Tanzania part I – The not-yet-Chinesed B8 to Katavi National Park

Katavi National Park

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 km2 (1 727 sq miles).
Location: Southwest Tanzania, east of Lake Tanganyika
The headquarters at Sitalike lie 40 km (25 miles) south of Mpanda town.”

Peter Howard, the guy we met at Tanganyika Lake, told us that he’d heard the B8 in Western Tanzania was quite bad, but we should please let him know how it went. He was laughing a secretly at us, I think. We still need to let him know that it was, uhm, okay.

But before we could head for Tanzania, we had to drive the horrendous road back from Ndole Bay to Kasama. We slept at Thorn Tree Lodge again; this time down in the garden in a small bungalow.

We could stock up on groceries again at Shoprite, and then we set off to Mbala to have our passports stamped (nope, that is not at the border, however strange that might seem) and then to the border to do the customs and pass through. Mbala is still in the Middle Ages. They do not have any computers, nor any other form of 21st-century technology, and they entered our passport details in a register. By hand.

On the border we waited in the car for Hugo to finalise customs. We were immediately swarmed by a mob of children. Gustav and Sophia were even a little frightened by the children pointing and laughing and begging. Hugo returned to the car to get something and was accosted by a young man who was clearly at least sniffing petrol. He kept on saying (shouting) something and showing Hugo his middle finger. Hugo went back inside the office and asked someone about it. Apparently he was asking for “just one kwacha!” No further comment.

The Tanzanian border were more technologically advanced, and we finished another border jump without any difficulties.

We arrived in the first big town, Sumbawanga, late in the afternoon. I struggled to find us anything for the night in my travel guides, but we allowed the GPS to take us to Kalambo Falls Lodge.

I guess this is where we said goodbye to normal European or Western standards of any sort. Luckily we’ve lived in the Middle East, otherwise we would have been even less impressed. Everything was just too much: too big, too shiny, too cheap. Massive bathtub, but not enough hot water to fill it with. Butt washer (otherwise known as hose next to toilet…). Flip-flops outside the bathroom. (Eek, do they really think we’d wear someone else’s shoes?!) Marble floors but cheap bathroom fittings. Fake leather lounge set and a super-king four-poster bed in a room big enough for ten more. The food was surprisingly edible and they made a bed for Sophia on the one coach. We couldn’t complain about the service or friendliness. And it was clean.

After our one and only night in the lodge, we set out to find a bank to get US dollars and Tanzanian shillings, get insurance for Tanzania, and most importantly, SIM cards and airtime. So we found the bank where we had to take out the insurance, but they wanted US dollars. Which we didn’t have. Then Hugo found a bank where he could get dollars, but they wanted shillings. To get enough shillings to get only US$100 took seven withdrawals, which resulted in a brick of Tanzanian shillings.

While Hugo struggled with money matters, I saw a Vodacom sign across the road and decided to try my luck. After a song and a dance, sign language and some more mimes, the lady understood that I needed two SIM cards. She could indicate that they were not registered and that she could do it for me. That took some time, and when she was finished I asked for airtime. Fairly straightforward and easy, you would think. After you sold someone a SIM card, they would probably need airtime to be able to use the thing. Nah. She could not or would not understand. I said it in all the ways I know, even tried Afrikaans, for airtime, minutes, phone, scratch cards, vouchers. I gave up and decided to get it somewhere else. At least I had the cards.

I found Hugo, still in the bank, and told him about it. The lady who helped him asked me what the problem was and gave me a little slip with the information I needed. Apparently I all I had to do was ask for “vochas”…

After what seemed like hours, we could finally set off for Katavi National Park on the famous B8.

When I asked him about the B8 road, Hugo’s exact words were that it was 40 km tar and then “kak en hare” (shit and hair – a rough ride!). I honestly don’t know the correct English expression (if there is one) but you get the drift. It included corrugation, roadworks, big holes, very slow going. However, after the experience with the roads to Lumangwe Falls and Ndole Bay, we all seemed to have made peace with bad roads. Just take it slow and all will be OK.

We found two places on the other side of the park that offered camping. The one’s facilities were as bad as the other’s. Squat toilets, no hot water, buildings look like they were ready to fall over, campsites not particularly appealing, nor level. We decided that Riverside Camp was marginally better than Hippo Gardens, plus it also had a view of the hippos in the Katavi River right in front of us. We read reviews about this place and I guess we have to learn to read between the lines. It almost seems that they were talking about another place. At least it was cheap.

The attendant made a roaring fire between us and the river to deter the hippos. That evening we were entertained by the village noises, which included dogs, and trucks crossing the river not far from us. We also almost froze to death, as we packed away all our warm bedding when we were at Ndole Bay.

Early-ish the next morning, we got two buckets of hot water to wash ourselves with. It was clean and piping hot. Armed with lots of snacks, we went for a game drive in the park. We declined the offer of a guide, but afterwards realised it wasn’t such a good idea. Most parks offer guides at a very reasonable price that go with you in your car. In the Kruger we know our way around, but as the Tanzanian, Kenyan and Zambian parks were so expensive, we visited them for only one day. So because we didn’t know the area, we didn’t get to experience the park the way it deserves. A lesson learned.

Despite that we saw elephant, buffalo, giraffe, impala, red hartebeest, zebra, hippos and crocs. And tsetse flies…

After another noisy night with the hippos, trucks and dogs, we left Riverside Camp for a second visit to Lake Tanganyika, this time in Tanzania.

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