Chimpanzees In Tanzania: Everything You Need To Know About Gombe Stream National Park

Heading to Gombe National Park is tricky but was one of the highlights of our 6 month trip. Here’s how to do it.

Table of Contents

Introduction

In truth, seeing chimpanzees in Tanzania was never on our radar, despite having visited Tanzania multiple times and even lived there! The chimpanzees in Tanzania are in Gombe Stream National Park, and going there was actually a bit of a spur of the moment decision for us, in the middle of a 6 month trip through East Africa.

Most people will not have heard of Gombe Stream National Park (or just ‘Gombe’), except possibly through vague ties to Jane Goodall. Indeed it was where she conducted some of her most famous studies on chimpanzees in Tanzania. Those who do know Gombe tend to think of it as one of Africa’s smallest, but most expensive National Parks to visit.

Thankfully this wasn’t our experience and we want others to know that it’s absolutely possible on a budget. We’ll get to the prices later, but for those worried it may be unaffordable, it cost us $170 to visit Gombe Stream National Park (between two of us). That’s a significant reduction on the $600 each we paid some years ago to go gorilla trekking in Uganda!

So let’s dive in and tell you how to do it…

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A mother chimp walking in the forest with her baby. The baby is tiny and is clinging onto one of her front legs. They are both looking forwards and not at the camera.
A mother and baby chimp in Gombe

History of Gombe Stream National Park

Gombe National Park, or Gombe Stream National Park, is the first place that Jane Goodall made her introduction to chimpanzees in 1960. She went out to live in Tanzania and gradually (through some methods which might be considered a little controversial today!) was accepted into a troop of chimps and was able to observe their behaviour up close.

Her work was ground-breaking and she uncovered many unknown things about chimpanzees (such as the fact that they are not vegetarian, but omnivorous, and the fact that they can sometimes use tools to gain access to food or control of the group). As Tanzania’s smallest National Park, Gombe is also one of its least visited (largely to do with its size and remote location) and least accessible – most travellers only visit when they have seen other national parks in the country as a ‘tick box’ exercise or for something to do.

A selfie of Emma and Murray (taken by Murray), a white 30 year old couple. They are both sitting on a boat and smiling widely. Murray is wearing a cowboy hat and scarf.
On board the boat to Gombe

Where is Gombe Stream National Park?

The nearest cosmopolitan area to Gombe is a small city called Kigoma on the Western side of Tanzania, on the edge of Lake Tanganyika.

Kigoma itself is actually a nice little city. It has a fun market and some pretty viewpoints, plus some nice places to eat and stay, which overlook the lake. You also get some incredible sunsets there, and it’s worth staying a few nights at least.

Getting to Kigoma

There is actually an airport in Kigoma, but it’s not international, so it’s tough to get there from outside of Tanzania. There are however regular connections from Dar Es Salaam and actually a few flights from Bujumbura too in Burundi.

If you’re already in Tanzania then there are some very easy bus connections on the West side (for example from Mbeya) but it is admittedly trickier from the East (Arusha, Dar Es Salaam, Moshi, Singida etc.).

A very juvenile chimp hiding in a leafy canopy on the ground. He is eating a leaf and looking at the camera, a little startled but he does not seem frightened
A tiny baby hiding in the leaves

By Train

You can actually take a train to Kigoma! This goes all the way from Dar Es Salaam and is run by a company called TRC (Tanzania Railways Corporation). Note: this is different from the TAZARA trains, which run from Dar Es Salaam to Zambia (via Mbeya) – contrary to what some locals told us!

Bus

Buses are comparatively easy to use in Tanzania (comparative at least for us to most of the rest of Africa!). If you go to the bus station in whichever town you are based and ask for the best option the following day to Kigoma, you are sure to find an option. For example, we paid 62,000 TSZ (about £24 / $30) from Mbeya to Kigoma (a 14 hour journey). This is quite expensive for what the buses usually are, just to be clear. We probably did overpay but we were quite tired the day we booked and just wanted an easy life!

