Tanzania’s Ruaha National Park is wild, remote and little known – and while a tiny fraction of visitors find their way here, East Africa’s greatest secret may not remain hidden for much longer…
The baboons were furious. High in the branches of a sausage tree, a leopard was lurking in the exact same area of the Mwagusi riverbank that they’d selected for rest, play and grooming.
It’s hard to switch off and unwind when there’s an apex predator in your midst.
The adult males circled the tree, shrieking and grunting with rage, while an impala grazed around the base, oblivious to the threat that waited above.
Whiskers appeared, then piercing yellow eyes surveyed the scene below and found an opportunity too good to miss.
Target chosen, the leopard bounded headfirst down the tree, pushing off from the trunk and flying at the impala, snaring a leg in its jaws.
A frenzy followed. Berserk baboons jabbed violently at the leopard, while, in a cloud of dust, the impala fought for its life.
It was an exhilarating scene and a rare sight. “I’ve been a guide here in Ruaha for nine years,” wildlife expert Tony Zephania told me afterwards, “and I’ve never seen a leopard hunt from a tree before.”
Incredible animal sightings and behaviours are not rare in Ruaha National Park, though, and it’s not only life-and-death moments but feeding, playing, mating, bonding and much more. At 20,226 sq km (around the same size as Belize), it’s the largest national park in Tanzania, but also one of the least known.
Named after the Great Ruaha River that runs through it, this vast, remote wilderness sprawls across an ancient branch of the Great Rift Valley, where eastern and southern species of animals and plant life combine.
Here, you find one of the continent’s largest lion populations (around 10% of the world’s remaining lions) as well as Tanzania’s biggest elephant population, plus cheetahs, leopards, hyena, giraffes, kudu and 574 species of bird, from lilac-breasted rollers to the endemic Ruaha hornbill.
In recent years, the park’s name had been passed to me by Africa experts who’d explored many of the continent’s greatest wildlife zones, singling out Ruaha as their favourite, dubbing it ‘Africa’s wildest national park’ and ‘the last frontier’.
And as a traveller who’s always happy to get out of a safari van, when I heard of full-on walking safaris to explore the park’s equally wild landscapes on foot, I could barely pack my camera and get on a plane fast enough.
I’d flown into Ruaha National Park from Dar Es Salaam on a 14-seater plane. As it came into land at Jongomero airstrip, I spotted elephants sheltering from the sun in the shade of an acacia tree.
Only about 10% of the national park is given over to tourism, with the rest still wild and largely unexplored. Even in that ‘busy’ 10%, ‘high value, low impact’ tourism means you’ll encounter none of the crowds that you find at the Serengeti, Ngorongoro or the Masai Mara, with only ten camps and lodges set within the park’s borders.
“Ruaha’s the most unique national park in Tanzania, because of its isolation,” guide Theo Myinga boasted, as we drove through thorn trees and bush scrub to Jongomero Camp in the south of the park. “You’re not distracted by other vehicles and people. You get the real feeling of nature.”
Sitting out on my tent’s wooden deck, I photographed a rock agama nearby, its bright orange head and blue body looking for all the world like nature had brought a child’s crayon drawing to life.
As distant thunder rumbled, a lone giraffe stalked cautiously across the dry riverbed, then a pair of impala, while vervet monkeys skittered on the banks.
Later, we drove to Kariakoo, a forest clearing filled with impala, warthogs and zebra. Ruaha hornbills flew from tree to tree along roads where black-backed jackals prowled.
As darkness fell, a bat-eared fox and her cubs clustered outside their den. In the morning, we found hippo in the Great Ruaha river, pods of 30 to 40.
Some of them were sending territorial honks in the direction of their rivals downriver, just as a fish eagle flew overhead. Further along, a procession of 20 or so elephants crossed the water.
“Ruaha comes from the old Hehe word ‘Ruvaha’, meaning ‘the old river that never gets dry’,” Theo told me. “It’s an important river for the people of Tanzania. It provides rice irrigation, hydroelectric power and fishing outside the national park. Without the river, there’s no national park. Everything here needs water.”
From Jongomero, the landscapes opened out and became hillier as we drove north. We passed tumbled piles of granite boulders, forested hills and the twisting blue-green of the Great Ruaha, the park’s scenery turning out to be as diverse as its inhabitants.
Meeting Kwihala Camp’s Tony at Msembe airstrip, we set off to explore the heart of the national park, driving through lines of tall lala palms into forests of gnarly baobabs. They looked like fairy tale trees, contorted figures that had been transformed and rooted to the ground by a malicious spell.
