Jump to content

Tanzania's Wild West and a few other areas


Predator Biologist
 Share

Recommended Posts

I was in Tanzania for a couple weeks in May. I visited the Wild West (Katavi, Mahale and Gombe) with a group of safari professionals organized and hosted by Mbali Mbali and then I traveled independently visiting the Serengeti, West Kilimanjaro, Arusha N.P., and Tarangire.

 

Katavi National Park

 

Katavi was the major reason I wanted to make this trip as it has always sounded like my kind of place, way off the beaten path, jam packed with animals but few camps and vehicles. I was concerned that May would not be a particularly good time to visit as it really is known for its dry season animal quantities, particularly hippos, crocs, and buffalo but due to other trip leading commitments it was May or nothing for me.

 

Coming in with that expectation I was extremely pleased with what I found. Katavi is a truly captivating and very wild feeling park with outstanding scenery and dense wildlife populations. It started on the flight in as we crossed the gorgeous Katisunga Plains that were flooded and lush and had a wonderful herd of a couple hundred buffalo. This was one of those rare areas where on game drives there were almost always mammals in sight, be it along the flood plain or along the Katuma River, which was especially dense with animals. For the most part it was megafauna, the species sighted wasn’t the most diverse but it was big animals. There was a long stretch referred to as the Men’s Club as it is just lined with old Dagga boy buffalo, before you lose sight of one small group you come to another and there are some huge individuals. Hippo viewing was also extraordinary, by far the best I have ever seen, largely in part because the hippo are frequently out of the water during the day so they are relaxed and behave with a boldness out of the water that I have not seen previously. Many large crocs also ply the waters and are frequently sighted. Giraffe, zebra, and impala were all common sights during drives. We had two sightings of lions, including a nice group of 3 females and 3 cubs. It appeared a couple more females were going to soon add to this total so those going for the dry season should have a great chance to see some 3 months old cubs. We also saw spotted hyena and found a den only about 200 yards away from camp where an extremely young baby, just weeks old, peeked out of the burrow but remained in very thick bush and we needed to leave so as not to agitate the mother. There was an elephant in camp a few times and we had several sightings on the edges of the woodlands as well. Bird life was good, nothing extraordinary. It is a great place to see fish eagles and wading birds along the river and I enjoyed viewing open-billed storks.

 

Best wildlife highlight was the noise! Night time noises were intense and there was one night where it felt like I had no sleep. Lions, hyenas, elephants, hippos, baboons, just a cacophony of all species alternating through most of the night and that of course accentuated the wild feel of the park. I was able to do a walk as well. Due to high grass on the flood plains we had to walk a stretch fairly close to the river and at one point had the daunting task of crossing between bull buffalo and the river full of hippos and crocs but with patience the buffalo moved off far enough to allow a passing. Knowing these were the conditions there was a vehicle trailing a short distance away so that added a huge safety element should we have no way ahead. Walks are accompanied by an armed park ranger as well.

 

Katuma Bush Lodge is a very nice level of accommodation, to me an ideal balance as it is very comfortable but in no way over the top, which lends to good value. Guests stay in canvas sided tents on top of wooden flooring raised just 3 steps or so from the ground with en-suite bathroom, hot sink and shower, flush toilet. Comfortable bed, everything most people need. Common areas are similar, very comfortable, nothing over the top but a good place to chill. There are plans to move the camp more upmarket, aiming for the 5 star level by adding amenities like a swimming pool by the end of the year as well as introducing spa services, bath robes, etc. in 2010 so change is on the way. The location is fabulous, looking out on the vast plains and very close to the river so an optimal area for wildlife viewing. As evidenced by the nearby hyena den and constant calling of wildlife through the night animals are all around camp and pass through frequently. Both lion sightings were on the plains very near the camp as well.

