Glitter, Magic, and a Troop of Wild Chimpanzees

At half past seven in the morning, with the Congo to my left and Burundi and Rwanda facing me, I sat with a small group of travelers as our boat surged northward on Lake Tanganyika. Stretches of glistening green forest casted luminescent shadows over the water and into the sky. I quietly eyed our destination—the entry to Gombe National Park in Tanzania is beautifully hidden from sight.

The entrance sign arched over the boat dock like a wedding alter. The rain was either coming or going. I was so overwhelmed with excitement when we arrived that I carelessly exited the boat—flying right past the man with his extended hand—one knee, crumpling to my chest like the fold of an accordion, the other, slipping through a missing plank and into the water. I loosened my leg, pulled myself up onto the dock, sneezed away my embarrassment, and acknowledged a very warm welcome by the staff at Gombe. “Jambo miss. Hakuna Matata.” Hello miss, no worries. (I was becoming well-versed in the courtesies of Swahili.) "Jambo." I said.

There was an enormous bruise forming on my upper thigh. Black as night and the size of a cantaloupe, it looked quite a bit like a chimpanzee. I would later dub it “Frodo.”

I gingerly walked to the entrance to meet the small staff in residence that would separate us into small groups based on our physicality, and our guide for the day, Imani (meaning “faith,”) who would take us up the mountain.
It was no more than ten minutes later that we would catch our first glimpse of a wild chimpanzee.

“Glitter” navigated her limbs around the ancient miombo tree like a snake prepping for a lunge at a tree mouse. She was visibly pregnant and her fur was so dark that her face couldn’t be found, until the whites of her eyes lit like a firefly in the night. She scanned the canopy as we stood beneath her, and when her gaze darted down, her eyes pierced right through me. Then, through the bush they came—keenly aware of our presence—and walked up right beside us and on up the mountain. Instead of swiping our cameras and smashing them to the earth (as we were warned the might do) they seemed to welcome us. They disappeared and reappeared—there, ahead, ten feet, two feet—the lone male in the center of the trail, nibbling orange-colored tree fruit. Along came another, a mother with an infant on her back. It was near silent. All you could hear was the crackle of nature, the sound of your lungs expanding—and of wild chimps, high on the hills of the African jungle. Their audible hollering was matched only by the crescendo of the cicada hiding in the mist. Eventually they slipped into the dense forest that lined the trail.

Our day was devoted to watching the flawlessness of their movement. These creatures who share 98% of same DNA as humans, in fact, had a decidedly human way about them—more human than many modern day humans—stopping to watch us, full eye-contact, and generally interested in our behavior. We occasionally cowered to the forest’s olive baboons, and the olive baboons cowered to the chimps. A couple of weeks in Tanzania and the "wise man's" rung on the latter became incredibly clear. We made way to a resting place at the Kakombe Valley waterfall where we would regroup with the travelers we rode in with, where we would swap awe-inspired stories and photos and smile effortlessly with a resounding thumbs way up.

Together, we descended.

Careening down the mountain, swishing through wet leaves and mud, the chimps dangled from the tree branches above. Drenched in sweat with a battle wound on my thigh, dodging Tarzan’s vines under a veil of jungle while being soaked by the pounding rain, we descended. At this moment, it was difficult not to imagine myself a great explorer or researcher in the field.

One minute I was forging up the semi-steep terrain into the sunlight with deliberate lunges, and just a couple of hours later I was floating down the mountain effortlessly as a downpour fell from the wide open sky.

“Amazing!” I thought to myself. “This is the most exhilarating moment of my life! Moments like this exist only in the fictional kingdoms of childhood tales... How will I ever describe this?!”

S Payne

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