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Mary goes ‘remote’ in Western Tanzania

Irrespective of how many times we travel to Africa, we are continually learning something new. The tourism industry is constantly evolving and there are always new camps to inspect and changes to see at others. My recent trip to Tanzania was no different and it gave me the opportunity to visit a couple of more remote destinations which were new to me.

Spending two nights in the Arusha area allowed me to visit some old favourites such as Rivertrees Inn and the Serena Lake Duluti as well as visiting a couple of more recent additions to our portfolio; Machweo House and Lake Duluti Lodge, both offering a more contemporary style of accommodation.

I also spent a few hours exploring Arusha National Park. The park is small and has a relatively limited road network but it is very pretty and offers a surprising diversity in a relatively compact area. The grasslands of Serengeti Ndogo were filled with plains game whilst the lush swamps of Ngurdoto Crater attract herds of buffalo. The park is densely forested with croton bushes, towering strangler figs, slender cedar trees and the dominant East African Olive Tree. As you drive north, you can stop at Boma La Megi, an observation point from where both Mt. Meru and Mt. Kilimanjaro can be seen- cloud cover allowing! The dense forests then give way to Momela Lakes (imaginatively named Big Momela and Small Momela) and Lake Tulusia.  Aside from being an excellent stop for a picnic lunch, the lakes are home to hippos and large flocks of flamingoes are seasonal visitors.

It is fair to say that Arusha National Park does not offer nearly the same level of game viewing as elsewhere in Tanzania and as most tourists are simply passing through the area, it often gets overlooked. However, if you want to take an extra day to get over your flights, it is a thoroughly enjoyable excursion and if you feel the need to do some exercise after your journey you can take a canoe out on one of the lakes or take a hike in the western sector of the park, ranging from a gentle two hours to take in the beautiful waterfall or a more challenging hike around Mt. Tulusia. Walking in this area must be pre booked and can only be done with an armed ranger as buffalo are prevalent.

Katavi National Park is Tanzania’s third largest park, after the Serengeti and Ruaha National Parks, but is the least visited of all them. As befits such a remote corner of the country, access is both limited and expensive. Twice weekly flights operate from Arusha or Dar and will stop at least once en route for refueling and to collect passengers, allowing for easy combinations with the Serengeti or Ruaha. On departure from Arusha we firstly routed north by passing Ol Donyo Lengai en route to the beautiful northern Serengeti Plains enjoying the unexpected treat of flying in low over the Mara River. A further stop at Tabora for refuelling and we were on our way again to Katavi. In total the journey took about five hours but the provision of snacks and water plus comfort stops each time we landed made the flight much less arduous than expected.

As you come into land in Katavi, you get a real sense of just how enormous the park is. The vast Katisunga Plain stretches endlessly beneath you but at almost 450 sq. kilometres it is around only one tenth of the size of the park. The landscape of the park is a tapestry of open woodlands, grasslands, swamps, seasonal lakes and riverine vegetation with the core game viewing areas centred around three large flood plains which are intersected by the Katuma and Kapapa Rivers.

During the early dry season Katisunga is home to large numbers of animals drawn to the rivers to drink but as the dry season continues and the pressure on water mounts, the parks huge concentration of hippos and crocodiles monopolise the ever decreasing pools of water, making it unpalatable for most species. Consequently, the game tends to drift east towards the evergreen Paradise Plains, fringed with palm trees and natural springs and sometimes even further to the remote and inaccessible (to tourists) Chorangwa Plain.

The game viewing was impressive, although perhaps not in the large numbers I had hoped to see. Nevertheless, my first evening game drive was very productive with two leopards, lions, elephants, giraffes, crocs and hippos all found within a relatively small area bordering the eastern edge of Katisunga Plain. The sighting which garnered the greatest response however was a secretary bird. Whilst commonly seen in the Serengeti, they have never been seen in Katavi and my guide took some convincing that I had seen one as he has worked in the park for over twenty years without doing so!

What sets Katavi apart from other parks in Tanzania however, is the exclusivity. Not once, during four nights in the park, was there more than one vehicle at a sighting. Sitting with a pride of playful lions for over an hour with no sight of another vehicle is a rare luxury on safari. In Katavi, where there are only two permanent lodges, Katavi Wilderness Lodge and Katuma Bush Lodge plus one seasonal bush camp, Chada Camp, this is the norm rather than the exception.

As only a tiny proportion of the park is accessible for game viewing I think it is fair to say that game viewing routes are relatively limited and it is also worth bearing in mind that there is a public road that cuts through the park. Of the properties within the park, Chada Camp is the most remote and it offers an authentic bush experience. In addition, the ability to walk and spend nights out in the bush fly camping makes this the best option for a four night stay.

Landing at the bush airstrip servicing the Mahale Mountains is both exhilarating and dramatic. Flying in over the mountains, you descend rapidly and feel that you may end up in the waters of Lake Tanganyika until you feel the reassuring bump as the wheels make contact with the gravel airstrip. It was quite a heart stopping moment and it was no surprise to hear that there are currently only eleven pilots in Tanzania who are qualified to land here.

The next hour or so is spent cruising south, on a beautiful wooden dhow, hugging the lakes coastline and spotting as many species of birds as possible; a wonderfully relaxing way in which to arrive. Irrespective of which property you stay at; friendly Kungwe Lodge or the more upmarket Greystoke Mahale, your arrival is impressive. As you approach the golden sandy beaches, the densely forested slopes of the imposing Mahale Mountains loom large behind and provide a spectacular backdrop.

The mountains are really the focus of a stay here as they are home to a group of chimpanzees that have been studied for over thirty years and are habituated to human visitors.

The chimp trekking was great fun and I really enjoyed their interactions with one another; they were at times energetic, playful, naughty and utterly raucous! They were also completely at ease with us and whilst there is a rule about staying a minimum of ten metres away from them, no one has apparently told the chimps about this! They certainly weren’t averse to posing for photos! The trekking can be difficult. The terrain can be steep and whilst there are some clearly defined paths, we frequently diverged from them to cut through thick vegetation and on more than one occasion to cross small rivers. It was all part of the fun, but good quality walking boots are definitely recommended!

The trekking can take anything from thirty minutes to six hours but the pace is set to the slowest walker and there is no doubt in my mind that the guides were profiling the guests to ensure that no one was pushed beyond their limits.

We returned from the trek, tired, hot and pretty sweaty and the temptation to plunge straight into the crystal clear waters of Lake Tanganyika to cool off was very strong. It was quickly tempered however as we were reminded about the increasing presence of crocodiles close to the shore line. Neither of the camps currently allow their guests to swim from the beach but they do offer the chance of deep water swimming during the course of an afternoon boat cruise.  Kungwe do also have plans to install a floating crocodile proof ‘boom net’ next year.

It does take a bit more effort, and expense, to get to Western Tanzania but if time and budget allows, it is certainly worth considering, particularly for seasoned safari goers and for anyone wanting to explore less visited regions. The sheer lack of visitor numbers makes Katavi and attractive proposition whilst the inclusion of Mahale will add a completely different dimension to a Tanzania safari.

Mary stayed at Rivertrees Country Inn, Chada Camp, Greystoke Camp and Kungwe Beach.

She site inspected Mbali Mbali Katavi, Katuma Bush Lodge, Lake Duluti Lodge, Lake Duluti Serena Hotel, Machweo House and Mount Meru Game Lodge.