Expert Reviews – Katavi NP

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Katavi NP: A hippos’ battleground
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Katavi has often been called one of Africa’s best kept secrets. But like all secrets, they get out eventually. Quite a few new lodges have opened here over the years and although still very remote, you won’t have the place to yourself anymore as we did years ago. I still love this place. The big grassland plains are teeming with wildlife. Variety isn’t the strength here, but the numbers are impressive. A unique sight, never to forget, is the hippos tightly bunched up in the last remaining pockets of water in the diminishing rivers towards the end of the dry season. Bulls regularly get pushed out and big fights are common. Crocodiles have to share the space and can sometimes be found lying on top of the hippos. Equally impressive are the huge buffalo herds that roam the park. Some of them count thousands of heads. In terms of predators, lions are easily spotted, but other cats are rare. Getting to this place is expensive, but the reward is a very special experience.

Primeval Africa
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This huge park, which consists of a mixture of dry woodland and huge expanses of grassland (which are actually dry lake beds though they turn into wet lake beds in the wet season) in the remote west is one of the best kept wildlife secrets in Africa. The park is best known for its enormous herds of buffalo that can sometimes be over a thousand head strong and for the spectacle of seeing hundreds upon hundreds of hippos crammed one atop the other in the rapidly shrinking pools. The hippos share their cramped homes with masses of crocodile and water birds who balance delicately atop the back of the mud encrusted hippos.

For most people these two things alone are reason enough to make the considerable effort, or expense, of getting to Katavi. I definitely fell into this category, but what surprised me most about Katavi was just how many other animals there were. Lions in particular seemed to be abundant and I probably haven’t seen so many in one park outside the Serengeti/Masai Mara eco-system. One evening I even saw lions eating an elephant!

Getting to Katavi can be uncomfortable, but for backpackers it’s one of the few parks that can be explored fairly cheaply and easily reached by (long) overland bus journeys. For travelers with more money it’s easy but expensive to fly to Katavi. There are only a few camps here meaning there are few other visitors here (but it is becoming more popular and you will no longer have the place to yourself in high season).

Avoid the wet season when the animals disperse and getting around becomes close to impossible.

Welcome to the Wild West
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Barely registering on most tour companies’ radar, the west of Tanzania is an amazing choice of destination if you have the time – and the cash - to do something completely different. There are only a handful of luxury tented camps in Katavi National Park, which is Tanzania’s fourth largest, and even these are only set up for part of the year. The only way to get in is via a charter flight from Dar or Arusha, making the park all but impossible for independent or budget travelers. But I adored my visit to Katavi for the feeling of total space and freedom it provided – I really felt like I could be in the Africa of a hundred or even two hundred years ago.

During the dry season, the game concentrates around the Katuma river in vast numbers, with hippos in particular congregating here en masse. I remember seeing a tiny calf all but squashed to death in the middle of a group of nearly 200 packed into a waterhole on one game drive. This is also the only place I’ve ever seen hippos ranging around out of the water during the daytime, presumably because there just isn’t room for all of them in the dwindling lakes and ponds.

Wildlife-Filled Wilderness
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Katavi is easy and cheap, albeit somewhat adventurous, to get to by road if you're backpacking. It's easy but expensive to get to by air if you have a larger budget. Yet, the park receives only a relative handful of visitors each year. It is this off-the-beaten track character, combined with the amount of dry season wildlife, that are the main attractions. Katavi’s proximity to Lake Tanganyika, opening up possibilities for adventurous combination itineraries, is another draw.

At Katavi’s heart is a vast area of flood plains, which fill with enormous herds of animals during the dry season, especially buffaloes and (in the riverbeds) hippos. Away from the floodplains, Katavi's scenery can be somewhat monotonous woodland and brush, especially in comparison with the northern parks. Yet it's here in the woodland where you'll have the best chances of sighting both roan and sable antelope, which are another Katavi highlight, plus large herds of impala.

