Western Tanzania's three parks are the hardest, and in Katavi's and Mahale's cases, the most expensive, to get to. Yet for the intrepid and dedicated few that make it there, they are well worth the effort and the expense.
The main draw of Mahale National Park and Gombe Streams National Park are the chimpanzee sightings, whilst Katavi National Park, the country's third largest National Park, is a remote, untouched wildlife haven visited by less than 1,000 people a year. Often there are fewer than two dozen people in the national park, that covers 4,471 square kilometres.
katavi national park
Located along the rift escarpment in Western Tanzania, the 4,471 square kilometre Katavi National Park is the third largest in the country. However, its remoteness and inaccessibility leaves it comparably untouched, with just a few hundred visitors per year. A land of great diversity, this untamed and wild area is in the heart of one of the largest and richest wildlife areas in Tanzania.
Home to the largest herds of buffalo on the planet, Katavi National Park is a wilderness paradise, situated in the western area of Tanzania. The park boasts a wonderful array of habitats, which range from flood plains of thick reeds and dense waterways that teem with hippo and crocodile to woodlands, open grasslands, forests and pristine seasonal lakes.
Katavi is a classic dry season reserve. From June to October buffalo herds of up to 3,000 graze on the plains. Game drives offer superb photographic opportunities, whilst walks beside sluggish rivers are exciting. Large crocodiles lie in mudholes, marabou storks pick over hippo carcasses and spotted hyena lope off into the distance. Elephants drink from tiny water holes in mud-cracked pans, roan and sable antelope hide in dense thickets, while vultures clean and dry their wings in small streams. As the sun falls low in the sky, a visit to the hippo pool, where 600 hippo live in dense formation and engage in fierce territorial battles, provides a perfect place for a sundowner.
In contrast to many other Tanzanian parks, night drives are permitted, and after, as the smoke curls up from the fire and the sound of cicadas becomes deafening. If you sit quietly you might see a pennant-winged nightjar flit across the purple sky or hear an eery owl.
With only three small upmarket camps, and only two expensive flights on 12-seater planes each week, this is no place for the masses, but for the dedicated safari enthusiast.
mahale national park
Mahale is both one of the most remote and most beautiful national parks in Tanzania. Mahale National Park encompasses a large mountainous forest rising from the white sandy shores of Lake Tanganyika, where you will find the only two lodges in the park. It is most famous for its chimp tracking and is arguably the best place in the world to see man's closest relative. The park was originally established to protect the large population of over 1000 chimpanzees and other primates. Over the decades since its establishment, researchers have managed to habituate a group of over 50 chimpanzees, allowing visitors to get very close to the chimps for unforgettable encounters.
The hike to reach the Mahale chimpanzees can vary from a short stroll of 20 minutes to a more strenuous hike lasting up to three hours. The easiest time to see the chimps is during the dry season (August to October) as the paths are less slippery and the chimps tend to stay closer to the shores of Lake Tanganyika. During this time they occasionally venture very close to camp.
Getting to Mahale National Park is expensive, due to the distance from Tanzania's main airports and the fact that only very few people travel on this route. The flights take 4-5 hours from Arusha or Dar es Salaam and only go twice a week. On the positive side, this is the reason why Mahale has remained so untouched, which makes it a real off the beaten track adventure experience.
GOMBE STREAM NATIONAL PARK
Gombe Stream National Park is a thin strip of ancient montane forest also bordering, Lake Tanganyika, the second deepest lake in the world. This park was made world-famous for the primate studies conducted by pioneering British researcher Jane Goodall. With just one lodge in the national park, prepare yourself for a truly remarkable experience of chimpanzees and nature in one of the most untouched parks of Tanzania
You can see a selection of our Western Tanzania itineraries here.
Southern Tanzania is home to the very accessible Selous Game Reserve, the largest wildlife reserve in Africa, the beautiful and little-visited gem of Ruaha, the country’s largest National Park, Mikumi National Park, the Udzungwa Mountains, and the ancient trading port of Kilwa.
