Do you know anyone that has been to Katavi or Mahale Mountains National Parks in Western Tanzania? Probably not.
Those who have been to Tanzania probably visited some of its most famous parks in the north of the country – places like Ngorongoro Crater, Lake Manyara and Serengeti. We love Northern Tanzania as it offers the chance to see large numbers of Africa’s iconic species like lions, leopards, elephants, zebra, hippos and giraffes. But for the adventurous traveler who is looking for an off-the-beaten-path experience in East Africa, we recommend giving Katavi and Mahale Mountains National Parks a look.
Even fewer visitors – a minute percentage, in fact – endure the long travel times to go by small plane all the way to remote Katavi, Tanzania’s third largest park, and Mahale, nestled between lush green mountains and the shores of gin-colored Lake Tanganyika. But those who do, as our family recently did, are handsomely rewarded with incredible wildlife encounters and the peace and solitude that these true wilderness areas provide.
Just how unvisited are these parks? Just how far off-the-beaten-path are they?
Katavi, which at about 1,700 square miles is bigger than about 30 countries around the world, only gets a couple thousand visitors per year! That’s less than many other African national parks get in a day. The nearest small city is hours away by plane and the roads to and from it can become impassable in the wet season. While getting there involves a long flight with a fuel stop half-way, it’s absolutely worth the time and effort!
There are only three small permanent tented camps in the whole park, making it one of the most exclusive safari experiences on the continent. On our visit, we stayed at Chada Katavi. With just five tents deep in the middle of the bush, the camp is unplugged from the world – literally. There is absolutely no phone service and no WIFI available to guests. After we experienced the brief symptoms of connectivity withdrawal, we enjoyed the peacefulness – and even our teenagers survived and thrived! At night, it is unbelievably quiet unless a lion decides to roar, or a hyena starts to whoop. Because there is no light pollution, there are millions of stars visible on a clear night.
The staff and management of Chada Katavi – from the locals in housekeeping to the entertaining expat manager, Julian – are true lovers of the bush and made our visit very special. Our guide, John, was outstanding and was great at spotting wildlife such as tree-climbing lions, elephants playing in the mud, and huge numbers of hippos and crocodiles. On our game drives we sometimes went hours without seeing a single other vehicle. On game walks, we learned about tracks and signs, in addition to getting extremely close to hippo pods, crocs and elephants.
While I love all of Tanzania’s parks and reserves, Katavi is special in that if feels totally untamed. With few other tourists and a plethora of wildlife, it’s a magical spot to visit on safari. During the dry season, the concentrations of hippo and crocs in the remaining waterholes and river pockets are astonishing. You might think you are looking at a pile of boulders only to realize that it is an abundance of hippos vying for the last spot of water.
Check out part 2 of my ‘Wild Western Tanzania’ adventures where we checked another thing off the Redding bucket list: chimp trekking as a family!