Steve's Off the Beaten Track Safaris:
#2 The Wild West (Katavi & Mahale)

In this series on Africa travel, we asked our founder, Steve, to list the mind-blowing, do-able, journeys in Africa which he has been on and which he thinks you simply have to go on to get that expedition feeling! In this installment, Steve chats about his love for western Tanzania. Scroll down to listen to the podcast, read the full interview, or see our summary of Steve's recommendations. Our writer, Claire, asks the questions.

When it comes to off the beaten track safaris, two destinations cracked the nod in Steve's mind - two very different-feeling places in western Tanzania. Katavi and Mahale are memorable for different reasons. Katavi is dry and hard for the creatures that live there - a marvel of that life exists there.

Mahale, on the other hand, is located in green and misty mountains - and a forest which is home to a pocket of primeval life. Read more about Steve's experiences of these off the beaten track destinations, travel tips, and what to pack for a safari to these wild parts of Tanzania.

Luxury safari accommodation overlooking the African bush in Mahale, Tanzania

We’re carrying on with our series of off the beaten track safari destinations. So what cracks the nod for number two?

STEVE: It’s one which I call “The Wild West” which is Western Tanzania. I did an article for our Safari Life magazine on the one part of it. So “cruel-Tavi” is what I call it – Katavi National Park – and then “magical Mahale” which is the Mahale Mountains on Lake Tanganyika. Greystoke Mahale’s the camp. Both camps are run by Nomad, a really cool company. So those would be my next on the list. They’re pretty incredible places to go to – very different. So I don’t know if you want me to go straight ahead and tell you why.

I think why is probably the biggest question that everyone would have. Why should people go there? For those that haven’t heard of it, what makes it special?

STEVE: Because, when you’re talking about off the beaten track, this really is off the beaten track. It’s hellishly difficult to get to. You have to fly in a light aircraft flight from Arusha somewhere. I can’t even recall what the place was called, but you have to refuel on the way there, so that’s how far it is. It’s right in the south-western corner of Tanzania.
I think the reason why I’m mentioning it as a combination, if you go at the right time of year which would be August, September, October which is the end of the dry season, you get this almost contrast between the two places. Katavi, as I say, is a pretty cruel place at that time of year. It’s very, very dry; very, very barren. All the rivers dry up to the point where the Nile Crocodiles end up living in caves. It’s prehistoric. It’s Africa on steroids. You almost land there and have this feeling of your eyes going a little bit wider. I wouldn’t go so far as saying that you feel like prey, but it’s just this mind-blowingly intense place because of the lack of water at that time of year. And then the contrast then is Mahale.

A smiling man in a safari hat and shirt seated on the ground with hands in his pockets
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You go from this dry, barren, stark place to this intense green range of mist-shrouded mountains

You fly west from Katavi to Mahale, so you go from this barren, stark, dry area with crocs living in caves and a massive pool of hippos. There’s only one source of water left, so you have probably one thousand hippos – and remember they’re territorial animals – having to co-exist in this big mud bath and they don’t look happy. They look as grumpy as they possibly can be and hippos in water look grumpy normally but, in mud under the baking October sun, not happy campers. And we found lions on that trip which had killed a baby hippo. It’s tough Africa. It’s incredibly beautiful, but it’s tough.
You fly west from Katavi and I can recall that, the first time I saw the mountains, it was almost like a scene from like a Vietnam movie or something when you’re flying along. I actually just said to the pilot – because the Mahale Mountains are very high mountains on the eastern shore of Lake Tanganyika – “Out of interest, we know that there are chimpanzees. It’s one of the best places to see chimpanzees, but I’ve always been fascinated by forest elephants and the species of elephant that actually live there aren’t actually forest elephants. They’re normal savannah elephant.” As I asked the pilot, it was like something from a Jurassic Park movie, the clouds parted and this herd of about twenty elephants bathed in this rich red mud walked up under an opening on this hill as we flew over. I just looked down and thought, “How is that even possible?”
So you go from this dry, barren, stark place to this intense green range of mist-shrouded mountains on the shores of Lake Tanganyika. Then the excitement really mounts because I remember the pilot then going and saying to us all – because I was with a group – “I don’t really like this landing.” So, if your pilot doesn’t really like this landing, we were all asking, “Well, what do you mean you don’t like the landing?” He said, “Well, because, on the one side, you’ve got the mountains and the landing strip goes from the mountains and it ends in the lake. So, if you get it wrong, you’ve got to dive down the mountains – depending on the wind – and land and stop before the lake” and I think we got that real adventure feeling even just sitting in the plane and the take-off from there was similar. We were pretty heavy because there were lots of us in the plane and kit and all that and – his name was Julian – he turned around and said, “Well, I hope we make this”. Again! I was like, “What do you mean you hope we make this?"