SELOUS GAME RESERVE
Selous Game Reserve is on the coastal plains, with the Rufiji River running through it, supplying a system of lakes with water year-round, allowing for boat-based game and bird viewing too. Both reserves are linked by daily flights in light aircraft operating from bush strips within each reserve/park. Ruaha can also be linked to the superb and even more seldom-visited Katavi National Park in the west, three times a week.
The enormous, 50,000 square-kilometre reserve (almost twice the size of Belgium and two and a half times larger than the famous Serengeti in the north) also prvides the most varied game viewing experiences in the country, with boat-based game viewing, mornign walking safaris, and standard game drives all an option. Some lodges also offer an excellent fly-camping experience. The landscape here has remained almost as it was before tourism began and the massive park has only a few accommodation options inside the reserve and low visitor numbers, which creates a more authentic experience than safaris in the northern circuit.
For the more budget conscious traveller, there are some good-value options just outside the main gate that we have excellent relationships with.
Flora and Fauna
The reserve contains a great diversity of vegetation types, including rocky acacia-clad hills, gallery and ground water forests, swamps and lowland rain forest. The dominant vegetation of the reserve is deciduous Miombo woodlands and constitutes a globally important example of this vegetation type. Because of this fire-climax vegetation, soils are subject to erosion when there are heavy rains. The result is a network of normally dry rivers of sand that become raging torrents during the rains; these sand rivers are one of the most unique features of the Selous landscape. Large parts of the wooded grasslands of the northern Selous are seasonally flooded by the rising water of the Rufiji River, creating a very dynamic ecosystem. The reserve has a higher density and diversity of species than any other Miombo woodland area: more than 2,100 plants have been recorded and more are thought to exist in the remote forests in the south.
Selous protects an impressive amount of game; it contains globally significant populations of African elephant, black rhinoceros, and an estimated 1,300 of the worlds’ roughly 5,000 remaining rare wild dogs, giving guests an opportunity to glimpse all of these exotic animals in true unspoilt wilderness. It also includes one of the world's largest known populations of hippopotamus (18,200) and buffalo (204,015). There are also large populations of ungulates including sable antelope (7000), Lichtenstein's hartebeest (52,150), greater kudu, eland and Nyassa wildebeest (80,815). In addition, there is a large number of Nile crocodile and 350 species of birds, including the endemic Udzungwa forest partridge and the Rufous winged sunbird.
How to get there
The best way to access Selous is by flying in from Dar es Salaam or Zanzibar in a light aircraft, landing on a bush strip, and being collected by the lodge. Flights are from US$170 per person each way. It is also possible to arrange drive-in safaris from Dar-es-Salaam, but we do recommend to fly, as the drive can take anything between 5 and 8 hours to Selous, depending on the road conditions.
A safari to the Selous can also be combined with a trip to Ruaha National Park, another little-visited gem. To visit the Selous there are two types of camp. Those inside the reserve itself, and those just outside.
RUAHA NATIONAL PARK
The hidden jewel of Africa...
The rolling wilderness of Ruaha National Park, studded with the great baobab trees, and intersected by the Ruaha river, is known for its elephant population, large herds of buffalo, big lion prides, rarer antelope species, and its bird life. Park fees are lower here than in the Serengeti and the Ngorongoro Crater, and visitor numbers incomparable. With only a dozen lodges and camps inside the park, which covers 24,000 sq. km, peace and tranquillity are assured. It’s not uncommon to not encounter another vehicle on a game drive.
Of all the reserves and national parks in Africa, Ruaha is in our top three favourites. Nothing can beat its variety of stunning landscapes and dry season wildlife action. Combined with only having a handful of lodges and being bigger than the Serengeti, if you really want to feel in the heart of Africa, Ruaha is the place for the ultimate safari.
As well as hosting 450 bird species in its abundant trees, Ruaha is also home to the elusive and rare, stinky but beautiful, African hunting dog. With a varied landscape there is also a good chance of spotting a cheetah stalking on the open savannah, encountering the majestic Sable antelope and its dry grassy areas make it a great habitat for cheetahs. Ruaha has unusually large prides of lions, and encountering a pride of 20 or more is not uncommon. As the river slows to a trickle in the drier months, the game concentrates on the dwindling stream, and the game viewing is superb. In the wetter months after the rains in March and April, the game viewing is still very good and the birding excellent.
