1: Katavi National Park
October and November 2005 ~ One of my best safaris ever.
We had been planning such a safari for 8 years and it had become a trip of a lifetime for my clients -this safari to Western Tanzania. We didn’t go so far for just a look see either, but a full week in each of two extraordinary locations, two exceptional National Parks. We wanted to explore, to immerse ourselves in these wild places, we wanted to walk and fly camp and have time to relax and ponder our journey.
Mahale Mountains and Katavi National Parks couldn't be more different from each other.
Mahale is lush and mountainous; it contains a unique forest habitat and sits on the shores of the World’s longest lake. Lake Tanganyika is alone unique enough to travel to the very West of Tanzania.
Katavi on the other hand is a mostly flat dry bush land with some hills that border the park where huge herds of large mammals concentrate in the dry season. These remote parks have been written about for a decade or so now but still relatively small numbers of visitors make the investments of time and money to have an extended visit. Nearly every visitor spends only 3-4 days in each park and many of them only visit Mahale.
I had been saying for a while that if we do make the effort to travel that far – we must enjoy the whole two weeks out West. My love affair with Mahale had starting in 1989, so I know it reasonably well. My Katavi visits had been short ones and much more recent. To say that we were all excited about this “safari out west” does not convey our joint exuberance – we were all totally ecstatic and expectant as we flew out of Arusha that warm October morning. We hadn’t slept much the previous night as we were all so very looking forward to this adventure.
I had explained that there was a risk of some rain, but that we would welcome it, if indeed it did come as it was going to be hot and humid and in Katavi –perhaps very dry indeed. The early rains do clear the air, get rid of the dust and make for much better light conditions for photography. I also consider the short rains of this time of year as quite beautiful and regenerating as the seasons change from dry to green.
We flew via Seronera and directly over the Gol Mountains and Nasera Rock where we had spent a week walking a couple of years previous. At Seronera airstrip we enjoyed half an hour on the ground watching the zebra herds heading south. The grass was green and the air clean and fresh.
We refueled at Tabora, landing at Katavi just after noon. Our open vehicle drove us to Chada Camp via the Karisuga floodplain and drainage line which still seeped water. Wildlife was everywhere and we could see why Katavi had been described as “The Beast Retreat” by the founder of this Chada Camp, Roland Purcell.
What was so incredible was the tolerance shown by the larger animals towards each other. Hippo by the hundreds lay dozing in the churned up mud wallows, elephant families were rushing in to drink, buffalos and zebra herds, waterbuck, impala and a few roan moved within inches of the hippos. We sought shade to watch this spectacle, something we would do a few times in the coming week. I scanned for birds and in doing so spotted a pride of lions deep in the shade. Great hunting opportunities here for these cats, I thought to myself and that would give us some excellent photographic chances.
Our week’s activities would be made up as we went along – much better to do it this way- read the signs-discuss options every day. But we had a vague plan to spend the first three nights at the main camp and fly camp in a remote spot for the next two nights and then return to the main camp for the last two nights.
We ended up sticking to this general outline.
The main camp was delightful, a classic design, unpretentious, only six guest tents which were very comfortable but still retained that wonderful feeling of –one is camping and the wild is all around. My kind of camp indeed!
The first three days were spent mostly sitting in the shade and being totally surrounded by interacting wildlife. We witnessed two lion kills, exciting elephant and lion interactions everyday, zebra stood still watching huge 12 foot crocs walk past, a young male elephant, in his excitement in reaching the mud wallows stood on a hippo’s back. The hippo reared up in protest and the bull ran back to mum! Lions were everywhere we looked, cubs as well. A number of male lions had positioned themselves along this valley with different prides and life just couldn’t have been easier for them – weakened animals were everywhere in large numbers and the female lions just couldn’t fail. A large crocodile had died which attracted a Nile monitor lizard and vultures to feed on green flesh. These crocs and hippos have a hard time in dry conditions and they crowd together setting aside their rivalry for territory, to just survive. The river banks were dug out everywhere and up to 30 crocs would pile in on top of each other – mostly head fist into the large or even small hole – long tails in the sun, head in the shade.
Deciding on where to explore and fly camp was easy- we consulted the maps- found out where the water was and was not, and we looked longingly at an escarpment on the map that rose 500 meters above the floodplains and a stream flowed down it by all reports.
The resident camp guide named Squak (yes a strange name and given to this extraordinary young man by his father- it means little unborn boy- he said) was from Zimbabwe where the tradition of only qualifying very well trained people to guide is well known. He had never explored this escarpment on foot and was very excited about the chance to do so –we unanimously voted to fly camp near this stream and climb this escarpment named Mlele.