 

The lodge has new managers Geoff and Colleen who are Zimbabwean and had only arrived at the lodge a couple weeks before my visit. They have worked in a lot of safari areas, mostly in Zambia I think. An unusual aspect of the camp is because Mbali Mbali is owned by a Muslim family they will not provide alcohol to guests. However, the camp managers run a private ‘bar’ so basically the managers are responsible for buying and serving alcohol and guests run a tab that is settled prior to their departure. The guides were West and Peter, with West being a Zimbabwean and Peter a younger guide from Arusha. Both were very nice and had good knowledge of the flora and fauna. In May, due the plains being heavily flooded the game tracks really focused on the riverfront areas and were a little bit of a limited and repetitive area albeit with fantastic sightings, so I didn’t get to see the guides in action covering the vast terrain that opens up in the dry season and this was the only real drawback to visiting in May as after a few drives it would be nice to expand to other areas of the park. Drives are in open sided vehicles and guests are guaranteed a ‘window’ seat. Unfortunately park rules do apply so this is now an on-road game driving area and you have to be in by dark so no night drives. There is some flexibility on going off road for special sightings like lions since the park is so lightly touristed.

 

To sum it up I have read quite a few times that Katavi may be the greatest kept safari secret and I would have no argument with that statement. I still have a couple more under radar destinations to investigate before I would make that proclamation but I absolutely loved the park, the scenery, the wild feel, and the game concentrations and I will definitely be returning to check out the dry season as well as this has become one of my favorite safari areas.

 

http://bgiven.zenfolio.com/p574403642

 

Next to come is Mahale

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Guest nyama

Hi Pred, this brings back good old memories. Yes, I remember that noise at Katuma River, nightly hippo fights, and lots of fish eagle.

 

Interesting that you could drive there at all during May, I wasn't aware that there's any camp open during that month. Did you have much rain?

 

I find it a little bit disturbing that management at Mbali Mbali's camp and even guides are non-Tanzanians. When I visited the park with Flycatcher in 2001, it was a 100% Tanzanian affair.

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Interesting report. Katavi sounds wonderful and the more I read about it the I want to explore it. I wonder how many days would allow a really good look around.

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Nyama: You are correct, they don't usually open until June 1st but they opened up to host safari industry folks scheduled right after Indaba since that's when lots of people are already over and looking for a trip. I didn't go to Indaba and I've never done an organized FAM trip before as I prefer to travel my own way by picking the season and staying for different lengths etc. but because the western parks are expensive to get to I decided to take advantage of a very affordable opportunity as the owner was flying his plane for the group. It did not rain a single time when I was in the Western area, I did get heavy rain once in the Serengeti and that was it for two weeks. The benefit was there was almost no one anywhere I went, including the Serengeti and I don't think I shared a single sighting on the entire trip with more than one other vehicle so that was superb. In Katavi there was ample dry tracks skirting the Katisunga Plains and along a large length of the Katuma River so there was some excellent game drive area without even any tricky driving but it also meant that pretty much all our game drives were along the same general tracks.

 

I agree with you completely about having non-Tanzanian managers and guides. I can promise you that I asked about it, discussed it and am putting some suggestions in writing as it was my one great disappointment with the camps, which were otherwise great. As the report progresses you will see it is unfortunately the standard as they hired new managers for all the western camps and all are foreigners. They also have a head guide at Gombe who is Kenyan so they have gone outside of Tanzania quite a bit. I think it is important to point out that the Zimbabwean guide (West) at Katavi is black and had a long working relationship with the General Manager who was hired this year and she is Zimbabwean and also the Kenyan guide at Gombe (Bernard) is also black so its not white out with all the best positions though it is with the managers. I think their philosophy is importing expertise to raise the standards of the many Tanzanian employees on staff but I really wish they would have put forth the effort to find that expertise mostly in-country with an exception or two like West. My feeling is this company realized they needed some changes and tighter management so they hired the General Manager who had a lot of experience in Southern Africa and she arrived with a comfort zone of the Southern Africa style and has not been so impressed with the competence she found in Tanzania so she did what she knows best and headed to South Africa to recruit a management team. The irony is I went to only one camp that was 100% local Tanzanian staff on this trip, Serengeti Under Canvas and it was light years ahead of any other camp for management, social feel, and efficiency and since the camp strikes and moves locations I think its technically the most difficult to manage of those that I visited although it is very expensive as well so has ample resources but now I'm jumping way ahead. Bottom line I think the Mbali Mbali owners and General Manager are really good people, I will talk about the school they pay for later, but in going with their comfort level they have bucked the trend of going local and for some people like us that is going to be an issue and they need to grow their own Tanzanian managers quickly, which is what I am going to be watching for.

