale is that the sun rises late. The whole country is very near the equator, and so the time of the theoretical sunrise varies little throughout the year. However, the Mahale mountains lie east of the camp, and so daylight actually appears an hour or so later than in most of Tanzania.

The area in which the chimps roamed was quite mountainous.

I was up with the birds. When the staffer brought coffee and seven small biscuits at 7 o'clock, I was already awake. He did not place the big heavy box over the tray. I brought the tray into the bedroom and downloaded my photos from Thursday onto the flash drive while I drank my cup of coffee. The biscuits were shaped like stars and moons. I slightly preferred the stars.

Today was scheduled to be our first day with the chimps, something that I had been looking forward to since I first read about this National Park three years earlier. I gave some thought to my wardrobe and equipment. I opted for long pants and shirt in order to minimize the chances of insect bites. Most of the members of our group had been suffering from numerous very itchy bites. I did not have a single one. I credited the permethrin with which I had sprayed all of my clothes on the very first night at Onsea House. It was a close decision between boots and sneakers. The sneakers would be more comfortable, but if we encountered any muck or water, I would want something sturdier. I opted for the boots.

The camp provided us with water in these bottles.

I decided to leave behind in the banda three items that I had brought on the game drives — my sunglasses, my floppy hat, and my backpack. The first two might be useful on the boat, but they would be of little value in the forest. Without the backpack I would need a place to put my spare battery and my spiral notebook. Any pocket would work for the battery, and the notebook could go in my waistband. The camp provided us with water bottles and slings to hold them.

At last we began our voyage ...

Everyone was excited at breakfast. We all knew that no one else in the world would be having a similar experience. Sue, whose mobility was still a little questionable, had decided to join the rest of us for the chimping. The breakfast, like all of the food at this camp,[1] was very good. I had scrambled eggs, bacon, fruit, and toast. Cam also made his first appearance at breakfast.

The discussion around the table revolved around something called Marmite. Its principal ingredients are yeast extract, a byproduct from a brewery, and salt. I had never heard of it, and I don't think that any of the other Americans had either. The company's slogan is "Love it or hate it." I guess that some Brits put it on almost anything, the way that Americans used catsup in the fifties.

... that ended at Flycatcher Camp.

The other big news story was the appearance of a rather small catlike animal outside of Scott and Shelly's tent during the night. Unfortunately the two eyewitness descriptions differed greatly. Cam, who was quite good at the identification of animals, was unable to reconcile the two accounts. Scott vowed to take a photo if it returned.

We all had our gear with us, but there was no word from the trackers during breakfast and for more than an hour thereafter. We just sat around the center building waiting for news. Big Bird joined us at some point. He was not allowed to set foot on the platform, but the rule was not rigidly enforced. Tom had evidently made friends with him on the first evening. I ordinarily have no problems with animals, but Big Bird waited until I was sipping some coffee, and then he made a lunge at my eyeglasses with his huge beak. Although unable to snatch them, he caused me to spill my coffee all over my shoe and the cover of one of the couch cushions. I tried to make friends with him, but I never got on his good side.

Wait a minute. Flycatcher Camp is north of all of the chimp trails on this map. No wonder the trackers had so much trouble locating the chimps and directing us.

Butati also enlivened our wait with a short history of this group of chimps, named by the researchers as Group M. The current alpha male was named Primus. The previous alpha male, Pimu, had been very mean, both to the other chimps and to humans. Pimu did not like to be photographed. If someone tried to photograph him, he would either charge or run away and hide. Neither of these promoted tourism.

Butati said that Pimu had murdered Primus's best friend. On October 2, 2011, the guides and the guests at the camp had the once-in-a-lifetime experience of watching a full-scale brawl among the male chimps that ended with the overthrow and assassination of Pimu. After a short period of politicking, Primus became the new alpha male, leapfrogging his co-conspirator Alofu in the process.[2]

Butati speculated that Orion, the current #3, appeared to be plotting to overthrow Primus. The alpha males maintained their positions primarily through use of fear, which inevitably led to resentment and hatred.

Tarzan would have felt right at home in the area in which we stopped.

Sue spent some time working on a puzzle in the dining area that involved eighteen nails that one had to balance on one center nail. Kate said that she had never seen anyone do so well on the puzzle so quickly. Sue never finished it, but Kate said that she was 90 percent of the way there.

It was well after 9 o'clock when Matius finally announced that the trackers had located the chimps. They were well up into the high ground, and it was not clear which way they would be moving. The plan was to take the Dhow up to Flycatcher Camp and to walk inland from there.

Peter is now Tanzania's foremost expert on the weather and wildlife of New England.

