Katavi National Park, 35km southwest of Mpanda, is Tanzania’s third-largest national park (together with two contiguous game reserves the conservation area encompasses 12,500 sq km) and one of its most unspoiled wilderness areas. Though it’s an isolated alternative to more popular destinations elsewhere in Tanzania, the lodges are just as luxurious as anywhere else, and for backpackers it’s one of the cheapest and easiest parks to visit, if you’re willing to take the time and effort to get there.
Katavi’s dominant feature is the 425-sq-km Katisunga Plain, a vast grassy expanse at the heart of the park. This and other flood plains yield to vast tracts of brush and woodland (more southern African than eastern), which are the best areas for sighting roan and sable antelopes (together with Ruaha National Park, Katavi is one of the few places you have a decent chance of spotting both). Small rivers and large swamps that last all year support huge populations of hippos and crocodiles and Katavi has more than 400 bird species.
The park really comes to life in the dry season, when the flood plains dry up and elephants, lions, zebras, giraffes, elands, topis and many more gather at the remaining waters. The park really stands out for its hippos – up to a thousand at a time gather in a single, muddy pool at the end of the dry season (late September to early October is the best time) – and its buffaloes. Katavi is home to some of the largest remaining buffalo herds in Africa and it's not unusual to see over a thousand of these steroid-fuelled bovines at any one time.
The park no longer hires vehicles but Riverside Camp in Sitalike charges US$200 per day for a 4WD.
All park fees must be made at park headquarters located 1km south of Sitalike or the Ikuu Ranger Post near the main airstrip. You must pay by credit card, as cash is not accepted. If you fly in, rangers will be waiting at the airstrip for park admission fees. Anyone staying in the park has to pay the camping fee, but this will be included in the overall package if staying at one of the top-end camps.