a  magazine  of  travel  and  discovery

by George Oxford Miller

After our first day of exploring Ruaha National Park in southern Tanzania, our safari vehicle pulls into the tent camp at dusk. "Did you see the lions just down the road?" the group who arrived ahead of us ask. No, but we’ve seen another pride, two herds of elephants, kudus, hippos, baboons, warthogs, jackals, and more zebras, giraffes, and impalas than we can count.

So many animals, yet only three other vehicles.

"Ruaha National Park has the wildlife but not the hundredsof vehicles you'll see in the northern parks." Pietro Luraschi, the camp manager, tells us as he escorts us to our tent cabins. "Ruaha doesn't have the mass concentrations of migrating animals that makes Serengeti so popular. But we have all the large cats, elephants, rare wild dogs, plus 531 species of birds. Not many parks have the variety of habitats that can attract so many kinds of animals." 

Ruaha National Park ranks as the second largest park in Tanzania after Serengeti National Park, which gets 250,000 visitors a year. Though only  1.5-hour flight from Dar es Salaam, road access requires a ten-hour trip on a dry-season road with a four-wheel-drive vehicle, so inaccessibility keeps the region as pristine as you'll find in Africa.

Out tents seem luxurious considering the long journey on two-track safari roads. We're surrounded by 4,000 square miles of the national park plus another 6,200 square miles of game preserves-that's an area equivalent to the state of  Massachusetts with no permanent residents. Except for the Amazon, I've never been so remote, yet each of our tents has a king bed, hot shower, flush toilet, writing table, and a covered porch, though no electricity.

"Don't leave the tent without an escort," Luraschi warns us as we walk down the path. "One of the staff will come for you at dinnertime." After all we've seen today, we take his admonition seriously.

Located on Tanzania's southern safari circuit along with Mikumi National Park and Selous Game Preserve, Ruaha combines the flora and fauna of the southern and northern as well as the eastern and western regions of East Africa. With the Greater Ruaha River as a year-round source of water and a broken range of mountains and rift valleys, the park is known for its biodiversity more than numbers of wildlife.

After landing at the dirt strip, we explore the rugged hills and dramatic rocky outcrops for an hour, but see only a few zebras. Then we loop down to the river and find a bonanza of wildlife concentrated around the shade and water. Scores of impalas, greater kudus, and zebras graze on new grass from a recent rain, hippos crowd into receding pools, giraffes nibble the tops of acacia trees, and everywhere we see trees crushed and broken by the 10,000 elephants in the park.

After lunch at a river overlook, our guide gets a radio message that a pride of lions is hanging out nearby. We dash to another streamside area and find a male and two females doing what lions do best, lazing in the shade, probably thinking about the impalas grazing within view along the riverbank. With no other vehicles nearby, we enjoy an intimate view of the cats just 10 yards away. After observing the pride for a while, we pull away to watch three male elephants coming down to the river.

As we explore in the Land Rover by day, I start to feel the isolation of the vast region, but alone in my tent after nightfall, the remoteness penetrates my emotions. I lay in my bed in total darkness with no human noise to intrude, yet nature's night shift is anything but quite. Through the cacophony of insects and the piercing cries of nocturnal animals, the bellow of the resident lion echoes through the darkness. The haunting sounds of the unknown impress me as much as the majesty of the elephants and lions.

For act two of our wildlife drama, we to visit Selous Game Preserve, a short flight from Ruaha. We begin our safari by boat and cruise down the Rufiji River, one of the major waterways of East Africa, to our tent camp. Hippos bellow at the boat and crocodiles slide into the water as we approach. One bull hippo gapes his massive jaws and bluff charges our eight-person, aluminum craft. He's just as big as the boat and better armed.

UNESCO classifies Selous Game Preserve as a World Heritage Site because of its ecological importance.

With 21,000 square miles, an area larger than Switzerland and totally uninhabited, Selous is the largest preserve and one of the most pristine natural areas in Africa. Yet only 4,000 ecotourists a year visit this crown jewel.

We arrive in camp after dark and Maasai warriors, dressed in their traditional red wraparounds and carrying spears, escort us to our tents. The Maasai patrol the grounds and keep track of any animals nearby. We hear a noise and the warrior shines his light in the bushes. A young elephant rips off a branch and munches the leaves as we slip past. When we're ready for dinner, we yell "Maasai!" and a warrior comes to escort us to the open-air dining pavilion.

On our last day, we take a two-hour game drive on the way to the landing strip. Giraffes and impalas forage through the woodlands and pay us scant attention.  We come upon a hyena then discover a dozen more feeding on a hippo that wandered too far from the river. Later we smell the stench of death and see a hundred vultures perched in the trees and scattered on the ground. Engrossed by the spectacle, I focus on one of the foreboding creatures, then my

seatmate says," Look how fat she is. Is she pregnant?"

I look up and gasp, literally. A lion strolls past only 10 feet away. She stops and sits down by the remains of a buffalo. She has guard duty while the rest of the pride rests under a tree. When the vultures move too close to the kill, she backs them off.


Tanzania’s southern safari circuit offers wildlife without the crowds.

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Like Ruaha National Park, Selous doesn't have the concentrations of wildlife that make the Serengeti so famous. We meander through the low acacia woodlands and thickets on a network of safari trails and never know what the next turn will present. Giraffes gaze at us from their elevated view and massive hornbills hop through the trees. Storks wade the shallows along the river and elephants and buffaloes watch us warily as they come to drink. We compete our safari drive and see no other vehicles, only two boats on the river.

Tanzania's southern safari circuit doesn't have the high drama of thousands of migrating animals of the Serengeti Plains nor the dramatic scenery of Mount Kilimanjaro or Ngorongoro Crater. Like a cabaret performance instead of a stadium concert, it offers accessible wildlife in an intimate setting without the distractions of competing vehicles surrounding every interesting sighting.