I’m in a Zanzibar office waiting to reactivate my phone account, at the other end of the room the receptionist sits against an emerald green wall wearing a lilac head scarf and a deep pink silk blouse: the umber of her face is shot through with a retinal light from her clothes and the wall making her strangely hard to see. I’m eventually served and ask her if she planned her outfit for her seating position to which she murmured something underneath her breath to her work mate and assessed me somewhere on a scale from opportunist to socially inept.
It’s been a hectic week travelling, due to spur of the moment travel plans. I was negotiating a price for a wildlife tour in Arusha when the operator said he’d throw in a bus ticket – where was I going? I had thought of trying to see the chimpanzees on lake Tanganyika, but hadn’t done any research. Perhaps Kigoma but I heard it’s a day and a half bus trip. No, it’s 12 hours, we don’t have overnight buses any more.
I eventually arrived to Kigoma by the lake bleary from a night of bumpy roads and achingly bad music videos. Almost immediately on arriving at my guesthouse and discussing plans for my stay, the manager walked me over to the Gombe Tourist office that administers the park with the Jane Goodall Institute.
It seemed the cost would be out of my league with various fees and a 10 kilometre boat trip, we walked out, me projecting a visit somewhere else instead when my manager said he’d enquire into a quick boat that could bypass half of the park fees.
Next day early we go together to the port, he’s found a boat but doesn’t know whether to trust the people so wants me registered with the police ‘for security’. We drive down in a little three wheel taxi, through the blur of people at the dock I pick out the name of one of the fishing boats, HMV Thanks Jesus.
Two men met me at the boat: a narrow, sharply pointed outboard watertaxi. They seemed nervous perhaps from the police scrutiny as well as the dichotomy of circumstance between them and me. I was on the boat with everything I had, and a dawning guilt at the flagrant waste of fuel. We headed along the hilly coastline of the lake a hundred metres from shore and over 1 kilometre of water beneath. Tanganyika is a Rift valley lake and and one of the deepest. Gaff-rigged curved timber fishing boats sailed into a horizon whose mists kept the Republic of Congo concealed from view.
I brought no food knowing it was prohibited in the national park, I had water but in the excitement of disembarking, greeting K. my guide and setting off with the understanding that the season’s chances of spotting a group of chimpanzees was very low, I forgot the water.
The chimpanzees, when the trackers notified us were in a thickly tangled vine forest. The guide had taken me an hour up into the hills and now we struggled down an incline propelled by gravity into vines catching ankle, neck and arms till there amongst ten or so Chimpanzees .
Hard to define the sense of monkey people, limp hanging, lazing, swinging and climbing, caring for each other or just thinking. After a while I got the feeling that they were assembled around and above us, nonchalant but curiously placed. Seen mostly through vines which lead the eyes across shapeless dark patches just a few metres away only registering as figures after some delay.
A variety of character poses, aware of us and watching, seemingly unaware and self occupied, gave diversity to the group and a strange sense of being in the presence of a multitude of individuals.
This sense increased when, because of the density of vines and trees I was unable to move away from an individual’s approach: seeming to be after my drawing things, when I passed these to the guide the young male Chimp ran his fingers along my arm, took my wrist and carefully licked the sweat from my skin. Hard to convey the mixture of abeyance and control in this act: social, opportunistic, either way thoughtfully carried out.
The vine forest made standing impossible so crawling and climbing our only way in and out heightening a sense of interaction and an intense encounter.
On the way back down the hill I was curious to know more about the range of behaviour of the Chimpanzee, how do they get on with the Baboons and Blue velvet monkeys they share the forest with. While they typically eat the fruit of the Mabongo vine that is both a nutritional food and a fermented alcohol, they’re omnivores and K. remembers seeing a group of Chimpanzees strategically catch a blue monkey and together in a more than necessary frenzied energy, pull it to pieces.
On the way back staring out at the invisible Congo across the water I was reminded of a Congo ritual object in the museum at Arusha. The metal Nails driven into the figure each represent an arbitrated decision resolving a feud, the individual nail becomes an element of an increasingly powerful form that bonds its members and deters errant action by it’s collective significance.