Expert Reviews – Ruaha NP

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Baobabs and elephants
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Ruaha National Park is part of the southern safari circuit in Tanzania, and some safari itineraries combine Ruaha with the Selous. Although it is Tanzania’s second largest park, it is little visited, due to its remoteness, and so you get a real sense of wilderness staying here. It is stunningly beautiful, with the Ruaha River meandering through, speckled with hippos and crocs. My abiding memory is the huge baobabs, dwarfing the herds of elephants. We failed to see lions despite other traveller’s tales of the big prides they’d seen. Ruaha has fantastic birding, with some real specials, such as the black-collared lovebird, Eleonora’s falcon and the localised Tanzanian red-billed hornbill. The best time to go is July to September during the dry season.

Diversity in Ruaha National park
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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.

Good variety of wildlife in formidable landscapes
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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.

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.

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.

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.

Average Expert Rating

  • 4.4/5
  • Wildlife
  • Scenery
  • Bush Vibe
  • Birding

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