TRAVEL UPDATE:
West is Best - Vickyís journey to meet the relatives

The wind is hot and blowing from the north and the storm clouds are brewing, teasing the animals on the hot dusty plains but another day passes and the rain doesnít fall. There are amazing electrical storms at night which unsettle the animals but they have to come out from the safety of the bush to drink at the last remaining water in the park.

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This is the first time I have visited Katavi National Park in western Tanzania, wild and remote and at the end of October very hot and dry. There are a few pools left in the Kutuma River which is the life line of the park and must be a torrent of water in the rainy season spilling out onto the Katsunga flood plains in front of Katavi Wildlife camp. Now though there are a few muddy pools filled with hippos and crocs jostling for space. Catfish are hiding out in the muddy bottom trying to evade the jabbing beaks of the hundreds of storks. There are yellowbills, open bills, woolly necked, saddle billed, maribou and abdmin storks and funny squat looking pelicans. Fish eagles and palm nut vultures steal each otherís catches and of course the crocodiles have their fill. It's amazing there are any cat fish left but the water is constantly bubbling, giving away their hiding places below the mud. Tsetse flies can be a problem in this part of Tanzania but Foxes safaris have an ingenious method of keeping them away with a small container on the back of their game vehicles where they burn dried elephant dung which the flies certainly donít like.

Katavi isnít the easiest part of Tanzania to visit but itís definitely worth the journey as this huge park has only 4 camps and very few people actually make it out here so you practically have the place to yourself. There are big herds of buffalo and families of elephant and zebra and in the north of the park eland, sable and roan antelopes can be found.

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Katavi combines well with Lake Tanganyika which makes up the western border of Tanzania. I hadnít been on the lake for 26 years when I travelled the full length of it on the Liembe ferry from Zambia in the south to Burundi in the north. I had always thought I would come back to explore its shore line though I didnít realise it would take me quite so long.

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Lake Shore Lodge is set on the remote shores of Lake Tanganyika and is only 3 hours drive south west of Katavi, not the easiest of places to get to but once you are there itís heaven. The lodge caters for all with camping sites, bandas with shared facilities and 5 lovely luxury ensuite bandas right on the lake shore with the water lapping at your door. Owned and hosted by the lovely Louise and Chris Horsfall they say at the entrance Ďarrive as guests and leave as friendsí but it is so true and you cannot but help to fall in love with the simple and slow way of life on the Lake. The staff all come from the local village and you know when a lodge is well run when the staff are so happy. There is plenty to do at Lake Shore or do nothing at all but there are boats and kayaks, diving, a spa, a yoga platform and the snorkelling is amazing. It was what Lake Malawi was in the past before it was sadly overfished and the variety of cichlids is mesmerising and so many big fish which surprised me. They also arrange boat safaris up to Mahale National Park or kayak safaris camping on the lake shore. You can go mountain biking and hiking and even go out on quad bikes. A short walk out of the lodge takes you to an amazing church built by the ĎWhite Fathersí with their Congolese slaves in the 1890s and still used in the 1940s, it is sadly slowly being taken back by nature and one side has fallen down just in the last rains but itís a beautiful situation on a hill overlooking the lake and Louise has arranged a few weddings there.

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For the top end traveller just off shore is the private island of Lupita which is a beautifully constructed lodge set on a rocky island with huge suites. I reckoned the family suite we were in easily had a bigger footprint than my flat in Edinburgh! There are four poster beds and waterfall showers, plunge pools and water features in all the rooms. The island was originally built as a private retreat so there is everything you could want with a big pool, a gym and a spa, a games room and the food really is top notch here.

We then moved on to the highlight of our trip the Mahale Mountainís National Park! The steep forest clad mountains rise out of the lake and are home to some of our closest relatives, the chimpanzee. Though there are lots of other things to do here; you can go swimming and fishing and walks in the forest amongst other primates such as red tailed and blue cheeked monkeys and black and red colobus but really everyone is here to see the chimps.

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We stayed at the renowned Nomadís Greystoke Camp which was started up over 30 years ago by Roland and Zoe Purcell and itís funny to think that they were camped on this very beach when I passed by 26 years ago on the Liembe Ferry. The tented camp that they set up is beyond all recognition now with 6 beautiful rooms set back into the forest and made of old dhow wood (local boats). The mess sits in all its glory on the beach and is all you can see from the lake. Though the camp may have changed over the past 30 years the lives of chimps have continued unhindered. The M family group of chimps here have been studied by Japanese researchers since the 60ís, so much has been learnt over the years about chimpanzee behaviour and how similar they are to us! Itís such a huge buzz to set off in the morning with your guides in search of the chimps. Though in reality the trackers have been out since dawn to find the chimps so we can have a leisurely breakfast then when the call comes in that the chimps are out of their nests and settled down to some feeding and grooming we head off into the mountains. Itís hot and sticky and the walk can be tough going, however, both our days were fairly easy walks before we met the family. And what an amazing meeting it was. The excellent guides had us split into 2 groups of 6 and they knew all the chimps by name, their history who were their mothers, fathers, siblings; why they were grooming or feeding in a certain way. The alliances between the different males and the devious ways in which they would try and battle their way to the top of the pecking order so they could get their choice of the females and the best feeding spots. The chimps all look so different and have different characteristics and habits just like we do but then they say we do share about 94% of our genes with them. It was such an explosion of information and was just amazing and made it one of the best wildlife experiences I have had in my years of travelling to Africa. It was sad to leave as you feel cocooned away from the outside world and all its trappings as there was no wifi which was one of the best things about the whole trip!

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You can probably tell I loved going back to western Tanzania even though itís not the easiest of places to get to but if you love wild Africa then it is certainly an area you should make the effort to visit and like me you will have many a story to tell when you arrive home.


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