The Cessna Grand Caravan circled the dirt landing strip as I peeked out the window. Giraffes bound across the arid ground below. A herd of elephants picked up their pace as we came closer. As the bush plane touched down, it finally sank in — I was in East Africa.
I left Seattle-Tacoma International Airport three days earlier on a flight to Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, for a trip that was discussed for months. I met my grandmother Karen Jackson and our tour guide Tom Lithgow at the small airport in Mwanza earlier in the day. They had come from an earlier trip to Volcanoes National Park in Rwanda to track and observe mountain gorillas and see golden monkeys.
The plan was to spend four days in Katavi National Park with Lithgow and stay at his Palahala Camp on the Kapapa River. After landing on the bush runway, we met our co-guide Baracka Sadick, hopped in the camp’s Land Rover and were off to see what lay in store in this vast wilderness.
Katavi, east of Lake Tanganyika, covers 1,727 square miles and gets 2,000 visitors a year. The small number affords a remote, private experience when observing animals. Lithgow also offers private tours in the Serengeti through his business, Tanzania by Firelight. In contrast to Katavi, Serengeti is the nation’s busiest park, averaging 200,000 visitors a year.
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“There is less jockeying with the other vehicles,” Lithgow said about the numbers in Katavi. “I’m not the fourth vehicle being radioed to come see the animals.”
Lithgow is an imposing man — in spirit and stature. A 6-foot-5 former national rugby player, Lithgow learned the trade from his father, a noted Tanzanian guide who believed in country conservation. As a second-generation Tanzanian, Lithgow’s passion for animal conservancy shines in his side project of working to stop animal and fish poaching. Guiding is in his blood and it shows in the private tours he enjoys conducting, whether it is one on one or for larger groups such as Seattle’s Vulcan, Canton, Ohio’s Timken, or director of Warner Brothers.
Lithgow and his then-wife and current business partner, Belinda, opened Palahala camp in Katavi Park 11 years ago. For nine years, they have been at their current site on the Kapapa River. Lithgow is an encyclopedia of local animal knowledge, which he shares as we bounce along the bumpy single- and double-track paths. I learn from Lithgow that all animals travel in same-sex packs with the male usually a distance behind. Plenty of spring babies are traveling within the matriarchal herds.
When we later spot a warthog sprinting across the road with small offspring following close behind, Lithgow said, “The rains are coming soon. When the babies drop, so do the rains.” He is not far off in this late-September heat. The tundra is dry. The water levels are low. Rain season is desperately needed in these parts as the animals search for even the smallest mud puddles to drink from.
ABOUT THE ANIMALS
After a couple of hours of searching and pausing to take photos of animals, Lithgow stops at a watering hole in the Katuma area where Sadick unloads our picnic lunch. We set up chairs just in time for a herd of elephants to drink from the receding lake. Plenty of birds, and yellow baboons, slowly advance to the tamarind tree that we seek shade under. It is as if Lithgow has made a behind-the-scenes deal with the animals to appear on his command.
Later in the trip, we would return to this spot to watch another matriarchal herd of elephants water and mud themselves. The second time around, we get to see juveniles with them, with the youngest so uncoordinated about properly using his trunk that he must mimic the movement of his older siblings.
After a leisurely lunch, we pack up and head to the area of the park that has a small village and other private park accommodations. It is home to a large herd of hippos that we will return to during the next several days. I’ve come on this trip with a terrible head cold, so my sense of smell is a little off and, as my grandmother acknowledges, is my saving grace in this part of the park. A monitor lizard slithers through the sandy bottom of the river, seeking shade from the afternoon sun.
As we head to Palahala (sable antelope in Swahili), Lithgow stops the truck. A roan antelope is in the middle of the path. Amazing in size, with its big curved horns, I stare in awe.
“Get out your camera,” Lithgow tells me quietly. Fumbling to grab the borrowed equipment, I miss the opportunity as the antelope bounds off.
“We haven’t seen one in some time,” Sadick tells us.
Originally from Arusha, Sadick, at 26, has been working for Lithgow for seven years. His tracking skills are almost as perceptive as Lithgow’s, as he spots animals and birds before we do. Sadick, like the rest of Lithgow’s crew, speaks English, along with his native Swahili. When I travel, I love to learn the local dialect and the crew delights in teaching me phrases, local slang and everyday greetings — some not always repeatable for a newspaper.
The camp consists of eight glamping-style tents built on platforms with decks, private en-suite bathrooms, comfy twin beds and electricity. Showers are available by 6:30 in the evening as staff member Zachariah lights the boiler that heats the gravity-fed pipeline from water tanks at each end of the camp. We head to the campfire after cleaning up for pre-dinner snacks and cocktails — swapping stories about world politics, rugby and life’s ups and downs.
Dinner will be served throughout our stay on the raised decks overlooking the river. Each night the chef churns out a different soup, entree and dessert — never repeating a course during our stay. The camp uses a charcoal larder fridge for storing things that need to stay cool. A primitive kitchen is outfitted with a gas oven and smaller coal oven that Stanley uses to make fresh bread each morning. This chef makes a mean guacamole with homemade chips — some of the best I have ever had.
We linger through the meal, the conversation ranging from intellectual to mischievous.
Slap, slap. Lithgow shines a flashlight toward the river. The crocodiles are fishing. The super blood moon will appear over the days that we are there, lighting the activities that would usually remain hidden in the dark. A soft snort. Another shine of the flashlight reveals Cape buffalo have come to drink from the limited water supply of the river. A charge of $5 is ongoing for how many times I incorrectly identify the Cape buffalo (they remind me of their very distant cousin, the Asian water buffalo) and within a few days I owe $25 to Sadick and Lithgow.
