Walking the Wild Side

The Mwagusi is one of Ruaha National Park’s several sand rivers, which flow underground except during the height of the rainy season. As we walked along this dry river bed in central Tanzania, I suddenly saw, amid a flurry of African buffalo tracks, a bare human footprint in the middle of a gigantic elephant footprint. The sight cast me into a reverie of ancient days when humans met nature on an equal footing, responding to, rather than controlling, its pulse. I mused about how few people have retained this way of life, and how lucky I was to be with one of them – the creator of the human footprint, Chris Fox, who lives among the wild creatures of this vast and remote sanctuary.

I was snapped from my dream by a noisy chorus of green wood hoopoes , brilliant birds foraging the forest that flanked the riverbed, and moved on to join Chris, who was waiting for me downriver. His family owns and runs a tented camp that sits on a high bank overlooking the Mwagusi. As usual, Chris was wearing as little as possible: no shoes, a pair of shorts and an unbuttoned, short-sleeved shirt. His case with the wilderness – he walks it without a rifle – was contagious.

We had begun this walk in the golden light of late afternoon. Ambling along the sandy riverbed, we passed small pools created by elephants, who use their forefeet and trunks to quarry the subterranean water. After they’ve quenched their thirst, their wells are used by a host of other animals – evident by the footprints surrounding the pools. A troop of yellow baboons galloped in front of us. Now and then, curious, they stopped and watched us gain on them, then bounded further down river through shadows of palms, acacia, tamarind and sausage trees.

After a mile or so we came to a sharp northward bend in the river. Here , near an elephant well, we paused. Sitting still as stones atop a tumble of boulders, we waited and watched. To the south, scores of baobab trees dotted a wide grassy plain, looking like so many stubby-armed maestros conducting a fiery sunset. A pair of ostriches pranced across the plain, kicking up dust. Soon a jackal came to drink from the nearby pool. And the baboons climbed into nearby palm trees to feed, or sat on the bank watching us watch them. Yellow-collared lovebirds and green wood hoopoes dipped and darted among the branches. Eventually, with just enough light to show us the way, we returned to camp.

The 5000-square-mile Ruaha National Park is African wilderness at its purest – a vast unspoiled area that is still more for animals than it is for people, due to the large part to the fact that is more than 300 miles west of the Tanzanian capital of Dar Es Salaam and a four-hour drive from the nearest town of any size, Iringa. In fact, fewer than 7,000 people visited the park in 1994.

The park lies between the Njombe and Great Ruaha rivers and an escarpment stretching the full length of the park divides it between the Great Ruaha River valley of the southeast and the higher plateau country of the northwest. The valley has a road system and features rolling Commiphora-Combretum woodlands, interspersed with grasslands and crisscrossed by sand rivers fringed with greenery. The plateau has no roads and is dominated by a broad-leaved miombo forest.

Although perhaps a fifth of East Africa’s elephants roam the park, it is known primarily for its unusually wide spectrum of antelopes – roan, sable, steenbok, suni, oribi and bushbuck, plus greater and lesser kudu, eland and Lichtenstein’s hartebeest. In additional, buffalo herd trundle to and from the Great Ruaha River for a daily drink, and hippos and crocodiles gather in the river’s deep pools and on its sandbanks, along with an abundance of waterbirds. All told, more than 370 bird species have been recorded in the park (1994), and counting is not complete.

Tanzania’s Remote Ruaha National Park, By Bunny McBride, Special to the Washington Post