Kim’s Tanzania Trip Report – Part I

November 26, 2012  By: Gretchen

It’s a privilege to land back in Tanzania for a second time within 2 months – it’s also nice to make use of my multi entry Visa, which is valid for 3 months. Tanzania has been one of my favorite countries in the world for quite awhile, and I now have the opportunity to explore some of its western parks, as well as the prestigious northern Serengeti.  I already have a feeling that this trip is going to exceed my expectations!

After uneventful travels on Delta and KLM via Atlanta and Amsterdam, I was greeted with that warm Tanzanian smile by our partners in Arusha – Nomad Tanzania. I was exhausted from my long travels yet forced myself to stay awake for a light dinner by the Michelin chef, Axel, at Onsea House (one of my favorite boutique hotels in town) – after all, one of the best parts about a safari is the food! Excitement was in the air in Arusha, as the President Kikwete was in town to celebrate Arusha town officially being named a city on November 2nd – congratulations citizens of Arusha.

After a good night’s rest and wakeup call by the rooster’s crow in the nearby village, I met my small group of 5 at Arusha Airport, and we boarded our 12-passenger Cessna with Tanganyika Flying Company, bound for Katavi National Park. After a quick and scenic one hour flight, we stopped in Dodoma to re-fuel for about 25 minutes (usually done in Tabora) before continuing almost 2 hours to Katavi National Park. Quite different from the 20 minute to 1 hour flights in Northern Tanzania, this journey was not for the faint of heart.  Our expert pilot navigated us through the clouds and some bumpy rain, but we then landed without a bump onto the dirt airstrip in Katavi. The air was thick with impending rain, but we were warmly greeted by our driver-guide for the next 4 days, Paul, the camp manager, Justin, and the views of yet another stunning wildlife park.

Katavi National Park is the 3rd largest park in Tanzania and one of the lesser known and lesser traveled destinations, making it a real gem to visit. The scenery is diverse and epic with thick woodland forests, open savannahs, dry riverbeds which ravage in the rainy season, endless hippo pools, exotic palm forests and the dramatic Rift Valley in the distance. Guests will only explore about two-thirds of this wilderness, where you can easily spot impala, zebra, giraffe, topi, elephant, huge herds of buffalo, three prides of lion, warthog, hyena, monitor lizards, water birds, woodland birds, the most hippos I’ve ever seen in my life, and more!

The more elusive creatures that are more difficult to find are leopard, wild dogs, ostrich, roan and sable antelope, and pangolin, and you will not find any rhino, wildebeest, cheetah or gazelle.  With only 4 permanent camps in the entire park, guests also will not see many other people or vehicles, affording some very private, and many times solo, wildlife encounters, which is one of the highlights of Katavi.

We arrived midday at Chada Katavi (the best camp out of the 4 in the park), tucked away in a thicket of tamarind trees and our home for the next four days. Chada Katavi is the only camp in the park deemed as a “mobile, seasonal” camp. Although the camp does not actually move, its basic structures and eco-friendly design leave less of a footprint in this pristine wilderness. The camp is home to 6 spacious canvas tents built on wooden platforms with en-suite facilities including a eco-chemical toilet and safari shower (hot water boiled upon request). Although simple, the tents have all the comforts you need with cozy beds and fresh linens (double or twins), electric lighting, a wardrobe for your safari gear, small writing table, and a private veranda to game view from your tent – which can be quite up close and personal when the elephants are in camp. The common areas include a quaint library tent with a deck to enjoy tea time, an open dining tent to share meals in the open air, and a boma to gather around a fire under the stars each evening. The warm staff and friendly hosts, Justin & Jackie, made our stay even more special and well worth the long voyage.

The next four days were spent exploring Katavi in a myriad of ways – traditional game drives in open Land Cruisers, bush breakfasts, walking safaris with a TANAPA ranger, fly camping under the stars, and the ever favorite sundowners in the glow of the setting African sun. We were here during the start of the short rains (November and December), and the bush has already started to green and blossom. While rates are lower this time of year, you must be prepared for an afternoon shower OR evening rain while fly camping, as we intrepid campers endured during our stay! This time of year also allows guests to enjoy epic thunder and lightning storms which are quite impressive, stunning scenery as the bush comes back to life with green foliage, an abundance of adorable baby animals, and fewer crowds (although never really a problem in Katavi).

The best time of year to visit Katavi, however, is during the dry season from July to October when the riverbeds are dry and the grasses are low. This year, guests at Chada Katavi witnessed a herd of 400+ buffalo in the Chada Plain just behind camp.  And an insider’s tip – a very special time to stay at Chada Katavi is from August to mid-October when the tamarind trees are in fruit, welcoming the elephant in camp!

We just missed these spectacles but were entertained with plenty of other special wildlife encounters.  The hungry Chada pride were devouring  a hippo kill (making for a more active lion sighting than the typical lazy lion basking in the sun), crocs showed off their clever caves in the empty river banks, the more inquisitive Katsunga pride displayed one of their very handsome young males, young elephants stayed close on the heels of their majestic mothers, a lone bull elephant showed us how to dig for water to drink when the hippos are clogging up the pools, but the most impressive display in all of Katavi were the masses of hippo pods! I have never seen so many hippos in any other park in Africa, and while I usually get excited to see that rare hippo out of water, we were fortunate to witness what we nicknamed the “hippo migration” as hundreds and hundreds of hippos spilled from their muddy pools at dusk, elegantly tiptoeing off to graze for the night – impressively covering up to 10 miles!

We also enjoyed all possible weather forecasts from torrential downpour (only lasting 20 minutes), an impressive lightning storm, blue sunny skies, no sunsets, stunning sunsets, and a spit of rain while fly camping (which was quickly remedied by our brave guides enclosing each tent with a rain fly). The best part about this time of year is how quickly the landscape turns from brown to green, with short grasses shooting up and turning the plains into a putting green, vibrant leaves budding from the trees, and pops of pink, yellow and purple flowers dotting the ground. Katavi truly was in incredible park in every way possible.

Although we were sad to depart our new friends and leave this amazing African wilderness, I knew that there were still more adventures ahead and moved on with excitement and haste.