LIFE IN CAMP
I step out onto the deck of the tent. A female waterbuck (which looks like a fox and brown bear face crossed with an alpaca body) pauses across the river before bounding off. It is early morning and our coffee and tea has just arrived as our wake-up call.
Breakfast is set-up buffet-style on the same decks as dinners. Staff member Asa asks for our custom order of eggs. In the light of day, it is easier to see how close we are to the river — and the crocodiles who have come out to sun themselves on the sandbars that dot it.
Cell and Internet service are almost nonexistent in the park. Most American cellphone providers will not work in Tanzania. Spotty Wi-Fi later in the trip will serve as a quick communication back home. So we rely on Lithgow for world updates and announcements — and a lot of that talk will revolve around the World Rugby Cup throughout the trip.
Some of the creature comforts of home are still available as Lithgow offers complimentary laundry service when staying at his camp. Zachariah, the young man who handles everything from laundry to camp maintenance, is an expert with the charcoal iron he uses to press clothes after hand-washing them with an efficiency that makes anyone who tackles laundry jealous. (When traveling in Tanzania, not all camps will handle undergarments for religious reasons. Always check with the hosts to make sure this is acceptable.)
The roads had been rough the first day in the park. And as we jump in the Land Rover for the second day, Lithgow lets out a jubilant exclamation to see that the park has graded and leveled his area of the park after three years. This small effort by the park — not lost on us is that the rainy season will come in weeks — will make the rest of the trip more enjoyable for all of us in the truck.
Our late-morning viewing includes stretches of Cape buffalo and plains zebra. A female lesser kudu spotted by the men gets Sadick excited because it has not been seen in the park for some years. We stop for tea and coffee, along with snacks sent by the chef. I start a running list on my iPad of all of the creatures I’ve seen in just two days.
Another popular sight is the bushbuck, a smaller version of the American deer. The fawns are cute and little, and their moms tend to conceal them in the brush just like their American counterparts. Baboons, with babes in arms, groom themselves in trees. As the trip continues, it never gets old seeing the herds and solo sightings of giraffes and elephants. Bohor reedbuck, Coke’s hartebeest, topi, banded mongoose, vervet monkeys and waterbuck are plentiful each day.
Most stop what they are doing to gaze at us, some pause and preen as though they are used to tourist cameras while others put on a fantastic running show — leaping over roads, through the brush or creating dust clouds as they escape from our path.
Birds are plentiful, spending their days alongside other four-legged creatures. We get to see a pair of African fish eagles silently wait in the trees, stalk their prey and swoop down, snatching it with their beaks and flying away with it. Maribou storks, saddlebill storks, hammerkop, open-billed storks and egrets are usually found near the muddy pools of the hippos and crocs. The hippos allow the birds to ride their backs in return for cleaning their wounds.
We see the circle of life in action as an older hippo carcass lies in a well-worn path. White-backed vultures and palm nut vultures swarm it, picking at what is left of the head — hyenas have already stripped clean the rib cage, Lithgow said. “It is pretty fresh” he said. “There is not that putrid smell of death yet.” He inches the Land Rover closer to pause, and allow us to watch the action. A larger group of vultures, fed and satisfied, are sleeping off to the side.
Each day we search for lions, but they elude us. Sadick and Lithgow are looking in the trees and their usual stomping grounds — but we come up empty-handed. We try an area once used by hunters that the park has annexed. Sadick spots lion excrement that is not too old. It is a lesson in having our guides check the area first before we exit the Land Rover for morning tea. Our break area puts us close to a herd of hippos that are hiding less than a half mile down in the brush. The lack of water has pushed them into an area that will hide and shade them. A lone hippo plods by with a few birds riding along on its back.
“Hippos are fast. They can kill you. More people are killed by hippos than lions.” Lithgow warns us to stay near and not venture too far onto the plain.
My grandmother was hoping I would see the cats, as this is her third trip with Lithgow, and she spotted them on the other two.
“Oh well. You will just have to come back again,” he said with a grin.
Liz Wishaw: 253-597-8516, @lizwishaw
Tourist visa: $100 for U.S. citizens. It can be paid on arrival in Tanzania or ahead of time through the consulate. tanzaniaembassy-us.org.
International travel: Checking routes, carriers such as Delta, Emirates, KLM, British Airways, Lufthansa, Kenya and Swiss all fly from Seattle to Dar es Salaam. Flights range from $1,550-$2,635, with travel time taking 23 to almost 48 hours.
Overnight accommodations: Available in Dar es Salaam. We stayed at the Southern Star (1 Garden Ave., PO Box 80022, Dar es Salaam, 0000, Tanzania, 800-491-9657) on arrival and departure. Prices average $200-$250 per night, depending on the time of year. tsogosunhotels.com.
Flights to Katavi Park: Available out of Mwanza three times a week (Mondays, Thursday and Sundays) at 9 a.m. through Auric Air. Returns from Katavi occur on the same days at 12:30 p.m. auricair.com.
Tanzania by Firelight: The Lithgows can customize your safari to include stops at Katavi National Park, Mahale Mountains and to trek with gorillas in Rwanda. Packages start from $6,000 and include internal flights, transfers to and from all airports, hotels and camps, accommodations, meals, park fees, alcoholic beverages and daily laundry service at their properties. Extra fees are possible with beverage and laundry at other properties. 800-524-7979, tanzaniafirelightsafaris.com.