A large number of chimp paths are well known to the trackers and guides. As long as we kept to those paths, the going was not too bad. Eventually we arrived at a clearing where we took a break. There were rocks large enough to sit on. Sue and I stayed there with Matius and Peter, the ranger. The other nine went with Butati. I have no idea what they did or saw. During this period the trackers were evidently busy reconnoitering the chimps' intentions.

Sue took advantage of the occasion to lecture on New England meteorology and biology. It is a pretty good lecture, but I had already heard it quite a few times, and I was not really interested in auditing the course again. She also regaled us with some of her Grammy Locke stories. I admit that this episode lasted much less than the four or five hours that it seemed to me to take.

The one holding the vines is, I think, Primus

We finally heard from the trackers again. At first the plan was for us to climb up a hill that although not very high, was quite steep. I was not looking forward to this at all. Sue might have been able to make it up the hill, but I could not imagine how we would ever get her down. Fortunately, the plan changed, and we were herded off in a different direction. I am not sure how it happened, but all of a sudden Jeff, Betty, and Tom were back in Matius's group.

Most of the chimps that we saw on Friday were males grooming other males.

The rest of the trip was hard work.[3] The trackers used their machetes to make the going a little easier for us, but we still had to bend and grope our way through the underbrush. At one point we had to give way to another group of people. I presume that they were tourists, but if they were, I do not know where they could have been staying. The other camps all seemed to be empty.

Omphalosekpsis seemed to be another popular activity.

Finally we encountered a few of the chimps. Matius asked us to don our surgical masks. Primus, the twenty-four-year old alpha male was grooming the fifteen-year old Ichiro. Darwin, the only chimp who had fought against Primus in the successful coup, then started grooming Primus.

Don't forget the armpit.

By this point I had realized that it was not a good idea to try to take notes in the forest. We were forced to move around too much, and I needed to concentrate on the photos.[4] I placed the spiral notebook back into my waistband with the pen inserted into the spiral part. At the end of the chimp viewing, however, I discovered that at some point the pen had gotten lost. I resolved not to bring the notebook on the two subsequent expeditions.[5]

Here is Betty's fifteen-second recording of chimp calls.

Matius could recognize almost all of the chimps easily, but the rest of us had great difficulty. I could identify Primus, but only because his biceps reminded me of Hulk Hogan's "pythons."[6]

I was actually happy when Peter announced that our hour was up. We move a little ways away from the chimps and removed our surgical masks. This was a great relief. I was starting to feel quite faint from inhaling my own second-hand breath.

The foot-grab seemed to be a favorite chimp resting position.

We then retreated some distance from the chimps. Matius produced some energy bars from his backpack. I gladly ate mine and washed it down with a welcome drink of water. We then made the long trek back to the dhow. I know that Sue and I were exhausted by the time that we reached the boat. Our younger companions were probably less tired, but they had also had a workout.

A minor catastrophe occurred shortly after the break. The filament holding one of the lenses on Sue's eyeglasses broke. Fortunately, she had a spare pair with her. Unfortunately, they looked like something from Haight-Ashbury circa 1970.

Sometimes I was obliged to shoot over, under, or around someone else.

Matius reported that we had seen seventeen different chimps in all during the viewing session. Some we saw only a glimpse of, and most of the rest were males. The females seemed much shier. The males that we watched spent almost all of their time either resting or grooming one another. These activities were not without interest, but I frankly expected a lot more. Still, there were two more days to come.

My disappointment did not seem to be widely shared. The others seemed quite pleased with the experience.

There was almost always some type of vegetation between me and a good photo.

Sue had used a walking stick (borrowed from the camp) on the trek, and I had employed the monopod as one for the difficult places. I would have preferred to have another free hand to grab onto trees, but without my backpack my choices were to carry a two-foot monopod or use a five-foot monopod as a walking stick. Moreover, the monopod was designed to support a camera's weight, not a person's. The locks slipped a few times when I leaned on it.

Good-bye until tomorrow.

I started the day with an erroneous notion of what the chimping would be like. I presumed that we would be more or less stationary with a pretty good view of the chimps. I knew that they lived in the woods, but for some reason I thought that this would be in a clearing. Maybe this was because the photos that people published or posted always seemed to be so clear and unobstructed. In fact, once the viewing session started, we moved around through the bush five or six times, and almost always there were obstructions of some kind between us and the chimps. If I had ever affixed the camera to the monopod, I probably would have been unable to get some of the shots that I did.

On the way back to the dhow we saw a guy outside of one of the buildings sitting in a lawn chair reading a book. He seemed to have blinked in from another plane of existence. I quickly checked to see if the book was Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy.

Back at the ranch: Shelly, Big Bird, Cam, Amy, Rodd, Scott, and Matt.

