When last we left the story, I was collapsed in the rear of a KLM plane that I had cried my way onto, in a post-adrenaline adrenal collapse. I oscillated between complete exhaustion and nervous energy, standing up, sitting down, wandering the aisles in search of my husband, who I never did find, taking advantage of the free wine.
I will say this: you know how on domestic airlines they bolt you into your seat at takeoff and glare you into submission if you so much as dare to stand up? International carriers don’t seem to have this policy. The second we hit 10,000 feet, the party started. Seat belt sign was off, electronics were out, and people started trotting up and down the aisles. They were sitting there, chatting, mingling, helping themselves to beverages in the back. We hit turbulence, banked a little, carts were zooming around- that seat belt sign did not come back on until we were landing. Needless to say, by the time we hit Kilimanjaro airport, I had gotten over my bleak mood and was ready to enjoy the trip of a lifetime.
By the time we landed at the airport to cheers and hoots- none of which were mine, if you can believe it- it was dark out. My first view of Africa looked exactly like Bakersfield at 9 pm, truth be told. I had my first mammal sighting- a dog, but to be fair that isn’t exactly a uniquely exotic African mammal so I will also accept a second answer for the giveaway which I will get to in a bit. We drove through Arusha to our hotel and collapsed.
The next morning, I resolved to put my behind in the past (not going to be the last Lion King reference, sorry) because despite all indications to the contrary, we had made it to Africa, and today we were going to chimp camp. Well ahead of schedule, we were deposited at the teeny Arusha airport to await the arrival of our bush plane to Mahale.
This is my “I can’t believe we’re actually here” grin. I had it on my face through October 6th when we went home.
Walking down what passes for the jetway, with a lovely oncologist named Vicki who was also headed for chimp camp.
I don’t like flying on big jets, but for some reason little single prop Cessnas are A-OK in my book. We flew over the empty landscape for an hour and a half, me listening to the ipod and just breathing in and out. No cell service. No wifi. With my headphones on I didn’t even have to talk to anyone, as I was kind of talked out by that point anyway. I just rested my head on the side of the plane and let the reverberations lull me to sleep.
After an hour and a half, we landed at Tabora, which at one point was an important stop along the east-west Tanzania railway but was now mostly a stop for bush planes to refuel. We parked next to a UN humanitarian plane. The airport was a strangely well-manicured oasis in the midst of a brown expanse of brush.
The pilot- hereby referred to as “Mike the Angry Greek”- spent the entire second half of the flight cursing in a mix of English, Greek and Swahili. I missed this because I had my headphones on, which is probably a good thing. According to Brian, who waited until we got back to Arusha to tell me this, he wasn’t entirely sure what was going on but it seemed to be a diatribe to someone on the ground about a plane not being properly serviced, which may or may not have been the one we were on.
Well, on behalf of the passengers, I’d be angry too. The only thing that would have been worse than missing the flight in Amsterdam would be going down in a fireball 5 miles from chimp camp, where my shade would be forced to wander morosely till the end of time moaning about irony and harassing tourists I deemed unworthy. But as far as I could tell, our plane worked just fine, so who knows what he was mad about.
Blissfully unaware of our potentially impaired state, I had my first view of Lake Tanganyika from the plane. The second largest freshwater lake in the world, it appeared out of nowhere over the endless hills of brown, reaching out to the horizon. I was enthralled. And yes, it really is that teal.
We landed, and taxied up to Terminal One at Mahale Airport:
Once safely on the ground, I decided it was safe enough to ask Mike for a picture. He was happy by then. Perhaps rumors of our disintegration were highly exaggerated. Mike, you were awesome.
We waited in Terminal One while the camp employees unloaded the supplies we had brought along. 60 kilometers from the nearest road, the Mahale camps rely upon the twice weekly flights and boats for their entire supply chain. Tourists are welcome. BYOB.
Waiting in the terminal were the passengers who had just had their stay at camp. They seemed sad to be leaving. I get that. But they get a great takeoff, an acceleration down the dirt runway kicking up clouds of dust, at the last moment lifting off terra firma to shoot off toward the DRC over the lake.
We cooled our heels in the terminal while we waited for a second planeload of campers to arrive from Dar es Salaam, and once they were there we headed off to the beautiful wooden dhow that would bring us 2 hours south to heaven on earth.
Besides being excellent guides with astonishing knowledge of local wildlife, the guides at Mahale also ferry us tourists back and forth twice a week to the airport. Philbert here pulled that massive anchor on by himself while I uselessly sat by taking pictures of the water. But seriously, look how blue it is.
There are a high percentage of photos that involve me holding a beer in my hand. That, of course, means it was a good vacation. I recommend both Safari Lager and Tusker, named for the elephant who killed the brewery’s founder. I’m sitting precariously close to that big hole in the prow, which didn’t seem to concern anyone but probably should have.
As we continued south, the foothills gave way to increasingly tall and jagged green mountains, brown turning to green rainforest. These are the Mahale Mountains, home of one of the largest remaining populations of chimpanzees. Mysterious and wild, the Mahale National Park was officially designated in 1985, ensuring the preservation of habitat for the estimated 800 chimpanzees who call it home. Of that 800, only about 60 comprise the group known as the “M” community- the sole group habituated to humans, and the only community we would be observing during our stay.
And there, coming into view under the shadow of a particularly tall and imposing mountain, was the small crescent of beach that would be our home base for the next three days.
I can’t even tell you what was going through my mind as we anchored on the beach here at Mahale. Exhilaration, relief, disbelief that we had actually made it to chimp camp.
Well, this about sums it up:
Stepping onto the beach, a switch flipped and I became Max, having traversed the sea to the place where the wild things are, where every color glimmers with extra saturation, the crystal waters teem with shadowy apparitions with teeth and appetites, and the misty nighttime air outside your tightly drawn curtains is dark and full of terrors outside the flickering circle of light thrown out by your kerosene lamp.
Max came back by choice. I would happily have remained.