Parked by the dry Mwagusi riverbed, we stayed a while to watch a herd of elephants, the babies practicing digging into the sand for water. Ruaha is home to one of East Africa’s largest elephant populations.
They’ve thrived in spite of the best efforts of poachers, who have badly affected areas like the Selous Game Reserve. Ruaha’s former warden, Christopher Timbuka, is credited with halting this decimation by bringing in fast, effective measures.
“There’s less poaching now in Ruaha,” Tony told me. “The number of elephants is actually growing.”
Memorable wildlife moments came thick and fast the next day: baboons somersaulted, grabbing at each other’s tails and eating baobab flowers; noisy Ruaha hornbills quacked to each other across the river; rock hyraxes sun-baked happily; tiny dik-diks scurried through bushes; and both tawny and brown snake eagles soared high above.
In the afternoon, we spotted a leopard resting behind the fat root of a baobab tree, yawning, its tail languidly flopping around. It got up and strode through the long grass in the direction of several kudu.
Later, we saw a lone female lion hungrily sniffing the air, studying the kudu and impala in the distance, only for her prey to spy her and bolt. Others had better luck.
We found a pride of 13 feeding on a giraffe carcass, the sound of bone crunching and skin tearing interrupted by growls and scuffles.
“The lion’s the only social cat on Earth,” Tony informed me. “They do everything together: hunt, defend their territory. But when it comes to food, there are no table manners. Everyone fights for the best part.”
“Fourteen lions in one day,” he continued, as we drove back to Kwihala Camp for a fireside dinner on the riverbed that night, beneath the stars. “That’s quite special.”
It got even better. Next morning, we spied a cheetah drinking nervously by the Mwagusi, anxiously glancing over her shoulders between slurps.
“The cheetah’s the weakest and most vulnerable of the big cats,” explained Tony. Then an adult male leopard appeared on the bank, immediately setting his sights on the cheetah. “Leopards are known to attack and even eat cheetahs,” Tony said. “Big cats always fight over territory and food resources.”
The leopard lowered his head and bore down fast on the terrified cheetah, who turned and sprinted away. “What an incredible morning,” Tony said, disbelief in his voice. “It’s very, very rare to see a leopard and cheetah like that.”
It was the same leopard who later pounced from a tree onto a careless impala. I’d rather photograph animals alive than seek out ‘kills’ but it was mesmerising to watch as the impala kicked out, desperate but pinned down, no match for the leopard’s power and lethal expertise.
The animals were locked together, the leopard clenching the impala’s snout in his jaws: mouth to mouth, eye to eye, it was a strange, macabre sight, like a deadly kiss.
The struggle finally over, the leopard dragged the carcass into the bushes. “My word, what a bold move,” said Tony, taken aback by the experience. “To see a leopard hunt from a tree is so rare, so special.”
We moved on, expecting little more from the day than a quiet spot to watch the sunset, only to find a pride of six lions resting on the riverbed.
At this point, with the sky turning pink, a full moon rising over the palm trees and six lions gazing back at us, it started to feel like Ruaha was trying to make other national parks look bad.
We drove next morning into the open plains known as Little Serengeti, where Masai giraffe, zebra and Grant’s gazelles roam. En route, we came across four lions following a herd of buffalo down to the Great Ruaha. Even for dry season, the level of water in the river was visibly low.
“This is what remains now of the river,” Tony said, regretfully. “I’m worried for the future of it. This river is supposed to flow throughout the year, and because of rice irrigation and human activity, this is the result.
"The animals need this river, but so do a lot of humans. If we don’t do something and change our behaviour, it could disappear.”
I got my first taste of ‘Ruaha on foot’ at Jabali Ridge, the newest lodge in the national park, setting out in the morning with guide Moinga Timan and an armed ranger.
A crested francolin exploded out from under a bush, inducing three mild heart attacks. We passed a hefty elephant skull and climbed a kopje to look out over a baobab forest, four Masai giraffe looking back at us from a distance.
Further along, a curious hyena cub watched on from its den. “Look, it’s so relaxed,” Moinga said.
The next day, I travelled east, reaching even more remote parts of the park. I’d barely dropped my bag at Kichaka, an elegant little camp of just three tents, when a call went out that a cheetah pair had been spotted below.
I grabbed my camera. Never a quiet minute here in Ruaha…
In the morning, I set out with wildlife guide Andrew ‘Moli’ Molinaro, a specialist in walking safaris who can wax lyrical for half an hour about a termite mound.
We stepped carefully, passing quietly through trees and over sun-baked grass. “Poetry in motion,” Moli grinned, as impala bounded away, springing over bushes.
