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Ruaha safari


... is a top quality safari location, one of the best in Africa, a wonderfully remote and subtle place which seems to become better on every visit. The reserve contains a handful of top class safari camps and the guiding here is superb.

Upsides ...

Ruaha National Park is a very large and important wildlife reserve located in the southern region of Tanzania, one of the finest in Africa.

At over 20,000 square kilometres, it is actually Tanzania's second largest game reserve, after the Selous. It covers an area of granite peaks, wooded hills and open plains 75km to the north-west of the town of Iringa. Other surrounding game reserves and hunting blocks double the area of land under protection, making this a wildlife area of great significance.

What we particularly like about safari in Ruaha is that it has a real sense of wilderness. It can essentially only be accessed along a single dirt road from the south, which means that as you drive in, you have this sense of endless wilderness stretching out ahead of you. This is proper wild Africa.

Ruaha safari

Ruaha is a real favourite amongst safari professionals, it is somewhere to which some of the very best guides have migrated, it is where they choose to ultimately live and work. As a result the park has a reputation for superb safari guiding.

The park is extremely scenic in parts, with a wide variety of landscapes. Generally it consists of broad valleys and larger open areas, backed by low granite hills, many of which are characteristically dome-topped.

The area is especially known for its remarkable baobab trees, including some outstanding forest areas and extremely large free-standing trees. We particularly love the areas of palm forest and the ephemeral 'sand rivers' which act as corridors for wildlife during the dry season.

The reserve is centred on the Great Ruaha River, a considerable watercourse at the end of the rainy season in May, but which reduces to a trickle at the end of the dry season in October and some years ceases to flow completely, causing great stress to the wildlife.

Uniquely Ruaha lies in a transition zone between East and Southern Africa. The fauna is in parts reminiscent of East African savannah, with open plains similar to those of the Serengeti and grassy hills dotted with baobabs very reminiscent of Tarangire. Whilst in other parts the riverine forests and dry miombo woodland are similar to those of South Luangwa in Zambia and points further south. Animal species demonstrate a similar pattern, with this being the southern limit for species such as Grant's gazelles and lesser kudus, the northern limit for greater kudus, roans and sables.

The park usually manages to deliver excellent wildlife viewing, especially during the Jun/Oct dry season. The greater Ruaha area is home to the largest population of elephants in Tanzania, thought to number some 12,000 animals (although this seems to contradict the claims made by the Selous Game Reserve). Predators are also well represented, notably plenty of lions, often seen in larger than usual prides and quite habituated to vehicles. Leopard sightings are better than usual, most camps being able to deliver sightings once or twice per week on average. Cheetahs can sometimes be found out on the plains around the Lundu area, although numbers are low. Perhaps most excitingly the northeast of the reserve is said to be home to over 100 African wild-dogs, notably one large pack of over 40 animals, although these can be extremely difficult to track down. Although one should not expect the same volume of sightings of the Serengeti, we have never had any complaints.

The main activity in the reserve is daytime vehicle safari. Although off-road driving is not officially permitted, the park authorities are refreshingly sympathetic to the lodge owners, allowing the more experienced guides to make their own call on the issue. This greatly helps in making the most out of important sightings.

Ruaha offers some of the best walking safari in East Africa. Most camps are able to deliver some kind of on-foot experience, but nothing to compare with the superb specialised walking at Kichaka Ruaha.

The reserve has relatively low visitor numbers, we estimate around 6000 international visitors per year, which is around 5% of the traffic into the Serengeti.

One of the best things about a good safari is that you get to meet so many lovely people, the guides, the management, the staff and the other guests. Nowhere is this more true than in Ruaha. Because of the authentic nature of the safari here, both the expat staff and the guests tend to be really genuine and well-informed people who share a passion for the wilderness. The local staff are also exceptional. Most of them are from the Hehe tribe, who largely have a particularly mild and warm demeanour, in contrast to their historical reputation as fierce warriors. Nowhere have we been made to feel more at home.

Downsides ...

The main downside for many visitors is that Ruaha is an inherently expensive place. The flights in and out are pricey due to the distances involved and, having taken the trouble to get here, it really is worth staying in one of the better lodges, where the specific location and the quality of the guiding can be relied upon. All of this can add up to quite a spend, but will hopefully be worth it.

