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 country’s more popular parks; giving intrepid explorers the chance to step back in time and experience the magic of Africa at its most unspoiled.
About the Park
Katavi National Park was established in 1974 and covers approximately 1,726 square miles, making it the third-largest national park in Tanzania. Its landscapes are incredibly diverse. The Katuma River is the primary feature and the focus of most game-viewing safaris. Its associated floodplains are connected by a network of seasonal rivers and host swathes of tall golden grass during the dry months. Two seasonal lakes (Katavi and Chada) complete the park’s aquatic habitats. To the west, dense woodlands provide cover for forest-dwelling wildlife, while the steep escarpments of the Rift Valley overlook the flat grasslands below. The park’s headquarters are located at Sitalike, some 25 miles south of Mpanda town.
Animal and Birdlife in Katavi National Park
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, and giraffes; as well as 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.
Top 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. Game drives in an open-sided safari vehicle are the most popular method of looking for animals; although some lodges offer walking safaris as well. Exploring the African bush on foot is the ultimate adventure, giving you the chance for close encounters under the protection of an experienced armed guide. 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.
Where to Stay
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.
- 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).
- For those on a budget, Tanzania National Parks (TANAPA) offers a self-catering rest house and bandas at Sitalike headquarters.
Weather and When to Go
The climate in Katavi National Park is hot throughout the year, with daytime temperatures typically sitting at around 90 degrees F (32 degrees C). Unlike other areas of Tanzania, which have two distinct dry seasons, 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 (now the only water source for miles around). At this time the park’s roads are easier to navigate, conditions are better for photography, and there are fewer insects. This is important because malaria is a risk in this area of Tanzania, although prophylactics are recommended all year round. 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 spectacularly green scenery and the abundant birdlife. Migrant species are in residence from November to April.
Due to the difficulty of getting to Katavi by road, most visitors choose to fly in. Flights will usually be arranged by your lodge and several of them include the price in their rates. You have two options: Safari Air Link, which flies twice a week on Mondays and Thursdays and connects to Katavi from Dar es Salaam, and Arusha with a stop in Ruaha. The journey from both cities takes approximately three hours. Alternatively, those headed for Mbali Mbali Katavi Lodge can take advantage of a shared charter operated by Zantas Air Services. This flight departs from Arusha twice a week (also on Mondays and Thursdays). The expense of these flights is what makes Katavi such an exclusive destination.
For the adventurous self-driver with plenty of time on their hands (or for backpackers on a budget), it is also possible to drive overland to Katavi. It’s 340 miles from Mbeya and 240 miles from Kigoma with the latter route only possible during the dry season. Whichever way you travel, the journey is likely to take at least a full day due to the conditions of the road.
In terms of conservation fees, Katavi is actually incredibly cheap by Tanzanian national park standards. Entry costs $30 per day for adults, $10 per day for children aged 5 to 15, and nothing at all for children younger than 5. If you’re traveling in your own vehicle (including a rental), you will need to pay an additional fee. For regular cars and/or pick-ups, the rate is currently 20,000 Tanzanian shillings ($8.65) for a locally registered vehicle or $40 for a foreign-registered vehicle. For an overview of all other fees including the rates for TANAPA accommodation, visit the park's website.