Cavorting hippos
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Katavi is a little visited park in the west of Tanzania. Most guests fly in – although thankfully the shockingly bad access road has now been replaced by a new Chinese-built tar road. Katavi feels wild and remote and has beautiful miombo woodlands, extensive flood plains and seasonal lakes. There are large herds of buffalo and elephants and a great variety of bird life. I ticked off palmnut vulture and bat hawk. Katavi is most famous for its huge gatherings of hippo. During the dry season, the hippo congregate in the remaining water, crammed together in the muddy channels. I have never seen so many hippo, with lots of jostling, snorting and fighting males. Best of all the hippos roll completely around, 4 stubby legs stuck in the air, as they try to cover their sun-baked backs in the remaining water. The best time to visit is the dry season, July to October. In early June we were under siege from the tsetse flies.

A forgotten wilderness
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The third-largest national park in Tanzania, the isolated and untrammelled Katavi is set within the remote arm of the Rift Valley that terminates in the shallow expanse of Lake Rukwa. It has long been my nomination for East Africa’s best-kept game-viewing secret, and it remains so today, despite the recent addition of a few low-key lodges. This is one of the few reserves where you might go an entire game drive without encountering another tourist – indeed, I regularly found myself thinking that this is what Africa must have been a century ago. Inaccessible in the rainy season, the park is bisected by the Katuma River, whose muddy trickle forms the only source of drinking water for miles around in the dry season, when flanking floodplains support game concentrations that defy belief – we saw several thousand-strong buffalo herds, plenty of elephant, and lions on every game drive. The park’s most unusual wildlife spectacle is provided by its hippos, which form hundred-strong pods that jostle for wallowing space in the dry season, frequently leading to bloody territorial fights between males.

Wildest Africa for the true connoisseur
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Wild and remote Katavi is about as far from the mainstream safari circuit as you can get. Situated in the Rukwa rift of western Tanzania, this lesser-known national park is a logistically challenging and costly place to access, which means it sees only a handful of the most committed safari addicts and has remained largely undeveloped.

Home to just three permanent safari camps, this untouched 4,500km2/1,737mi2 wilderness is the kind of safari destination that appeals to Africa addicts who love their wilderness and isolation more than their species checklists. Katavi is Tanzania’s third largest national park dominated by miombo woodland habitat and two enormous grassy, wetland plains – Katasunga and Chada – which attract wildlife in their thousands during the dry-season months from June to October. At this time of year, the Katuma and Kapapa rivers provide the only perennial water for many miles around and thirsty wildlife and grouchy hippos focus on the last remining pools. Thousands of impalas, waterbucks, topis, zebras and giraffes rub shoulders with big herds of buffalos and elephants in a magical wild African setting. The lions are vocal, and we heard their roars almost every night, while spotted hyenas and Nile crocodiles remain the most abundant and frequently encountered predators in the Katavi ecosystem.

While the greater Serengeti sees over 150,000 visitors per year, Katavi seldom sees more than a few hundred over the same time period! If you want to be one of the lucky few to sample Katavi’s natural riches, the best bet (and least expensive way) is to use your own overland vehicle or to make use of the twice-weekly scheduled flights that link Katavi with Arusha and/or the neighboring Mahale Mountains.

One of the best kept secrets in Africa.
Overall rating

Tanzania’s third largest park is one of the best parks you’ve never heard of. There are no rhino here, so you won’t bag the Big Five, but you will surely see plenty of the other four plus zebra, giraffe and all the other expected species. Especially when they gather in great herds (buffalo herds often top 1000 animals) around Katavi’s remaining water sources when the vast grassy floodplains dry up in the latter half of the year. My favorite moments were passing the large pods of hippos jostling for space in very small streams. And unlike most other parks, you can roam the whole of Katavi on foot (with an armed guard, of course), even camping out in the bush.

Though wildlife watching here is superb, its remoteness is the real appeal. There are more visitors to the Serengeti per day than there are to Katavi per year and I passed just one other vehicle during my two days in the park. Because of its remoteness Katavi is almost exclusively a fly-in safari destination, and often part of a circuit including Ruaha and Mahale Mountains national parks. You can, however, get there by road (even take the bus) if you have lots of time.

Average Expert Rating

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