Southern Tanzania is the lesser known cousin of its northern counterpart. Although not offering the famous wildebeest migration, the south of the country can offer exclusivity, raw wilderness and a variety of activities/experiences. During my time in the south of the country, I visited both the Selous Game Reserve and the Ruaha National Park.
I arrived into Dar es Salaam with Kenya Airways, from London Heathrow (via Nairobi). This flight allows you to arrive in time to connect with an onward light aircraft flight to the Selous Game Reserve, which works really well.
The Selous Game Reserve is the largest game reserve in Africa and one of the most beautiful too. When flying in from Dar es Salaam, over the reserve, you see the extent of the waterways and how dominant they are in the area. There are five lakes in Selous, plus the Rufiji River and the water based activities are a big draw to the area.
On my first afternoon in Selous I enjoyed an afternoon boat cruise on the Rufiji River. We left Selous Impala camp in the mid-afternoon and made our way to the boat station (as I travelled at the end of the dry season the water levels were lower). As we made our way along the Rufiji River the numbers of crocodiles sunning themselves on the banks was phenomenal – they were everywhere! The pied kingfishers were hovering and the fish eagles calling – it was great to be back in Africa.
Each of the lakes in the reserve offer contrasting boating experiences. My highlight was my boat cruise on Lake Manze. The birdlife was incredible and I’ve never been able to get so close to malachite kingfishers – it allowed for some great photographic opportunities. It’s lovely just drifting along the lakeshore seeing elephants and buffalo coming down to drink, hearing the fish eagles call and watching the spoonbills scouring the water. When the water levels are higher, some of the lakes join up through smaller channels, meaning you can travel to a number of different lakes and explore different areas.
Selous isn’t purely about the water, the land activities are excellent too. Game drives are good and the reserve is home to a mix of open grasslands, forests and wooded hills which means a great variety of scenery from area to area. Walking is possible too in Selous, and I enjoyed an excellent morning walk from Asilia’s Roho ya Selous camp. Walking isn’t as productive from the game viewing point of view as game drives, but exploring the bush on foot was excellent and changes the perspective of the wildlife viewing adding great variety. Walking in October was very warm, so we left the camp at first light to arrive back at around 09h30 for breakfast. The guides cater for your walking level, it can be a route march if that’s what you are looking for, but if you wish to take things slower you certainly can and there is still plenty to see.
My final night in Selous was spent in the west of the reserve at the idyllic Sand Rivers. I departed the camp earlier than usual for an afternoon activity as I was keen to see more of the river and in particular Stieglers Gorge. We sped up the river on the boat towards the gorge enjoying fantastic birding and dodging the hippos en route. As the river banks got steeper and steeper it felt more and more remote. We continued through the gorge until we reached a few impassable rapids. The guide moored the boat on a sandbank and we got out on food and wandered further along the bank. We really were the only people there and the only other sign of life was the baboons barking their alarm calls as we wandered into their territory and a the birdlife including a rock pratincole which seemed to be following us. Something that I loved about the gorge was how it felt completely untouched and I imagined it would have looked exactly the same to the first intrepid explorers. My guide then pulled out two fishing rods and we tried our luck before heading back to the camp. On the route back to camp we enjoyed sundowners and even stumbled across a male lion relaxing on the banks of the river.
From Selous, I flew westwards to the Ruaha National Park. As with Selous, Ruaha is a huge National Park with the photographic safari area covering a small proportion of the whole park. I landed into the west of the park at Jongomero. This area was remote and felt very exclusive with Jongomero Camp being the only camp located this far west. Game viewing isn’t as guaranteed as the more central Mwagusi area, but in my short stay I had some good sightings including seeing two new male lions who were trying to compete for territory. One thing to mention about staying in this more remote area are the tsetse flies. Although not as dangerous as mosquitos, they can be a pain. A few of the camps in Ruaha burn elephant dung on the back of their vehicles to try and deter the pests, which works when you are driving along but once you stop it can be a nuisance – so make sure you have long sleeves, don’t wear blue and have your insect repellent handy!
The core game viewing area in Ruaha is the Mwagusi and Mbagi area. This is where the majority of the camps are located. Despite there being a few camps in this area, it doesn’t feel busy and one of the things I loved about Ruaha is how it feels like ‘raw wilderness’. It is the sort of wilderness, which you feel would have been the same 200 years ago – unspoilt. The majority of game viewing actually takes place in and around both the Ruaha and Mwagusi river beds and I was treated to some fantastic wildlife viewing during my stay. Ruaha is known for being quite unpredictable for game viewing. I was very fortunate during my time in Ruaha seeing wild dogs, cheetah, caracal and leopard – as well as good numbers of elephant and lion! The sighting of the caracal was fantastic. They are very rare and hard to see and I’ve been fortunate enough to see two on my educational trips in the last two years (the other in Amboseli National Park in Kenya)! This time the sighting was on a night drive. We were crossing a dry river bed, when we spotted a flash in the spotlight which of course indicates somethings eyes. We shone back and lost it! We couldn’t tell what it was at first, but waited around scanning our surroundings, until we caught a glimpse of the cat slinking along the river bed to the bank, where it leapt up and continued on its mission for food. It was a great sighting and we spent five minutes with her before she disappeared into the night.
Night drives are a great addition to a safari in Ruaha. As with all night drives they can be mixed in terms of productivity and you have to be lucky and in the right place at the right time. When you do see something, it is usually very impressive with either a rare nocturnal species or even predators hunting. It is also possible to enjoy walking safaris in Ruaha, in the past, we have been quite wary over walking here unless with a specialist walking operation. This is largely due to the local park authority supplying the armed scouts who haven’t had the same intensive training that firearms guides receive elsewhere in Africa. However, a few of the bigger safari companies such as Nomad Tanzania and Asilia have introduced their own in house firearms training for guides (and some in house scouts), so they accompany you on walks with a firearm as well as the backup of the park ranger.
Ruaha is one of the most beautiful parks I have visited, it has a very southern African feel which I personally love. The dry river Mwagusi river bed was a haven for elephants who were digging for water during the dry October days. There are also vast baobab forests and the river banks are dotted with doum palms which makes for a really impressive sunset and sunrise backdrop. Birding was fantastic and there have been over 579 species recorded in Ruaha including a few endemic species such as the Ruaha chat and Ruaha red hornbill.
Selous and Ruaha were fantastic and complement each other very well. The lush waterways of Selous really combines well with the harsher landscape of Ruaha. The area can work well for both first timers as well as more seasoned safari goers as the mix of wilderness and wildlife is excellent. The best time of year to travel is from late June through to October, as the rains are more extended in the south of the country (more like southern Africa). I was impressed with the accommodation options and compared to the north of the country, the south can also offer great value.
Following my time in Ruaha, I flew back to Dar es Salaam. The flight from Ruaha arrives in the early afternoon, so we often suggest going for dinner in Dar or perhaps having a day room to freshen up before the overnight flight home.
During Joe’s time in Tanzania, he stayed at: Selous Impala Camp, Roho Ya Selous, Lake Manze Tented Camp, Sand Rivers Selous, Jongomero Camp, Mdonya Old River Camp, Kwihala Tented Camp, Kigelia Ruaha and Mwagusi Safari Camp.
Joe also site inspected: Rufiji River Camp, Siwandu, Beho Beho, Ruaha River Lodge, Jabali Ridge and Ikuka Safari Camp.