By Richard Madden
Is this an emergency? It’s the middle of the night and we can hear shouting coming from the lake. Is it a guest? Or an intruder? Is the voice angry? Or frightened? Am I frightened? There’s no time to decide now. I am still buttoning up my shorts as I break into a run along the sandy path that leads out of the forest onto the beach.
In the moonlight I can see the mountains of the Congo 30 miles away on the far shore of Lake Tanganyika. And then I see him. The silhouette of a man is gesticulating wildly from a longboat moored just offshore. “Habari?” I shout in my best basic Swahili. “Chakula. Kigoma,” he shouts back.
The penny drops. Provisions that were missing from our resupply boat from the town of Kigoma, 80 miles north along the lake and a stone’s throw from where Livingstone met Stanley, have finally arrived. At three o’clock in the morning.
If this isn’t real, it’s an incredible dream. In front of me the thickly forested slopes of the Mahale Mountains loom over a chieftain’s longhouse that is throwing moon shadows on the white sand under my feet. This is the main lodge area of Greystoke Mahale, built in the architectural style of the local Kitongwe people, and the heart of one of Africa’s most remote safari lodges.
It also looked like a worthy residence for the current Lord and Lady Greystoke, namely me and my wife, Sarah. We were working as relief managers for a month while the real Lord and Lady G, Steve Ladd and Kiri Maloney, both from New Zealand, took a well-earned rest.
Before we met, Sarah had worked as a camp manager at safari lodges all over southern Africa. My own qualifications were less specific but included a spell in the Army, writing about wilderness destinations, and an embryonic career as an after-dinner speaker. All that experience proved extremely useful in a job that is a mixture of man-management, complicated logistics, and the people skills required to make our clients feel they were honoured guests at an exotic country estate – albeit one in a remote jungle in the heart of Africa.
Unlike most safari camps, where guests come and go on a daily basis, Greystoke Mahale sees a light plane only twice a week, so almost everyone stays for either three or four nights; by the time they left, we often felt we knew them like friends.
The camp was built by an Irish adventurer, Roland Purcell, who sailed a fishing dhow, Isabella, down Lake Tanganyika in the mid-Eighties and landed in the bay. The prow of the boat can still be seen in the rock bar and much of the camp is built from the recycled wood of other vessels. Dhows are also used for sunset cruises and to transport the guests on the 90-minute journey from the airstrip.
Apart from the pristine beauty of the location, Greystoke’s main attraction is the chance to see one of the largest populations of wild chimpanzees in the world. Greystoke is in the territory of M group, a community of more than 60 chimps that have been habituated to short spells of human contact.
By chance, our time coincided with an unprecedented episode in the ongoing soap opera in the Mahale Mountains. As dictators toppled in the far north of Africa, the chimps staged their own Mahale Spring. After biting another of the dominant males, unprovoked and in the middle of a grooming session, Pimu, the alpha male, was made to pay for his bullying ways. His bloody demise at the hands of his fellow chimps created a power vacuum with two other powerful males, Primus and Alofu, jockeying to succeed him.
For our neighbours, the Japanese researchers who have been studying this group of chimpanzees since the mid-Sixties and whose camp was a 20-minute boat ride along the lake, it was a hugely important event and led to some fascinating discussions around the camp fire when they joined us for dinner with the guests.
For in this looking-glass world, it was impossible not to see our own human behaviour reflected back at us. From their facial expressions, so similar to our own, we could read the chimps’ passing emotions. The bullying, politics and in-fighting of the big males contrasted starkly with the extraordinary tenderness of a mother with her children: tickling, playing tag and on one occasion teaching her baby to use a leaf stem as a tool for eating ants.
Particularly touching to watch was an older, infertile female who had carved out a role for herself as a surrogate mother and was often to be seen clutching one of the babies in her arms, and keeping him out of harm’s way when the big boys came out to play.
The occasions when the chimps came into the camp itself were always unforgettable as they climbed into the trees in front of the guest bandas and casually wandered through the main staff area. But the mood of the group could also change with bewildering speed, peaceful periods of grooming interrupted by a cacophony of pant-hoots, whimpers, barks and tantrum screams whenever one of the big males approached.
Sharing a workplace with the creatures of the forest was a unique experience. At night we would fall into a deep slumber, lulled by the gentle suck of the waves on the beach on one side and the throbbing pulse of the jungle on the other. Walking to work through the forest every morning, birdsong ringing in our ears, we would encounter giant multicoloured butterflies, baboons, monkeys, bushbucks and bush babies, while often bumping into our own resident family of warthogs complete with grandma and hyperactive youngsters.
But behind the scenes, life as a manager of a safari lodge in such a remote location has its challenges. Resupply – by light plane or by boat from Kigoma – is something between an art and a science. The ordering of food and beverages, spare parts and building materials, must be carefully calculated and prioritised. Fresh fruit and vegetables are sourced from a village 90 minutes away by dhow, where Nomad Tanzania, the company that owns the camp, has a project helping farmers to grow food, buying their fresh produce and helping to build schools and a health centre.
The camp can take up to 12 guests, who stay in six beautifully-designed bandas hidden on the edge of the forest, with views over the beach and the lake.
To look after them, there are at least 20 staff at any one time – guides, trackers, cooks, waiters, boatmen, room attendants, askaris (nightwatchmen) and fundis (general workmen). And a delightful, hard-working and friendly group of people they were. We came to respect hugely their unfailing good cheer, knowledge of the forest, and ability to produce culinary miracles in a remote jungle setting.
One of their most popular dishes was the sashimi we would serve our guests at the rock bar on the headland after a successful fishing expedition. Kuhe, the lake’s top delicacy, served with soya sauce and wasabi, was a taste sensation. It was always the perfect way to end a day spent watching the chimps, swimming in the lake, walking to the forest waterfall with its cascading series of pools, or watching hippos and their babies swimming under the wooden dhows in the clear waters of the lake.
On our guests’ final night, a table would be laid out on the beach and Sarah or I would make a toast. And the toast was always the same: “To the chimps of Mahale.” They were, after all, the reason we had all made the long journey to this unique corner of Africa.