By Farzad Ghotaslou – Art in Tanzania Internship Project
Due to its long distance Art in Tanzania team goes rather seldom to Katavi. We need minimum 3 participants to make the long drive to Katavi and back to keep the cost reasonable. However Katavi is always worth it as it is still the real wilderness of Africa.
Katavi National Park, located about 35 km southwest of Mpanda, is the third largest national park in Tanzania (added to the two contiguous “game reserves”, the protected area extends over a territory of 12,500 sq km) , as well as one of its most pristine natural areas. Although this is an isolated and less crowded alternative to other such destinations around Tanzania (Serengeti National Park receives more visitors per day than Katavi receives throughout the year), the lodges here are luxurious. as in any other park in the country, and for backpackers it is one of the cheapest and easiest to reach destinations; as long as you have the time and energy to get here.
The park is named after the Wabende spirit, Katabi, who according to local legend lives in a tamarind tree near Lake Katavi. Locals looking for blessings from his spirit still leave offerings at the foot of the tree. The area was first protected in 1911 during the German occupation and was later named Rukwa Game Reserve under British occupation until 1932. In 1974, an area of just over 2,200 km² was declared a National Park and the larger area was finally gazetted in 1996 and opened officially with the name Katavi National Park in 1998.
The main feature of the Katavi territory is its vast (425 sq km) alluvial plain, the Katisunga Plain, whose wide grassy expanses occupy the heart of the park. In the western and central part of the park the plain gives way to large tracts of scrub and forest, and these are the best places to spot tawny antelopes and black antelopes; along with Ruaha National Park, Katavi is one of the few places where you have a good chance of seeing both of these species. Some small rivers and large swamps that do not dry up during the dry season are the ideal habitat for hippos and crocodiles; moreover, the Katavi is populated by about 400 species of birds.
Wildlife features include large animal herds, particularly of Cape Buffaloes, zebras, wildebeest, giraffes, and elephants, plus along the Katuma river, crocodiles and hippopotami which upon annual dry seasons results in mud holes that can be packed with hundreds of hippos. Carnivorous animals that roam this park are cheetahs, wild dogs, hyenas, leopards, and lions. Some sources claim a very high biodiversity in the park, although there are also reports of wildlife decline due to illegal hunting and poaching, presumably ‘bushmeat’ sustenance. Katavi has fewer human visitors and jeeps conducting game drives than other Tanzania parks.
It is during the dry season, when the floodwaters retreat, that Katavi truly comes into life. The Katuma, reduced to a shallow muddy trickle, forms the only source of drinking water for miles around, and the flanking floodplains support game concentrations that defy belief. An estimated 4,000 elephants might converge on the area, together with several herds of 1,000-plus buffalo, while an abundance of giraffes, zebras, impalas and reedbucks provide easy pickings for the numerous lion prides and spotted hyena clans whose territories converge on the floodplains.
Katavi’s most singular wildlife spectacle is provided by its hippos. Towards the end of the dry season, up to 200 individuals might flop together in any riverine pool of sufficient depth. And as more hippos gather in one place, so does male rivalry heat up – bloody territorial fights are an everyday incident, with the vanquished male forced to lurk hapless on the open plains until it gathers sufficient confidence to mount another challenge.
The number of visitors to the park on an annual basis is extremely low, in comparison to better known parks, just above 1,500 foreign visitors out of a total 900,000 registered in the whole Tanzania National Parks system during 2012/13. A survey of the actual rooms sold by the available ‘Safari’ style accommodations might reveal the number, but based on total room count and season length, an upper limit can also be estimated. In addition to a public campsite (located at SO 06’39’19.1 E0 031’08’07.9), as of 2013, there were only three permanent camps permitted to operate at Katavi, namely the Mbali Mbali Katavi Lodge and the Foxes on the Katuma Plain and the Chada on the Chada Plain. These camps each have a visitor capacity limit of approximately one dozen each.
Getting to Katavi for visitors will likely be arranged by the hosting camp, with one of the available charter flight services being the Mbali Mbali Shared Charter (operated by Zantas Air Services) or Safari Air Link. All flights will require landing on a dirt airstrip; the Ikuu airstrip (near the Ikuu Rangerpost) has minimal services. It is very approximately a three-hour flight from Katavi to Dar es Salaam and two-hours flight to Mwanza via a small, bush-compatible light aircraft. A flight to Arusha is similarly ~3 hours distant and operates on limited service usually only twice a week on Mondays and Thursdays.
Access to Katavi via ground transportation: estimates vary widely; it is generally discussed not in hours but in days. The town of Mbeya is (550 km/340 miles) distant and is described as a “…tough but spectacular…” drive; Google Maps indicates that Mbeya is 838 km from Dar es Salaam, making the total distance approximately 1,400 km (870 mi) and requiring 20+ hours. The most direct route to Dar es Salaam as per Google Maps is approx. 1250 km (~800 miles) and requiring 16+ hours. Arusha is similarly distant: 1000+km /13.5 hours. The percentage of transit on unpaved surfaces is unknown, but parts of all of these routes will definitely be on dirt roads. Since all of the above times from Google Maps assume an average transit speed of 80 km (50 mph), all these indicated travel times should be considered to be optimistic.
The park no longer offers vehicle rentals, but Marula Expeditions charges US $ 150 to US $ 200 per day depending on how far you want to travel, while the less flexible Riverside Camp (see Overnight) offers two off-road vehicles with canopies. retractable at a cost of US $ 250 per day.
Walking safaris (short / long US $ 10/15 per group) are permitted with the accompaniment of an armed forest ranger; Bush camping is also allowed (US $ 50 per person plus walking fee) throughout the park, making it a great option for the budget traveler. However, keep in mind that this is one of the most infested parks with tsetse flies. The road to Lake Katavi, another of the seasonal floodplains, is a good destination for walking; the road starts from the park management offices, so you don’t need any vehicles.
The main activity, of course, is game viewing, which can be done on both game drives and guided walking safaris. The bonus of game drives in Katavi National Park is that you’re unlikely to come across any other humans. Walking safaris are an experience not to be missed to really get up close to the African bush, its sights, sounds and aromas.
Fly camping is offered. This is the definition of bush camping, where normal tents (don’t expect luxury!) are set up in the bush at a temporary campsite. No fences, no flush toilets or showers. It’s living in the wild; cooking food over a fire and spending evenings chatting around the campfire, staring up at the breathtaking African night sky and listening to the nocturnal calls of wild animals.
Katavi National Park offers great game viewing all year around but reaches its peak during the dry season from June to November or December when the animals gather in their thousands around scarce water sources.
During the wet season, the floodplains turn to lakes and offer spectacular birdwatching opportunities.
- “Tanzania National parks Corporate Information”. Tanzania Parks. TANAPA. Archived from the original on 20 December 2015. Retrieved 22 December 2015.
- Katavi NPArchived 2008-02-06 at the Wayback Machine information from tanzaniaparks.com
- ^Parks arrivals highlightArchived 2015-12-20 at the Wayback Machine from tanzaniaparks.com
- Campsite info from tanzaniaparks.com
- Katuma Bush Lodge official site
- Foxes of Africa official website
- Chada Camp official website
- Safari Aviation official website
- Highway route on Google Maps