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‘He’s a cynic’, I tell Philip, who looks remarkably nonplussed, ‘my husband’, I repeat, ‘he’s a
diehard East African-to-the-core cynic’. Philip smiles benignly.
‘No really’, I press, because Philip clearly isn’t taking this seriously, ‘he doesn’t think he needs
a guide in the bush’. There. I’ve said it.
Especially not when he’s been here for two days already and has done enough driving to take
in prolific herds of buffalo, more big cats than you can shake a stick at and hippo slicks that
leave you breathless with disbelief.
Katavi’s like that. Big game. Big skies. Big adventures. Just big, really.
And, given that this wasn’t our first trip (that would be the one that ended up in a tipped over
Toyota, a tsetse bite and a lot of tears – mine, mostly) we, and especially Husband, felt qualified
in the assertion that we Knew Katavi in a way few people ever do.
Katavi National Park lies snugly in the south west of Tanzania, to the north of Rukwa and the
east of Lake Tanganyika. At almost 4,500 sq. km it is Tanzania’s third largest park, after the
Serengeti and Ruaha and – indubitably – is much more isolated than either.
Katavi receives less visitors in a year than Ngorongoro Crater does in a day
Philip told me that.
My Rough Guide to Tanzania says that Katavi ‘doesn’t have especially spectacular scenery’.
But it’s wrong. It presents – whether you’ve driven in or flown over – a welcome hiatus after
miles and miles of flat and featureless, tsetse infested miombo woodland. The Katuma River
flows into Lake Chada, never much of a lake anymore but which reduces to nothing in the dry
when its shallow basin remains an amphitheatre framed by the Mlele Escarpment. Wedge
shaped Kipapa Hill stands sentinel over the herds of animals that traipse to and fro kicking dust
into the high white sky in their perpetual quest for food and water. The Katisunga Plains, at a
vast 400 sq. km, account for 10% of the park and are captured by the Ufipe Escarpment so
that the cast and mould of this place, profiled distinctly against faraway horizons, reminds you
that you’re tucked under a short flung arm of the Rift Valley which collapses to the insubstantial
shallows of Lake Rukwa.
Katavi is pretty. It oughtn’t be: its size and remoteness should render it something much more
menacing. But when we were there, with the park’s tamarind trees blushing at the excited
prospect of imminent rain, the amarula and the terminalia and the pod mahogany all shivering
with similar anticipation so that their shade shifted, with the papery rattle of the parchment
fronds of borassus palms overhead, the long pod cassia decadently festooned with sunshine
yellow blooms and the scent of wild jasmine thick in the soupy air, Katavi was definitely pretty.
It’s low slung elevation means Africa here is simmering, you can hear it in the pressure cook
hiss of a thousand unseen cicadas.
You can see it where mirages dance an agitated, perspiring twist at the edge of the earth and
you can feel it where you hair sticks to the back of your neck.
But back to Philip (our Tanzanian guide at Chada Katavi, who looked perpetually cool
and never had to flap a map to his face to fan the crushing heat away) and the challenge
I had foisted on him: conversion of a cynic.
Two days camping on our own (with two blokes who harboured similar cynicism of
professional guides as husband) and my daughter and I were about ready for something
approximating home comforts (all that panga with a bog roll malarkey whilst looking
out for big cats that might eat you for lunch, particularly when you’ve just witnessed
four hopping across the river with determined agility 200 metres from your camp, can
elevate sitting on a regular loo to veritable luxury).
Not, it has to be said, that Nomad Tanzania’s Chada Katavi Camp sports regular
loos. In fact, they’re the only crowd in the park who don’t. Whilst everybody else has
succumbed to the flush variety, they grip tenaciously to the mantra they assumed when
they first arrived here: they’re determined not to leave a trace. Which means you sit on
a long drop and chuck some sand in afterwards.
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