Gombe National Park, also known as Gombe Stream National Park, is located on the far western border of Tanzania and the Congo. The region is known as Kigoma and the park is 20 kms north of Kigoma town. Established in 1968, Gombe is one of the smallest national parks in the country, with only 35 km2 of protected land along the hills of the eastern shore of Lake Tanganyika.
Gombe Stream is an untamed place of lush forests and clear lake views and is accessible only by boat. Lake Tanganyika itself is an African Great Lake. It is the second-oldest freshwater lake in the world, the second-largest by volume, and the second-deepest, in all cases after Lake Baikal in Siberia. So vast that one would not see the opposite shore while standing on its sandy beaches.
As for the land, the terrain itself is distinguished by steep valleys, and the forest vegetation ranges from grassland to woodland to tropical rainforest. It is this forest, that was made famous for being home to about 100 well documented chimpanzees and is one of the best places to track them.
First researched in the 60’s by Jane Goodall, the primates are remarkably habituated. The project now ranks as the world’s longest running study of any wild animal population. Jane Goodall pioneered her behavioral research here, spending almost a full 15 years living amongst the troops. The Kasekela chimpanzee community, featured in several books and documentaries, lives in Gombe National Park. The matriarch Fifi, the last surviving member of this original community – that was only three-years old when Goodall first set foot in Gombe – is still regularly seen by visitors.
Treks to these famous habituated chimpanzees are high on the bucket list for anyone visiting Africa. Accommodations are incredibly limited, but the guided excursions are certainly once in a lifetime. To swim out into Lake Tanganyika after a trek, and look back at the way the forested slopes climb up the steep escarpment is an unforgettable experience.
The only way to get to Gombe is by boat from Kigoma town. Depending on the itinerary, one might book the international flight to Kilimanjaro International Airport (JRO) in Arusha town or Julius Nyerere International Airport (DAR) in Dar es Salaam. From Kigoma it is only accessible by boat.
The only way to get to Gombe is by boat from Kigoma town. Depending on your itinerary, you might book your international flight to Kilimanjaro International Airport (JRO) in Arusha town or Julius Nyerere International Airport (DAR) in Dar es Salaam.
In most cases, your tour operator will pick you up from the airport or, if not, you can take a taxi. Your tour operator will also book your ongoing domestic flight to Kigoma Airport (TKQ) and will charter a private motorboat to Gombe. The boat trip takes less than an hour.
It is also possible to take a public motor boat or 'lake taxi' from Kigoma to the park. This trip takes about four hours.
The main attraction in Gombe Stream National Park is the population of habituated chimpanzees. There are about 100 chimps in the small park. An appointed guide will take the prebooked travellers on foot, along the forest trails to find them. Once found, they can observe for one hour, whether they're feeding, resting or walking (usually resulting in a challenging pursuit).
Aside from the chimps, other primates are often encountered. A troop of olive baboon, also under study since the 1960s, is exceptionally habituated, while red-tailed and red colobus monkey – the latter regularly hunted by chimps – stick to the forest canopy. One of the more secretive inhabitants of the forest is the bushpig.
Gombe Stream has about 200 bird species listed. Most of them are forest birds, which are quite difficult to spot. Particularly since walking in the forest unguided is not allowed and the guided walks are focused on chimpanzees. The lakeshore is a good place to see fish eagles and palmnut vultures perched in the palm trees. Peter's twinspot, a normally elusive forest bird, is quite tame and easily spotted in the camp. Migratory birds are present from November to April.
The chimps tend to stick to the lower slopes of the escarpment during the drier months (May to October), so this is the best time to track them. And hiking through the forest is certainly easier when the tracks are firm and dry. By contrast, in the Wet season (November to April) you're more likely to slip, and the chimps require a lot more effort to find.
The birdlife in Gombe Stream National Park is good year-round, but at its best from November to April when the migratory birds from Europe and northern Africa are present. At this time, many resident bird species are nesting and are in breeding plumage. From March to April the rains can make birding difficult because forest trails become slippery.
Travellers should get advice about vaccinations before their trip to Africa. Malaria is present in Gombe. To protect oneself, apply mosquito repellent, take antimalarial medication, and wear long-sleeved clothing during evening hours
As one border of Gombe Streams National park is the shore of Lake Tanganyika and the rest is dedicated to lush forest, the activities are centred around these focal habitats.
In the forest, the obvious draw card is chimpanzee trekking so hiking safaris are the main feature. They are guided (one cannot do these on your own) and limited to an hour to minimize the impact of human interaction on these wild animals.
Strict rules are in place to safeguard travellers and the chimps and one will get a briefing before the trek. The guide will also give directions while with the chimps. Chimp trekking is very safe. The animals generally ignore humans and go about their daily activities while being watched by visitors. One should allow at least two days to attempt to see them – there are no guarantees where they’ll be each day.
As for the lake itself, swimming and more interestingly, snorkelling in the lake are activities on offer.
There is only one proper tourist focused Gombe lodging with only seven tented rooms. It generally tends to be booked up months and even a year in advance in the peak season. This could be seen as the luxury option though it is still quite quaint.
In stark contrast are the TANAPA (Tanzania National Parks) owned Gombe Bandas. These are the only backpacker/camping options and are very rudimentary. They have shared showers and toilets and limited ethnic canteen food.