View over a lush wetland in Mahale Tanzania from the window of a small airplane

Anyway, so it really is a contrast. Both places are incredibly wild and you almost get that idea that it’s a bit like combining Okavango with the Namib. It’s the same sort of feeling but it’s almost the opposite because the Namib’s spectacular – it’s got mountains and things – but the Okavango’s dead flat. Well, Katavi’s pretty much dead flat so the safari area or the dry area is dead flat and then the Mahale Mountains are obviously proper mountains. So there’s that same sort of contrast and I just love that contrast from no water to I think Lake Tanganyika’s the deepest lake in the world or second or something – I don’t know – but it’s just a contrast of places within about an hour or two’s flight away. It’s phenomenal.
You land at the airstrip in Katavi and immediately you get nailed by a swarm of what I call Messerschmitts – tsetse flies. They hand you a cow tail and you’re like, “What the hell? What’s this for?” and they almost give you a look of, “Just wait”. The camp there is a classic. It’s not basic, but a proper tented camp. If you go and look at photos of it, it’s my idea of what a safari camp should be.

Sorry, just to go back for a second, they give you this cow tail. Are they expecting you to beat your way through the tsetse flies?

STEVE: You’re basically beating yourself. You’re basically hitting yourself as hard as you can every time a tsetse fly lands. This is in pre-Rid insect repellent days but, really, the tsetse flies start at Katavi – and, in fact, there are tsetse flies at Mahale which we’ll chat about later – so you land, tsetse flies. I was probably lucky, but we had the most phenomenal guide. You know, he’s one of those “don’t judge a book by its cover” type of people. We met the guy. I can’t remember his name, unfortunately. He had teeth missing and I thought, “What’s going on here?” but I’ve never, ever, ever in my life had a guide that good. He was off-the-scale amazing. So that obviously added to the experience. So you’re in this dramatic landscape and I remember him driving along and we stopped suddenly and I went, “What?” and he said, “Fiery-necked nightjar on that branch.” Well, which branch? We were in a forested area. It turned out it took me – no word of a lie – ten minutes to find it through my binoculars, staring at the branch and the branch wasn’t two metres from the road. It was about twenty metres from the road. I went, “How the hell did you see that?” I don’t know if it’s something he’s familiar with, but he said, “No, I saw it. That branch was different.”

View of the Mahale mountains in Tanzania from the waters of Lake Tanganyika

Anyway, that experience is not a Land Rover safari. As I said, we found lions which had killed hippo. It’s just – I can’t really put my finger on it – cruel is the word. It’s cruel but it’s got this attraction to it. It’s raw. That’s the word. It’s a raw, raw place to go to and, being under canvas adds to that raw experience. There are lots of other camps obviously but Chada’s the one I’ve been to – Chada Katavi. It’s on the main floodplain and it fills up with water quite a bit during the wet season and then the dry season, June to October, by the end of October, it’s just mayhem because the animals are weak, the lions are having a feast.
The birding there is incredible if you go from the end of November and that guide of mine was the best birding guide I’ve ever had. He was pointing at parrots over his shoulder while driving. I was like, “How did you see that? I mean, did you hear them?” It’s not bad. I just sat there going, “Jeepers, dude”.
One of the big things to do there is to go on walks. We went for a walk the one day and one of the ladies in our group asked to go to the loo. So, as the guide would do, he went and found a tree but he didn’t go and look at the tree properly. So she went behind the bush and she came out a bit meekly going, “I don’t think I can use that tree.” He said, “Why?” She said, “Come and look” and there was a four-metre Nile Crocodile lying in the tree and this is miles from water. So some of the crocs live in these huge caves. I think she was a female. I don’t know if she was trying to go somewhere but, because it’s so hot, they’ve got no energy so they just lie there. They probably haven’t had water. They probably haven’t fed. They go into an almost reverse hibernation because obviously hibernation is when it’s cold, but this is like a hot hibernation. You know what it’s like when it’s really hot and you’ve got no energy. So you’re like, “What on earth? There’s a croc under a tree. What?” We then went to go and look at the croc caves and I’ve got this photograph which is in the Safari Life story of us standing over the cave. So the cave’s beneath us. It’s just a cave in the riverbank and there are monster crocodiles there. I think the bigger crocs dominate the caves. I don’t know if that’s true or not. Looking down in to the cave, some of the smaller crocs were looking up at me and I don’t know how crocs think, but I think the words in its eyes were, “Please crumble. Please, would you mind crumbling?” and he looked up and his eyes were this intense green. I just took a step back and just went, “No, that wouldn’t be fun – to fall into a pit of about ten crocs. Goodbye.” Anyway, so that’s the Katavi. I can say it’s raw and cruel, but I don’t know if Katavi’s a place I can really capture. I get goose bumps thinking about it. It’s partly excitement, but it’s partly a little bit of, “Whoa, okay” and it’s so far off. It’s a pretty difficult place to get to.

