Expert Reviews – Ruaha NP

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Wild, remote Ruaha – the land of lions
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Ruaha is the star of Tanzania’s lesser-known Southern Circuit. Not only is it wild and remote, it’s home to East Africa’s highest population of elephants and 10% of the entire continent’s lions, with some 28 lion prides roaming its plains.

Don’t be surprised if your guide gets out a tablet at a lion sighting and starts filling in data – many of them are helping the remarkable NGO Ruaha Carnivore Project (RCP) to gather information on the predators. We spent a couple of days with RCP, learning about the fabulous work they’ve been doing with the local Barabaig and Maasai tribes to reduce traditional rituals involving lion killings and also to limit the number of cattle killed by lions. They occasionally come to lodges to give talks to visitors about their work in lion conservation – do join them if you get the chance.

There are few lodges in Ruaha and those that are here are relatively expensive, but the real luxury is the bush solitude – we rarely encountered other visitors on our drives and walks. The scenery is spectacular, with masses of baobab forests and ilala palms, rolling hills and sand rivers, and the Great Ruaha River and escarpment of the same name which dominate the park. While wildlife can play hard-to-get in the wet season, in December when we visited, we saw plenty including zebras, antelopes, giraffes, greater kudus, wildebeest, black-backed jackals, spotted hyenas and leopards – and of course, lions – all on one drive.

Ruaha National Park
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Visitors are often surprised to learn that Ruaha is bigger than the Serengeti. At more than 20,000km2/7,722mi2, this is Tanzania’s largest national park and one of those safari destinations that tends to attract the ‘best-kept secret’ epithet. It’s true that for such a vast area, Ruaha is surprisingly undeveloped, with only a handful of permanent camps and few other vehicles to crowd your game drives. This makes any safari here a joy, because the wildlife is extremely rich.

Ecologically, Ruaha spans a transition zone between eastern and southern Africa. Its habitats comprise a tapestry of thorn bush, open savanna, rocky kopjes and wooded hills, all studded with the park’s signature baobabs. The winding Jongomero and Great Ruaha rivers define the southern and eastern boundaries. Across this wilderness roams Tanzania’s largest population of elephants (around 15,000), plus plentiful buffalo, giraffe, zebra and numerous hippos in the permanent rivers. Impala are abundant. The park is at the southern limit for some East African antelope, such as Grant’s gazelle and lesser kudu – the latter alongside greater kudu in a rare overlap. Sable and roan occur in the Jongomera area to the south.

Ruaha is renowned for large predators, notably its large lion prides and frequently sighted leopards. Both cheetah and wild dog also occur in small numbers, spotted hyena are numerous and striped hyena is another East Africa species that just ventures this far south (though is seldom seen). Birders can seek out more than 500 species with, again, an interesting overlap of the eastern and southern African. Variety peaks during the rains (November–April), with such unusual migrants as sooty and Eleonora’s falcon. The endemic Tanzania red-billed hornbill is common.

My recent visit took place during the dry season, based at a small camp beside the Mwagusi River. We enjoyed excellent lion and leopard encounters, while every afternoon saw impressive elephant herds wander down to dig for fresh water in the drying riverbeds. A night drive produced white-tailed mongoose, bat-eared fox and lesser bush baby. On a guided bush walk, we spied shy eland, found bats roosting inside a baobab, saw an African hawk eagle capture a francolin and watched wild dogs hunting across the Ruaha River floodplain far below us. Guided walks are available from many camps if booked in advance. Best of all was simply the wilderness ambience of starlit nights around the fire in the sandy riverbed in front of camp, listening to the owls and picking up the torchlit eye-shine of passing hyenas and jackals. For the serious wilderness lover, fly-camping safaris and walking trails can be booked in the park’s remote southern district. This would certainly be my aim on a return visit.

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.

The connoisseur’s choice
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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.

Average Expert Rating

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

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