Gombe National Park
On the opposite side of the country from more popular tourist destinations like the Serengeti and Zanzibar lies Gombe National Park, one of East Africa’s best-kept secrets. Located close to the Burundi border, it comprises 13.5 square miles of lushly forested hills and steep valleys, intersected by streams that plunge downwards to 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. Gombe may be the second smallest national park in Tanzania, but it is also one of the wildest and most rewarding.
Gombe and Jane Goodall
Gombe was first gazetted as a game reserve in 1943. 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 troops and allowed a rare insight into their society. 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 vegetarians, 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 1965, Goodall founded the Gombe Stream Research Centre (GSRC) to allow for the ongoing study of the chimpanzees. Scientists continue to observe the now-famous Kasakela chimpanzee community today, making the chimps the subject of the world’s most extensive continuous research of any animals in their natural habitat. Researchers at the GSRC have produced more than 400 scientific papers, 35 Ph.D. theses, and 30 books. In 1968, Gombe Game Reserve was upgraded to national park status as a result of Goodall’s research and activism.
Wildlife of Gombe National Park
Today the park is home to 100 plus endangered eastern chimpanzees, including those of the habituated Kasakela community. The chimpanzees are not the only primates to have found sanctuary in Gombe’s dense forests, however. 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. The colobus monkeys are mainly targeted as a food source by the chimpanzees and therefore make every effort to stay out of their way. 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. Go for a snorkel in the warm waters of Lake Tanganyika, and you will also see colorful cichlid fish, almost all of which are found nowhere else.
Top 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. Sightings are virtually guaranteed (although you may have to trek for several hours to find the chimpanzees). 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.
Other activities include visiting the GSRC, guided bird walks, and hikes to Jane’s Peak and Kakombe Waterfall. Your accommodation can also arrange boat cruises to a neighboring fishing village as well as kayaking and snorkeling on Lake Tanganyika.
Where to Stay
The logistics and expense of getting to Gombe National Park mean that almost all visitors choose to stay at least one night. There is only one accommodation option, an eco-friendly lodge called 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.
Best Time to Go
The park stays open all year round; however, most visitors prefer to avoid traveling during the November to mid-December and February to April rainy seasons. During these months, the trekking trails are slippery, and humidity is high, while an abundance of mosquitoes increases the risk of malaria. Most importantly, the chimpanzees are often harder to find as they move up the mountains in search of food. Therefore, the long dry season (June to October) is the peak time to visit. You can expect sunny, dry days for comfortable hiking and excellent photographic opportunities, while the chimps are easier and quicker to find at lower altitudes.
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. Unlike in other parts of the country, rates remain consistently high all year round while crowds are never an issue even in peak season. Anti-malaria precautions are recommended throughout the year.
Gombe National Park is located roughly 15 miles north of Kigoma. You can choose to drive to Kigoma, but with 20-hour travel times from Dar es Salaam and 15-hour travel times from Arusha, most visitors opt to fly into Kigoma Airport (TKQ) instead. Air Tanzania offers a daily service from Dar es Salaam that takes just over two hours. However you choose to get to Kigoma, the only way to proceed to Gombe is by boat. Depending on whether you travel by speedboat or a local fishing dhow, the journey along the Lake Tanganyika shoreline can take between two and four hours and may be rough in bad weather.
Rules and Regulations
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. Once the troop has been located, you can spend a maximum of one hour observing them before starting the journey back to camp. 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. Children aged 5 to 15 pay $20 per day, and younger children are free.