Three lions tearing at the carcass of a hippo near Chada Katavi Camp in Tanzania

Well, it’s just a long flight. Difficult isn’t you need to walk for ten years to get there, but it’s a longish flight so it’s not on the traditional Tanzanian circuit. In Tanzania, you have the northern circuit which is Serengeti and Manyara and Tarangire and then you have the southern circuit which is Selous, Ruaha and those are quite close to Dar es Salaam, so people often go there but the west just isn’t on the way to anywhere else, so very few people go there but by God is it worth going to. Wow, you’ve seen it all. You’ve got to go.
Mahale, on the other hand, was completely different. The only other similarity were the tsetse flies. It was a bit disconcerting because it’s a freshwater lake obviously. You arrive at this airstrip. You’ve gone from the dry to the wet – and I’ll try and be as short as possible, but I could talk for years on this place – you arrive and you “survive” the landing in inverted commas (but not really), you get out, and then, to get to the camp, you then get on to a motorised dhow and there’d been a big storm the night before so there was a cobra or something dead in the water and there are villages and stuff just outside the park – it must be a park; I think the mountains are protected. So, having seen the elephants on the top, also very excited, then you go on this trip – I can’t remember if they gave us drinks now – but you then come around the corner and there’s Greystoke.
If you go and look at pictures of Greystoke, it’s like Robinson Crusoe. It’s just this weirdly shaped palm frond camp which is almost, for want of a better word, looks like it’s in the middle of the jungle. It looks like it’s been devoured by the jungle. And we arrived and the whole thing was chimps but, as an example, you lie on the beach. You can’t because there’s tsetse flies. I don’t know if they are seasonal or not. I went to go and get something out of the storeroom and the guy said, “Oh, be careful. There are three snakes that live in there.”

People walking away from a small airplane at the airstrip in Mahale, Tanzania

It’s crawling, teeming with stuff but the main attraction at Greystoke and the reason why people go there is to go and see the chimps. There’s a chimp research project going on there. Chimps are mad. I was about to say that they’re like humans without whatever it is that stops us from doing stuff, but we’ve probably done worse stuff than chimps. So you start off with this talk by one of the researchers and there’s a whole book on the chimp families and, you know, the alpha male killed his mom, raped his sister, killed his brother. You’re just reading thinking, “What on earth?” and they really are pretty excessive – again, by what standards, I’m not really sure, but they’re pretty intense animals.
The whole focus is you go on walks and you get given masks so you don’t give them any human diseases. You can hear them screaming and shouting in the trees. They tell you, when you see a chimp, put your eyes down and keep your hands next to you and don’t run because a chimp is small but it’s been doing pull-ups its entire life, so they are phenomenally strong. I’m not trying to scare people, but I’ve heard stories of them pulling people’s thumbs off. They are very, very strong. Don’t even think two ways about it. They might be up to your knee but they’re insanely strong.
So the first chimp we saw charged past us down the path almost screaming and what’s incredible to see, having read the book about chimps, is their different personalities. There was the old guy who was chilled and just looking at the world and they’re a phenomenal species to go and see. I would fly there just to go and see them. It’s just amazing watching them and how they interact and play. I guess it’s more intelligent baboons or hairier humans. I don’t know.

A chimpanzee in the Mahale Mountains in Tanzania
Take a great pair of binoculars because you’ll bird until you’re blue in the face
A chimpanzee in the Mahale mountains in Tanzania

You’ve obviously given us some ideas of things people should do there. Are there any other experiences that you recommend people have?