 

Twaffle: In general there are two flights a week for Katavi, on Mondays and Thursdays so most people use the bi-weekly flights and stay either 4 nights or 3 nights, often combining it with Mahale for chimpanzee trekking making for a 7 night trip between the two locations with the regularly scheduled flights. I love Mahale which I will write about next but I would opt for 4 nights Katavi for the greater diversity of wildlife and 3 nights Mahale to focus on chimps and the wonderful Lake Tanganyika environment. For someone with a huge emphasis on chimps you could switch that and do the 4 nights at Mahale. For someone with no interest in chimps you can certainly visit only Katavi as well and it will usually be the 4 or 3 nights unless you opt for an entire week which would work for those who prefer long stays in one place.

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Guest nyama

Pred, thanks for your detailed replies. Looking forward to your Lake Tanganyika reports, especially since these are from different camps than the usual reports and my own experiences.

 

(Wow. I guess those were the longest English sentences I ever read. :) )

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Thanks PB. I was interested in your comments regarding the lack of Tanzanian staff as I have always preferred local employees for lots of different reasons. We can often feel more comfortable when running a business with staff with a similar background or outlook but it can also blind us to the advantages and strengths of people from a totally different background or education.

 

What is the availability of water like in Katavi? Is putting a swimming pool in an environmental concern? I know it can be hot there so pools are an advantage when travelling with children.

Link to comment
Share on other sites

I have just had a chance to look at the Katavi photos. They are lovely, especially the misty ones which I imagine is something you wouldn't get in the dry season. Also the grasses add a lovely feel to the photos, even though I know it makes it harder to view some of the wildlife. Spectacular scenery so I think the answer is to visit twice, once in the dry, and again in a wetter season.

 

One advantage of seeing the hippos out of water in day light is the ability to get really clear photos showing their wonderful skin and all the marks of life on it.

 

The camp looks wonderful as it is, shame it has to be upgraded!

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Wonderful photos as usual, P.B. Thankyou.

 

 

Jan

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Thanks for all the comments, been a rough week so I haven't been around to keep up. Count me in the no swimming pool in Katavi club. I imagine there is sufficient ground water etc. that it isn't the same kind of environmental travesty as putting one in the desert but its such an amazing wild place that it just is not a good fit and I can just imagine elephants draining it daily to boot. Of course then it will be considered a real attraction. It's just a big symbol of the taming of a wild place and the arrival of more amenities and a different style of expectation and customer so I'd much prefer the camp remain as it is.

 

Hopefully I will be able to post on Mahale and Gombe soon.

Link to comment
Share on other sites

No hurry, get over your week first. We'll be waiting patiently.

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Hi Bill,

 

Trip sounds wonderful, did you include Selous and Ruaha too?

 

If so, how were your experiences there?

 

Thanks,

Hari

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Create an account or sign in to comment

You need to be a member in order to leave a comment

Create an account

Sign up for a new account in our community. It's easy!

Register a new account

Sign in

Already have an account? Sign in here.

Sign In Now
 Share

×
×
  • Create New...

Important Information

Safaritalk uses cookies to ensure you get the best experience on our website. By using Safaritalk you agree to our use of cookies. If you wish to refuse the setting of cookies you can change settings on your browser to clear and block cookies. However, by doing so, Safaritalk may not work properly and you may not be able to access all areas. If you are happy to accept cookies and haven't adjusted browser settings to refuse cookies, Safaritalk will issue cookies when you log on to our site. Please also take a moment to read the Terms and Conditions and Privacy Policy: Terms of Use l Privacy Policy