Kayaking with Chimpanzees

The monotonous sound of tiny waves lapping at my kayak was turning soporific. Adding to this were the rhythmic undulations of the water. I could slowly feel my eyelids getting heavy.

I was on Africa’s deepest lake, Tanganyika, sat a couple of inches above water in an unstable kayak. My guide, Rama, made a passing remark as he helped me launch it; ‘watch out for the crocs!’ He didn’t show any expression so I wasn’t sure if he was joking or not.

Nevertheless I forced out a half-nervous laugh as he shoved my kayak on its way. His words resonated in me and brought me back from torpor. Apparently they stay close to the shore. So I turned east and made a beeline towards the middle of the lake and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Yes that’s right, the DRC is our neighbour. Ripe with stories of violence, political turmoil and insecurity, it is hard to imagine a place so different was next door to my current residence- Mahale National Park in Tanzania.

Nestled close to the lake, dense forest rises straight off the beach, ascending up steep hills and into the horizon. This national park is one of Africa’s best locations to observe chimpanzees. And that’s why I was there; the next day I was going to go look for them.

It was late afternoon and the sun was about 20 degrees to the horizon. This close to the equator, its normally suffocating heat had transformed into a warm cuddle. The water was crystal clear and I could see the creamy sand carved into miniature dunes at the lake bottom with colourful fish scuttling past. The distant cry of a Pied kingfisher drew my attention back to the shore. My eyes lifted to the forest, where amongst the canopy, violent movements ignited my interest. I moved closer to investigate.

At first it was just random branches swaying. Then black objects seemed to materialise and fly through the canopy. At last a shriek confirmed it; there were chimps close to the lake! I paddled fast and reached a rocky cove. About 100 meters away were six chimps gambolling in the treetops.  One was carrying a small baby clinging on tight. Another pair precariously chased each other causing a riot of noise. And the last two were getting ready for bed. The scene was painted in warm light from a dying sun. It was my first sight of chimpanzees and I was enthralled. I had a slice of Africa all to myself.

Behind me the sky erupted in magenta and crimson before slowly cooling down to a deep blue. I was wary of the time and made my way back to camp before it got too dark. En route I spotted a huge crocodile lounging on the shore. Suddenly the air felt cold and I shivered at the thought of being at eye level with a predator on its home turf. Thankfully it stayed put whilst I catapulted past. A memorable start to what promised to be a great safari.

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