Epic Air Safari: Serengeti to Mahale

8th May

Today we had a “short” flying day — a direct flight from the Serengeti to Mahale National Park on Lake Tanganyika in Tanzania.  Only 370 nautical miles, with 6,015 to go…

Imagine taking off at sunrise after having watched a leopard stalking a young giraffe.  (What was he thinking?)  Mist on the river, dew on the long green grass.  The steady air of dawn.

Wheels up, then after five minutes over the plains, the breathless view of literally hundreds of thousands of wildebeest.  The plains are covered by black dots by the hundreds… no, by the thousands… no, by the hundreds of thousands…  And among them the zebras…  A green carpet with hundreds of thousands of black dots: indescribable.  The cradle of mankind is here, and I cannot avoid thinking that the majestic view below me is so magical and special simply because of atavism, prehistoric memories in my genes recalling ancestors’ hunts in the Serengeti 60,000 years ago.

Time to leave these thoughts and climb the sky to save fuel and reach Mahale with enough reserve for the next flight.  Nearly three hours later, here it is: the most ancient lake in the world, Lake Tanganyika.  More than 600 kilometers long and, in some places, up to 60 kilometers wide, it is the second deepest lake on the planet (after Baikal) and the oldest — 12 million years old.  It contains 18% of the fresh water on Earth.

Let’s put the age number in perspective.  Given that we are here to see our cousins, the chimps, I will use our ape evolution to measure the age of the lake.  Six million years ago, you and I shared a common ancestor with the gorilla.  Two million years later, some ancestors branched off and the chimps evolved.  Yes, in case you did not know, the chimp is more closely related to us than to the gorilla.  How about that?  So hominids are just one half the age of the lake and Hominini one third.

But let’s get the evolutionary clock clicking…  Homo sapiens are only 200,000 years old, about 1.6% of the age of the lake.  One step further: We can track our genes up to 65,000 years ago when we left East Africa.  That is 0.5% of the age of the lake.  Last step: “Modern” humans are about 10,000 years old, first emerging when we went through the agricultural revolution.  That is less than 0.1% of the age of the lake.  Okay, now you can better appreciate what it means for a lake to be 12 million years old.  After these figures, I hope you feel as dwarfed by nature as I do.

With these thoughts in mind, I land in Mahale.  Quite a short runway with just one way in and the opposite way out.  A bush airstrip for bush pilots…

A gentle boat cruise of just an hour takes us to our charming little lodge on the shore of the lake.  Luck is on our side.  The guides call us in excitement as the chimps decided to come and greet us!  They are just behind camp.  We take the boat and we are there in five minutes.  Here they are… a group of five males, gently feeding on the bamboo at the lake shore.  They accept us nonchalantly.

Looking in their eyes is a strange feeling.  You can see curiosity, inquisition, sometimes even a bit of preeminence, as if they are thinking, “What are you doing here if you do not eat at this delicatessen?”  Over 98% of our DNA is in their blood.  That is how closely related we are.  We are so closely related that we broke our own classification rules, calling the chimps Pan troglodyte and us Homo sapiens.  This classification does not stand on scientific ground.  Either they are Homo troglodyte or we are Pan sapiens… it makes no sense scientifically to call the two of us by different names.  They are so human!  (Or we are so chimp!)  They kiss each other on the mouth, and they have cultural behaviors (whereby different groups like and eat different things).  The Bonobos (Pan paniscus) French kiss and copulate face to face.  Being with the chimps is incredibly magical.



9th May

We cannot stay away from the chimps.  After a gentle walk of an hour, we are lucky to meet a nice group again.  This time, there are also females, one with a newborn.  She carries it on her back, and he gets off just few a meters away from us, coming to check us out.  His inquisitive look is unforgettable.

In the afternoon, a boat ride takes us along the estuary of a stream where hippos are placidly resting in clear water.  The lush vegetation on the banks of the gorge makes the view even more outstanding.

Dinner under the stars is the perfect closing curtain for a memorable day.