Ruaha has the widest range of antelopes in the region, being a crossover/meeting point of southern African and eastern African species. Roan antelope, Sable antelope, Common waterbuck, Defassa waterbuck, Greater kudu, Hartebeest and Tsessebe can all be seen there. Ruaha is a sublime step into safari wilderness.
A vehicle safari can cover the ground and will deliver you concentrations of animals – you can count yourself unlucky if you don’t see a large pride of lions here - but walking safaris take you closer, both physically and spiritually, to the soil. Walking with a park ranger alongside the river the next morning, hearing nothing but the wind rustling the vegetation and your own footsteps makes the bush an even more intimate place. With so few tourists around and covering such a vast area, you are no longer visiting the bush, you are the bush.
Sightings of distant crocodiles and, by keeping downwind, nearby giraffes, zebras, and antelope are the norm, but you can also look at the bizarre, sprawling nest of the hammerkop, a large stork-like bird that buries its eggs in a three-roomed nest decorated with old bones; inspect spoor (field guide talk for prints and poop) of some of the bush’s unseen nocturnal inhabitants like the aardvark and the genet, the choggy footprint of a hippopotamus and an impressively large lion paw; and prod biscuit barrel sized elephant pats. And all this before brunch and heading on to your next destination for dinner.
How to get there
The best way to get to Ruaha is to hop in a light aircraft. Ruaha can also be accessed by light aircraft from Selous Game Reserve, offering splendid views of the savannah and the Udzungwas. Despite being larger than the Serengeti, there are only a dozen lodges and camps inside the park. It’s a 10-hour drive from Dar, so is best broken up with a stop over in Mikumu and/or the Udzungwas.
Mikumi National Park
West of the bustling town of Morogoro, Mikumi National Park is small reserve with some lovely scenery and offers a gentle game experience – ideal for a two-night stop and a good base for daytrips to the Udzungwa Mountains. Mikumi shares a border and its game populations with the Selous, so you'll find plenty here, including elephant, giraffe, wildebeest, zebra, warthog, impala and buffalo. The vast Mkata plain is often a good place to search for lion, whilst the lucky will spot leopard or even wild dog.
The park is bisected by a major road, which detracts from its feeling of wilderness, but does make it easy to reach by vehicle; it's just four hours south-west of Dar es Salaam.
There are a few fairly simple camps here; all suitable for stopping at with your own vehicle and guide. The best in the area is Foxes Safari Camp with twelve en-suite tents. And the recently renovated Mikumi Wildlife Camp is also good with 12 simple, clean cottages made of stone and thatch. There is also Vuma Hills which is only 15 minutes from the park entrance and has 16 spacious en-suite tents. It's a convenient location for a stop-over and short safari en-route to Ruaha, but we wouldn't recommend more than two nights here.
Udzungwa Mountains National Park
Part of the 'The Eastern Arc', an ancient group of mountain ranges stretching across Tanzania and Kenya, the Udzungwas are the most extensive mountain range in Tanzania. They were formed at least 100 million years ago and many endemic species have evolved here, making them something of 'an African Galapagos'. Local taboos have helped to preserve the wildlife, and now this national park protects almost 20% of the Udzungwa Mountains.
Amongst the larger attractions are 10 species of primate, three of which are endemic: the Uhehe (aka Iringa) red colobus, the Matunda galago and the Sanje crested mangabey. The last of these is amongst the world's 25 most threatened primates. With a day to explore slowly, you'll usually see the red colobus, along with the black and white Angola colobus. Blue and vervet monkeys and yellow baboons are also common.
More than 400 species of birds live here, including many regional endemics like the Udzungwa forest partridge, which was new to science in 1991. With more scientific research, further new species are bound to be discovered. A quarter of the plants here are endemic, including some Saitpaulia species, closely related to African violets. There are also endemic amphibians, reptiles, and butterflies.
