When most people think of the African savanna, they picture the endless grasslands of Tanzania’s Serengeti National Park or the Masai Mara in Kenya. I’ve been fortunate enough to experience the Serengeti (by balloon!), which was wonderful, but I prefer to travel a little more off the beaten track. That’s how I ended up bush camping in Katavi National Park.

Katavi river cruisers pano

Birdwatching along the Ikuu River, Katavi National Park, Tanzania.

Katavi is isolated from almost everything else in Tanzania – it’s a long 3-day drive from Dar es Salaam, including a full day on horrifically potholed “roads”. West of (but not accessible via) the amazing Ruaha National, Katavi is the 3rd-largest park in Tanzania and a park of extremes: massive expanses of dusty earth and grasses during the rainy season, and mirage-like seasonal lakes during the rains. Apart from a few high-end lodges, there’s nowhere to stay in Katavi, especially if you’re on a budget. Luckily, Tanapa (Tanzania National Parks Association) allows bush camping in Katavi, which is not permitted in any other national park I’ve visited. That means it’s possible to pitch a tent wherever you want, as long as you’re away from a road, lodge, or other park facility such as a ranger station. This produces an experience of being utterly isolated, totally dependent on your own wits, and at the mercy of the animals whose home you’ve invaded.

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We camped several days along the Ikuu River, which bisects Katavi. The site was located in the middle of a horseshoe bend in the river, so that we could park the trucks and have sundowners while scanning for birds and wildlife through a 270-degree view. It was phenomenal! We were surrounded by hordes of hippos at night, with elephants wandering through the campsite on two mornings, and we listened to the eerie howls and barks of what I assume were hyenas lurking in the surrounding area. My son slept in the truck for security, and I stayed in a rooftop tent for the breeze. Wildlife was prolific, even for us amateurs without professional guides: we saw more elephants and hippos than we could count, crocodiles, lions, buffalo, kudu, bushbuck, dozens of bird species, and the largest and fastest black mamba I’ve ever seen.