Katavi National Park - Tanzania
The Tanzania National Park’s website describes Katavi as "isolated, untrammelled and seldom visited park – a true wilderness providing the few intrepid souls who make it there with a thrilling taste of Africa as it must have been a century ago". An appealing description indeed and, given that we always look for remote and less-visited areas, it sounded very attractive to us.
Katavi therefore became the second destination of our 2014 safari trip, where we had already decided that we wanted to return to Mwagusi in Ruaha. This put us nearly half way there so, as there are two flights a week from the Msembe airstrip, we had our itinerary adapted to suit, but even then it was a three-hour flight. And at the end of our stay, when we flew directly back to Dar, it was a five-hour flight in a very small six-seater, so yes, the description of it being isolated was definitely correct.
We stayed at the Katavi Wildlife Camp overlooking the vast Katisunga flood plain, which was without doubt a great location. Whilst it was relatively close to the airstrip, water levels were still high when we arrived so we had a reasonably long drive to reach the camp in order to circumnavigate the plain and cross the Katuma River. When you can’t drive through the river you have to cross at the Ikuu Bridge, which is a nice spot as you’re directly above a natural pool with resident crocodiles, hippos and an assortment of water birds.
There was one problem though - which for us somewhat spoilt the reason for wanting to be in this remote location – and it was that the bridge was crossed by a busy dirt road that was used by locals and quite a number of lorries that thundered past throwing up clouds of dust. It bisected this central area of the park, which meant that whenever we wanted to go to the other side of the Katisunga plain, or down the Katuma Valley towards Lake Chada, we would have to either partially use, or at least cross, the road. We found this part of our daily drives particularly off-putting as it broke the natural silence and tranquility of the place.
A small group of Plains Zebra [Equus quagga] on the Katisunga flood plain
The other thing we discovered over the following days was that, whist we were in the central and most interesting area of the park, it was pretty flat and featureless, and had very few tracks that you were allowed to drive on. Like most parks there are rules in place about keeping to the roads or designated tracks. This meant that although there were relatively few visitors we were coming across the same two or three vehicles every day. Obviously this couldn’t be avoided, but it gave the feeling that the area was busier than it actually was.
Part of a massive herd of Cape Buffalo [Syncerus caffer] at Lake Chada
Our camp was certainly quiet though as we were the only guests, but at the same time the surrounding area was also quiet from a wildlife point of view. We were there in July, which is the middle of the dry season, but unusually there had been some 'big rains' the month before, so there was still a lot of water around. This meant that the animals were spread out far into the plains - good for them, but not for game-viewing.
However, during the course of the time we were there, and by travelling quite some distance on certain days, we did manage to see a fair number of hippos, a particularly large buffalo herd at Lake Chada, a few giraffe, zebra and elephant, some antelope, three different lion prides and, right at the end of our stay, a magnificent female leopard.
A beautiful female African Leopard [Panthera pardus]
Southern Ground-Hornbill [Bucorvus leadbeateri]
There were also quite a lot of water birds and the odd raptor. But, we saw nowhere near the number of antelope species we expected to see, well certainly not close or in any number. Our list records some unusual species such as topi and hartlebeest, plus waterbuck, reedbuck and bushbuck, which was great, but most were just brief and distant sightings. I wouldn't go so far as to say it was a disappointment, but we had hoped for more. This was despite having an excellent and enthusiastic guide in Meresu, a Massai, who was extremely knowledgeable and a very likeable chap and who, with our driver Kevin, went to great lengths to get us to into the right areas.
Maybe wildlife photographers like us are hard to please. It's just that when you look forward to these very special trips and have such limited time available, you can become a bit impatient, particularly when you’re travelling for what seems like mile after mile without even seeing an impala.
I'm conscious though that our experience may not be typical. We were only there a few days so from what I read and found out from our guide is that the park is certainly home to substantial, albeit somewhat elusive, populations of localised eland, sable and roan antelopes, plus many other species that I’ve already mentioned above. The main focus for game viewing is the Katuma River, which is the central artery and lifeline of the park, together with its associated floodplains and the seasonal wetlands of Lake Katavi and Lake Chada. During the rainy season (November to April), these lush, marshy lakes are a haven for a myriad of waterbirds, and support Tanzania’s densest concentrations of hippo and crocodile. But, it is during the dry season (May to October), when the floodwaters retreat, that Katavi should really come into its own. The Katuma River should be reduced to a shallow, muddy trickle, forming the only source of drinking water for miles around. The flanking floodplains should then be supporting 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 giraffe, zebra, impala and reedbuck provide easy pickings for the numerous lion prides and spotted hyena clans whose territories converge on the floodplains.
And, looking back over my photos, I must remember that we did have some very special experiences, such as the close encounter with the female leopard, two different lion prides on kills both accompanied by cubs, and that enormous buffalo herd to name a few.
African Lion [Panthera leo] with buffalo kill
Will we return? - probably not, but that shouldn’t put others off. Every visit will be different. Seasons, weather patterns and animal behavior are all somewhat unpredictable wherever you travel. And, maybe that very special quest for solitude, which is becoming even more difficult to find, will make us rethink!