Ruaha National Park is a sprawling reserve in southern Tanzania. Worlds away from the busy Serengeti and Ngorongoro Crater, in the north of the country, Ruaha is barely touched by tourism. On his three-day safari, Richard Mellor discovers why it’s worth the journey south.
When my guide, Lorenzo, yanks me into a headlock, I know we’re in luck. Or rather, I know that he’s seen a leopard and I’m just about to. After three days of bumpy rides, of false alarms and fabulous commiseration prizes, one of those special safari moments is finally here.
I’m in Ruaha National Park, a magical reserve in southern Tanzania that’s barely touched by tourism.
And why is it free from the hordes? Because the Serengeti and Ngorongoro Crater, in Tanzania’s Northern Circuit safari route, are more prolific in terms of game sightings, easier to access from abroad and generally home to plusher lodges.
Such plaudits come with a catch, however.
Just as A-List animals are staggeringly visible up north, so too are the many cars following their every trot – particularly amid the Serengeti’s legendary wildebeest migration. The Serengeti and Ngorongoro receive hundreds of thousands of visitors each year, and that takes a toll; after a while, northern Tanzania can feel distressingly circus-like.
Down in sleepy Ruaha, the statistics are much cheerier. This is East Africa’s largest park, and yet home to just 11 lodges (with a 12th, the luxurious Jabali Ridge, opening in September 2017) and a piffling 20,000 annual tourists.
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The wildlife count is impressive, too: Ruaha is known as “Giraffic Park” for its large giraffe population, while a tenth of the world’s lions reside here. And, unlike Selous, another park in Tanzania’s south, none of Ruaha is a hunting concession, meaning most animals are curious rather than skittish.
From the main airstrip, I’m motored across the park to my chosen Kwihala Camp. Wheresas Northern Circuit gamelands mostly consist of vast plains, it’s immediately apparent that Ruaha’s landscape is rangier; lush miombo woods segue into parched scrub, then mountainous rock gardens. There are also many more off-road-style tracks.
My drivers and I duck under low branches to better observe a fish eagle, before wobbling out onto the sandy Mwagusi riverbed as elephants use their trunks to burrow for water. We also see baboons, impala, zebra and, yes, lots of giraffe – but precisely zero humans.
After arriving at Kwihala, I clamber into another 4×4 beside Lorenzo. While most guides in Africa are natives, Lorenzo is an affable 20-something from Italy. As we roam, I learn of Lorenzo’s abandoned financial career, his love for Inter Milan, his fluent Swahili and his incredible eyesight. Most of all, I learn that when Lorenzo stops listening to me, it usually means he’s spotted something significant.
On our first day, that includes snoozing lion prides, buffalo descending en masse to drink at the Mwagusi’s few pools, crocodiles snapping at terrapins and, most unusually, a serval flashing across the road.
As I wolf down some on-the-bonnet cake during one stop, sudden alarm calls have Lorenzo tensing up; the noises are apparently hyraxes announcing an approaching leopard. We quickly start searching, but the stealthy cat remains invisible.
“Tomorrow,” smiles Lorenzo. Along with wild dogs, leopards are both prized and infrequent spots in Ruaha.
Suddenly, the light fades. Days end hurriedly here, the sun becoming a huge yellow-pink disc at which you can – magically – stare without going blind. We find a good viewpoint and gaze from atop our car’s bumpers, both silent, both in awe.
The next two days possess a dream-like quality. At times, Lorenzo and I happen on successive clumps of animals; then hours float by with barely a buffalo. But it doesn’t matter at all: Ruaha is relentlessly beautiful. A lonely hippo looks at me plaintively. Still-more sleeping lions form impromptu roadblocks.
Only one thing is missing. “I love leopards,” I confess to Lorenzo, rather uselessly. With time running out, we try Kwihala’s water station. We travel round the last bend and – “Oh! Lorenzo!” – I lock eyes on a startled female leopard. While I gasp, she bears her teeth and hisses.
Despite her initial alarm, she sticks around for a full ten minutes – and all the while it’s just Lorenzo, the leopard and me.
Fat chance of that in the Serengeti.
Richard travelled with safari operator Expert Africa and Kwihala Camp. Expert Africa offers a six-day Lesser Kudu Fly-In Safari to Ruaha National Park, which can be based at Kwihala Camp. For more information about Tanzania, visit www.tanzaniatourism.com/en.
Top image © PysiaAndDarek/Shutterstock. Main body images top to bottom (left–right): Mark Sheridan-Johnson/Shutterstock, TrylMag/Shutterstock, Josemar Franco/Shutterstock, Alex van Schaik/Shutterstock.