Ruaha National Park
Tanzania's second-largest national park extends over 10,300km2 of wooded hills and open plains to the west of Iringa, and it lies at the core of a greater ecosystem that is five times larger, embracing six other protected areas including the contiguous Rungwa and Kizigo game reserves. Ruaha is widely regarded by Tanzania's safari cognoscenti to be the country's best-kept game-viewing secret, and it has unquestionably retained a compelling wilderness character that is increasingly savoury when compared with the package safaris and 100-room game lodges common in the parks of northern Tanzania.
The dominant geographical feature of the park is the Great Ruaha River, which follows the southeast boundary for 160km, and is known to the local Hehe people as the Lyambangori (Ruaha being a corruption of the hehe word luhava,
which simply means 'river'). only the small part of the park around the river is developed for tourism, but with just two small lodges currently operating – though more are likely to open over the next couple of years – even this limited 400km road circuit sees relatively few visitors, and has a reassuringly untrammelled mood.
Ruaha has a hot and rather dry climate, with an average annual rainfall of around 500mm falling almost exclusively between October and May, and peaking in February and March. Daytime temperatures in excess of 40°C are regularly recorded, particularly over October and November before the rains break, but a very low humidity level makes this less noticeable than might be expected, and it cools down reliably at night. The best game viewing is generally from May to November, but the bush is greener and prettier from January to June, and birding peaks during the European winter months of December to April. The vegetation of Ruaha is transitional to southern miombo and eastern savanna biomes, and a wide variety of habitats are protected within the park, including riparian forest along the watercourses, swamps, grassland, and acacia woodland. The dominant vegetation type is brachystegia
woodland and several areas of the park support an impressive number of large baobab trees.
The floral variety of Ruaha is mirrored by the variety of wildlife likely to be seen over the course of a few days on safari. The most common ungulates, not unusually, are the widespread impala, waterbuck, bushbuck, buffalo, zebra and giraffe, all of which are likely to be encountered several times on any given game drive. The park lies at the most southerly extent of the range of several east African ungulate species, including lesser kudu and Grant's gazelle. Yet it also harbours a number of antelope that are rare or absent in northern Tanzania, most visibly the splendid greater kudu – some of the most handsomely horned males you'll come across anywhere in Africa – but also the more elusive roan and sable antelope. The elephant population is the largest of any Tanzanian national park, despite heavy losses due to poaching in the 1980s, with some 12,000 elephants migrating through the greater Ruaha ecosystem. The most impressive pair of tusks weighed in the 20th century – combined weight 201kg – were from an individual shot in Ruaha in the 1970s, but the poaching of the recent past means you're unlikely to see anything comparable these days.
Ruaha is an excellent park for predators. Lions are not only numerous and very habituated to vehicles, but the prides tend to be unusually large, often numbering more than 20 individuals. The park also boasts a justified reputation for good leopard sightings, and, while it's not as reliable as the Seronera Valley in the Serengeti, leopard are usually seen every few days and they are less skittish than in many game reserves. Cheetah, resident on the open plains, are quite often encountered in the Lundu area – known locally as the mini Serengeti – northeast of the Mwagusi River. More than 100 African wild dogs are thought to be resident in the greater Ruaha ecosystem. Wild dogs are known to have very wide ranges, and their movements are often difficult to predict, but one pack of about 40 individuals regularly moves into the Mwagusi area, generally hanging around for a few days before wandering elsewhere for a couple of weeks. Visitors who particularly want to see wild dogs should try to visit in June or July, when they are normally denning, and are thus more easy to locate than at other times of year. Black-backed jackal and spotted hyena are both very common and easily seen, and the rarer striped hyena, though seldom observed, is found here at the southern limit of its range.
With 450 species recorded, Ruaha also offers some excellent birding, once again with an interesting mix of southern and northern species. Of particular note are substantial and visible populations of black-collared lovebird and ashy starlings, Tanzanian endemics associated with the Maasai Steppes found here at the southern extreme of their distribution. By contrast, this is perhaps the only savanna reserve in east Africa where the crested barbet – a colourful yellow-and-black bird whose loud sustained trilling is a characteristic sound of the southern African bush – replaces the red-and-yellow barbet. Ruaha is also the type locality for the recently described Tanzanian red-billed hornbill Tockus ruahae,
a Tanzanian endemic that is very common within its restricted range. Raptors are well represented, with bateleur and fish eagle probably the most visible large birds of prey, and the localised Eleanora's falcon quite common in December and January. The watercourses support the usual waterbirds.
Ruaha is best visited between July and November, when animals concentrate around the river. Internal roads may be impassable during the rainy season (December to May).
National park fees
An entrance fee of US$25 per 24 hours must be paid in hard currency. On most organised tours this will be included, but it's worth checking this when booking.
booklet published in 2000 by the African Publishing Group is normally available at the lodges, and contains useful maps, animal descriptions and checklists, and details of where to look for localised species. The older 64-page booklet Ruaha National Park
is just as useful, and cheaper, assuming that you can locate a copy!
Getting There And Away
The most straightforward way to reach Ruaha from Zanzibar is by Coastal Travel's daily scheduled flights via Dar es Salaam, which also serve the Selous Game Reserve. Typically these cost about US$280 per person one-way between Selous and Ruaha, or US$310 per person one-way between Dar and Ruaha. As with the Selous, if you are travelling in mainland Tanzania you can reach Ruaha by air from Dar es Salaam, without going to Zanzibar. It's also possible to get there by road, although this is usually at least a two-day trip; for more details see Tanzania: The Bradt Travel Guide
by Philip Briggs.