Tanzania’s Best-kept Secret?

When someone suggested a short stop at Ruaha National Park during our return journey from the Nile River, I had to reach for a map to see where it was. Little did I realise I’d end up discovering a gem that I’d rate as one of Tanzania’s best parks.

If you use Google as a measure of popularity, you wont be overly inspired to visit Ruaha National Park – there are only 126,000 results. By way of comparison, if you Google Serengeti, you’ll get an incredible 4 820 000 results.

Compare the tow in human terms and you’ll find that the Serengeti pulls in 150 000 people every year, compared to Ruaha’s 7 654. Suffice to say, it doesn’t take too much brain power to work out which park is more popular. But, after spending just two days in Ruaha, I can tell you that is park is my new favourite in Tanzania. The three biggest attraction in this country are Zanzibar, Serengeti and Kilimanjaro; they’re all easily accessible by plane are are all relatively closely clustered together – a quick hope in a small plane will take you from one to another.

Not so with Ruaha, which lies about 130km west of the town of Iringa and forms part of the southern safari circuit. The dirt road from Iringa to Ruaha is very good and takes about t wo-and-a-half to three hours to cover. If you’ve driven up from SA then another couple of hours along a drit road isn’t much in the greater scheme of things. The Trans-Tanzam highway (the main route through Tanzania and Zambia) passes along Iringa, so one is able to get pretty close to the park on perfect tarmac.

So why would you want to visit Ruaha? No, it doesn’t have a million wildebeest, but there are the giraffe-eating lion that move around in large prides of well over 20. If you’re camping, chances are good you’ll have the campsite all to yourself, as we did. We saw no other self-drive visitors during our stay, only those driven by tour operators – and they normally frequent the upmarket lodges within the park. We found this lack of people an attraction, especially considering the experience we’d had in some of Tanzania’s better-known attractions. Ruaha lies in a park of Tanzania that was used by trading caravans during the early part of the last century; continuous attacks by the Sendu people forced these caravans to head north in order to find alternative routes. But the time German East Africa came into being, the Wahehe tribe occupied the Ruaha area; they too were well-know for their fierce battle tactics, and once again this resulted in the area being given a wide berth. Perhaps the only good thing that came out of this last occupation was when the area was declared the Saba Game Reserve. In 1964 it was declared a National Park and today is the second biggest park in Tanzania, pipped only by the Selous.

Not a great deal has changed in the park since those days; just ask Chris Fox who apart from a few years of schooling in Devon, has spent his entire life here and now runs Mwagusi, one of the park’s best lodges. The area’s popularity hasn’t been helped by the drying up of the Great Ruaha River, which in turn had had an adverse effect on animal numbers such as the buffalo whose numbers are down from 32 000 to only a few thousand. “Buffalo used to be the primary food source for the lions and it was not uncommon to see up to five brought down in a day. Not so anymore and the lions are not targeting the giraffe, something that was previously very rare.” Comments Chris. The ivory trade of the ‘80’s decimated elephant numbers in Ruaha from 40 000 to only 9 000 and only recently has the population increased to some 12 000 ellies.

The park’s name is derived from the word Luvaha which means “great” in the Hehe language; crossing the Great Ruaha River at the bridge located at the park’s southern entrance gate gave me cause to wonder: was this the Great Ruaha River? This is the only official park entrance, although locals told me of a few hunters’ trails that allow access from the north-west, but these are hard to find. While I went in to pay our park fees the rest of our crew stood on the bridge, surveying this lifeline to the thousands of animals that occupy Ruaha. While this was once a perennial river, today it is dry for up to several months of the year due to activities further upstream.

It was still flowing while we were there, hence our choice to camp at once of the riverside sites not too far from the Msembe HQ. We were the only people at the site and park officials had kindly left us some complimentary wood. While driving into the campsite once of our tyres picked up a nail and as our compressor had given up the ghost I had to visit HQ for assistance once I’d made repairs. The staff were extremely helpful even though it was after home time and the workshop was locked. I gave them a little something as a token of my thanks, making them very happy.

When one thinks of Serengeti one thinks of vast open plains; when I think of Ruaha I think of granite koppies and dense vegetation. There are four distinct vegetation zones within the park: river valley, open grassland, Miombo woodland and undulating countryside where the baobabs dominate. The are around HQ is thick bush and elephants are plentiful, as there’s water close by.

As we made our way towards the popular Mwayembe Hill we drove through a rather nervous looking herd of buffalo – less than a mile down the track we discovered the source of their unhappiness: one of their kin had just been taken down by a lion. There were already several lion on the kill including several cubs. A few minutes later more arrived and soon we were surrounded by over 20 lions, a situation that makes one feel very small and helpless. For the next hour or so we just sat and observed as they slowly reduced this buffalo to a bloodied pile of hide and bones.

The park’s roads are in good condition and the unique signage system helped us to easily navigate our way about. One of the attractions at Ruaha are the wild dogs and lesser kudu, both of which we failed to see during our visit. I wish we’d had more time to spend in the park; due to its size it’s the kind of place you need a few days to explore.

Twenty percent of the park lies next to the Greater Ruaha River and it’s in the land adjacent to the river where one finds the biggest concentration of animals, which gives rise to one of the challenges facing Ruaha.

Legislation approved by government last year details plans to double the size of the four existing camps in Ruaha, and the construction of several new facilities. This might well turn the areas adjacent to the rivers into Serengeti pr Ngorongoro type parks. It will be a sad day when this mass tourism kicks in as roads will worsen (the Tanzanian government doesn’t invest in its park roads, they merely complain that there are too many vehicles on them). Only time will tell what happens at Ruaha.

However, let me conclude this piece with the following advice: pack your bags and head for Ruaha – right now it’s an undiscovered jewel in Tanzania’s wildlife crown, but it’s not going to stay that way for too long.

Tanzania’s Best-kept Secret?, Ruaha National Park, Patrick Cruywagen, SA 4x4, agazine, January 2009 edition