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Katavi safari


... is a rare treat, a very high quality experience in a reserve so remote and expensive to access that visitor number remain shockingly low. One of the connoisseur.

Upsides ...

Katavi National Park is a very remote conservation area located in the Western Region of Tanzania, well over 700km from the nearest international airport at Kilimanjaro and Dar es Salaam.

At around 4500 square kilometres, Katavi is a very large and significant national park, the third largest in the country, after Ruaha and Serengeti.

Largely covered by quite dense brachystegia woodland, the main areas of interest are a number of wonderful floodplain areas which become vast wetlands during the rainy season November to May and drying to open grasslands June to October.

During this dry season the amount of wildlife can be prodigious, with over 4000 elephants thought to inhabit the greater area, absolutely loads of giraffes, zebras, hartebeests and topis, as well as good numbers of lions, cheetahs and leopards.

Katavi is claimed to have the highest bio-density of any national park in Africa. Certainly there are some unique and awesome animal sights, notably the vast herds of buffaloes, incredible hippo pools and tunnelling crocodiles.

It's not often that hippos and crocodiles get top billing, but here in Katavi their presence is so impressive that it is hard to ignore. During the dry season hippos converge on a small number of large pools, but in such vast numbers that they completely fill them. Nowhere in Africa will you see such incredible entanglements of grunting, irritable hippo flesh, constantly moaning and arguing, fighting for space. Try not to get your vehicle stuck in the muddy entrance to one of these pools close to sundown as we once did, for as night falls the hippos emerge for forage. We had to light fires around our vehicle and form a circle, screaming into the darkness like crazed primaeval cave-dwellers to keep the massed ranks of a thousand at bay.

Crocodiles also gather together, digging eerie looking caves into the riverbanks and lying nose to tail with each other, similarly irritable about this whole dry season thing. It must be so difficult for them to catch prey when there is so little water around.

The park regulations are a little less restrictive here. The fact that off-road driving is permitted enables you to make the most out of important sightings. You also have the freedom to go out on walking safari, although this does not usually include deliberate approaches to large wildlife such as elephants and lions, as it does in some areas.

Katavi safari

Downsides ...

By far the biggest problem for most potential visitors to Katavi is that this is a very expensive place to visit. The light aircraft flights from Serengeti and elsewhere are extremely costly. The camps are also relatively pricey, or rather there is no sensible lower cost option.

Another downside of the reserve itself is that, despite its size, it has a relatively small sweet-spot for wildlife viewing. On the one hand it is great that such a range and density of animals chooses to congregate on the central floodplains, but it does also mean that all the vehicles in the park tend to head for the same area too. That probably only adds up to a half dozen vehicles in total, so it's no disaster, but maybe a disappointment when you have flown so far to get somewhere so remote.

On our first ever visit we were surprised to discover that the reserve is traversed by a significant road, running close to the core game-viewing area. Now this is no major highway, it's only a dirt track, but it comes as quite a shock when you bump into a saloon car or truck in the middle of your game-drive. In reality there's only a handful of vehicles coming through each day, so again this is no big deal. However we do remember one occasion when we were enjoying a lovely picnic breakfast under the Big Fig Tree when suddenly this minibus of nuns goes past, all waving politely. And there was us thinking we were having the brunch at the edge of the universe.

When to visit ...

The best time of year for safari in Katavi is generally considered to be the Jul/Oct dry season, when the animals converge on the floodplains.

Read more about seasonality in Katavi ...

Katavi safari

Where to stay ...

The park is also home to some very high quality camps. This is not a place for the big commercial operators, but for the safari enthusiasts, so these places tend to be small, passionate and a little bit quirky. Stay in the right places and you can expect some excellent safari guiding.

Chada Camp ... is the original and still the best place to stay in the reserve, one of the most spirited camps in East Africa. It also happens to be related to the best camp in the Mahale Mountains, Mahale Zoe's Camp, with which it is almost always combined.

Chada Bivouac ... is a simple camping option which is usually visited as a single overnight from the parent camp, a way of really getting out there in the wild.

Katuma Camp ... is a reasonably high quality camp which also has a sister facility in Mahale Mountains, Nkungwe Camp, the two being used as a slightly lower priced alterative to the above.

Katavi Wildlife Camp ... is another mid-priced option which is related to camps in the southern parks, an honest little camp with a sound safari pedigree.

How we like to include Katavi safari in trips ...

Primarily because of this remoteness, over the years Katavi has become something of a holy grail for safari aficionados. When we first visited in 2003 only 78 international visitors had signed the park registration book between January and October. The numbers have increased significantly since then, but can still be counted in the hundreds each year.

Despite its remoteness, the park is relatively easy to access, with light aircraft schedules coming in from parks in the north and south of the country, usually twice per week during the main safari seasons.

If you can afford to combine Katavi with the other great highlight of Tanzania West, Mahale Mountains chimpanzee safari, then that really is the dream ticket.

Tanzania West is commonly combined with some of the most interesting elements of Tanzania South, notably Ruaha safari and Selous safari.

Alternatively the region can also be combined with elements of the famous Tanzania North region, including Serengeti safari, Ngorongoro safari, Tarangire safari and Lake Manyara safari.

Some visitors also combine with options further afield including Mount Kilimanjaro treks in the northeast of the country, Katavi safari and Mahale Mountains chimpanzee safari out west, Maasai Mara safari over the border in Kenya and Virunga Mountains gorilla safari over in Rwanda.

These mainland areas are also commonly combined with nights down on the Tanzania Coast, especially on Zanzibar Island, Pemba Island, Mafia Island or Fanjove Island, usually in trips of 10 to 21 nights.

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Jay Hanson
Jay Hanson, Senior Safari Consultant
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