Discovering Katavi National Park
Very few visitors venture to western Tanzania. It is on the opposite side of the country from Dar es Salaam. Flights are unreliable and criminally expensive and driving across the country takes days. Even for those that do make the effort, they usually to go to Gombe Stream National Park where Jane Goodall did her research with chimpanzees, not to Katavi National Park.
Not only does Katavi lack visitors, there seems to be a general dearth of knowledge about it, which is curious given it is the third largest national park in Tanzania. The first two pages of search results on Google are largely all the same basic facts about it having a lot of buffalo and hippos, but not a lot of visitors. They fail to convey what a unique phenomenon the park becomes in the dry season.
Fortunately, years earlier, I had seen an aerial picture of Katavi taken in the dry season, which stunned me and put it on my safari bucket list. The picture was of a pod of hundreds of hippos crammed together in a mud pit far too small for their population. I had never seen so many hippos together and I had not imagined them in such a uniquely photographic state. I wanted to see it for myself.
A Murderous Poo Pit of Hippos
In the wet season, Katavi National Park is flooded by the Katuma River, which turns the plains into a marsh and creates seasonal lakes. It is a paradise for large herbivores like buffalo, elephant and hippo. However, this all evaporates in the heat of the dry season.
While the elephants and buffalos migrate elsewhere, the hippos are forced to continue consolidating in the remaining water, until there are more hippos than mud or water in the remaining depressions. Hippos do not have proper sweat glands, so it is important they stay submerged during the day to keep their skin cool and moist.
The aerial image I had seen prepared me for the awestriking scene at Katavi, but it did not convey the incredible stench or the extreme violence of the hippos. The pits in which they wallow may be more hippo poo than mud. Sitting at the edge of one, I would watch hippos lift their tails and flick them back and forth while they sprayed poo over crowd of hippos behind them.
However, that was not the most disgusting part. It was that most of them had their faces submerged in the sludge, with just the nostrils on the top of their heads exposed so they could breathe. The hippo pits were incredibly violent, with hippos constantly grunting and launching attacks at each other. Many of which came from hippos jockeying for a deeper position in the pit or trying to lay their head on the back of a neighbor to keep the poo out of their mouths.
Seeing the life of a hippo at Katavi in the dry season helps you understand why they would have such a foul temper. Wouldn’t you if you had to pass every summer submerged in a pool of your own poo, and your only friends had foot long canines, opened their mouths 180 degrees, and viciously bit you the whole time?
You can see the intense stress in their eyes as fights break out around them. Hippos are constantly opening their mouths in gapping yawns, which display their teeth as warnings to their neighbors. The fighting inflicts deep wounds on the hippos, which ooze blood and fester in the poo. Even babies are attacked or can get crushed in the heat of battle. I watched for hours, cringing at the sight, dripping in sweat from the heat, and covered in bandanas to abate the stench and tsetse flies. However, the whole time thankful to not be in the septic gladiator’s pit.
The Danger of Camping with Temperamental Hippos
I was well aware of the dangerous tempers of hippos. Years earlier, while paddling the Zambezi River in a 25-foot canoe, I had been charged twice by hippos in the water. I also had enough experience camping by bodies of water in Africa to know that the night was going to be stressful. I was all alone, and Ikuu public campsite is meters away from one of the largest hippo poo pits I had found.
While hippos wallow during the day, as the sunsets they leave it to feed. Hippos weigh up to 4,500 kilos (9,920 pounds) yet manage to move silently through the bush at night. Also, despite their size, they spook easily, especially when you are between them and their water hole. They tend to charge when they are scared, and can easily outrun humans.
As the sun descended, hippos started leaving the muck pit, and sending menacing territorial yawns my way. I was torn as I wanted to capture these images in the golden light, but also knew I had to set-up camp and gather firewood.
I choose a camp site with a large tree and drove the front of my car right up to it. I built a firepit as the third point on a triangle including the tree and the back of my car. Pitching my tent inside the triangle, I had the flank of the car to one side of it, and the fire in front of it, which kept me safe.
Collecting firewood, I could already see hippos emerging from the brush where I had just been taking pictures a couple hundred meters away. They were close enough to see me, but far enough away to not be bothered, and gave my campsite a wide berth.
If you keep a campfire going, the hippos should stay away. When they are at a comfortable distance, they are clam and just graze along in the bushes. As I got some charcoal going and cooked dinner, I shined a flashlight around the perimeter of my camp. Hippo eyes reflect the light at night, so you can keep a watch on the ones around you from a safe distance.
On a night like this I usually purposefully dehydrate myself, because there is no leaving the tent to pee at night. Dawn is especially dangerous as that is when the hippos are meandering back to the wallow, and it is a probable time to accidently cross paths with one. That night I managed to sleep well in the midst of the mud monsters of Katavi.
The hippos of Katavi were visually stunning and nasally nauseating. Katavi National Park is for safari veterans who can deal with the heat and bugs and appreciate how unique this visceral spectacle is. For me, getting to spend a couple days there was one of the highlights of my time in the African bush.
Notes for Nomads:
It took 1.5 days of driving on mostly dirt roads from Kigoma to reach Katavi. I entered at Ikuu Ranger Post near the airstrip. Be aware that they would not accept cash for park/camping fees. I had to use a credit card, and it took forever because the network was down. I only saw two other cars in Katavi during the two days I was there and would have easily spent a couple more days there if I did not have to get south to meet a friend.
The dry season in Katavi National Park is from June to October when you can see hippos in these conditions. Also check the riverbanks for caves that crocodiles pile into. I did not find any, but pictures I have seen of them are impressive.