Note: the bus from Mbeya to Kigoma does stop overnight in Mpanda.

A shot of Gombe National Park from the boat. You can see the dense forest covering the island and there is mist rising up on the right hand side.
Views of Gombe from the boat

Getting to Gombe Stream National Park

Gombe Stream National Park is actually on an island, which means you need to take a boat to get there. You have two options:

Public Boat

On the plus side, the public boat is very cheap at about 4000 TSZ – £1.50 // $1.70 per person.

On the downside, it does not run on Sundays. To our knowledge, it does run every other day, once a day and it departs mid-afternoon and returns early morning.

To be honest, these are frustrating times for a budget traveller, as you have to pay National Park fees daily. It would be understandable if the local authorities were encouraging you to stay overnight in the National Park, as the fees you pay contribute to conservation efforts, but typically the best time to see the chimpanzees is early morning, so really you don’t have chance to see them unless you stay two nights.

You might get very lucky and spot them on an afternoon walk, but to be honest, it is not likely from what we heard.

Private boat

The alternative is to hire a private boat for the day; we had seen estimates for this of between $150 – 250 USD online.

For us, this did work out cheaper than paying National Park fees for two of us for two days, but we actually ended up getting the private boat much cheaper than these online estimates. We’ll explain how you can do this too in our negotiating for the boat section below. The added bonus is that you can go in one day and stay in Kigoma, where there are a lot more options for budget-friendly accommodation.

Chimpanzees in Tanzania. A mother chimp carrying her baby under her belly. She is walking and is profile to the camera.
Chimps on the move!

How to negotiate for the private boats

As some brief background, we have a long history of visiting/living in Tanzania and know the standard prices quite well. $150 is extremely inflated as a price and we were sure the boat did not cost this much. Besides anything, it’s not good to overpay by so much as it really can inflate the prices for the locals. Even our Airbnb owner told she has been asked to pay $150-250 for the private before, which she could not afford. We’re only adding some context as to why we thought this price was high – it’s less for us as tourists and more for the locals.

OK so to get to the private boats, head to ‘Gombe Boat Dock’ listed on Google Maps (Tanapa Boat Dock, it is near Kibirizi beach). Once there, you can ask for ‘mwenye wa boti’ (the boat owner) and someone will come to help you negotiate. It is worth going the night before to ensure you have a ride set up for the following morning.

IMPORTANT NOTE: It is worth you knowing some Swahili to negotiate for these boats. Not only will you be charged a lot more if you don’t try in Swahili at all, but the person running the boat dock (at least the one we met) did not speak much English at all.

If you do not speak Swahili and don’t want to deal with any of this, we suggest contacting the person below (Geshim), who gave us permission to list his contact details here. He speaks very good English and is happy to help tourists hire boats.

Geshim’s number (no WhatsApp): +255 679 822 617

Geshim’s email: gershombalengayachristopher@gmail.com

We’re not really sure why, but this guy gave us an amazing price for the boats, so we’d suggest contacting him first. Price breakdown is below.

A male chimp sitting in a tree looking protectively over the rest of the group. He has one foot up against a branch
The head of the group
Price of the private boats and entry to Gombe Stream National Park

The price breakdown we were given was extremely clear and doesn’t leave much room for haggling on either side. It broke down as follows:

Fuel (petrol): 2940 TSZ (we saw this price also at the fuel station) per litre – he told us we’d need 60 litres for the day

Oil cost: 2800 TSZ per litre – we ended up paying more than this (28,000 TSZ for 3 litres, but we didn’t mind as we think it’s probably how they made their profit and we wanted them to make something. Fractionally, it’s a small amount)

This total worked out to 205,000 TSZ rounded up (about £71 GBP // $87 USD)

The above needed to be paid to them that evening at the fuel station.

