Ruaha National Park - Tanzania
Greatly extended in size a few years ago when the Usangu Game Reserve and neighbouring wetlands were incorporated, Ruaha National Park now covers an area of more than 20,000 km2 (7,700 square miles) and is the largest park, not only in Tanzania, but also in East Africa as a whole.
Its name comes from the Great Ruaha River, which flows along its east and south borders.
The Ruaha River and Chariwindi Hill
Ruaha is remote, not as far as Katavi, but it's still a good 2.5 hour light aircraft flight from Dar es Salaam, which is the way most people will arrive. You land at Msembe, the main airstrip and location of the park headquarters. If you have your own vehicle, have the time and are adventurous enough you could drive, but it's a long way. From Dar you'd clock about 620km.
The northwestern boundary of the designated park area is the Mzombe River, and its southeastern the Ruaha. Both the Ruaha and the Mzombe are 'sand rivers' for much of the year, but when flowing their waters eventually join the Rufiji River further south in Selous.
The habitat is quite rugged in places and not always attractive. But the scenery is varied as there are large open plains, rolling hills, wooded escarpments and, of course, the Great Ruaha River and it’s associated tributaries like the Mwagusi. The climate is generally hot and dry, which means that animals don’t stray too far from dependable water sources.
A typical rugged area along the edge of the escarpment
As with much of East Africa, Ruaha is characterised by two distinct seasons - the lush "green" season, which normally starts in January and runs through to April, and the dry "yellow" season that follows through the rest of the year.
In the wet season the park is transformed into a green oasis with flowing rivers and thick vegetation. Wildlife viewing is more of a challenge but, subject to conditions, may provide better opportunities of seeing more elusive animals including the rare and endangered wild dog. You may also experience different animal behaviour to that which you would see later in the year, such as congregating elephants getting ready to breed.
It's also the best time for seeing the park's great variety of birds, as there have been with well over 550 different species recorded. With that number it's almost impossible to pick out particular species to mention, but when you're close to the river you'll often see both Red-billed and Von der Decken's Hornbills. Interestingly, it has recently been discovered that the Red-billed are actually a separate species. They were formally classified as Tokus erythrorhynchus, but are now Tokus ruahae and were renamed the Ruaha Red-billed Hornbill, although that name has formally been amended to the Tanzanian Red-billed Hornbill. They have black eye-skin rather than pink, and pale eyes. I have a fondness for these birds and, as such, have put together a feature set covering a few different types of African Hornbill under the 'species' section of the website.
Tanzanian Red-billed Hornbill [Tokus ruahae]
As the land dries so do the river beds, which then start to form some of Ruaha's most appealing features, becoming the focus of attention as the animals come searching for water. Animals such as buffalo start grouping together in larger herds for added safety of numbers as they are now roaming a land that is no longer providing the natural cover that it did in the earlier wet season.
Cape Buffalo [Syncerus caffer]
The previous lush green landscape turns to muted shades of browns and yellows, transforming the area into a totally different environment. The lions become more active and leopards become slightly easier to see, with much associated interaction between these predators and the game herds.
Grant's Gazelle [Nanger granti] at the southernmost extent of its range
The park supports a good head of wildlife, including both Greater and Lesser Kudu.
Greater Kudu [Tragelaphus strepsiceros] in the "green" season
Ruaha is particularly famous though for its huge elephant population including a number of large bulls. Sadly most of the old 'big tuskers' were prime targets for poachers, because like many so-called 'protected' areas illegal hunting and poaching has had a massive impact over the years. The worst period was in the mid 1980's and although there are still reports of animals being butchered for their ivory their numbers are, I'm pleased to say, on the increase.
African Savanna Elephant [Loxodonta africana]
There are also a high density of lions with a couple of particularly large prides, one of which is the 'bushbuck pride', which we’ve been lucky enough to encounter on a quite a few occasions.
We combined Ruaha with Selous for our first safari in 2012, staying at the Mwagusi Safari Camp - a fantastic camp in a great location. We returned to this camp in 2014 when we linked it with Katavi - both of these trips being in July, in the dry “yellow” season. We then went back again in March 2016 to experience the “green” season and the birds. And, then returned for a fourth time in July 2017, again combining it with a stay in Selous. Consequently, it's not surprising to note that we’re rather fond of Mwagusi and, as such, I'd like to think that we’ll make at least one more visit at some point in the future.