The day warmed rapidly, Moli reading tracks as we walked: buffalo hoofs, elephant pads, the tiny marks of a dik-dik. “Hello pussycat,” he greeted lion prints in the sand.
Approaching the river, an elephant appeared between the trees. It bristled, huffed and trundled away. Later, we watched large herds crashing through thick greenery across the river.
We came much closer the next day. Moli tapped his little ash bag to check the direction of the wind, as we stepped within 20 metres of a large-tusked adult male on the riverbank.
“It’s important they don’t see, hear or smell you,” Moli explained later. “One molecule of human scent touches that trunk and they know exactly where you are, and they don’t like it.”
“This is the greatest creature that has ever graced our planet,” he continued, warming to his theme.
“What a nose they have – so dexterous that it can pick up a pin from a sheet of glass. They eat 250 kilos of food per day, but only digest 30 per cent of what they eat, producing 150 kilos – or two adult humans – of poo per day. And how remarkably silent this creature can be: a six tonne animal that can move through the bush like a ghost.”
We watched, still and silent, for 15 minutes, close enough to hear the sound of the behemoth’s powerful teeth grinding branches.
It moved towards us, looked in our direction and ambled away. It’s these kind of close-up encounters, as well as seeing the detail of the environment, that makes being on foot so special.
“To understand the bush, you have to walk,” Moli said. “And when you do have those big animal encounters, it’s so different. On foot, close to the elephant, it’s more real and exciting. And it gives you an idea of how our ancestors would’ve experienced these same places.”
After two days, walking ten to 12 kilometres each day and returning in the afternoon to Kichaka, we set out for a wilderness fly camp, hiking 15km through scrub and grassland that buzzed with cicadas.
“Wherever you are in this park, there’s a tall head gawking back at you,” Moli said, as giraffe eyes poked over trees, watching our approach. “We call it ‘Giraffic Park’.”
We passed giant candelabra trees and sheltered from the blazing sun beneath an enormous baobab. “It’s the biggest I’ve seen in Tanzania,” Moli said, admiringly. “It could be up to 2,000 years old.”
After fireside drinks, dinner under a roof of stars and a comfy night in a tent, we continued upriver the next morning, toward Kali forest.
Surrounded by the calls of doves, bush shrikes, spurfowl and fish eagles, we trekked up the warm riverbed, picking out tracks in the sand: buffalo, giraffe, elephant, fresh lion prints…
Waking in this unique wilderness for the final time, there were pink skies over the river and gruff grunting sounds: the mating calls of a pair of lions across the water.
Two pairs of eyes looked back, then disappeared into the long grass, the sounds that followed sure signs the lions were doing their part to make sure this wild park remains full of life.
Ruaha NP is home to one of East Africa’s largest lion and elephant populations, but the battle to protect them is still raging…
The facts are stark. From 2009 to 2015, Tanzania’s elephant population fell from 109,000 to an estimated 50,000 as a result of poaching.
The south in particular was hit hard, says Dr Trevor Jones of the South Tanzanian Elephant Program (STEP), as one of East Africa’s largest populations lost over 50% of its elephants.
The situation is worse for its lions. Some 200,000 once roamed Africa; now there’s a little over 24,000, with 10% of those left in the wild found in Ruaha NP.
But even here it’s not been plain sailing. Prior to 2012, conflict with villagers led to 60 lions being killed every year by the Barabaig people.
While hard work on the ground and global goodwill to crack down on the ivory trade is helping deter elephant poachers, working with local communities has been just as important for STEP, says Dr Jones.
Crop losses to Ruaha’s 6,573-strong elephant population threaten livelihoods and lead to legal killings.
But through working with the local villages, perceptions are changing...
For the lions, it’s a similar fight. The Ruaha Carnivore Project (RCP) has trained up 17 Barabaig and Maasai Lion Defenders.
Their duties include tracking, fixing enclosures and averting hunts (they halted 21 in 2018 and recovered 3,000 goats), while villages monitoring camera traps are rewarded with supplies, to try and change local attitudes.
It’s an ongoing battle but one vital to Ruaha, where park fees from visitors are vital in helping save Africa’s rarest wildlife.
The author travelled with Audley Travel (01993 838545), which runs a ten-night trip to Ruaha National Park, including two nights at Jongomero, two nights at Kwihala, two nights at Jibali Ridge and two nights at Kichaka.
The price includes international flights with Kenyan Airways, as well as domestic flights, accommodation on an all-inclusive basis, transfers, park entrance fees and various excursions.
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