It’s big …… it’s hot … it’s wild … and … there are NO TSETSE FLIES (at least not in the parts that we visited!)
These are just 4 reasons why we feel Ruaha National Park is a must-go destination for anyone seeking out a more remote, authentic and wild safari experience in Tanzania and particularly those who want to do a ‘proper’ walking safari.
At 20,294 sq. km. Ruaha used to be Tanzania’s biggest national park. That accolade now belongs to Nyerere National Park, following its recent transformation from the Selous Game Reserve, but Ruaha is still 1/3 bigger again than the Serengeti National Park. The self-acclaimed ‘3 giants’ of Ruaha are elephants, lions and baobab trees and the park boasts plenty of each, including around 10% of the world’s wild lion population. In addition to this, there are large numbers of other large predators and other mammals, including buffalo, hippo, zebra, giraffe and greater kudu than you can shake a stick at. For bird enthusiasts, there are 574 recorded species, which is over 50% of all Tanzanian species.
We spent 3 nights in the park, in 3 very different safari properties, all of which we’d be happy to recommend for future safaris. Our first stop was with an old Nairobi friend, Andrew Molinaro, who is just finishing building an impressive and quite luxurious 3 room lodge, called Zumbua, in the remote eastern sector of the park, on a ridge overlooking the Ruaha River valley. The base is home to Moli (as we all know him), Noelle and their young son Huxley and, with their nearest neighbour some 45km away, it’s a perfect launch pad for the un-disturbed walking safaris for which Ruaha is rightly famous. On certain days, the 4-6 hour morning walks return to Zumbua, where guests can plunge into the private pools in their decks to cool off, but sometimes you just need to get (even more) remote and Moli & Noelle also run a very rustic fly-camp for longer walking safaris of up to 5 days.
Moli is rightly regarded as being one of the finest walking guides in East Africa and, on the morning we went out together, brought our small group close to a breeding herd of 20 elephants, who were blissfully unaware of our presence for well over an hour, as he carefully sought out various vantage points from which we could watch them work their way down towards the water. Always conscious of wind direction and alert to any changes in behaviour, Moli would draw us aside from time to time to highlight particular things he’d noted but when we were close by, we observed silently.
Viewing wildlife on foot is vastly different from being in a vehicle. The aim is not to get as close as possible, which in a vehicle often disturbs the very animals you’re trying to observe, but rather to stay a respectful distance and not have any impact at all on behaviour. To this end, we typically stayed 70-80m from the breeding herd but approached a bull to around 50m before backing away. Moli’s knowledge of this ecosystem and passion for its’ wild inhabitants is both impressive and contagious and I look forward to returning soon to spend several days with him, with guests who are keen to spend more time out of the vehicle on safari.
Our second stop was Kigelia Camp, located closer to the park headquarters and main airstrip at Msembe. Named after a well-loved ‘Sausage Tree’ that provides shade for the dining area, the camp is very traditional and understated whilst being absolutely comfortable, with wholesome food and attentive service. Compared to being with Moli, where game drives were not the focus as the road network was intentionally limited and the wildlife a little nervous around vehicles to which they had so little exposure, Kigelia gave us easy access to the best game viewing areas around the Ruaha and Mwagusi river systems and fine sightings of our first lion and leopard of our safari. We were conscious of seeing few other vehicles during our drive and our driver-guide was apologetic that 3 other cars were with us at the lion on his kill … a far cry from some of the more popular Mara-Serengeti destinations and we didn’t feel this detracted from the quality of our experience at all.
We ended up at Jabali Ridge, one of the newest luxury lodges in the park. Located 25km up the Mwagusi river system from Kigelia and in an area, it pretty much has to itself, Jabali would be an ideal experience to follow several days of walking safaris … a chance to relax, yet also enjoy some amazing vehicle-based wildlife sightings as well. The lodge offers expansive views with a sunrise from your comfy bed and a sunset from the lounge deck. The food was a wonderful selection, enjoyed on the deck, at the pool or in the ‘rock’ boma under the stars.
Ruaha is an absolute must for anyone interested in several days on foot in the African bush, but it’s more than just that. Compared to other remote national parks, Ruaha had a density and variety of wildlife that will keep visitors engaged and interested and the size means there are always new areas to explore, with big changes in vegetation, habitats and vistas. We covered just a small portion of the southern and eastern parts of the park but one could go much further… However, this does mean heading into tsetse fly country, which we didn’t bother doing as we’d simply had enough of those in Katavi.
Getting to and from Ruaha took a lot of time, so we’ve had several overnights in between our safari destinations. Anyone undertaking a similar drive would be well advised to break their journeys with stops at Utengule Coffee Lodge in Mbeya and The Old Farm House at Kisolanza, just south of Iringa. Both were welcome stopovers – comfortable rooms, a warm shower and cold drinks – with Utengule being a little more lively as a rest stop for travellers from Malawi and Zambia. Both are working farms with lots of space and we took particular advantage of that at Kisolanza, stretching our legs at the end of a long day spent in the car…where Kian tested the farm tractor! Southern Tanzania is so varied and parts are absolutely stunning. The drive out of Mbeya to the Kasululu border had us winding through rolling hills along the edge of the rift valley, covered in bright green tea plantations.
These few days were one of the highlights of our time in Tanzania as Joe and Kian undertook their African Adventure – travelling by car from Nairobi to Cape Town. This is a part of the trip that we can’t wait to incorporate into our future safaris. You can read morea about Joe and Kian’s African Adventure here.