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Trip Report Predator Biologist Report and Photos: Tanzania's Wild West and more

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I wish I had more time to put into a full blown trip report but I simply don’t right now and to follow the general guideline of finishing one report before your next safari I’m going to have to do this in a quick synopsis style.

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.

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