Mahale Mountains National Park
Accessible only by boat or by air, Mahale Mountains National Park is known to be among the most isolated and beautiful parks on the African continent. With dots of isolated, golden sandy beaches framed by jungle-covered peaks, Mahale covers 1613 square kilometres of rugged terrain along the eastern shores of Lake Tanganyika.
Famous for containing some of the last remaining wild chimpanzees in Africa, Mahale is home to a population of approximately 800 to 1000 chimpanzees. Successive teams of Japanese researchers have quietly conducted some of the most important scientific work on these primates from as early as 1961, habituating what is known as the M Group, thus allowing for excellent encounters with this group of about 60 individuals.
Although the chimpanzees are the main attraction, and among some of the most studied primates in Africa, the rest of the region’s natural environment has remained relatively hidden from the outside world. The park protects at least 50 other mammalian species, many of which are primates but also leopard and different types of antelope.
Gombe Stream National Park
With an area of only 56 sq km, Gombe National Park is Tanzania’s smallest national park, but its famous primate inhabitants and its connection to Jane Goodall has given it worldwide renown. Many of Gombe’s 100-plus chimps are well habituated, and though it can be difficult, sweaty work traversing steep hills and valleys, if you head out early in the morning sightings are nearly guaranteed.
As well as chimp tracking, you can take walks along the lake shore, and go and see Jane’s old chimp-feeding station, the viewpoint on Jane’s Peak and Kakombe Waterfall.
Katavi National Park
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 (Serengeti National Park receives more visitors per day than Katavi does all year), the lodges are just as luxurious as anywhere else. 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 floodplains 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 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 floodplains dry up and elephants, lions, zebras, giraffes, elands, topis and many more gather at the remaining waters. The park's hippos are the standout; up to a thousand at a time can 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.