The Park that Time Forgot

The shadow of our 12-seater bush plane flits over the hot dry heart of Tanzania as we bounce through the midday thermals. But the landscape changes as we draw closer to Msembe airstrip. On its final approach the plane banks sharply, revealing a range of broken hills.

Below the wingtips zebras stampede across a yellow plain. Farther off I can see a mighty sand river bordered by flat-topped acacias, and solemn giraffes standing like markers measuring the yawning distance.

This is my first sight of Ruaha, and already one question is running through my head. Why did I wait so long? There is a rawness here I have never seen before. It's the real thing, the unexpurgated Africa of long ago, and I can't wait to explore it.

Waiting to greet me is Chris Fox, a barefoot figure in faded khaki shirt and shorts. Chris is the owner of Mwagusi, the best lodge in the park. "Straight to camp or the scenic route?" he asks. I choose the second option and head for Kimilamatonge Hill, a landmark I will get to know well in the days to come.

It is late September, deep in the dry season. The blue skies are hazy with the smoke of bush fires. The combretum thickets are in flower, and kudu - the males with handsome corkscrew horns - are nibbling at the flame-red blossoms.

Eventually we reach camp: eight spacious bandas on the banks of the bone-dry Mwagusi River. Each one has a high-peaked roof of makuti thatch, giving them the air of Noah's arks left stranded among the rocks, although Noah never lived in such comfort. There are hot showers, a same-day laundry service and a hammock on the veranda where I can chill with a glass of mango juice and watch elephants digging for water in the riverbed.

At lunch I meet a fellow guest, an American called Ed who says he's been all over Africa but doesn't bother to go anywhere else now because nowhere is better than Ruaha. "I've been here only two days and already I have seen three cheetahs, two leopards and God knows how many lions," he says.

Over much of Africa lions are declining, but not in Ruaha. Chris Fox knows of 185 within 20 miles of the camp, and he's not spinning a yarn. I know this because one night five nomadic males pay us a visit. For the next two hours they roar and roar.

They are hell-bent on a pride take-over and their message to the resident males is clear: bring it on. Next morning I find their tracks outside my door - each paw print as big as my outstretched hand.

Ed is right. There is nowhere better, and with each passing day, following its red ochre game trails among the smouldering purple hills, I can feel the Ruaha getting under my skin. Unlike the Serengeti plains, there is nothing gentle about it.

Its beauty is of an altogether harsher kind. The parched plains are littered with granite boulders, and wherever you look grotesque baobabs as old as London stretch their bare branches against the sky as if begging for rain.

By chance my visit has coincided with the arrival of John "Steve" Stephenson, the Ruaha's first game warden. Now in his 80s and living in Dorset, he has come back to see how the park has fared since he helped to establish it in 1962.

Together with Chris we visit the palm grove beside the Mwagusi where he arrived in his beaten-up old Land Rover to set up the park's first HQ. We poke around in the grass, but apart from an overgrown slab of concrete no trace of the original buildings remains. "It's as if those days had never been," he says. But he is overjoyed when we find a lioness suckling two cubs where he used to stroll.

I asked Steve if the park had changed. "There was lots more water in the Ruaha river," he said. "But once you get into the bush it's as wild as ever." Back at camp a bush dinner has been prepared with tables set out in the sandy riverbed.

As we eat under the stars our meal is interrupted by a line of chanting figures coming out of the darkness, each one carrying a lantern that swings in time to the rhythm of their song. Without any prompting, the camp staff are putting on a show to welcome Steve back to the park he put on the map half a century ago.

Next morning we set off on a game drive before the dawn. Elephants cross the road in front of us, led by a matriarch with ragged ears, and as we pass through a grove of baobabs Chris points out a tree with pegs hammered into its bloated trunk by generations of honey-hunters.

On we go, looking for lions along the sand rivers, and with every mile I find myself slipping deeper under Ruaha's spell. In September the landscape is everywhere painted in the muted colours of the dry season, but at this hour everything glows like amber. It's the same in the evening, in the golden hour before sundown when we spot three cats in the grass: a mother cheetah and her two cubs.

Over so much of Africa our covenant with the wild has been broken beyond repair. But not here. Not yet. These Ruaha cheetahs no longer run at the sight of a vehicle. The youngsters are almost full-grown and lie apart from their mother, calling to her with un-cat-like chirrups. When at last she rejoins them they rub against each other in an orgy of affection, then jump down into the riverbed and pose for our cameras on a fallen tree trunk.