As soon as we arrived back at the camp we ate lunch, which was something that resembled hamburgers, pasta, and salad. This was the one meal at Mahale that I was not enthused about.

During the break some of the people took out kayaks. Sue and I took naps.

In the afternoon everyone except Matt and Hannah went out on the boat. Both Matius and Butati were also aboard. The agenda was swimming, fishing, and hippo-watching. This must have accorded with Big Bird's plans. When the boat was a little ways off of the shore, Big Bird took off, flew toward us, and easily caught up. He then made a gentle circle overhead before landing on the canvas that covered part of the dhow. For most of the trip he perched himself on the edge of the canvas so that he could see everything that was going on in the aft end and ambush the unwary who passed beneath him.

Big Bird prepares to ambush Amy.

Jeff looks back at the camp.

Tom, Sue, and the four Californians were joined in the swimming by a joyful Big Bird. He really seemed to relish playing with Tom. All of the others jumped or dived in, but Sue insisted on using the ladder. Big Bird judged that this was not proper. He punished her by nibbling at her toes.

The fishing expedition was moderately successful. Butati claimed that it was necessary to talk to the fish in order to entice them to take your hook. He continually called out "Here, fishy, fishy, fishy!" Matius also took up the call, but with less enthusiasm.

Big Bird seemed to lose his head over his new favorite, Tom.

Eye to eye.

An occasional fist worked wonders for their relationship.

Hats were fair game.

As were arms.

The two nature-lovers, Betty and Rodd, struck out. Scott, Shelly, and Amy all caught good-sized yellow-bellies. These fish were brought back to the kitchen. Tom and Shelly caught small fish, which were immediately thrown to Big Bird. He downed Tom's without any problem but Shelly's went into his pouch backwards. He tried to flip it around, but it ended up going down the wrong way. Rodd helped him get it down his gullet.

When Big Bird finished his meal he punished me for not fishing by pooping on me and my journal. Don't tell me that it was an accident. He had to arch his back and flip his tail forward to launch it at me.

Scott's big fish.

The Yelly-Belly of Shelly.

Tom brings his fish to Big Bird.

Tom gets ready to pich the fish to Big Bird.

Bib Bird stretches to catch it.

Meanwhile, Amy lands a keeper.

We assured the people from Sacramento that they would have much better hippo viewing in the Serengeti.

The hippos were a long way away. I never saw them at all, but my camera did.

I have never been enthused about water sports, but I had a pretty good time on the boat. I got some entertaining photos of Big Bird.

Sue and I both ordered showers to be readied when we returned. This camp used a totally different plumbing system, which I could never understand, much less explain. It took them a while to get the water hot, but if they knew when you wanted the shower, it was nearly as good as in a hotel.

Big Bird really struggled to turn that one fish around.

As usual, I got to the pre-supper gathering in the bar long before Sue. In honor of my old debate partner, Dick Benedict, I had a glass of The Famous Grouse, and then I had another. Arguments ensued about who had caught the largest fish and whose fish was the smallest. No blood was shed.

I told Cam how disappointed I was in the chimping. When I described it, he said that it did sound like a rough day, but it was only day 1.

Sue was a little cranky because by the time that she got to the bar it was quite dark. The steps leading up to the bar were very dimly lit, and the flashlights were all at the top of the stairs. Sue did not like to grope around in the dark.

Others took photos of the sunset, but I had left my camera in the banda.

He finally got it down.

Cam liked to "introduce" each supper by announcing all of the dishes. I did not have my notebook with me, and I no longer remember what we had. I had hoped to learn more about the other members of the group, but I was surrounded by my friends from New England.

Cam told us that he came from a city in South Africa called East London. His description gave the impression that it was a backwater, but the metropolitan area actually included more than three-fourths of a million people. That made it about half the size of Kansas City, which I considered a major metropolis. I think that Cam also told us how he met Kate, but I do not remember the details.

I skipped the campfire after supper.

[1]  Others told me that the food at the other camps was just as good. My thoughts during the meals in the Serengeti and Katavi focused on avoiding embarrassing mishaps rather than savoring the cooking.

[2]  The managers of the camp wrote this event up. It is available here.

[3]  Exactly one week later the chimps descended en masse right into the camp for their breakfast. An account of this visit has been posted here.

[4]  Far too many of my photos are out of focus because of vines or branches that were between me and the chimps. I should have put the camera on the portrait setting. I feel certain that it could have found the faces of the chimps.

[5]  I probably should have brought the notebook and left it on the boat. That way I could have recorded my memories while they were still fresh.

[6]  Actually, "python" is more appropriate. The Hulkster almost always posed with his left arm pressed against his chest.