Boat Service Charge: $23.40 per person (there were two of us, so a total of $46.80) – according to Geshim, this was how the boat owners received their pay and was standardised by the National Park. Not what we had seen elsewhere, but fine.

Guide fee (compulsory) – $23.40 per group (total for the two of us)

National Park Entrance fees – $118 per person (so $236 total for us both)

The above all needed to be paid directly to the National Park.

Total cost: $393.20 USD ($196.60 per person) // roughly £330 GBP (£165 per person)

Basically, the fuel and oil does seem up for debate. So this is the bit you’ll probably need to haggle, but the rest of it seemed like a standard fee for most of it set by the National park, and it was very fair. We essentially just managed to pay for the fuel and oil at a reasonable cost.

*It is worth noting that we checked this rate with everyone we met in Gombe National Park, and the Airbnb owner, who has lived in Tanzania for 12 years, and it turns out that no one had ever seen a price that low. Our Airbnb owner was fluent in Swahili and the lowest boat cost she had ever seen (without the other fees) was 250,000 TSZ.

We’re not sure why we got such a good rate, but we think it may be a combination of a few things: the fact that we spoke Swahili, perhaps the quiet time of year and maybe even time of day (he might have been hoping for last minute business as it was quite late). Either way, we would advise contacting Geshim as the best chance to get a fair price.

A large male chimp is sitting in the middle of the path staring at the camera. There are several other chimps around him all moving on away from us.
The troop getting ready to move on

When to set off

The chimpanzees in Tanzania are most active in the morning apparently, so you want to be there early. We set off at 6am from Kigoma and arrived to Gombe Stream National Park just after half 7 to begin hiking at 8am.

If taking a private boat we’d suggest doing the same. We left Gombe at around 2pm and were back before 4pm.

Safety of the boats

A quick note on this: we had been warned about rickety boats with no roofs. Ours turned out fine, but ask to see the boat before you go and make sure they have lifejackets on board. Ours was a small 8-seater with a roof and life jackets.

When should you visit Gombe Stream National Park?

The dry season is May – October and this is the best time to visit Gombe Stream National Park. Gombe is most affected by wet weather from November – April.

The weather is wettest towards the end of this season (March – April). We actually hiked in February and the weather wasn’t too bad at all, though it’s best to be prepared if you do go then. The terrain can be very slippery, so good hiking shoes are essential. We’d also suggest taking a good raincoat and being prepared for any weather.

The rain in the forest tends to come in the afternoon, so mornings are usually quite pleasant, which is why the chimpanzees are most active at this time.

Important Information for chimpanzee trekking in Tanzania

Before you enter Gombe Stream National Park, make sure you know the below:

  • Food must be left with the guides at the research centre. They have a fridge and will keep it safe until you get back, but they do not allow food within the National Park, as it can attract unwanted attention from baboons. Eat well before you get going.
  • The entry, guiding and boat fees MUST be paid via debit or credit card – Gombe National Park has been cashless for some years
  • You need your passport or ID card to gain entry to the park and cannot go in without it
  • Face masks must be worn on approach to the chimpanzees – this is not because of the pandemic and has been the case for years before the pandemic even happened. The idea is to protect the chimps from human airborne diseases. Disposable masks are provided by the park and you are asked to take one before your hike. If you are sick in any way, you will not be able to enter Gombe Stream National Park.
  • An optional swimming costume is nice for the waterfall at the end – we were glad we had this as it was a VERY hot and sweaty hike and we felt extremely refreshed after a cold dip!
  • It’s useful to have some cash to tip your guide, which is optional but customary – they have a difficult job and work long, intensive shifts every day. We tipped 10 USD for our group, which was the recommendation we were given

Additional information: we also tipped our boat staff (there were two of them) 10,000 Tanzanian Shillings each (about $5/£3.50). We don’t think this is especially necessary, but they were grateful.