By now I have realised how lucky I am to have Chris Fox as my guide. Like so many men who grow up in the wild, he oozes charisma. Over a bush breakfast on the banks of the Mwagusi he tells me about the female leopard that sometimes sleeps on his bedroom floor, and I have no reason to disbelieve him. Apart from schooldays spent in Devon, he has known the Ruaha all his life and his passion for it shines through in everything he says.

When he was a boy he and his family were often the only visitors. He remembers how, as an eight-year-old, he would go hunting on foot with his father in this secret, unheard-of paradise.

"Those were the days when a character known as Old Man Scotty used to hunt crocodiles in the Great Ruaha River," he recalls. "Scotty used an aluminium boat he'd converted from the fuselage of a crashed light aircraft and hunted at night by torchlight, shooting the crocs between the eyes with the same.22 he turned on himself when hunting was banned."

Even after Ruaha was given national park status in 1964 it continued to be overlooked, and in the mid-1970s its very survival was put at risk by a rice-growing scheme on the Usangu plains - the main catchment area for the Great Ruaha River.

Today the river is so starved of water that it ceases to flow for four months of the year, with disastrous effects for the vast buffalo herds that were the main prey for Ruaha's lions. "What a sight it was," says Chris, "to see 1,000 buffaloes, a wall of horns confronting a determined pride.

Often they would bring down five in a single raid. Then the river dried up. The buffs crashed, from 32,000 to 2,000, and those ancient confrontations are history." Then came the 1980s, the dark decade when the ivory poachers moved in and the elephant population fell from 40,000 to just 9,000.

Every dry season the park went up in smoke as the poachers set their bush fires, and on moonlit nights the woodlands echoed to the sound of gunfire and the whooping of hyenas drawn to the carcasses. At its peak, ivory poaching accounted for 1,500 elephants every year, and rumour has it that the railway built by the Chinese was paid for with the blood of Ruaha's elephants.

"I thought I would never see an end to the killing," Fox confesses. But he did. In 1987 a new warden arrived, vowing he would stop the poaching.

"I listened politely but didn't believe him," says Fox. "After all, Ruaha was the punishment posting, Tanzania's most neglected park. But he was true to his word. As the year progressed he drove out the poachers and in 1988 the ivory trade ban ended the killing."

Now, two decades on, things are looking up. Ruaha's elephant population has risen to 30,000 - the largest in East Africa - and when the adjoining Usangu game reserve is added, Ruaha will become second only to Kafue in Zambia as the biggest national park in the whole continent.

Visitors, too, are increasing. Twenty years ago Ruaha attracted little more than 350 tourists a year. Today that number has risen to 6,000 - but not enough to satisfy the Tanzanians.

A new national tourism policy drafted last year contains radical proposals that could change the face of Ruaha forever. These plans would double the size of the park's four existing camps and encourage new ones, bringing mass tourism to what has hitherto been a pristine wilderness.

You might wonder how such an increase could possibly spoil a park twice the size of Belgium. But while the Ruaha looks big on a map, its prime game-viewing circuits are confined to little more than 60 miles of tracks beside the Mwagusi and Ruaha Rivers.

Beyond this stunningly beautiful core area, much of the park consists of monotonous miombo - the crackling-dry woodland of southern Tanzania - where game is sparse and tsetse flies can make life a misery. Far better, urge conservationists, to establish new low-volume, high-yield camps in the Usangu wetlands for the lucrative top-end tourist market.

If ever a park depended upon responsible tourism it is Ruaha. Until now, remoteness has proved its salvation. To fly there from Dar es Salaam still takes the best part of three hours, so it can never hope to compete with easy-to-reach destinations such as the Serengeti or Masai Mara.

These thoughts cast a shadow across my stay, but are set aside next morning when we go out early to look for leopards.

When you have been away from Africa for a long time the eye hungers for the sight of a leopard. Why this should be so is hard to describe, but big cat junkies will know the feeling. It is not just that exquisitely dappled coat, or the leopard's secretive lifestyle. There is something else. Even the unseen presence of this elegant carnivore injects every game drive with an extra frisson of excitement.

So picture the scene at dawn: the baobabs casting long shadows across the road and a big male leopard stalking guinea fowl in the backlit grass. Chris recognises him at once. "His mother is the one that visits my bedroom," he whispers.

As we appear the hunt is aborted. Exit guinea fowl in a clatter of wings; tail held in a graceful curve, the leopard strolls nonchalantly towards us. As he walks past our vehicle I can barely resist this insane desire to reach out and stroke him. Then, with not so much as a backward glance, he is gone, melting into the boundless thickets of the park that time forgot.

Brian Jackman, The Daily Telegraph