Tucked away in South Central Tanzania……hold on, hold on! One can’t really tuck away an extended wilderness area the size of Switzerland, right? This is the wrong expression entirely.
Ruaha National park certainly isn’t hiding but it is remote, it’s massive, and it is often overlooked in the great scheme of ‘Safari – East Africa’. These three characteristics are all to the benefit of this extraordinary place. Congratulate yourselves on arrival my adventurous friends for you have just stumbled into wild Africa, untouched, untainted, unchained.
Scored along its southern boundary by the Great Ruaha River and elevated in the west by a mighty escarpment. The vast landscape is as rugged as it is varied. Countless tributaries branch and vein as they descend from the higher ground and meander towards the main artery in the south. In the dry season these sandy capillaries are pockmarked with deep wells, expertly excavated by myriad elephant trunks and cleverly situated in the outer bends of the channel, upstream from subterranean bedrock dams, where the groundwater is highest. Those pachyderms are nothing if not shrewd.
Undulating ridge-lines and dongas flatten into a plateau where giant Baobab trees appear to keep a distant though connected company with one another as they stand their thousand-year guard over the plains. Riverine woodland, evergreen with Sausage Trees and Apple Leaf hold stark contrast to the Acacia and Albizia thickets that tempt large numbers of herbivores with their nutritious, leguminous seedpods. Marshlands awash with wading birds, reptiles and amphibians compliment a vast Miombo woodland punctuated by granite ‘kopjies’ and gorges. The word diverse doesn’t quite cut it with Ruaha.
Climatically we are in a land of extremes. Indeed, while browsing the photographs that accompany this piece, you would be forgiven for thinking they depict two completely different places. Contrary to much of East Africa, Ruaha is gifted just one rainy season that tends to run from November through to March, peaking in January and February. Towering storms build above the savannah in the afternoon to dump buckets of rain onto the parched land. Impossibly, the withered, the cracked and the dusty give way to new growth. Within days a verdant paradise explodes from the drought. You can hear it growing.
Sounds fantastic right now from where I’m sitting. Am I right?? Frankly, you should already be emailing me with dates for next year. Calling me to shout “Nic, shut up and take my money! We are in. You had me at untouched, untainted and unchained”. But then there is the wildlife. The big draw, the headline act. We ought not leave it there without a little pomp and flourish for the creatures, our wilderness celebrities.
Ruaha lies across the intersection of the East African and Southern African eco-regions, giving it an astonishing diversity of wildlife. To add to this, the aforementioned vastness of the greater protected area encompasses entire ecosystems, allowing large populations of the continents rare and iconic species to thrive. Quite simply, it is one of the most important wildlife areas left in Africa. It is a treasure to be cherished.
Let’s make all that tangible. Ruaha is one of Mama Africa’s great elephant parks. The most recent census indicated a bounce back for the population (following a devastating resurgence of the illegal wildlife trade, peaking through 2013-2015) and now over 20,000 giants migrate through the Greater Ruaha Ecosystem each year. Which is a welcome bit of good news in these times.
The birdlife is outstanding, with over 580 recorded species it receives recognition as an area of key avian biodiversity by Birdlife International. Mammals up the wazoo with 45,000 buffalo, over 5000 Giraffe, some 7000 sable antelope (rarely seen in other key safari hotspots), Zebra, Greater Kudu, Lesser Kudu, Roan Antelope, Eland…. are you picking up what I’m putting down here people?
Perhaps even more impressive, the park is prolific with large carnivores. In fact, Ruaha is home to an astounding 10% of the worlds lion population……. please let that sink in for a second. It is the second largest population of lions on the planet with marginally fewer individuals than the Selous Game Reserve (also in Southern Tanzania) and one of only six populations left on the planet that number more than 1000 individuals. The park is also sanctuary to one of only four large cheetah populations in East Africa, the third largest population of African Wild Dogs on the continent and globally important populations of Leopard, Spotted Hyaena and many smaller predators.
The above facts and stats were gleaned from Amy Dickman and the incredible Ruaha Carnivore Project. Please click on the link, learn so much more about the fantastic work they do in this vital place, and hit that donate button if you can.
Regardless of the large populations of wildlife, Ruaha is not a place in which one spots the land cruisers amassing in the distance and ploughs onward, henceforth to find the cats. A guide needs to work for the sightings in such a boundless wilderness, we should celebrate that fact and give park time to show its true magic. Don’t spend three nights here, spend seven or more. Combine two or three different camps in totally separate corners of the park, do some real walking safaris, spend nights out fly camping and inch along the River on a decelerated game drive. Then come back and do it all again in the green season or the dry season or the bit in between when it pisses it down with rain.
Whichever you missed.