Setting off in walking shoes, with water and snacks, you'll explore the park's walking trails with a guide. These trails vary in length from a few hours to three days, and do have steep sections, but are always taken at your own pace. Expect to pass streams and waterfalls amidst the thick forest vegetation. We recommend Udzungwa as an excellent day trip from Mikumi - or perhaps a short stay at the new Udzungwa Forest Mountain camp to break up the journey between Dar and Ruaha.
Kilwa – meaning ‘Place of Fish’ – is the collective name given to three different areas on the Tanzanian coast: Kilwa Kisiwani, Kilwa Kivinje and Kilwa Masoko. Exploring UNESCO-listed ruins that tell the story of close to a millenium of coastal history is the main draw.
Kilwa isn’t located on the usual tourist route, so the quality of accommodation isn’t as high, however, travellers who want to learn a little more about the colourful history of this area will find it an adventurous addition to an off-beat itinerary, with comfortable and well-hosted, if relatively basic, accommodation.
The most modern of the three ‘Kilwas’, Kilwa Masoko is where most people base themselves to visit the ruins of Kilwa Kisiwani. There is little of historical interest here, but Jimbizi Beach – where Kimbilio Lodge is situated – is pleasant enough for a day or two relaxing.
Kilwa Kisiwani and Songo Mnara
Kilwa Kisiwani and Songo Mnara were Swahili trading cities and their prosperity was based on control of Indian Ocean trade with Arabia, India and China, particularly between the 13th and 16th centuries, when gold and ivory from the hinterland was traded for silver, carnelians, perfumes, Persian faience and Chinese porcelain. From the 9th century all the way up until the 19th century, Kilwa Kisiwani was a wealthy and powerful port. At its height, the empire stretched from Kenya to Mozambique, and Kilwa Kisiwani’s prosperity was crucial to the development of Swahili civilisation. Kilwa Kisiwani minted its own currency in the 11th to 14th centuries. When the Portuguese took over the coastline in 1505 they assumed control of Kilwa Kisiwani. They murdered the majority of the residents and replaced the Arab palaces with forts. Today, a small number of local fishermen live on the island, but for the most part it is deserted.
Kilwa Kisiwani is now an abandoned city covering much of the island, filled with crumbling mosques, remnants of once glorious palaces, and ancient tombs. Considered one of the most important surviving examples of the Islamic-influenced Swahili maritime trade, it’s quite rightly the main attraction for visitors to the area. The runs of the Sultan's 100-room palace are the largest palatial ruins on the continent, and the Great Mosque the oldest standing in East Africa. Constructed in the 11th century and considerably enlarged in the 13th century, and roofed entirely with domes and vaults, some decorated with embedded Chinese porcelain; the palace Husuni Kubwa built between 1310 and 1333 with its large octagonal bathing pool; Husuni Ndogo, numerous mosques, the prison constructed on the ruins of the Portuguese fort and an entire urban complex with houses, public squares, and burial grounds. In 1331-1332, the great traveller, Ibn Battouta made a stop here and described Kilwa Kisiwani as one of the most beautiful cities in the world.
The ruins of Songo Mnara, at the northern end of the island, consist of the remains of five mosques, a palace complex, and some thirty-three domestic dwellings constructed of coral stones and wood within enclosing walls.
Kilwa Kivinje – a small town on the mainland – was once the wealthy southern centre of the slave trade with up to 20,000 slaves passing through. Banned in 1873, the slave trade is still thought to have continued in Kilwa Kivinje until 1880. Afterwards, the Germans took over the town and used it as an administrative centre, but following the end of World War II the town gradually lost importance and today it is a small port. Travellers can visit the big fort with a cannon leftover from World War I, an old German market hall, as well as an attractive beach where you can watch the local fishermen. Very few people visit the area, so it provides an authentic insight into Tanzanian life.
How to get there
There are light aircraft flights to Kilwa, or it can be reached in an six-hour road transfer from Dar, or four hours from Selous. The island can be reached by a short boat ride, and explored with a private guide for around US$50, including the entrance fee (which the guide will buy on your behalf from the Department of Antiquities). The trip takes at least half a day, or a full day if you want to combine it with Songo Mnara.