Fly camping is fun. You do away with the large complex tents and get back to basics. Don’t get me wrong, we still had chairs and a table to dine from, we still had great wines and other drinks, you eat al fresco and sleep in a small mosquito net tent with the stars overhead. Some lions had killed a young buffalo at the camp site so before we arrived Squak had to chase them out of camp and move the carcass.
The night was noisy with hyenas!
We set out for our supposed four hour hike after a small breakfast. Water, sandwiches and first aid kit being shared around. Squak was kind enough to carry a few extras and as he is not a large person looked quite overloaded. This made his hike a lot more arduous than ours! Cameras and even a bird book went on this hike as well. It was a steep ascent up for two hours to reach the top of the escarpment, but what a view. We entered another world-a miombo world of strange trees and plants most of which I really didn’t know. We collected seeds and leaves and pods as we went. Below us Katavi National Park was spread out like a 5000 square kilometer quilt. The patchwork of different habitats we had just spent three full memorable days in watching very few beasts retreat from each other, looked to be baking, almost cooking in the morning sun.
The cool breeze on the Mlele escarpment was very welcome.
South of us we could see where the stream came off the heights and tumbled down over numerous visible small waterfalls. We decided that was our way down. A bacon and egg sandwich never tasted better and we drank our fill of water and ate mangos whilst sat on cool shaded rocks. I just couldn’t keep my eyes off the view, it was stunning.
Our decent was not as easy! We entered a different tree regime. Huge mountain trees rose overhead and the water in the stream was almost icy cold. We scrambled and pushed our way downwards and those scenic waterfalls became rock faces and barriers. I am always amazed at how steep a path an elephant can negotiate, but there they where, thankfully, as it did help.
In such a dry climate at the very end of the dry season I was awe struck by the size and health of these forest trees. Many were 100-120 foot high. Our path became easier and as my bird list grew I became quite excited looking for new species. Squak on the other hand was pilled up with seed pods and leaves. We got back to our fly camp at three o’clock in the afternoon for lunch, hungry tired but exhilarated. We had been on foot for over 8 hours but after a great lunch and an hour snooze set out in the vehicle to explore the nearby floodplain. And what scenes awaited us. Thousands of buffalo were coming in to drink, bushbuck stood on top of 10 foot high termite mounds-perhaps a leopard was around? The acacia sieberiana stands at the edge of these Katavi floodplains are magical to drive and warthog, impala, zebra and waterbuck were everywhere.
I asked Squak why he thought we were not seeing any elephant or hippo? A long history of poaching it seems has completely cleared this particular part of the park. As it rains heavily the roads to this area become impassable and as very few foot patrols by rangers are carried out these days the poachers move in after the New Year to carry out their ghastly trade
This was such wonderful habitat for these large beasts. They deserve better. Katavi has been extended, in fact doubled in size, in recent years and plans are afoot to improve access and establish permanent tourist camps in these areas. My mind went back to 1986 when I witnessed large scale poaching in Tarangire and elsewhere in Tanzania and I now realize that photographic tourism working with National Parks can achieve so very much and has done so in the last decade in Tarangire and other, now well visited parks in this country so blessed with wildlife. That process must start in these more remote parts of Katavi soon if these abused and perhaps over hunted habitats can see huge herds of elephant once more. Seasonal Professional Hunting alone, it seems, cannot stop the abuse. National Parks and photographic tourism can go much further to protect year round. Little wonder that the elephants in this area stayed hidden in the thick forest high up the escarpment. Perhaps allowing year round hunting that does not interfere with any species specific breeding seasons (that would have to be strictly controlled of course) could play a role and protect the Game Reserves for more months of the year?
Certainly a permanent tourism presence throughout the year, either photographic or hunting, will help tern the tide on the poaching these remote areas still suffer from.
Poaching for bush meat is big business still in more areas than you would think in Tanzania and tourism is able to displace it if enough revenues are earned.
Our last two days in Katavi were delightful as we just sat in the shade (eating far too many cookies) and watched as the wildlife came to us enjoying the huge herds that are so very exciting to be in the middle of. In the evenings we drank a little too much wine and really enjoyed the warm company of Squak the guide and Silvia the camp manageress. Silvia, a very bright and attractive young woman, (soon to be a Doctor of Anthropology I think) has that kind of entertaining personality that is spontaneous and fun, intelligent and generous. She and her wonderful staff catered for our every need. The camp’s head cook named Eliator used to cook for me on mobiles and at Oliver’s Camp in the mid nineties and it was nice to reminisce with him. I hope to go back to Katavi very soon, it is unique.