STEVE: I think I’ve mentioned all of them, but it would be Land Rovers and walking. I think time of year for Katavi makes a difference, so go there when it’s dry and hot. Go there when it’s a little bit extreme. It’s beautiful and green in summer. I wouldn’t want to know what the tsetse flies are like in summer, but go when it’s at its “worst”. Bird. Take a great pair of binoculars because you’ll bird until you’re blue in the face. If you do go in the green season, then after November all the migrants arrive. And then, for Mahale, it’s walking. I think they’ve got kayaks. You can take kayaks out. We went snorkelling. There are some beautiful freshwater fish. Again, it was just a bit weird being bitten on my back while I was snorkelling by a tsetse fly. I didn’t really expect that. Oh, and the boat guys were also fishing while we were snorkelling and we had freshwater fish sashimi on the boat. It was amazing. Part of the experience is also that flight in between. So there’s not really an activity that they wouldn’t offer to you that you should go, “We need to do that”. So that covers all the activities.

You’ve also just mentioned binos as something that everyone should take. What else do you recommend that people take with them to make the most of the experience, for the utmost comfort and enjoyment of it?

STEVE: So all the usual safari stuff – a pair of 10x42 binoculars and kit and gear and bags and whatever – but I was thinking about it the other day and I think I would put it down to, because of the tsetse flies, definitely take anti-insect shirts like BUGTech™.
Definitely take insect repellent. In the tests we’ve done against tsetse flies in Zambia, we noted protection from our DEET-based Bushman Insect Repellent.
So BUGTech™ shirt, the insect repellent, and then, because walking is such a big part of the experience, I would take that new Selous Bag of ours because it’s got belt loops so it can attach to your belt or you can wear it as a backpack or you can wear it as a satchel. I would take it and wear it on my belt. Because Katavi is so hot, you want to be carrying water, so you can put a water bottle in there, your binos, your insect repellent. It’s just a very convenient bag for walking. So, for both Mahale and Katavi, I would take that Selous Bag.

A man in a hat looking through binoculars. A leather and canvas satchel hangs from a wooden pole.

And then the shoes? Are there any particular shoes that you would recommend?

STEVE: Probably, for men, probably something like the Rufiji™ APU Combat Boots. Yeah, definitely take comfortable walking shoes!

Any final thoughts on the destination? Anything that you’d like to say as a closing remark?

STEVE: It’s one of those places where almost the best remark is just to have a distant look in your eyes, like a dreamy look if someone asks you what it’s like and just go, “Gee, I don’t know”. It’s incredible. I can’t really describe why and I think that almost sums it up. It would be easy to say, “Just go. Just do it” but go knowing what it’s like but also be prepared to be – not a little bit nervous – but be prepared to be blown away by the experience because it has a rawness to it.

It sounds off the beaten track, but it also sounds completely unusual. It doesn’t sound like anything else.

STEVE: No, it doesn’t and it’s weird because the environment is almost southern African in terms of it’s more open plains, but I’ve probably only had a similar feeling at Mombo in Botswana where there’s an intensity to it. Maybe that’s what it is. It’s like the intense west; not the wild west, although wild west probably would describe it if you imagine chimpanzees running around with holsters and a pistol. I think, if you had to ask someone why they wanted to go there and they just looked towards the horizon for a while with a half-smile on their face, if you could interpret that, then that’s exactly why you should go.

A canvas tent at Chada Katavi Camp in Tanzania, Africa

From above the peaks & plains.
A map showing the remote location of Katavi and Mahale in western Tanzania. We have added great images from Steve's trip and so by clicking on the blue waypoint markers, you will get to view a selection of his images.

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Hundreds of crocodiles in the muddy waters of Katavi, Tanzania in Africa

The Bare Necessities

Discover the top four essentials Steve would pack for a safari in western Tanzania. BUGTech™ clothing and insect repellent are essential for insect protection. If you follow in Steve's footsteps, you will likely do a lot of walking, which means a pair of comfortable shoes and a walking safari bag are a packing necessity.

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A rugged man wearing a brown khaki shirt
Bushman Bug Spray For Safari To Katavi and Mahale, Tanzania
An open leather and canvas satchel containing a pair of green Vortex binoculars
A man walking through the bush wearing green shorts and Merrell shoes

A smiling man in a red shirt on a boat going towards a mountainous island in Mahale, Tanzania

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