For more than forty years National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence Jane Goodall has called the Gombe Stream National Park, in Tanzania, "home." It was here that Goodall arrived in 1960 at the age of 26 to begin her four-decade long research project, and where she started her enduring rapport with the National Geographic Society.
Travelling with producer Chad Cohen and videographer Chuck Walter, the three of us traveled to Gombe to rendezvous with Goodall in the place "where it all began."
Gombe is a narrow stretch of mountainous wilderness situated in eastern Tanzania along Lake Tanganyika. The park is a natural refuge for hundreds of animals, mostly primates, including three groups of Goodall's beloved chimpanzees.
Getting to Gombe was a long haul. We caught a charter flight from Entebbe, Uganda and flew to Tanzania, cruising just 8,000 feet above Lake Victoria in a small, two-engine, four-seat airplane. After clearing customs and immigration in the port city of Mwanza we flew to Kigoma, a small town in eastern Tanzaniathe departure point for Gombe.
Traveling in a long, wooden boat (which seemed about a hundred years old) we headed toward Gombe. The lake is long and narrow and we could see the hills of war-torn Congo (formerly Zaire) just a few miles across the way. We passed small communities on the eastern shore: collections of mud huts and homes haphazardly assembled at the base of the mountain ridge, which has been almost clear cut and cultivated for crops.
We knew we were approaching Gombe when the farmland abruptly ended and was replaced by thick relatively untouched forest.
Gombe opened to tourists in 1978. Between 100,000 and 200,000 visit each year. Most come to see the chimps in their wild surroundings.
Like the majority of visitors, we stayed in a very basic hostel: a single-story cement structure with five small rooms. There were no lights, no running water, just beds and clean sheets. There is also strong wire mesh and bars on all the windows and doors. We were told to always keep the doors to the hostel closed tightly. Evidently, the massive population of baboons has a keen ability to sniff-out food. We were warned that they are bold enough to come in and take it from unsuspecting guests.
Goodall was instantly recognizableher long hair was swept-up in her trademark ponytailalthough her blonde locks are now mostly gray.
These days, Goodall spends most of her time traveling around the world, delivering a message of "humanitarian-conservation" and so she visits Gombe only a few times each year. On this occasion, she was back to check on her friends and colleagues charged with the day-to-day running of the Jane Goodall Institute and its many programs.
Although Goodall's visits to Gombe are short-lived, they do appear to be comfortable. Goodall has a very basic house equipped with a kitchen, living room, and several bedrooms. There's no running water or electricity, but it's cozy. Goodall invited us for a lunch of rice and beans, potatoes, and stewed vegetables. We sat alongside "Mr. H," the stuffed toy ape Goodall has kept with her since childhood.
During our visit a group of schoolchildren arrived at Gombe from a nearby village. They gathered in the shade at "Dr. Jane's" feet to talk with her and to ask her questions.