Gombe - 8/13/2011
Everything seems to be spinning faster and faster, yet it’s so hard to believe that we’re almost done with our work here! All our various projects – water sanitation, multiple stoves, fuel briquettes, wind power – have reached (and continued in) a state of crunch time, as we all try to squeeze in the final tests and finishing touches that we can. However, in the midst of this chaos, there was one niggling little detail.
We still hadn’t visited Gombe National Park.
Gombe is famous for being the site of Jane Goodall’s famous chimpanzee research and is home to three different communities of chimps, not to mention a plethora of other primates, birds, butterflies, and even leopards! Not that they’re seen – they’ve apparently got better things to do. Gombe is also notable for being about five or six miles away from Kalinzi, and about two miles away from Mwamgongo. Considering the closeness of the park, and the fact that we’re partnering with the Jane Goodall Institute, and the fact that chimpanzees are incredible, it was unthinkable that we not visit. So, in the middle of a weeklong spree of all-night stove testing and briquette burning, a group of four of us – myself (Colleen), James, Kim, and Dahms – took off for the forest. We took the opportunity to slip away after giving our group presentation to JGI in Kigoma. We caught a small boat going north for the roughly two hour ride, arriving at dusk on the shores of Gombe. After a slight misunderstanding with one of the proprietors of the cheaper lodging, we were directed towards the JGI research flats. We arrived to find Dr. Anthony Collins (Dr. Anton), a primatologist and researcher who has been working at Gombe for a great while, entertaining a group of grad students and professors from UC San Diego. Quite the pleasant surprise! As Dr. Anton said later, with our unexpected arrival we probably created the highest concentration of Americans in the entire Kigoma region. We were received very graciously, and spent the night in the comfortable flat accommodations.
The next morning, after being instructed on the rules of the joint (namely, don’t eat outside and watch that the door is always closed- baboons are everywhere), we went to get our tour arranged. We walked down the sandy path, weaving through the beach-tree thickets, greeted and scolded by robin-chats and birds too swift and flighty to be identified. Our guide, Gadison, led us off into the forest and not ten minutes later, we had our first sightings of chimpanzees. They were at the very tops of some incredibly tall palm trees, eating a palm nut breakfast. We squinted and craned our necks, snatching glimpses of huge dark forms shifting among the leaves, occasionally crashing to a different tree in a cacophony of swaying and bending palm fronds. As they moved among the trees, it was clear that their size and the noise of the leaves belied their skill and strength as they leaped between trees, grabbing the hanging leaves of an opposite tree and scaling up to its top. Soon, however, breakfast was over and the chimpanzees descended around us. Before long there was a male chimp not 20 feet away, eating wild mango and generally just exuded an air of complete nonchalance – surprising, since there was a group of gawking tourists right in front of him, but not so surprising when one considers that gawking tourists have been practically a daily event for many decades. We ended up following a group for about two hours, our guide narrating the soap opera lives of the chimpanzees. “That one, there, she is Gremlin. Her daughter Glitter had a baby, but Gremlin took it away.” Gremlin sits on the edge of a river, Glitter’s young daughter clutching her underside as Gremlin’s own two year old (Gizmo – you may begin to see a pattern with names) slides down from her back and tries wandering away. Gremlin pulls him back. Another one of Gremlin’s youngsters was a few hundred yards down the path. Suddenly he started calling for his mother, and Gremlin bounded towards him, passing within feet of us, as we had just been standing between mother and baby (whoops, breaking the cardinal rule of interacting with animals). Later, the family of chimps spots a troop of colobus monkeys high above – a favorite prey, but usually too fast to catch. The family begins sedately meandering through the forest following the troop above. Unfortunately for us, who were right behind the chimps, one of the key instincts of the colobus monkey when feeling threatened is to empty their bladder. We were gifted, then, by a light, warm, golden shower, the colobus’ greeting. How nice of them. We saw Frodo, the ex-alpha male who is famous for ruling with a iron fist and once killing and eating a human baby, now an old man wasted in his prime by illness – probably a good thing. His uncle Fudge decided to give a display charge, shaking trees and bellowing before crashing away down the riverbed “to remind the others that he is still a big man,” says Gadison, laughing. I was blown away by the ability of Gadison to not only identify each chimp at a glance but to, with the slightest provocation, chronicle the life and times of each of them. Eventually we had to with great reluctance say goodbye to the chimpanzee group and continue on through the forest. We scrambled up to Jane’s Peak – or at least, I scrambled; the rest of the group climbed. It was an incredible gain of altitude over a very short period, the path unbelievably steep and practically without traction. Added to the lack of grip, the narrow trail was bordered on one side by a sharp drop-off – great for views, less great when your feet slide out from under you. The view from the top was spectacular, and after a short break we took a second, far easier path down to a gorgeous waterfall. We relaxed there for a long time and spoke with a fellow visitor to the park, an Australian named Louise. [We later found that she was staying just up the beach from us, and she joined us for poker on the beach later that day. We played with rocks for chips, which was great if you ran out, since the entire beach was essentially rocks.] After a good while (which was still too short) at the waterfall, we headed back to the flats to feast on a wonderful meal prepared by Siwema, the flat’s housekeeper. It was a wonderful thing to come home to after a five hour walk and hike – food always tastes better when you’re hungry, and it was delicious to start with.
Post-lunch, we tried heading out into the forest again only to learn that the park was deserted after noon, and we were unable to find a guide. We weren’t exactly crushed, however, because our temporary home was about forty feet from the beautiful blue waters of Lake Tanganyika. We spent the remainder of the day swimming and generally just lazing about on the shore, getting to watch a spectacular sunset which heralded the end of our day at Gombe. It wasn’t the end of our trip though. We still had to conquer (survive?) the water taxi ride the next day. You’ve already heard tell of the dreaded water taxi from the trip from Mwamgongo; this trip wasn’t nearly as eventful. Other than the truly extreme listing of the boat to one side, which resulted in everyone on the center planks sliding to the right and myself, on the left rim of the boat, nearly sliding into the belly of the boat, the ride was smooth and we reached Kigoma in good time. After a bit of shopping, personal and group, a visit to JGI to thank Dr. Anton, and lunch, we were headed back to Home Base, Kalinzi, to stay until we leave for good two days later.
To come full circle, I am still shocked to be leaving so soon, though we’ve been living here more than a month. I suspect I will remain shocked and disbelieving right up until the taxi comes to drive us south tomorrow morning. Currently the field station is in a state of complete disarray as people pack up, decide what to take and what to leave, and the last few tests finally get run. Things are definitely wrapping up here, and plans are becoming finalized for the final days. We leave for Kigoma tomorrow (Sunday), catch our twelve hour bus to Mwanza on Tuesday, fly to Dar on Wednesday, and on Friday the nineteenth the Dartmouth Humanitarian Engineering summer trip, 2011, will be complete, as Emil, Thabo, and Kevin fly back to their respective destinations. The other four of us will stay an additional ten days to take advantage of the splendors of Tanzania before our marathon trip back to the States. All in all, I couldn’t be happier with the trip so far, and foresee it wrapping up in much the same way as it has gone so far: unforgettably.