Despite the huge area of the reserve and the low visitor numbers, visitors may be disappointed to see quite how busy the core parts of the park can become during high season. The reasons for this are that the road network is limited and as the dry season drags on, so both the animals and vehicles are draw in towards the Ruaha river itself. Better camps are located away from the river, work their areas more sympathetically and raid central areas in ways that minimise exposure to other vehicles. But let us not labour this point, the traffic never gets too bad, just a few more vehicles than one might expect after having flown hours in a light aircraft apparently to the middle of nowhere.

Above we mentioned how Ruaha has, thus far, escaped any mainstream lodge development, but we are fearful that this may be about to change. In early 2011 the government announced that it would like to massively increase the number of visitors to the park. To that end, the national parks authority TANAPA has apparently issued licenses for a further 12 lodges to be constructed inside the park, to include at least one large hotel-style lodge which, rumour has it, may be sited in the heart of the prime protected area along the river. Clearly if all of this development goes ahead, the experience offered in Ruaha will be much less attractive than it is now. But one should not get too downhearted by such rumours, we have consulted widely on this issue and the general opinion is that most of these lodges will not go ahead at all and those that do will be lobbied by environmental groups to keep their size down and to have them sited in less critical parts of the reserve.

When to visit ...

The reserve has a superb climate for safari. The Ruaha Basin lies between 1000 and 1500 metres above sea level and is very arid, with low humidities, clear skies and reliably high temperatures. The classic time to visit Ruaha is generally considered to to be during the Jun/Oct dry season, although some people actually prefer the Nov/Mar, when the unpredictable short rains may have freshened the landscapes. The Mar/Apr rainy season is relatively short and light. At all times of year Ruaha provides great contrast to the sweaty heat of the coast.

Read more about seasonality in Ruaha ...

Ruaha safari

How we like to include this area in trips ...

Ruaha is a magnificent reserve, one of our absolute favourite places in all Africa. But it is quite a subtle place. We generally find that the first visit is little more than a taster and it is not until the second and subsequent visits that the place really starts to get under your skin. It is not uncommon to meet people who come back here every year and have been doing so for decades. If we were only allowed to go on one more safari for the rest of our lives then this could well be our choice.

There's not many camps here, but they are generally to a very high standard. The emphasis here is on smaller, more authentic set-ups, so far the reserve remains blissfully clear of larger and more commercial lodges. Since Ruaha is a place for the genuine safari enthusiast, this seems to be the correct policy and we hope that it is one which will endure.

The majority of first time visitors stay in just one camp for 3 to 5 nights, but returning guests often combine multiple camps in longer stays of 5 to 10 nights. Even if they might not be very far from each other, the experience in each camp is quite distinct.

Kichaka Ruaha ... is an exceptional private and utterly authentic experience hosted by one of the best guides in Africa and carefully tailored to suit your specific requirements.

Kwihala Camp ... is a very high quality permanent tented camp in a good central location and with a reputation for great guiding.

Mwagusi Camp ... is a very characterful owner-run lodge which is beautifully situated on a sand river and has exceptional safari guiding.

Nomad Kigelia Camp ... is a ligher and simpler luxury mobile tented camp set a little further east in the reserve and with a similar reputation for high quality safari guiding.

Mdonya River Camp ... is a simpler camp in a good central location, but which is considerably lower cost than the premium camps.

Ruaha River Lodge ... is the original lodge in the park, a much more substantial property in the most busy part of the reserve and catering for drive-in as well as fly-in guests.

Jongomero Camp ... is a very upmarket camp in a remote location way off to the west and which therefore works best in combination with one of the more centrally located options above.

The park is most commonly visited as part of a flying safari through Tanzania South, usually combined with Selous, perhaps spending a week or more in the two locations before heading on down to the coast. This trip can be extended by 3 to 4 nights by adding the rural retreat at Mufindi Highland Lodge. On very rare occasions some or all of the connecting legs on a trip like this may be done overland, although this can be rather arduous.

Increasingly we are combining Ruaha with the parks of Tanzania North, centred on Serengeti and Ngorongoro, or the remote western parks of Katavi and Mahale,
although this inherently adds up to a long and expensive trip.

These safari areas are also commonly combined with nights down on the Tanzania Coast, especially on the islands of Zanzibar, Pemba, Mafia or Fanjove.

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Jay Hanson
Jay Hanson, Senior Safari Consultant
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