In the 1980s, when Tanzania’s elephant and rhino poaching crisis peaked, Nicolas Gordon, author of Ivory Knight, described Katavi National Park as ‘isolated and unloved, and in need of support’. Since then, its stock has risen considerably. In 1998, the original 2,250 km2 sea side by president Nyerere was extended southeast to 4,470 km2, making it the country’s third largest national park. Meanwhile, the solitary concrete bunker that once served as its only tourist accommodation has been suplemented by a trio of top-notch tented camps catering to the top-end fly-in-market. Even so, Katavi retains a truely remote wilderness charater, and while tourist numbers have increased gradually over recent years, it is one of the few safari destinations where you are likely to see more lions that you are other poeple. Indeed, if any national aprk deserves the well-worm accolade of ‘Africa’s best-keep game-viewing secret’, it is surely Katavi, with its plentiful lions and elephants, large herds og buffalo, and what is possibly the continent’s densest concetrations of hippos. In short, the perfect goal for anybody seeking a true bush experience.

FLORA AND FAUNA

Katavi National Park lies within the Rukwe rift, an easterly extension of the Albertine Rift that culminates in the extensive Lake Rukwa Basin. Covered in dense Brachystegia woodland, the park is bisected by the seasonal Katuma and Kapapa rivers, which converge to become the Kavu, a monjor effluent of Lake Rukwa. Franked by open floodplains, the riveralso run through a trio of larger shallow depressions whse fine alluvial dust and yellowing grass and transformed into vast wetlands at the height of the rainy season.These are Lake Kiavi, (on the Katuma rier 2 km west of the main Mpamda-Sumbawanga road), Chemchen Springs (to the west of the Usevia road), and Lake Chada ( at the confluence of the Katuma and Kapapa about 3 km east of the Usevia road). The name Katavi, incidentally, is said locally to drive from Katabi, a defied traditional healer who lived close to the eponymous lake. Wildlife viewing is best during the rate dry season, when the Katuma is reduced to a sliggish muddy stream, in parts little more than a metre wide, yet also forming the only source of fresh water for miles in any direction. Among the more prominent large mammals on the floodplains at this time are elephant (over 4,000 are residents in the area), zebra, giraffe, hartebeest, topi, impala, reedbuck, and Defassa waterbuck. Lions are abundant, with several different prides’ territories converging on each of the so-called lakes. Spotted hyenas are regularly sighted in the early morning, while leopards are common but elusive in the fringing woodland. A notable feature of the park is its thousand-strong buffalo herds — at least three or four such herds roam along the river and associated floodplains. The woodland is less rewarding for game, at sable and roan antelope, which are drawn to the open grassland only at the very end of the dry season. Most remarkable of all, perhaps, are the spectacular number of hippo that converge on any stretch of the river sufficiently deep to wallow in during the dry season. There are several pools where hundreds of hippo can reliably be seen, flopping all over each other like seal at a breeding colony. These huddled concetrations consts of several different pods that would not associate durring the rains, when they are able to disperse more widely into the seasonal marshes and lakes. As a result, there is fierce territorial competition between rival males. Bloody fights are an in everyday occurrence, with dominance over any given hippo pool often passing from one bull to another several times in the course of the season, and the rejected behemoths being forced to spend their days foraging on the plains alongside the bifallo and zebra. We have not encountered anything like anywhere else in Africa — the hippo density per kilometre of riverfront must be comparable to that of the Rufiji River or Victoria Nile, except that instead of occupying a wide, deep river the hippos are squeezed into a shallow, muddy stream! And if the rivers dry up altogether, as they do most years in September or October, the few thousand hippos associated with them all relocate to a series of muddy pools fed by natural groundwater springs below the Ikuu ranger post. Here, you might see more than 500  individuals in one muddy wallow,lake lying cheek to cheek ont only with each other, but also with impressively proportioned adult crocodiles, a foe they would normally avoid. The river also harbour large concetrations of water-associated birds such as yellow-billed, open-billed and saddle-billed stork, pink-backed pelican, African spoonbill, and numerous herons,egrets and plovers. Raptors are well represented, with fish eagle, bateleur and white-backed vulture prominent. The accacia grove around Katavi Tented Camp is a particullarly rewarding spot for woodland birds such as little bee-eater, red-billed hornbill, lilac-breasted roller, sulphur-breasted bush-shrike, black cuckoo-shrike, African golden oriole, paradise flycatcher and crested barbet. A characteristic sound of the floodplain is the gurgling chuckle of yellow-throated sandgouse, which flock along the river to drink about 2 hours after sunrise and shortly before sunset.

WHEN TO VISIT

Katavi is classic dry-season reserve. During thr rainy season, the inundated black cotton soil renders the seasonal reacks more-or-less impassable, wildlife viewing is errati as the animals disperse far and wide, and the sweltering heat, combined with hordes of mosquitoes and other insects,can be highly uncomfortable. During the late dry season, by contrast, the three main floodplains attract copious concentrations of wildlife, with numbers usually peaking between August and early November.

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