Katavi National Park is a Tanzanian national park created in 1974 and is located in Katavi Region, Tanzania. It is a very remote park that is less frequently visited than other Tanzanian national parks. The park is approximately 4,471 square kilometers (1,726 sq mi) in area, which makes it the third largest national park in Tanzania. The park encompasses the Katuma River and the seasonal Lake Katavi and Lake Chada floodplains.
Wildlife features include large animal herds, particularly of Cape Buffalo and elephant, plus along the Katuma river, crocodiles and hippos which upon annual dry seasons results in mudholes that can be packed with hundreds of hippos. Some sources claim a very high biodiversity in the park, although there are also reports of wildlife decline due to illegal hunting and poaching, presumably ‘bushmeat’ sustenance. In general, what is probably most noteworthy feature of Katavi versus other Tanzania parks is that it lacks human visitors and jeeps conducting game drives.
The exact number of visitors to the park on an annual basis is unclear, except that in comparison to better known parks, is extremely low. The number of visitors for all of the 2005 season was reportedly 250, and was locally claimed to be 400 in 2007, and expecting to hit 700 for the 2008 Season. A survey of the actual rooms sold by the available ‘Safari’ style accommodations might reveal the number to be slightly higher, but based on total room count and season length, an upper limit can also be estimated. In addition to a public campsite (located at SO 06’39’19.1 E0 031’08’07.9), as of 2013, there were only three permanent camps permitted to operate at Katavi, namely the Chada on the Chada Plain, the Foxes and Katuma Bush Lodge on the Katuma Plain. These camps each have a visitor capacity limit of approximately one dozen each. There are also seasonal (temporary) camp runs by Flycatcher Safaris and the Palahala Camp, run by Firelight Expeditions.
Access to the park
Getting to Katavi for visitors will likely be arranged by the hosting camp, with one of the available charter flight services being Safari Air Link. Alternatively, Auric Air operates scheduled flights into Katavi National Park. All flights will require landing on a dirt airstrip; the Ikuu airstrip (near the Ikuu Rangerpost) has minimal services. It is very approximately a three-hour flight from Katavi to Dar es Salaam and two-hours flight to Mwanza via a small, bush-compatible light aircraft. A flight to Arusha is similarly ~3 hours distant.
Access to Katavi via ground transportation: estimates vary widely; it is generally discussed not in hours but in days. The town of Mbeya is (550 km/340 miles) distant and is described as a “…tough but spectacular…” drive; Google Maps indicates that Mbeya is 838 km from Dar es Salaam, making the total distance approximately 1,400 km (870 mi) and requiring 20+ hours. The most direct route to Dar es Salaam as per Google Maps is approx. 1250 km (~800 miles) and requiring 16+ hours. Arusha is similarly distant: 1000+km /13.5 hours. The percentage of transit on unpaved surfaces is unknown, but parts of all of these routes will definitely be on dirt roads. Since all of the above times from Google Maps assume an average transit speed of 80 km (50 mph), all these indicated travel times should be considered to be optimistic.
Isolated, untrammelled and seldom visited, Katavi is a true wilderness, providing the few intrepid souls who make it there with a thrilling taste of Africa as it must have been a century ago.
Tanzania’s third largest national park, it lies in the remote southwest of the country, within a truncated arm of the Rift Valley that terminates in the shallow, brooding expanse of Lake Rukwa.
The bulk of Katavi supports a hypnotically featureless cover of tangled brachystegia woodland, home to substantial but elusive populations of the localised eland, sable and roan antelopes. But the main focus for game viewing within the park is the Katuma River and associated floodplains such as the seasonal Lakes Katavi and Chada. During the rainy season, these lush, marshy lakes are a haven for myriad waterbirds, and they also support Tanzania’s densest concentrations of hippo and crocodile.
It is during the dry season, when the floodwaters retreat, that Katavi truly comes into its own. The Katuma, reduced to a shallow, muddy trickle, forms the only source of drinking water for miles around, and the flanking floodplains support game concentrations that defy belief. An estimated 4,000 elephants might converge on the area, together with several herds of 1,000-plus buffalo, while an abundance of giraffe, zebra, impala and reedbuck provide easy pickings for the numerous lion prides and spotted hyena clans whose territories converge on the floodplains.
Katavi’s most singular wildlife spectacle is provided by its hippos. Towards the end of the dry season, up to 200 individuals might flop together in any riverine pool of sufficient depth. And as more hippos gather in one place, so does male rivalry heat up – bloody territorial fights are an everyday occurrence, with the vanquished male forced to lurk hapless on the open plains until it gathers sufficient confidence to mount another challenge.
About Katavi National Park
Size: 4,471 sq km (1,727 sq miles).
Location; Southwest Tanzania, east of Lake Tanganyika.
The headquarters at Sitalike lie 40km (25 miles) south of Mpanda town.
Charter flights from Dar or Arusha.
A tough but spectacular day’s drive from Mbeya (550 km/340 miles), or in the dry season only from Kigoma (390 km/240 miles).
It is possible to reach Mpanda by rail from Dar via Tabora, then to catch public transport to Sitalike, where game drives can be arranged. If travelling overland, allow plenty of time to get there and back.
What to do
Walking, driving and camping safaris.
Near Lake Katavi, visit the tamarind tree inhabited by the spirit of the legendary hunter Katabi (for whom the park is named) – offerings are still left here by locals seeking the spirit’s blessing.
When to go
The dry season (May-October).
Roads within the park are often flooded during the rainy season but may be passable from mid-December to February.
Two seasonal luxury tented camps overlooking Lake Chada. A resthouse at Sitalike and campsites inside the park. Basic but clean hotels at Mpanda.