By Bert Duplessis
Katavi. Katuma. Katsunga. Kapapa. There are several K-words to remember on a trip to Katavi National Park, one of Africa’s most remote wildlife sanctuaries, tucked into the southwestern part of Tanzania.
Not too many visitors actually make it to Katavi. It is remote, not very easy to get to (a long flight from either Arusha or Dar-Es-Salaam) and it does not have as many roads and amenities – or as big a selection of lodges – as many other East African parks. Once you do make it out there though, you’ll probably want to return again and again.
Why? Well – mostly for the same reasons as above: It is far from anywhere, rather tough to get to, there are few roads, very few other visitors and just a handful of camps. Katavi is the anti-Mara, the anti-dote to over-travelled African game parks where minibuses line up like gluttons at a buffet, for their passengers to gawk at overly habituated vehicle-climbing cheetahs to the sound-track of clattering shutters.
There’s none of that in Katavi. It is unvarnished Africa – raw and unfiltered and totally remarkable. Katavi is Tanzania’s third largest park and it is famous for its large buffalo herds which can reach more than 3,000 individuals at times. We did not see that many at any one time as the big herds disperse late in the dry season (October & early November). Even so, we experienced several other dramatic sightings including literally hundreds of hippo jammed together in small, rapidly drying pools, a very healthy lion population, leopard, good numbers of elephant and a wealth of general plains game such as giraffe, zebra, impala and Defassa waterbuck.
Katavi is Africa with a wild, harsh edge. It’s not that easy getting there, and it’s not a walk in the park being there. The late dry season months of October and November can be quite hot in the afternoons, and chances are that you will have a minor run-in with a few tsetse flies here and there, not to mention some African cousins of the June bug, during dinner.
Go all the way there and brush off these and a couple other minor inconveniences such as a lot of zipping and unzipping tent openings, and you will be amply rewarded. Having traveled to just about every ‘safari’ region in Southern and East Africa, Katavi struck me as one of the last few totally unspoiled game sanctuaries in Africa. There are few roads, not many other visitors and miles and miles of wilderness where Africa looks you straight in the eye.
This is not the Serengeti where the grass is ample and almost all the animals are in good condition, unless there is a drought. This is a place of feast and famine, where survival of the fittest really means something and where every organism is tested to the limit during the long dry season.
By late October the hippos are literally at the end of their rope with sometimes hundreds of them ‘trapped’ in shrinking, smelly pools of mud. They are very stressed and very close to the breaking point, losing as much as one third of their total weight in the process.
And it’s not just the hippos that have it tough. The large herds of buffalo have to disperse because no one area of the park can sustain so many of them in close proximity. Every animal other than the predators is reduced to just eking out an existence until the first rains come.
HEAT AND HIPPOS IN THE WILDERNESS
By the time we walked into our tent at Chada Katavi on Oct 28, it was hot, probably close to 90F. We had been traveling for several hours, having made two long back to back flights on a Tanganyika Flying Company (TFC) Cessna Caravan from Kogatende to Tabora (for refuelling) and then to the Katavi airstrip just off the Katsunga floodplain.
The tented rooms at Chada Katavi are quite large with a separate but connected bathroom with bucket shower (hot water by arrangement, on request). A single small spigot supplied water for washing one’s hands. We were initially somewhat dubious about it, but the en-suite chemical toilet employs an efficient yet minimally water-intensive flushing mechanism. All the zipping and unzipping to get into the tent and out of it, as well as into and out of the bathroom enclosure, gets a bit tedious. The insect screening is quite good though so you just have to take it in stride.
Chada Katavi is a bush camp through and through. The tents are quite widely dispersed in a massive wooded forest with sandy paths connecting the various tents to the separate lounge/library and mess tent. Oddly enough the lounge tent was right out in the open and not shaded by one of the many trees in camp. It was not heavily frequented by anyone in camp while we were there. Just too hot.
After tea which was served at 4:00P, we set off with camp manager and guide Mohamed Kassim on a game drive which took us to the Katuma river where we were quite astounded at the sight of raft after raft of dozens of hippos packed into muddy pools: cheek to cheek, tail to tail with no space for any one of them to do a 360-degree move. In ones and twos they glared at us, rearing back a bit as we approached. But they soon relaxed and there was less in the way of warning displays such as big toothy yawns, than I had anticipated.
We also observed a few Yellow-billed Storks fishing in the rapidly disappearing pond, plucking one after another small catfish out of the murky, smelly water. The stork would then throw the small fish around, seemingly catching and losing it several times, after which it would be swallowed whole.
Then we were off to another spot with even more hippo packed into a very small area. What a sight! Not long afterwards we came upon the Chada pride of lions, numbering around 16 or so. There were 3 young cubs not quite 3 months old. I made a few decent captures of the young lions, who were intermittently taking milk from their mother, half-heartedly playing with each other, trying their paws at tree-climbing or just sitting about and staring at the human intruders.
By around 6:30P or so it was time to head back to camp which we did; it is about a 20 to 25 minute drive to Chada from where we were, close to the Fox camp. After a welcome shower we enjoyed cocktails around the camp fire and then it was dinner time. Nothing too exciting this evening but tasty and well-prepared: beef or lentil stew with couscous, butternut squash, and fresh green beans. Then a cup of coffee and it was time for bed. Lala Salama!
At exactly 3:45A – I checked – I was awakened to the sight of a large grey ghost approaching our tent from the left (where the main entrance is). I woke up Kathy: ‘Look, an elephant!’ We both stared out of the pitch black tent trying to see the behemoth in the moonless night. By now he/she had moved really close to the tent and then something strange happened. The elephant leaned in and started scraping the tent with what seemed to be its hide, producing a rough scratching sound. In the dead of the night, it was extremely loud and most disturbing. What on earth was this elephant trying to do – flatten our tent?
I’ve never felt threatened inside a tent before but I must admit that this time, I started feeling around for a flashlight and mentally calculated how long it would take to unzip the door opening and make an escape. And then it dawned on me. The elephant was using its trunk to literally hoover the seeds of a massive tamarind tree from the verandah and roof of our tent. We were in no imminent danger of getting trampled; this particular elephant has been pulling this stunt for a long time! He knew exactly where to lean in under the verandah to get close to the source of the delicious, nutritious seeds. In doing so he got us really worried for a few seconds because he was pushing on the poles which keep the tent in place. I started giggling and thought about trying to get a photo but setting of flashlights right then might not have been a good idea. So we just relaxed, listened to a bit more scraping and scratching going on and then it was quiet. Our seed-eating pachyderm had moved on to scare someone else.
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