Katavi National Park & Chimp Trekking in the Mahale Mountains

In another quiet year for safaris, I tried to get to some places long on my own bucket list. Great for me of course, but that means that when it’s time for you to go, you get first hand experience in designing and guiding your safari. 

Starting my business in Ruaha National Park and still promoting the wilds of southern Tanzania, western Tanzania has always seemed like another step further into the unexplored. Only a handful of intrepid travellers make it this far. That’s for a number of reasons; it’s relatively unknown, especially in a country that boasts the Serengeti, Zanzibar and Mount Kilimanjaro. It takes some getting to, and it’s not the first pick for your first and maybe only safari. But, if you’re anything like me, that’s what stirs your interest.

You can get to Katavi National Park from the south, via the Selous (Nyerere National Park) or Ruaha. It makes a great combination with those two. And also from the north (Arusha). It’s remote, it’s big and it’s full of wildlife and beautiful scenery. Katavi is a very rewarding place for those willing to put the effort in to get there, probably folks who have been on safari before and are looking for somewhere untrammelled, where you really feel like you’re out in the wilderness and you’re the only people for miles around. Don’t expect any concessions on wildlife, lots of big game, elephants, giraffe, and buffalo. We saw lions everyday (including a male up a tree who joined us later for a sundowner) and a leopard just outside camp. Hippos, crocodiles and fantastic birdlife along the rivers and around the vast swamps. Not forgetting a formidable number of tsetse flies!

Chada Katavi is a camp for safari purists. Born of one person’s obsession with the place like all great safari camps. The location, amongst mighty jackelberrys overlooking the river plains, is superb. Traditional safari tents, with original handmade furniture. Monkeys drinking your shower water and elephants making you late for lunch. What’s more Chada has an excellent range of activities on offer besides game drives. Night drives always turn up something interesting and best of all, fly-camping. Drive out to a particularly wild and beautiful part of the park, maybe walk in, and take an expert team of staff with you to set up your lightweight camp in the bush. Enjoy fine dining under the stars and stories around the camp fire. 

From Katavi it’s a short flight to the Mahale Mountains (you can also get there from the Serengeti via Arusha). Forget everything you know about safaris, Mahale Mountains National Park doesn’t fit in any boxes, it’s a completely unique place and Greystoke Mahale is a completely peerless experience. Landing just outside the park, you hop on to a traditional dhow for the boat ride into the park along the shores of Lake Tanganyika. As the vibrations of the boat steady your nerves, the mountains loom impossibly, out of the crystal clear turquoise waters of the lake. The forest beckons and then you round a corner and Greystoke appears. 

Superlatives aside, the real business here is going to see the chimpanzees. The process is all explained on your first evening by the outstanding hosts and chimp guides. By breakfast the scouts have already been up and down the mountain and news of the chimps whereabouts is filtering back. Time to get trekking. Sometimes the chimps wonder through camp, sometimes it’s a leisurely boat ride and a stroll through the forest for an hours glorious company with them. Other times, like our first morning, it’s a good couple of hours of hard walking, hacking through the forest and scrambling up down and around for a few short moments. That made it all the more sublime when I heard a commotion in some bushes a short distance above me and a young male chimpanzee wondered out and gazed amusedly at my disheveled appearance. As I fumbled around with my camera, somewhere above me the dominant group male, Teddy, let out a series of electrifying pant hoots. A sight and a sound I had dreamt about witnessing my entire life, and moments I will never forget. 

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