A look see out to Western Tanzania

June 2007

Katavi, Mahale and Gombe National Parks are far from the well known Northern areas of Tanzania. It takes a very long drive or a 3-4 hour flight to get there. Then the roads between these places are not reliable and for many months of the year impassable. So just how do we link the North with the West? Over the past few years regular shared charter flights have been operating out of Arusha to Katavi and Mahale and this has helped. It now is clear that investments are being made out west and more flights are being offered not only from Arusha but also from Ruaha and the Selous Game Reserve. That sense of going very far from the main areas remains and I highly recommend a safari out West if you haven’t already done one with me.

Tati and I were invited along on a trip to view the properties of a company called “Chimpanzee Safari”. I have been using the well established Nomad Camps out there for a while but did feel that they were getting a little run down. Competition is good I suppose, so now Nomad’s have just that in Chimpanzee safaris! CS has invested in aircraft and boats, both large and small and tented camps in Katavi, Mahale and Gombe National Parks, and they are ambitious and really trying hard to please. Anyone with money can put up a camp so Tati and I needed to see for ourselves and not listen to the reports of others.

We flew into Katavi first but sadly for only one night. From the air this park is utterly stunning. The size of the wetlands with elephant and buffalo herds, when seen from the air is very humbling.

The park had been burned a little too much but the wildlife and grasslands and woodlands looked in good health. The Katuma Tented Camp has 10 tents built on platforms with great views over the grasslands. Not all tents are separated from each other well so pick numbers 1 and 2 or 6 and 7! The elephants were all around tents 8-10, following the vehicle track that passes these tents, and the kitchen area is close to tents 3-5.

Katuma_guest_tent Katuma_Katavi_dinning_area

Katavi_hippo Katavi_crocs

Katavi for a night is painful! We wanted to stay a week. Flying out of this park to Mahale is like leaving one dimension to arrive at another. Lake Tanganyika is awesome and the mountains of Mahale divine. The one hour flight takes you over very wild back country that I am always promising myself to explore. Arriving at Nkungwe camp by boat is magical and the staff was out in force to greet us. We dined and hiked and fished, and enjoyed seeing the chimps, we were spoiled! Two nights in any primate’s paradise!

Nkungwe_Tented_Camp_Mahale Nkungwe_guest_tent

Nkungwe_welcome Nkungwe_dinning_room
Off_to_fish_Lake_Tanganyika

Then it was off to Gombe. First a flight to Kigoma and then a speed boat (400 HP) to Gombe and we arrived for lunch. As I knew that any facility inside this tiny park would have to really fit in and be hidden, I was very presently surprised to see that the 6 tents of this camp couldn’t be seen from the beach. In the shade of large fig trees the camp was exquisitely well hidden.

Gombe_Tented_Camp Gombe_Tented_Camp_Guest_tent Gombe_Tented_Camp_Kitchen_and_staff Moving_right_along

Time was tight so after lunch and a viewing of the entire facility we headed back to Kigoma to overnight at the Hill Top Hotel. We returned to Arusha the next morning via Tabora where the plane was refueled.

OKAY here are the important bits! All tents in all camps had flush toilets that worked. The showers worked as did the lights. The planes and boats were quite new so I cannot complain at all about them. Taki our host and son of the owner was incredible and at 24 years old can leap out of a caravan he has just flown, then into a 400 horse powered speed boat, discuss fishing, conservation, Kigoma history and then dress immaculately for dinner. We dubbed him 008! Some things are not well however. The food was average and the staff was also a little slow to respond with service I’m afraid, willing but not yet able! The coffee was instant and the wine ran out. They will improve I have no fear. It’s all about management and Chimpanzee Safari listened to us and has promised improvements right away. I hope so because I take my first guests there in July! I will take my own coffee along and a box of wine I think.

Perhaps the most impressive thing about Chimpanzee Safaris is that they are giving back to the town of Kigoma in the most impressive way. We visited the school that they are building near Kigoma airfield – I expected a small investment - it was huge and so well equipped that I was blown away. It must be costing them and the people that they have asked to help, and I am not joking here, over two million dollars! They didn’t boast about this secret at all. This sort of contribution makes others I know that boast internationally of their commitment to communities, look tame indeed. My hat is off to Chimpanzee Safaris! Well done!  

Katavi and Mahale are exceptional destinations and are both remote enough to make logistics very hard work indeed. I always forgive supply hic cups and any shortage of wine in such places and as this company has very recently embarked on real upgrades and are attempting to compete with Nomad I will forgive the service weaknesses and look forward to improvements in that department in July. Hey - the grasslands of Katavi and the Mountains of Mahale are worth visiting if all you have to eat is beans and rice and all you drink is lake water!

All photographs by Paul Oliver.