Expert Reviews – Ruaha NP

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The connoisseur’s choice
Overall rating

Many seasoned East African safarigoers regard Ruaha to be the most rewarding of all East African game reserves, and while I’d rate it slightly below the Serengeti for overall game viewing, it is certainly one of the region’s very finest reserves, especially for those who place a higher premium on wilderness vibe than on wall-to-wall wildlife. As of 2008, it is also the largest national park in Tanzania, a 20,226 sq km tract of rugged and remote semi-arid bush whose wild quality is embodied by the spectral baobab trees that stud the boulder-strewn slopes. And it’s no slouch when it comes to game viewing either. Indeed, Ruaha is one of the few African parks where I’ve seen all three of Africa’s large cats – leopard, lion and cheetah – on most visits to date, though the latter seems to have become scarcer in recent years. An exciting feature of the park is its large prides of lion, some of which comprise 20-plus individuals. It is also one of the best places to look for African wild dog, which are less common than they used to be in the developed part of the park, possibly due to competition with lions, but are often quite easy to locate in the denning season of June and July. Despite a recent increase in poaching, elephants are plentiful and very visible. Ruaha also supports an unusually high antelope diversity, including Grant's gazelle and lesser kudu at the southern extent of their range, the miombo-associated sable and roan antelope, and the spectacular greater kudu. The birding is a treat too, with 570-odd species recorded, notably central Tanzanian endemics such as ashy starling and black-collared lovebird, as it is the type locality for the recently described and rather localised Tanzania red-billed hornbill and Ruaha chat.

Into the wild
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If you want a safari experience away from the crowds, Ruaha National Park is the place to head to. In spite of being Tanzania’s second largest national park after the Serengeti, it still remains one of the country’s wildest and most undeveloped game reserves, which is exactly what I find most appealing about it. When you consider the park is home to more than 12,000 elephants as well as large populations of buffalo, zebra, giraffe, lions, kudu and antelope, it’s easy to see why those in the know consider it to be one of Tanzania's best kept secrets. While we easily spotted numerous giraffe, zebra, kudu, impala and elephant, we struggled to spy the any lions in spite of the fact that the park supports a very healthy lion population. When we finally happened across two lone males, our driver managed to scare them off before we’d even raised our cameras. He also managed to irritate a very large bull elephant by barrelling through the middle of its herd. In all my years of game viewing, I’ve never actually seen a riled-up elephant charge at full speed before, nor seen a driver that scared. Word to the wise: make sure you hire an expert safari driver if you’re taking your own vehicle.

The Park that Time Forgot
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As your plane drops in towards Msembe airstrip the view from the air says it all. You see a line of broken hills, zebras stampeding across a yellow plain, and a mighty sand river bordered by flat-topped acacias with giraffes beyond, measuring the yawning distance of a park even bigger than the Serengeti. There is nothing gentle about the Ruaha. This is the real thing, the old, wild Africa of long ago. Its plains are littered with granite boulders. The combretum thickets are alive with kudu, and wherever you look there are grotesque baobabs and hurrying herds of elephants. The more you follow its ochre game trails through the smouldering purple hills the more it grabs you.

What’s more, this is serious lion country. When I stayed with Chris Fox in 2008 he knew of 185 lions within 20 miles of his camp on the Mwagusi Sand River. I saw some of them, including an awesome coalition of five nomadic males hell-bent on taking over the local pride. Much of the park is a tsetse-infested wilderness of impenetrable miombo woodland; but the north around Mwagusi and where the great Ruaha Sand River lies is much more open and accessible, with a good chance of finding leopard, cheetah - even wild dogs.

Elephants & Baobabs
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Ruaha - Tanzania's largest park - is notable both for its unique wilderness scenery - rugged, arid vistas punctuated by massive baobabs and backed by purple-hued hills - and for its great variety of wildlife, which includes a mix of East and southern African species.

The peak months for visiting are July through October, when wildlife spotting is highly rewarding. Ruaha is particularly known for its large numbers of elephants. Other draws are wild dogs (although these can be elusive - I have yet to spot any here), buffaloes, and both roan and sable antelopes. The Great Ruaha River, with its rocky outcrops, slumbering hippos, lazy crocodiles and wealth of birds, is wonderful.

Ruaha is easily accessed by road from the gateway town of Iringa, or by flight, and its rehabilitated bandas and riverside camping are a treat for budget travellers. Wildlife can be difficult to spot offseason (particularly March through May), so it’s worth trying to plan your visit for the drier months.

A southern wilderness well worth the trek
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I love Tanzania’s southern circuit – less tourists than the north and so many excellent camps and lodges. The Ruaha National Park is up there with the Selous amongst my favourites, and I reckon the two parks combined make an excellent option if you’ve got the time and the money and have already been to the north, or just fancy getting further off the beaten track. The landscape of Ruaha is spectacular, with tumbling boulders, hot springs and giant baobab trees, and best of all, you’ll have it almost all to yourself.

At the park’s heart is the well-named Great Ruaha River, a massive watercourse that dwindles to only a few pools in the dry season, but bursts its banks and roars over boulders at the height of the rains. In dry season, most of the camps along the river organize walks and even dinners in the dry river bed – I love to go out in the morning and try to identify all the different footprints left overnight in the soft sand.
Because it’s so far south, Ruaha represents a transition zone where eastern and southern species of flora and fauna overlap – lesser and greater kudu co-exist with northern species such as Grant’s gazelle. Rare sable and roan antelope are also here in abundance, so I managed to tick off a few new species on my list on my first visit there.

Good variety of wildlife in formidable landscapes
Overall rating

With vast concentrations of buffalo, elephant and plains game and healthy populations of the big cats, I’ve always had interesting and varied game-viewing in Ruaha. In fact, as soon as you enter the park at the Ibuguziwa Gate (where you first cross the Ruaha River) and drive the short distance to the flat savannah around Msembe (airstrip and park headquarters), there are fantastic first sightings of animals and birds; always a good indication of what’s in store. It was at Msembe that I once parked the vehicle to watch several matriarch-led elephant herds travelling across the yellow-grass plains in almost every direction. The Ruaha River is the main feature of the park, good for excellent hippo and crocodile watching from the riverside lodges, but another attractive feature is the Mwagusi and Mdonya sand rivers. These are startlingly white in the dry season when kudu, giraffe, impala and zebra kick up the sand in thousands of hoof-prints, while they swell with fresh, clear water during and after the rainy seasons, creating splashes of green in the otherwise dry and brittle environment. My other Ruaha highlight is the tremendous landscapes. Given that most of the park is on the top of a 900m plateau, the ripples of broken hills and small mountains make a wonderful frame for the river valleys, miombo woodlands and open grassland.

Diversity in Ruaha National park
Overall rating

Ruaha has a lot to offer. This scenic park has immense wilderness appeal. Most of the lodges are intimate and small and you’re not likely to see many vehicles on your game drive. Wildlife densities aren’t huge, so this isn’t the place to go from sighting to sighting, but there is a good variety of animals and the quality of the sightings tend to be good. Some of the more unusual antelope species you might encounter are greater and lesser kudu and roan and sable antelope. Ruaha is also home to a good population of wild dogs. Big cats are plenty. Lions are always around and leopards are reliably found on the rocky cliff slopes as their main food source are the rock hyrax. The hyrax’ alarm calls often give the leopards away. Aside from the Great Ruaha River, the most dominant feature in the scenery is the giant baobab trees dotted around the park.

Average User Rating

  • 4.3/5
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  • Scenery
  • Bush Vibe
  • Birding

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