Ruaha National Park is a vast wilderness in Southern Tanzania. It receives around 10% of the visitors that its more famous neighbour, the Serengeti, receives in a year. A combination of wonderful small bush camps and low visitor levels put Ruaha firmly on the safari aficionados wish-list.
You get a sense of the size as you fly-in – heading west from Dar es Salaam for around 2 1/2 hours over a rugged ochre landscape, laced by sand rivers, before touching down on the dusty red Msembe airstrip.
It feels like the middle of nowhere with scuttling geckos and barely a whisper of wind.
We arrived on a roasting November day, before the rains, and it was hard to imagine that life could exist in this furnace. Even Ruaha’s famous baobabs looked parched, their beautiful large white blooms framed against the bright blue sky. Impala skipped across the track in front of us kicking up swirls of dust and bringing us to a stop. There in the boughs of a baobab above us sat a black-chested snake eagle in a skinny slice of shade.
Shade was definitely highly sought after! A few moments later, still enroute to camp from the airstrip, a huge family of elephants brought us to a standstill once again. They were gathered on the dry riverbed, jostling for position under a tree before stretching out into a long train as they headed to the centre of the river. We watched as they used their trunks to dig down for water – a survival skill the elephants of Ruaha have mastered. Swaying in the sunshine, with a flap of ears, their rumbles told us they had found what they were looking for.
Over the next three days we were dazzled by the beauty of Ruaha as she revealed her many colours, from the purple haze of dawn to the fiery orange of sunset.
Such a diversity of habitats was a surprise, including the Great Ruaha River, a magnet during many of our drives, luring us back with its wide sandy beaches fringed by palm trees. Shady groves of miombo woodland with troops of baboons and nervous antelope were incredibly picturesque, while away from the river, across the plains, we found sleepy lions in rocky canyons.
Everywhere you look there are ancient baobabs – vast ecosystems in themselves and at their most spectacular at sunset – and huge candelabra trees, the size of houses.
It’s true that you have to work harder to see Ruaha’s predators. The Ruaha Carnivore Project estimates that 10% of all remaining lions roam Ruaha, as well as one of four East African cheetah populations, significant populations of spotted hyena and leopard and the third largest population of African wild dogs in the world.
Don’t expect any quick fixes in a rugged landscape of 20,000 km2. The guides work to find interest in unexpected places: crocodiles feeding on catfish in shallow pools and squabbling vervet monkeys. This is a place to relish being outside in the wild, and when something does happen, you will be able to enjoy the experience unhurried, very rarely coming across other vehicles. If you’ve been on safari before, you’ll know what a huge privilege this is.
Because of the huge landscape before you, you tend to spend more time out and about. We would leave camp at 6am and have breakfast out in the bush every day – a real highlight. Our guide managed to find the most glorious spot every morning, usually along the river, with fish eagles and the occasional giraffe for company. This means you can complete a much wider circuit, returning to camp at noon, ready for lunch at 1pm.
The afternoon drive is shorter, leaving around 4.30pm, stopping for sundowners out in the bush, and returning just after sunset in the half-light, around 6.45/7pm with dinner served under the stars, lit by the glow of the campfire. On one evening we also went out on a night drive spotting owls, genets, mongoose and bush babies.
We had many memorable encounters, especially with Ruaha’s elephants which I could watch for hours, but we also saw lion, leopard, giraffe, zebra, jackal, spotted hyena, hippo, crocodiles, kudo, other plains game and many different bird species including a magnificent Martial eagle.
To maximise your chances, I would recommend timing your visit for the peak season between July and October. Our stay in early November coincided with the hottest time of year – and it was very hot and very dry. Nights were comfortable for sleeping and early mornings were chilly, but temperatures quickly climbed reaching a humid 37 degrees by lunchtime. The wildlife disappeared to the deep shade, as did we. I think Ruaha would be at its absolute best in September.
Ruaha offers an impressive selection of high quality small bush camps. We stayed at Kigelia Ruaha, part of the Nomad portfolio of camps. Kigelia has just a handful of tents strung out along the river bank with a thatched mess area with Wifi and bar at the centre. The tents are simple, spacious, well-designed and have everything you need including a large stand up fan, charging point and outdoor bucket shower. There’s a swing seat looking out over the river and all the tents had a bird bath out front which drew a daily crowd. Elephants visited camp on a couple of nights, rumbling behind our tent, as did hyenas who got into the bar and left a trail of smashed glasses and paw prints in their wake…
Ruaha is accessed by light aircraft flight from Dar es Salaam. It combines particularly well with Nyerere National Park, also in the South, and/or Zanzibar. Allow at least 3 nights in each destination or think about combining contrasting camps in different areas of Ruaha.
Please do get in touch if you are planning a trip!