Gombe National Park: The Complete Guide

Three adult chimpanzees in Gombe National Park, Tanzania

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Gombe National Park

Address
Mwamgongo, Tanzania

If you're interested in chimpanzees, Jane Goodall, anthropology, or any combination of the three, there's perhaps no better place in the world to visit than Gombe National Park in Tanzania. It's the smallest national park in the country but also one of the wildest and most rewarding, covered in forested hills along the unspoiled shores of Lake Tanganyika. Its mountainous rainforests are home to troops of habituated chimpanzees, made famous by the pioneering research and conservation work of Dr. Jane Goodall.

In 1960, British primatologist Jane Goodall arrived in the reserve as a young woman, intending to track the forest’s resident chimpanzee troops to find out more about their way of life. Her expedition was funded by renowned anthropologist Dr. Louis Leakey, who believed that the chimpanzees’ behavior might provide valuable insight into the lives of the early hominid species he was uncovering at Tanzania’s Olduvai Gorge

Goodall was eventually accepted by one of the chimpanzee troops and allowed a rare insight into their society (she is still the only human to ever be accepted into a chimpanzee community). Her research forms the foundation for much of what we know about chimpanzees today. She disproved the theory that humans are the only species to use tools when she observed chimpanzees using twigs for fishing for termites. When she witnessed the chimpanzees hunting and eating smaller primates, she proved that they were not herbivores, as previously thought. And most importantly, her study of their intricate family structures and relationships demonstrated that non-human species are capable of intellectual and emotional sophistication. 

In 1968, Gombe Game Reserve was upgraded to national park status as a result of Goodall’s research and activism. 

Things to Do 

No roads traverse Gombe National Park, only forested trails. The most popular way to explore is on a guided chimpanzee trek, which takes you deep into the forest in search of close encounters with one of the habituated troops. With about 100 eastern chimpanzees in the park, sightings are virtually guaranteed (although you may have to trek for a few hours to find them). These intelligent and sophisticated animals share over 98 percent of the same genetic code as humans, and the similarities are evident in their unique personalities and family interactions. Once you find the troop, you can spend up to an hour watching them play, bicker, feed, and groom one another.

Chimpanzees aren't the only wildlife you'll find at Gombe, nor the only primates. You are also likely to see olive baboons foraging for food on the lakeshore and endangered ashy red colobus and red-tailed monkeys swinging from the forest canopy. Blue and vervet monkeys are also frequently spotted, while other forest dwellers include bushpigs, hippos, and leopards. Gombe is also home to over 200 bird species and 250 different kinds of butterflies, making it a nature photographer’s paradise.

Other activities include visiting the Gombe Stream Research Centre to learn more about Goodall's findings and the work that continues today, hiking to Jane's Peak and the Kakombe Waterfall, or visiting nearby fishing villages. The wildlife isn't limited to the park, either. You can also go for a snorkel in the warm waters of Lake Tanganyika to see colorful cichlid fish, almost all of which are found nowhere else in the world.

Where to Stay Nearby

The logistics and expense of getting to Gombe National Park mean that almost all visitors choose to stay at least one night. However, there is only one place where visitors are allowed to sleep inside the park, which is the eco-friendly lodge called Mbali Mbali Gombe. Other than that, there are no hotel or camping options in the vicinity of the park. Outside of the park, the nearest accommodations are at least two hours away in the city of Kigoma.

  • Mbali Mbali Gombe: Located beneath shady trees on the shores of the lake, it is made up of seven luxurious tents for a maximum of 14 guests at any given time. Each shelter is built on a raised wooden platform and has its own en-suite bathroom and furnished private balcony. Rates are all-inclusive and cover your meals, soft drinks, select alcoholic beverages, concession fees, kayaking, and one chimpanzee trek per day. A return boat transfer from Kigoma is also included. Because accommodation is so limited, it is necessary to book months in advance for a stay at Mbali Mbali Gombe.
  • Lake Tanganyika Hotel: Located on the lakeshore in Kigoma, Lake Tanganyika Hotel is also conveniently next to Kigoma's train station, which has service all the way to Dar es Salaam on the other side of the country. The standout feature of the hotel, however, is the terrace swimming pool overlooking scenic Lake Tanganyika.
  • Kigoma Hilltop Hotel: This boutique hotel located on a green hilltop overlooking the lake feels like you're far away from civilization, but downtown Kigoma is just a short drive away. Enjoy fresh fish and produce from the gourmet restaurant while perched above the lake water below.

How to Get There

Gombe National Park requires some planning to reach. For one, it's in an extremely remote part of Tanzania near the borders of Burundi and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The easiest way to get there is to fly into Kigoma, which has direct service to Dar es Salaam and Bujumbura, Burundi. There is also a direct train from Dar es Salaam to Kigoma, but the journey takes about 40 hours. Driving across the country is also an option, but it takes about 22 hours by road.

Once you're in Kigoma, the park is only accessible by boat. You can either travel by hiring a speedboat (which takes about two hours) or taking a local "lake taxi" (which takes about four hours) to Gombe. If you're staying the night at the Mbali Mbali Gombe, the lodge will be able to help you with your transport.

Tips for Your Visit

  • The park stays open year-round, but Mbali Mbali Lodge closes each year from March 1 to May 31—which corresponds with the long rainy season in Tanzania. There's also a shorter rainy season from November to mid-December. The best time to visit is in the dry season, which lasts from June to October.
  • If you’re a keen birder, consider visiting from December to March when migratory species inundate the park and resident birds are sporting their colorful breeding plumage.
  • Malaria is always a possibility when traveling around Tanzania, especially in rural areas like Gombe. Be sure to take anti-malaria precautions with you on your trip.
  • Visitors must be at least 15 years old to take part in a trek. All visitors to Gombe must pay a daily conservation fee, which at $100 per non-resident adult is the most expensive of all Tanzanian national parks.
  • Strict rules apply to chimpanzee treks to keep human impact to a minimum. You must be in good health to visit the troops, to prevent the transfer of disease. Groups are made up of a maximum of six people, and a distance of at least 32 feet must be maintained at all times.
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Gombe National Park: The Complete Guide