The Kruger, possibly the best-known safari destination in the world, synonymous with safari. Established in 1898, The Greater Kruger Park extends over some 22,000 square km (8,500 sq. miles). That’s the size of Wales if you are European, and Massachusetts if you are North American. (If you are neither, it’s flippin’ big). It supports a total of 500 bird species, 145 mammal species, and 110 reptile species, including an estimated 13,000 elephants, 40,000 buffalo, 2000 lions and more rhinos than any other protected area. We aren’t allowed to say how many, but it is lots and lots. The only decent wildlife reserve with a higher density of rhino is Hluhluwe-Imfolozi in KwaZulu-Natal.
What's the difference between the Greater Kruger Park and Kruger National Park?
The Greater Kruger Park is comprised of the Kruger National Park (KNP) and a number of private reserves next to the KNP. The fences between the private reserves and the KNP came down 23 years ago allowing the animals to move freely..
The KNP is managed by Sanparks, a government-run organisation, and covers about 80% of the total area. Tarmac roads run through the middle of it, there are numerous large rest camps, of which at least half a dozen have over 100 one to four-bedroom units, camping sites, and fast food restaurants catering to self-drive clients. The private reserves are managed by groups made up of small lodges and camps. Many lodges and camps only have between six and twelve one-bedroom chalets or luxury tents. No self-driving is permitted, there are no tarmac roads, and vehicle movements are carefully managed.
From a fauna and flora point-of-view, there there is not much difference. The parks are next to each other and there are no fences between them, so the animals and birds who call the area home can roam freely, and are found in both. In saying that, however, the area is large, so habitats differ and of course animals gravitate toward whichever habitat is best for them. Some areas are better known for their leopard sightings, others for elephant, and so on.
The parks that make up the GKP are quite strict about how many people are allowed in at a time. This means that your safari experience is far more exclusive and you won't be trying to get through dozens of other cars to see a lion kill or catch that special photo of a zebra baby. This is not an exaggeration. I have seen 50 vehicles in a scrum to look at a pride of lion lazing in the bush 50 yards from the road between Satara and Skukuza.
Guided Wildlife Experiences
Game-viewing in the private reserves is facilitated and managed by experienced and knowledgeable guides with excellent tracking skills in open-sided 4x4 game-viewing vehicles with a maximum of 9 guests from your lodge in them. Some lodges limit it to six No self-driving is permitted. The majority of the time, your vehicle will be the only one at a sighting.This ensures that you see not only the keystone species, but also the birds and the little fellas, who are arguably equally important in the local eco-system. On each game drive you stop for a break at a scenic point, get out of the vehicle, and enjoy refreshments and snacks. Game-viewing can also be conducted on foot, allowing a greater understanding of and connection with the bush.
The lodges and tented camps in the private reserves are more high-end than those found in the KNP. With limited numbers of guests at each, you are assured of a far more private and exclusive experience. Hospitality is personal and service is a priority, to ensure that you get the best possible safari experience. All the lodges have a watering hole, river, or lake, meaning that there is good chance of seeing wildlife when you are not out on safari too. Many lodges are also unfenced, so having interesting visitors around the grounds is not uncommon.
Our favourite private Kruger reserves
Sabi Sand with Mala Mala covers 780 sq km. The Sabi River and Sand River run through the area providing diverse habitats for the huge range of animals. Sabi Sand is known especially for its big cat sightings, most notably of the elsewhere elusive leopard. We have never had a client who has spent three night here without a good leopard sighting. It is the least budget-friendly of the private reserves, but at the upper end of scale has some excellent value-for-money lodges, with excellent attention to detail and fine dining combined with top=drawer wildlife sightings. My “Big Five record” of 2 hours 35 minutes was set here. Granted, the rhino was a 10-second arse-end encounter, but we had 45 minutes with a leopard and her two cubs eating a kudu up a tree, and a 20-minute coffee break watching mating lions…..
One of the largest privately-owned reserves in South Africa, Klaserie covers 600 sq. km of land along the Klaserie River. The owners are strongly committed to conservation and the park hosts three great conservation projects: the Ground Hornbill Project, Rhino Protection and The Elephant Project. Generally, the habitat is more open than Sabi Sand, which is great news for cheetah fans. With less of a reputation than Sabi Sand, the prices for the same level of comfort are lower too.
