Rob Goes Wild in Nyerere and Ruaha

After a gap of several years, it was great to be heading back to southern Tanzania, and two of Africa’s best wilderness areas. My targets were the recently re-named Nyerere National Park (formerly the Selous Game Reserve) and Ruaha National Park, two vast wilderness areas that have for many years combined well to offer a more remote and exclusive big game alternative to the better-known parks of northern Tanzania.

Nyerere is just 45 minutes flying time from Dar es Salaam and is dominated by the mighty Rufiji River. Having raced through Steigler’s Gorge on the western edge of the park, the river slows and widens, and a network of lakes, channels and swamps has created a haven for wildlife. The water is teeming with hippo and crocodiles and the birdlife is colourful and abundant.

The waterways are surrounded by open grassland, acacia woodland, riverine forest and rocky hills, and the park is home to a wide range of fauna including elephants, buffalo, lion, leopard, wild dogs and a wide range of antelopes. Giraffe are found in great numbers, and it is common to see 20 or more together strolling effortlessly across the landscape.

One key point of interest for me was to see whether Nyerere was becoming busier as a park. There have been two threats to the park discussed in recent years. The first is a huge hydro-electric project on the Rufiji River with a dam being built at the top of Steigler’s Gorge, which naturally could have a profound impact on the ecosystem.

Whilst many studies have been carried out and assurances offered that the water flow of the river will be suitably regulated, the park has in the short term been affected by the increased traffic along the main access road to the project which cuts through some of the park. Thankfully Steigler’s Dam is almost complete, so lorry traffic is already subsiding, and on balance we don’t consider this a long-term issue for the park.

The second concern, however, is the Tanzania Government’s hunger to maximise revenue from the park by offering fly-in day trips from Zanzibar. From what I saw, this desire has not abated, as a large new runway is being built at Mtemere airstrip, next to the eastern entry to the park. Whether some areas of the park become too busy in the future will remain to be seen, but there are definitely some more accessible sections of the park that we can no longer describe as ‘true wilderness’.

Thankfully there still remain great swathes of wilderness within the ecosystem, especially in the west, far from the hub of Mtemere. I spent a day in this western section, visiting Sand Rivers, run by the excellent Nomad Tanzania, and I spent the night fly-camping with them on the shores of Lake Tagalala. It was a superb and wild experience, including a relaxing boat cruise on the Rufiji River, an exciting afternoon drive along rarely-driven roads, sunset drinks overlooking Lake Tagalala, a very productive night drive and an interesting morning walk around the lake and through the hills to Nyerere’s famous hot springs. All in all, a varied and in depth bush experience in total isolation from the rest of the park.

Whilst the rains had broken early and I did endure more rainfall than expected, I also had a good stay at Roho ya Selous, overlooking Lake Nzerakera, and at Selous Impala Camp where I had a lovely afternoon on the Rufiji River. After watching a crazy congregation of crocs (around an elephant carcass on the shore) I then threw out a line to catch silver fish and cat fish while stunning pygmy and malachite kingfishers flitted up and down the dense vegetation of the river bank.

From Nyerere it is a 90 minute flight west to the more remote and rugged Ruaha National Park, where I had five nights to explore three very different sections of the park. I am very familiar with the core game viewing section of the park which is dominated by the Ruaha River and the winding Mwagusi River which flows into it. In this area it was just a case of seeing how game concentrations were doing and visiting camps such as Mwagusi Safari Camp, Kigelia Ruaha, Ikuka Safari Camp and Jabali Ridge.

Day time game drives were productive, with lions, elephants, buffalo, giraffe, zebra , greater kudu and a sleeping pack of wild dogs encountered, as well as the much rarer and more skittish lesser kudu. However, it was the night drives that stand out most in my mind, partly because on my previous visit they were unavailable in Ruaha.

We saw leopard a couple of times at night, many bat-eared foxes and genets, a beautiful serval cat and on a particularly good night drive from Jabali Ridge we had excellent sightings of two different aardwolf and a melanistic genet. See the short film here about my superb night drive experiences throughout Nyerere and Ruaha.

On my final morning in the park I joined Serengeti Balloon Safaris as they flew one of the final flights of their inaugural season in Ruaha. It was a beautiful, clear and calm morning and we floated effortlessly over the Ruaha River and then climbed up into the atmosphere for stunning views of the entire park. I am okay with heights and loved looking down on the landscape from such altitude, tracing the rivers and hills, and the places I had been exploring.

After a gentle landing we enjoyed breakfast in the shade of one of Ruaha’s charismatic baobab trees, under the gaze of some zebra and giraffe we had floated past earlier.

What was perhaps most interesting was exploring two really remote regions of Ruaha that were new to me, and still very much in development. In the south-west of the park I visited the Usangu Wetlands, staying at Asilia Africa’s Usangu Expedition Camp. After a purposeful drive through a wide miombo woodland belt, which is home to 87 million tsetse flies (this drive was perfectly fine as the vehicle cab is adapted to have removable side windows and a gauze mesh front and back, so we had vision and fresh air without the flies) we emerged onto vast open plains that reminded me of the southern Serengeti and Zambia’s remote and remarkable Liuwa Plains. It was a fantastic adventure and something very different for Ruaha, and my opinion is not at all coloured by having seen my first ever pangolin that evening on a night drive using thermal cameras!

I also visited the totally exclusive Lunda region of the park in the north-east, where Kichaka Expeditions run virtually private walking, and now driving, safaris. Kichaka have been developing this area for several years and it is one of the few places in Africa where you really can have a part of Africa’s big game wilderness to yourself.

I loved exploring these two remote regions and feel they certainly add interesting options in Ruaha, especially for experienced safari travellers seeking exclusivity and an authentic bush wilderness adventure. You can read more about these areas, and my wonderful pangolin sighting, in our recently published Safari Telegraph.

Rob stayed at Sand Rivers Selous (fly-camping), Roho ya Selous, Selous Impala Camp, Usangu Expedition Camp, Jabali Ridge, Mwagusi Safari Camp, Zumbua Camp and Kigelia Ruaha; and Four Points by Sheraton Dar es Salaam.

He visited Kiba Point, Beho Beho, Lake Manze Camp, Siwandu, Jongomeru and Ikuka Safari Camp, while in Dar es Salaam he visited the Serena Hotel, Sea Cliff Hotel, Johari Rotana and the Hyatt Regency.