Sunset in Gombe, you can see Kigoma ahead all lit up at night
Sunset with Kigoma ahead

What’s it like to trek with chimpanzees in Tanzania? FAQS

The pros

Seeing chimpanzees is a breath-taking experience, which nothing can quite prepare you for. The chimps are extremely fun to watch, especially the babies, who play with each other most of the day. As we found them, they were eating breakfast, so they swapped between the trees and the ground, shaking down fruit and then heading back down to eat it.

Our highlights were a chimp who ate too much fruit and was too full to move on – she was very sweet and sleepy and didn’t want to do anything (very human-esque!) and watching a little baby swing around in front of us for about 15 minutes, play-fighting his brother.

The cons

Trekking with primates like chimpanzees and gorillas can be physically very demanding. The chimpanzees obviously do not stick to roads and pathways like humans, so there are times when you are trekking through routes that really don’t exist (i.e. ducking under trees and through vines). Because of this, the terrain can be very steep and slippery, as well as uneven under foot. Those with mobility issues might struggle, though the park provides sticks for hiking, and the guides are extremely helpful.

Additionally, if you get a rainy day or are hiking in rainy season, conditions can be very unpleasant. The hikes can be very long, and you might be trekking for some hours in wet weather before finding chimpanzees, if you do indeed find them at all. We met a group who had been unfortunate enough to hike all day the day before without seeing anything.

Saying all of this, just to give some reassurance, we personally had a very easy hike in Gombe, and found the chimpanzees within 2 hours of easy hiking. This was despite it being rainy season and the chimpanzees not having been spotted the last few days. This just goes to show it really is luck of the draw with these encounters.

A very young chimp in a tree. He is swinging his limbs round and looks like he's playing
Practising climbing

How do they find the chimpanzees?

The chimpanzees in Tanzania are accompanied all day by researchers. They give the chimpanzees space as needed, but do follow them from a distance to track their movements, as per Jane Goodall’s work. The researchers then leave the chimpanzees to sleep in their nests overnight, and head out again in the morning to find them using tracking skills.

Consequently, though there will be a couple of hours early morning, where the guides don’t know the location of the chimps, they do usually know where the chimps are, as soon as the researchers have caught up to them. They use radios to communicate with each other, so it’s just a matter of getting you to that spot before the chimps choose to move on.

The guides and researchers are experts in reading the chimpanzee behaviour and will tell you to stand back if they show any signs of stress of aggression, or if you are invading their space. It’s expected that those at the front of the group crouch down to allow those at the back to see and take pictures.

Do you hike alone?

You hike with a guide and usually a group of other tourists, unless you have organised a private tour somehow. We did not see any way of doing this, and think most people do hike with others.

Our group was relatively large – about 15 people. The size of the group will depend on who is at the park and you will not be split by age or experience. For example with us, half of the group were quite slow, as they had some older and less mobile hikers with them.

You go at the pace of the slowest hiker, which is great as it allows everyone to keep up. That being said, if you are a fast hiker, this can be frustrating, as the chimps don’t wait for you! If you have a group hiking at very different speeds, usually the guides will eventually split you to give faster hikers a better chance of spotting the chimps, and slower hikers the chance to go at their own pace.

How long are you with the chimpanzees?

If you see the chimpanzees, you get one hour with them according to the guides. It depends on the mood of the animals so sometimes you get longer or shorter. For example, we were with the chimpanzees about an hour and a half, as they started to get curious as we began to leave and followed us for a while.

Alternatively, if the chimps are showing signs of stress or annoyance, the guides will move you along for safety reasons and to protect the chimps.

Are the chimpanzees aggressive?

Not usually. You need to follow the advice of your guides and behave sensibly. You should also be quiet when you’re with the animals so as not to disturb them.

If the chimpanzees are showing signs of stress, the guides will move you along to avoid any conflict. They’ll also tell you some aggressive behaviour to watch out for and help you react in the correct way if anything were to happen.

Our guides told us they haven’t ever had any problems with tourists.