Bordering the KNP on one side and Klaserie on the other, Timbavati is also a prime game-viewing area, and a hot spot for African wild dogs (Cape hunting dogs), my favourite mammal (other than my kids), great for cheetah, and also pretty good for leopard. It also has the only wild white lions left in the world. Lodge rates here are also, on average, lower than in Sabi Sand.
Balule, Thornybush, Umbabat, Manyeleti, are good private reserves, and there are also Jocks and Lukimbi private reserves within the KNP.
When to go
Dry season –May to September – Winter
There is virtually no rainfall during the whole of winter, humidity is very low. and there is almost no risk of malaria. As water becomes scarce wildlife is attracted to permanent water sources. Temperatures from the evening to mid-morning can be chilly.
Wet seasons–October to April – Summer
It is hot and humid in summer. Temperatures can reach over 40°C/104°F, although average daytime temperature is 32°C/90°F. Mostly rain falls in the afternoon or at night. The rains bring green grasses, seeds, flowers, and as a result, more birds. The rains also mean there is no dust, and, other than Christmas and Easter, fewer tourists.
A few pics from an overnight inspection at Chobe Elephant Camp, a very good value for money camp if you want to be close to the Chobe River, but away from the crowds of Kasane. There were lots of ellies, a couple of herds of buffalo around 400-strong, a pride of 8 lazy lions, but the cherry for me was this very cool and rarely-sighted Caracal.
I've just finished editing my wildlife images from our June site inspection tour of the conservancies of Lewa, and Ol Pejeta in central Kenya, and Mara North, Naibosho, and Olare-Motorogi conservancies bordering the Masai Mara National Reserve.
Erroneously, some potential visitors look down on the conservancies bordering the Mara National Reserve, the state-run reserve, and think them an inferior safari destination. The conservancies are in fact the prime locations for wildlife viewing as they only have a limited number of lodges or camps on them, only half-a-dozen each, compared to over a hundred and thirty for the National Reserve, ensuring a much lower number of tourists and vehicles. There are no white minibuses here, and these reserves are the choice venues for film-makers and professional wildlife photographers.
Not only is the wildlife viewing superb, but the conservancies work closely with the communities whose land they lease, and provide incomes for many local families, as well as allowing grazing in times of need. The conservancies and camps have trusts that build schools, clinics, and develop grassroots projects that empower women and youths.
Although revered by the ancient Egyptians in their religious artwork and jewellery, present on all continents except Antarctica, not many people know how important these excrement-eating insects are.
f ever you find yourself doubting whether or not you love your job keep this in mind; all these insects do is shuffle poo around, and eat it. Sounds pretty, well, shitty, but the dung beetle is so pivotal to so many ecosystems.
This is especially true among the great herds of Africa, which drop a staggering amount of doo doo.. Dung beetles are more than happy to pick up little bits and roll them around, distributing fertiliser and the seeds it can contain more evenly among the plains. Burying the droppings also has the added benefit of removing a food supply for flies, helping to keep their populations in check.
What's so good about eating dung? Well, African elephants have very inefficient digestive systems, only extracting around 40% of the nutrients from their diet, so there is plenty left for the dung beetles.
If you have ever been on game drive or even a walk in the bush you may have noticed these peculiar creatures, low flying with a loud buzzing sound and closely resembling a hovering helicopter. They always seem to be coming right for your face and somehow look as if they moving in slow motion.
Dung beetles are mainly broken down into 4 groups:
Telecoprid, Endocopri, Paracoprid, and Kleptocoprid.
Telecoprids roll balls of rounded dung. Endocoprids lay their eggs in a pile of dung. The Paracoprid digs down below dung and the Kleptocoprids, well, they steal balls of dung!
n relation to its size the dung beetle is not only the world’s strongest insect – it’s the world’s strongest animal. When moving balls of dung, a Telecoprid can pull around 1,000 times its own bodyweight – that’s the same as a human dragging six full double-decker busses along a road!
Photographer, conservationist, dive and field guide, teller of bad jokes.