If you are looking for the ultimate African wilderness experience, then Tanzania’s Western Circuit is your answer.
The very inaccessibility of the Western Parks makes them rarely visited but truly breathtaking experiences for those prepared to work for that definitive moment.
The major attraction of the Gombe Stream National Park is the chimpanzees, made famous by Jane Goodall in 1960 when she established the area as a chimpanzee research station.
Despite its tiny size of only 52 sq km, it’s a magnificent, dense tropical forest rising steeply from Lake Tanganyika in western Tanzania. Although the chimpanzees are the park’s star attraction they are not its only one. There are many other species, including baboon, vervet monkey, red colobus monkey, blue monkey and bush babies. Gombe also hosts a wide variety of bird species.
Gombe lies on the eastern shore of Lake Tanganyika and it is not accessible by road or by air. The easiest way to visit Gombe is on a daytrip, using a chartered motorboat, and to go on a guided forest walk.
A Gombe safari is a great opportunity to meet a chimpanzee up close. After a day of hiking you can take a swim in the crystal clear waters of Lake Tanganyika, the world’s longest and second-deepest lake.
Mahale Mountains National Park is set deep in the heart of the African interior, inaccessible by road and only 100km (60 miles) south of where Stanley uttered that immortal greeting “Doctor Livingstone, I presume”, is a scene reminiscent of an Indian Ocean island beach idyll. Silky white coves hem in the azure waters of Lake Tanganyika, the world’s longest, second-deepest and least-polluted freshwater lake.
Overshadowed by a chain of wild, jungle-draped peaks towering almost 2km above the shore is the remote and mysterious Mahale Mountains. The area is also known as Nkungwe, after the park’s largest mountain, held sacred by the local Tongwe people, and at 2,460 metres (8,069 ft) the highest of the six prominent points that make up the Mahale Range.
Safaris in Mahale, like its northerly neighbour Gombe Stream, are dominated by some of Africa’s last remaining wild chimpanzees: a population of roughly 800, habituated to human visitors by a Japanese research project founded in the 1960s. TheChimpanzee Tracking of Mahale is a magical experience. Mahale Mountains is an isolated destination on the western boundaries that provides unparalleled opportunities to witness wild groups of habituated and unhabituated chimpanzees in an exceptional natural environment.
While chimpanzees are the star attraction, a Mahale safari includes seeing a diverse forest fauna, including readily observed troops of red colobus, red-tailed and blue monkeys, and a kaleidoscopic array of colourful forest birds and butterflies. The montane rainforest belt is foraged by warthog and bushpig, while elephant, buffalo, yellow baboons and monkeys favour the cover of the northern regions. The lower, southern reaches are the terrain of rare roan and sable antelope, kudu and eland in the shadow of leopards and lions.
Isolated, untrammelled and seldom visited, Katavi is a true wilderness, providing the few intrepid souls who make it there with a thrilling taste of Africa as it must have been a century ago.Tanzania’s third largest national park, it lies in the remote southwest of the country, within a truncated arm of the Rift Valley that terminates in the shallow, brooding expanse of Lake Rukwa.
The bulk of Katavi supports a hypnotically featureless cover of tangled brachystegia woodland, home to substantial but elusive populations of the localised eland, sable and roan antelopes. But the main focus for game viewing within the park is the Katuma River and associated floodplains such as the seasonal Lakes Katavi and Chada. During the rainy season, these lush, marshy lakes are a haven for myriad waterbirds, and they also support Tanzania’s densest concentrations of hippo and crocodile.
It is during the dry season, when the floodwaters retreat, that Katavi truly comes into its own. The Katuma, reduced to a shallow, muddy trickle, forms the only source of drinking water for miles around, and the flanking floodplains support game concentrations that defy belief. An estimated 4,000 elephants might converge on the area, together with several herds of 1,000-plus buffalo, while an abundance of giraffe, zebra, impala and reedbuck provide easy pickings for the numerous lion prides and spotted hyena clans whose territories converge on the floodplains.
Katavi’s most singular wildlife spectacle is provided by its hippos. Towards the end of the dry season, up to 200 individuals might flop together in any riverine pool of sufficient depth. And as more hippos gather in one place, so does male rivalry heat up – bloody territorial fights are an everyday occurrence, with the vanquished male forced to lurk hapless on the open plains until it gathers sufficient confidence to mount another challenge.
Locals refer to the Kitulo Plateau as Bustani ya Mungu – The Garden of God – while botanists have dubbed it the Serengeti of Flowers, host to ‘one of the great floral spectacles of the world’. And Kitulo is indeed a rare botanical marvel, home to a full 350 species of vascular plants, including 45 varieties of terrestrial orchid, which erupt into a riotous wildflower display of breathtaking scale and diversity during the main rainy season of late November to April.
Perched at around 2,600 metres (8,500 ft) between the rugged peaks of the Kipengere, Poroto and Livingstone Mountains, the well-watered volcanic soils of Kitulo support the largest and most important montane grassland community in Tanzania.
One of the most important watersheds for the Great Ruaha River, Kitulo is well known for its floral significance – not only a multitude of orchids, but also the stunning yellow-orange red-hot poker and a variety of aloes, proteas, geraniums, giant lobelias, lilies and aster daisies, of which more than 30 species are endemic to southern Tanzania.
Big game is sparsely represented, though a few hardy mountain reedbuck and eland still roam the open grassland.
But Kitulo – a botanist and hiker’s paradise – is also highly alluring to birdwatchers. Tanzania’s only population of the rare Denham’s bustard is resident, alongside a breeding colony of the endangered blue swallow and such range-restricted species as mountain marsh widow, Njombe cisticola and Kipengere seedeater. Endemic species of butterfly, chameleon, lizard and frog further enhance the biological wealth of God’s Garden.