The chimpanzees of the Mahale Mountains in Tanzania were certainly one of the special highlights of the trip. Genetically, they are our closest relatives. More than 98% of our DNA is identical to theirs. Seeing them in action confirms just how similar we are.
The Mahale Mountains are quite isolated. We took a four-hour flight on a very small plane from Nairobi to a landing strip on the shores of Lake Tanganyika (after a refueling stop somewhere along the way). After landing, we boarded a wooden dhow and continued south along the shore for another hour or so. We finally arrived at a rustic camp set on a beautiful white beach along the crystal clear waters of the lake. Behind us loomed the Mahale Mountains, rising to a height of 4,000 feet above the lake. Somewhere in that dense forest were the chimps.
The chimps in this area have been the subject of study by Japanese researchers for more than twenty years and thus were used to the presence of human beings. While they would often allow us to get quite close, at other times they were nowhere to be found. They are capable of moving very quickly through the dense underbrush or by swinging from tree to tree. If they decide they want a bit of privacy, there is no way that humans will be able to keep up with them. In five minutes they can be 2,000 feet up the mountain and far away from any of the trails.
One gets the feeling, however, that they are as curious about humans as we are about them. It may well be that on certain days, when they feel the need for some entertainment, they decide to come down and watch the humans for a while.
The chimps were extremely difficult to photograph and I have to admit that I am not very satisfied with the results. The major problem is that the chimps are black in a dense forest, but there are also strong shafts of sunlight coming through the trees at certain points. Thus, it can be a challenge to find an exposure slow enough to show detail in the chimps without burning out because of strong sunlight in parts of the frame. Another problem is the density of the forest. The chimps are often behind a branch or high in the trees. In addition, when they are on the move, it is all one can do to keep up with them for a short time, let alone trying to get a shot. If you visit a chimpanzee area, I recommend that you take some high speed film (ISO 400 or more) and high speed lenses (at least f/2.8 for a 35mm SLR). It is usually necessary to hand hold the camera (a tripod or beanbag will not be much use moving through the forest).