Katavi National Park - Into the wilderness

After our lovely stay at Lake Tanganyika, we wanted to spend some time exploring Tanzania. We left for Nkondwe Falls, where we knew would be a lodge with a view of the falls. This was a few hours drive over dirt road, avoiding potholes. When we arrived, we learned that the cooks were off duty, so we would have to cook ourselves. Not a problem of course. Then we learned that the lodge did not have hot water, which would be fixed in a few days. Also not a problem of course. However, the prices that we were then told, were twice as high as the price that was communicated earlier. We would even have to pay a lot to camp on the parking, with uneven grounds and no facilities at all. Although it was already 4PM, we decided to continue driving and not stay here. 

The stop we had planned for the next day, suddenly became the stop we had to go to this same day. It was still at least 2 hours driving, meaning we would have to continue without proper lunch until at least 6PM, not sure if we were able to cook dinner and set up our camp before dark as that is when the hippos come out to graze. The camp site is at the border of Katavi National Park, along the river that runs through the national park. The river has hippos, which usually come out of the water at night to graze. The campsite is also regularly visited by bushbucks, waterbucks and the occasional elephant. 

Knowing ourselves well, it is not very wise to go on a drive until 6PM without lunch and without the certainty of being able to eat dinner. As we grew more and more grumpy, we decided it might be a good idea to ask if we could at least have some dinner provided. Emma did a great job securing a camping spot and some dinner, while Jeroen was doing his best to avoid the potholes. 

When we arrived, we were pleasantly surprised. The stories we heard were mixed, with some being very positive and some were very negative. We expected the truth to be in the middle, and it was. The owner, Juma, is an amazingly friendly guy. He took great care of us, showed us the new facilities he had built and his wife cooked us a lovely local dinner. We quickly set up our camp and before the hippos came out, we were all set. During dinner, we decided that this place was more than nice enough to stay an extra day, to give us the opportunity to visit the National Park, as we are here anyway. 

As we are not Tanzanian residents and our car is Kenyan, we expected to pay quite a bit to enter the National Park. When we arrived at the entrance the next day, Emma showed her amazing personal skills, while Jeroen prepared the camera equipment. As soon as Jeroen arrived at the office, he learned how well Emma was able to negotiate. We received wonderful East African resident rates and our car also received an East African resident rate. This meant a pleasant surprise. 

As has become usual during our travels, we are in the middle of rainy season. This means that many roads contain quite a lot of water. Juma assured us that Katavi is a very easy park to navigate. If we encounter roads that are flooded: 'Just follow the tracks and you will be fine'. We followed the instructions into the park and we immediately saw some wonderful animals, mainly beautiful birds. We have seen many animals on our safaris, so we don't care a lot about what we will see. We are mostly hoping for elephants (as always) and some nice birds. Fortunately, we were able to see some special birds we had not yet seen before. Unfortunately, we did not see any elephants. It was another big mammal that stole the show. 

This game drive likely was the most terrifying game drive we have ever done, especially by ourselves. We followed Juma's guidance and 'just followed the tracks'. For quite some time, that worked really well. It brough us along some of the hippo pools and we even saw some hippos out of the water, grazing. Our excitement slowly changed into a slight fear, as we saw more and more hippos out of the water. The tracks are right next to the water, putting us between the hippos on the land and the river... Some were very annoyed that we tried to pass, as slowly and peacefully as possible. These animals are huge and could topple our car if they wanted to. Add to that their enormous teeth, strong jaws and bad temper and there is a lot of damage they can do to us and our car if they wanted to. We pass a group of hippos that look seriously agitated, so as soon as we passed, we sped up a bit. Then suddenly, a hippo appears out of the bushes running next to our car. We are obviously in the way to his hiding place, the water. We quickly stop and with our hearts in our throats, we wait to see what it does. Fortunately, it also got a bit scared by us and quickly went into the water. 

In the meantime, the tracks get harder and harder to follow. The lakes have completely flooded and many roads have become impossible. Sometimes the tracks disappear completely, but we find them again a few meters ahead. Then, we come to a point where we have no idea where to go. There seem to be a set of tracks straight into the water, but we have no idea how deep that is and if it is actually a track. Another set seems to head straight into the bush, but we completely lose it after we have to drive through thick bushes of acacia trees. Two things we do not want: 1) Drowning our car in the water and 2) Getting a flat tire on an acacia thorn. 

The only reasonable way forward, is the way back. Unfortunately, we have no space to turn. We slowly drive backwards through the marshes, hoping to not get stuck, until we find some place to turn. Back through all the groups of hippos we go, until we get safely back to the higher ground, where tracks are no longer flooded. 

We decide to explore another part of the park, also following the words of wisdom from Juma. Again, we slowly found ourselves in the middle of increasingly difficult tracks to follow. There have clearly been many different floodings and many different tracks to circumvent these floodings. The tracks keep crossing each other and at times we lose sight of where to go. At some point, we follow a track that leads straight into some newly flooded trail. We drive through the water, but then we reach a part where we can still only see water. Close to the main road, which we can actually see, there is no way to know if we can pass this 'lake'. We decide to turn back, but find out that we are stuck in the water. 

We accelerate and come loose, but we had forgotten to close the windows. The inside is covered in mud, but we don't even care. We are happy that we are not stuck anymore. We drive backwards through the water again, until we find some space to turn around. We then decide that this is the signal to turn back to the campsite. A little bit sad that we did not see elephants, but very happy that we made it out without really being stuck and without a flat tire (especially since there was no signal in the whole park). We did see some wonderful wildlife and some amazing birds, and on top of that we had the most thrilling game drive of our lives. We definitely earned a beer.

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