As the great Rufiji River came into view I perused the landscape beneath us with mild surprise. It was generally as green as I was expecting, but between those verdant swathes were expanses of beige and brown, more typical of a parched dry season habitat. It was early February and the rainy season in Southern Tanzania should have been in full swing. Whilst the heaviest rain in the region falls between March and May, the rains begin in early November and transform the arid, dusty landscape into a lush paradise – by mid December you would expect high grass and extensive foliage. Chris Fox, of Ruaha’s long-standing Mwagusi Camp, has however always maintained a dry season ‘window’ exists in February, so it was with much interest that I was travelling at this time of year to ‘see with my own eyes’ whether either the Selous or Ruaha could offer a true ‘big game’ experience outside of the traditional game-viewing season (late June to early November).
I soon discovered that in the Selous at least, whilst the November rains had arrived on time and begun to transform the habitat as expected, the reserve had then received little rain in December or January. Some of the grasses that had sprung up had withered and died and the leaves on the bushes were visibly wilting. It is difficult to gauge exactly how much effect this lack of rain has had in game-viewing terms, but there is no doubt that game-viewing conditions in February would normally be more challenging than I experienced. Never-the-less, wild dogs, lion and leopard were seen by guests from different camps during my 3 day visit.
I began to wonder how dry Ruaha might be, but within seconds of landing I had my answer as I stood watching zebra heads moving through six foot high grass close to the airstrip. This is the primary concern we have with green season game-viewing – if sizeable creatures can be mostly hidden from view, what chance is there of finding smaller species. There are of course several other realities – the heat and humidity (especially in Selous), the potential for rain affected activities, limited road networks for game-viewing, and the typical ‘spreading out’ of animals during times of plenty.
This year in Ruaha the rains had actually arrived late in December and for this reason the park was indeed a pretty lush paradise, though perhaps ‘paradise’ would include fewer tsetse flies! I did find predators during my three night visit, especially lions, but we had to work hard to find them and there is no doubt it will be far easier from late June onwards. Elephant viewing was good, but buffalo were nowhere to be seen, moving away at is time of year to more remote regions of the park. Some, but not all, areas suffer heavily from tsetse flies at this time of year (the breeding season makes them more active), and certain routes are not passable due to poor road conditions, but the birding was excellent and the scenery really stunning.
If I look back at what I saw in six days on safari, I think it is a pretty impressive list for a ‘green season’ and it certainly was enough to make the trip worthwhile. My safari was not a wash-out, limitations and inconveniences were manageable, the scenery was beautiful, I saw few other safari vehicles and the birding was terrific (as always expected in the green season). However, there is no doubt that conditions are much more challenging and potentially limiting during the green season, and nobody should embark on a wildlife safari to southern Tanzania at this time of year unaware of these realities. If your priority is big game and predators, then stick to traditional dry season times for the best experiences. Ultimately, I think it all comes down to personal choice and ambition.