A chimp walking through a crowd of people. He/she is completely unfazed by people standing nearby and taking photos - there is also a researcher standing right next to him/her.
You can see how close we came to the chimps!

What happens if you don’t see any chimpanzees?

This is a possibility. Since the chimpanzees are wild animals, their whereabouts at any given time cannot be guaranteed. Ethically speaking, this is the best outcome for the chimps, as they are completely free. It’s great to see the National Park is putting them first in this way.

As a visitor of course it can be frustrating. To give yourself the best chance, it’s sensible to visit in the dry season: May-October. We had also read in our research that the chances were ‘fair’ but not optimum in the wet season and always far better in the mornings (hence our early start). The lowest statistic we had seen was 50% likelihood you’ll see chimpanzees in the morning. Most guides gave better probability odds than this, so this is the best time to visit.

Apparently the reason they are easier to find in the mornings is that they usually come down from their nests to find water, and there are only a few places they usually go for this.

Is it worth visiting Gombe Stream National Park?

We know that this is a commonly asked question and one that is hard to answer.

From our perspective, yes, it was 100% worth it. We got a very cheap and reasonable price, had an easy hike and found the chimpanzees quite easily.

We might be giving a different answer if we had paid through the nose, hiked for hours in the rain and not seen anything.

Whether or not it’s worth it, in my opinion, depends on how badly you want to see chimpanzees in the first place. If you really want to see them, then definitely do it. There is a good chance you will see them most days, especially if you go in the morning, and if you’re really worried you might miss them, you can stay another overnight in the National Park and try the next day.

A large waterfall, concealed behind a mossy rock.
Gombe National Park Waterfalls

Visiting Gombe Waterfalls and the Feeding Station

After your time with the chimpanzees, you can visit Gombe waterfall, which iss very pretty!

You can even swim there. It is usually very cold but the hike will probably be quite hot, sweaty and dirty, so you won’t mind too much. It’ll also help you cool down for the walk back.

On the way back, you can pass Jane Goodall’s Feeding Station (no longer in action), which was the initial means of observation for the chimps. It is interesting and has now been turned into a sort of information centre. We felt it had been handled respectfully and gave us a little more of an insight into previous practices.

The time you get back to the base (the research centre) will vary. We got back around 12:30pm, where we waited around an hour for our boat (the park rangers called them for us), which was coming from Kigoma again. This was good as it gave us the opportunity for some lunch, since you can’t eat on the trail. We had brought our own and stored it in the fridge, but you can also order at the park – meals cost around 15-20 USD.

Packing list for trekking with chimpanzees in Tanzania

  • Raincoat: the weather is unpredictable and rain can be torrential, so don’t be fooled by early morning sun. Waterproof trousers would also help enormously!
  • Sun cream: as above – you are mostly protected through the trees but the sun is very strong outside of the forest canopy. We highly recommend taking natural sunscreen, as the ecosystem in Gombe is very fragile. The term ‘reef-safe’ is not protected and anyone can use it, so we recommend sticking to creams which do not contain any of the chemicals listed on Save The Reef.
  • Bugspray – there are a lot of bugs in the rainforest! Likewise we recommend using a natural spray, our favourite is Incognito, we like it way more than traditional sprays, it works a lot better for us.
  • Cash for tipping: (see above for our amounts)
  • Optional bathing costume for the waterfalls
  • Optional hiking poles
  • Passport or ID card for entry
  • Credit or debit card for park fee payment
  • Light clothing, no bright colours: the usual safari clothes!
  • Water: lots of it – ideally in a camelbak or pouch for ease
  • Good hiking shoes: trainers really are not suitable as the terrain is so unstable
  • Snacks for the boat and after the hike – trust us, you’ll be hungry after a long hike
  • Good travel insurance that covers adventure sports. We use SafetyWing and we really like them because their policy wording is so clear.

You can check how much your trip policy would be here.

Visiting Tanzania? Read our Stone Town in Zanzibar guide here.

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    Written by Emma

    Emma

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