Tanzania: Remote rewards

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For Anthea Rowan a visit to Katavi National Park is a weekend getaway. For you, it may be a journey you never forget. 

Elephants joining the hippo pool party in Katavi

Elephants joining the hippo pool party in Katavi (Photo by MJ Photography/Alamy)

This article was published in Issue 63 (Summer 2013)

If you live, as I do, in the wild, wild, way-out-west of Tanzania, Katavi is a relative spit away. ‘Relative’ being the key word here. In my case this is still a bone shaking, bladder-agitating, nine-hour drive on dust through miombo woodland so thick that the tsetse flies can barely get through it without having their wings snagged. But for us, it is still the closest thing we get to a weekend escape.

And, as weekends away go, it’s a pretty good one.

Katavi National Park lies snugly in Tanzania’s southwest, to the north of Lake Rukwa and to the east of Lake Tanganyika. At almost 4500 square kilometres in size, it is the country’s third-largest park, after the Serengeti and Ruaha.  Indubitably, it is much more isolated than either. This remoteness probably explains the fact it receives only a few more visitors in a year than Ngorongoro Crater does in a day.

The park presents – whether you’ve driven or flown in – a welcome hiatus after miles and miles of flat and featureless landscape. Wedge-shaped Kipapa Hill stands sentinel over the large herds that traipse to and fro in their perpetual quest for food and water. During the dry season, when Lake Chada (usually fed by the Katuma River) reduces to nothing and morphs into an amphitheatre framed by the Mlele Escarpment, the movement of these animals sends clouds of dust skyward. Ten per cent of the park is dominated by the Katisunga Plains, which are fringed by the Ufipa Escarpment and remind me that I’m tucked under a short flung arm of the Rift Valley. And a long, long way from anywhere else.

Except where I live. Relatively speaking, of course.

My Rough Guide to Tanzania says that Katavi “doesn’t have especially spectacular scenery”. But it is wrong. In July – the middle of the peak visiting period – when the air is cool and free from rising dust, the views are unsmudged, unsullied and spill for miles and miles. All one million acres of it sports horizon-to-horizon blue skies by day, and as the sun creeps lower in the sky each evening the Borassus palms are silhouetted in brilliant every-frond-evident profile. At the end of the dry season in October the setting sun is filtered through a dusty haze, which seems to remove anything approaching insipid in colour and renders the sky a brilliant mixture of hot oranges and bruised lilacs. It’s also during this time that the park’s tamarind trees – excited by the prospect of imminent rain – begin to blush coy-pink. The amarula, the terminalia and the pod mahogany also all shiver with delicious anticipation, their shades shifting as if choreographed to the papery rattle of the parchment fronds of borassus palms overhead. The long-pod cassia trees join the festivities by decadently festooning themselves with sunshine-yellow blossom, and the scent of wild jasmine is thick in the soupy air. It is incredible pretty. Though part of me feels it shouldn’t be: the park’s size and remoteness should deliver something much more menacing. Something with teeth and a bite. Perhaps that’s where the scorching temperatures come in…

Prior to the unrelenting rains, which fall for six months from November through April, it is hot. You can hear all the insects in the world telling you as much, with pressure-cooked, hissing insistence.

To beat the heat hippos wedge themselves into diminishing pools near the Ikuu ranger post. You’ll see no greater concentration of these animals anywhere else in Africa (the Selous Game Reserve boasts a greater number of them, but its population is less dense). Lacking both hair and sweat glands, hippos don’t wallow in mud pools for fun. They do it for survival. The edges of these pools are typically lined with crocodiles, littered like logs and with their jaundiced jaws agape. When the drought takes its menacing grip and the Katuma River dries up completely, the crocs dig caves and hunker beneath the riverbanks until the rain comes. During this time 50 or 60 of them can be piled up together, and they are so inert that you could pull their tails and not risk a reaction.

Unlike other more-visited wildlife havens, there are not hundreds of vehicles descending on it daily, or hordes surrounding noteworthy sightings of game. Katavi gives generously of itself in terms of wildlife encounters – it hasn’t been disturbed by too many of us, so it gets on with the business of being wild irrespective of our scant presence. We were recently treated to a rewarding variety of interactions with its inhabitants: a young bull elephant showing off, flapping his ears, raising his trunk and showering himself in dust; a baby hippo’s curiosity in an equally curious hyena (until mama hippo saw the latter off); a bold plover noisily chasing another nosy hippo off his nest; and more big cats than you could shake a stick at (and they weren’t all asleep either).

As I lay in bed on the last of our four nights in Katavi I listened to the elephants trimming the tamarind tree above my tent. I marvelled at how well their fat-cushioned feet silenced their footfall – all I could hear was their gentle foraging and contented pachydermic purr. I had to reflect: is it worth it? Coming this far? Couldn’t I get my bush-living fix somewhere else? Somewhere with easier accessibility? Sure I could.

But the experience is never going to be – paradoxically – as finely honed or as raw as this one. The experience of a safari is all the more intoxicating when it’s this unspoiled. And I have to say that I just get a buzz when I see a lion that looks like he might be interested in eating me for lunch, rather than one that drops its gaze and flops back down into the shade with an expression of utter derision that seems to say, “Gawd! Not that lot again.”

Katavi isn’t infrequently visited because it isn’t worth it. Katavi is seldom visited because it’s hard to get to. And that is the beauty of it.

PLAN YOUR TRIP
Getting there:

There are charter flights from Dar es Salaam and Arusha to airstrips within the park and outside at Mpanda. It’s a tough but spectacular day’s drive from Mbeya (550 km) via Sumbawanga, or in the dry season only from Kigoma (390 km), or from Tabora to the north (375 km). Dirt roads in the region vary from impassable to excellent depending on weather conditions.

When to visit:
The dry season, which runs from May though October. Roads within the park are often flooded during the rains, which fall between November and the end of April, though some are briefly passable from mid-December to February (the mosquitoes then, however, can be a nightmare).

Visas:
Most visitors require a visa to visit Tanzania. These are available upon arrival at airports and land borders. A three-month tourist visa costs US$50.

Accommodation:
Katavi National Park offers a range of accommodation, from the basic and inexpensive (if unimaginative) self-catering Tanapa bandas (US$30 per person per night) at park headquarters to – for the more intrepid – camping. At present you can camp anywhere in the park and are not restricted to public campsites (one of the last places in Africa where you can do this). Park literature suggests you can only do this with a guide, however this rule isn’t enforced. There are half a dozen high-end tented camps with doubles of up to US$1000 a night on full board basis:
Chada Katavi Camp (www.nomad-tanzania.com)
Flycatchers Seasonal Camp (www.flycat.com)
Katavi Wilderness Camp (www.tanzaniasafaris.info)
Katuma Bush Lodge (www.chimpanzeesafaris.com)
Palahala Luxury Tented Camp (www.firelightexpeditions.com)

Find out more:
Tanzania Parks (www.tanzaniaparks.com)
Katavi National Park (www.katavipark.org)

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