Katavi National Park: The Complete Guide

Hippos crowd into a mud hole at Katavi National Park

Ben Cranke / Getty Images

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Katavi National Park

Address
Ikuu, Tanzania
Phone +255 767 536 128

If you’ve watched classic films like "Out of Africa" and felt strangely nostalgic for the untamed wilderness that was East Africa a hundred years ago, you’ll be thrilled to hear that such places still exist. One of them is Katavi National Park. Set in an extension of the Rift Valley between Lake Rukwa and Lake Tanganyika in southwest Tanzania, this magnificent safari destination is both wildly remote and either difficult or expensive to get to. As a result, far fewer tourists venture here than to the region's more popular national parks, giving intrepid explorers the chance to step back in time and experience the magic of Africa at its most unspoiled. 

Things to Do

Visitors to Katavi National Park come for one reason: to enjoy world-class wildlife-viewing in a setting so remote that the likelihood of seeing other tourists from one day to the next is slim. When you book your stay at one of the lodges in the park, virtually all of them include safari packages with the accommodations. Game drives in an open-sided safari vehicle are the most popular method of looking for animals, including night drives when the animals are most active.

If you want to forgo the vehicle, many of the lodges offer a walking safari as well. Exploring the African bush on foot is the ultimate adventure, giving you the chance for closer and more intimate encounters with the local wildlife (always accompanied by an armed guard, of course). The longer Chorangwa Trail is over 6 miles long and takes at least five hours to complete, while the Sitalike Trail is broken up into shorter distances so you can choose something more manageable.

For true hiking enthusiasts, there's a 10-mile trail through the park's forests that leads to a scenic viewpoint overlooking the Rukwa Valley and passes by no less than three waterfalls. The best time to hike is in May at the beginning of the dry season when the waterfalls are still roaring but you don't have to deal with storms affecting your trek.

If you have an interest in local culture, be sure to visit the sacred tamarind tree near Lake Katavi. It is said to be inhabited by the spirit of a legendary hunter, Katabi, after whom the park is named. 

Game Viewing

Katavi is famous amongst those in the know for its vast herds of plains animals, including some of the biggest concentrations of elephants and Cape buffalo in Tanzania. In the drier months, more than 4,000 elephants have been known to converge on the banks of the Katuma River in search of life-giving water. Other herbivores include zebras, wildebeest, giraffes, and many different kinds of antelope. Keep a particular eye out for the elusive roan and sable antelopes, and the rare Defassa waterbuck. Carnivores are attracted by the park’s abundance of prey and include lions, leopards, cheetah, and spotted hyenas. Wild dogs live in the park but mainly stay on the escarpment and are therefore rarely seen. 

The Katuma River is home to the country’s densest concentration of crocodiles and hippos. During the dry season, hundreds of hippos are confined to shallow mud pools and impressive yet deadly confrontations often break out between males seeking to establish their territory. The park’s wetland areas also stand out for their astonishing birdlife, with aquatic species ranging from open-billed and saddle-billed storks to African spoonbills and pink-backed pelicans. Forest specials like the African paradise fly-catcher and the African golden oriole can also be spotted in the woodland areas, while raptors including fish eagles and bateleur eagles are common. In total, more than 400 avian species have been recorded at Katavi. 

Where to Camp

There are a couple of campgrounds operated by the national park that include campsites for tent camping or banda accommodations, which are small huts with very basic amenities. To make a reservation at one of these campsites, you have to contact the Tanzania National Parks association (TANAPA) directly.

Where to Stay Nearby

Due to the logistics of setting up camp in such a remote location, there are only a handful of permanent and seasonal lodges to choose from in Katavi. Even though you may be sleeping in a tent structure outdoors, these "camps" are luxury accommodations and, in general, the rates also include transportation, all of your meals, and daily safari drives.

  • Mbali Mbali Katavi Lodge is located in the center of the park, with 10 luxury safari tents overlooking Katisunga plain. All-inclusive rates include two game drives per day with the option of an additional night drive. This is a great family option since kids of all ages are welcome. 
  • Katavi Wildlife Camp by Foxes sits on the edge of Katisunga plain and comprises six Meru-style tents, each with an en-suite bathroom and a private veranda with a hammock and chairs. Guests can take part in twice-daily game drives and swap tales over dinner at the restaurant. 
  • Chada Katavi by Nomad Tanzania enjoys the shade of a grove of tamarind trees on the edge of Chada plain. The camp, open during the dry season only, includes six canvas tents and an officer’s mess for dining and socializing. Activities include game drives, bush walks, and fly camping (the magical experience of sleeping out under the African stars). 

How to Get There

Due to the difficulty of getting to Katavi by road, most visitors choose to fly in to one of the airstrips in the park. Domestic flights will usually be arranged by your lodge and several of them include the price in their rates. If you're looking for your own transportation, one option is Safari Air Link, which connects to Katavi from Dar es Salaam or Arusha. The journey from either city takes approximately three hours. Alternatively, those headed for Mbali Mbali Katavi Lodge can take advantage of a shared charter flight operated by Zantas Air Services. None of these flights are a cheap option, but the expense is what makes Katavi such an exclusive destination. 

Tips for Your Visit

  • The park’s headquarters are located at Sitalike, some 25 miles south of Mpanda town. 
  • The climate in Katavi National Park is hot throughout the year, with daytime temperatures typically sitting at around 90 degrees F (32 degrees C).
  • Katavi has one continuous wet season from November to April and one dry season from May to October. During the dry season, days are typically clear and sunny, with lower humidity and almost no rain. During the wet season, it will rain almost every day although usually only for a brief period in the late afternoon. Thunderstorms are common and the humidity is high. 
  • Katavi can be visited all year round. Traditionally, the best time to travel is during the dry season when large numbers of game congregate around the river. At this time the park’s roads are easier to navigate, conditions are better for photography, and there are fewer insects.
  • During the wet season, some of the park’s lodges close and getting around is more difficult. However, there are reasons to visit at this time, including the spectacular green scenery and the abundant birdlife. Migrant species are in residence from November to April. 
  • Malaria-carrying mosquitos are prevalent throughout the park, so be prepared and take the proper precautions to minimize your risk, including taking anti-malia pills, using bug spray, and wearing long sleeves.
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Katavi National Park: The Complete Guide