Long in the shadow of the iconic northern circuit wilderness areas the parks and reserves of the southern and western reaches of Tanzania are undoubtedly the greatest happening in African safari today. Undeveloped and wild, and boasting exceptional wildlife the southern parks are gaining a reputation as the place for a safari to Africa.
The Southern Circuit
Ruaha National Park
Ruaha National Park is Tanzania’s second largest, a vast wilderness in the south-west of the country visited by only a handful of travellers each year. At the park’s heart is the well-named Great Ruaha River, a massive watercourse that dwindles to only a few pools in the dry season, but bursts its banks and roars over boulders at the height of the rains.
Converging with the Great Ruaha are hundreds of sand rivers, natural game corridors when dry and sparklingly clear streams when wet. Waterbuck, impala and the world’s most southerly Grant’s gazelle risk their lives for a sip of water – the shores of the Ruaha are a permanent hunting ground for lion, leopard, jackal, hyena and the rare and endangered African wild dog. Ruaha’s elephants are recovering strongly from ivory poaching in the 1980s and remain the largest population in East Africa.
Ruaha represents a transition zone where eastern and southern species of flora and fauna overlap – lesser and greater kudu co-exist with northern species such as Grant’s gazelle. Rare sable and roan antelope are also here in abundance.
Between the rivers is a massive, completely unspoilt landscape of plains, rocky gullies, thick miombo woodland and distant purple hills. Ruaha is a dramatic park, its scenery ever-changing and full of detail – the white blossoms that appear on the bald, stark branches of baobab trees, or the gigantic blue-black granite boulders that lie in tumbled plains in the river valleys.
This drama also extends to one episode in the area’s history – Ruaha was the scene of the beginning of the Maji Maji (or ‘water’) rebellion, a widespread revolt in which various southern Tanzanian tribes, led by a charismatic spiritual leader named Songea, rose up against their German overlords at the turn of the 20th century. The warriors who led their people into battle were protected by sacred water given to them by Songea and believed that this water, once drunk or applied to the body, would stop the bullets of the colonialists. The water itself came from a set of sacred springs that today still bubble up in green, pungent swamps within the borders of the park.
Ruaha Wildlife Highlights:
Described by ecologists as the park of the future Ruaha is considered the crossover between southern and east Africa in terms of species distribution, leading it to be considered one of the best birding destinations in Tanzania. Ruaha is the southern-most range of the lesser Kudu and Grants Gazelle. It also hosts a big predator population and herds of elephant and buffalo.
Selous Game Reserve
Named after Frederick Courteney Selous, a Victorian hunter and naturalist, the Selous Game Reserve is one of the earth’s last great wild places: 55,000 square kilometres of untamed bush, untouched forests, crocodile-filled lakes and emerald green floodplains. That’s slightly larger than Switzerland, four times as big as the Serengeti, and the second biggest protected natural area in the world. Uninhabited since an outbreak of sleeping sickness evacuated the human population back in 1945, the Selous is one of the few places on earth, and certainly in Africa, that visitors can find utter, perfect solitude of the kind described by Peter Matthiessen in his bestseller Sand Rivers:
‘Behind the heat and the still trees resounds the ringing that I hear when watched by something I cannot see… The power and the waiting in the air…the stillness of the glittering water, the yellow water lilies and the tawny marsh grass, the circle of still trees that hide this lovely place from the outside world, the resounding silence and expectancy, as though the creatures of the earth’s first morning might come two by two between the trees at any moment…’
Walking through the Selous, in the same way as Matthiessen did, is harder work than driving, and doesn’t provide the same number of ‘instant hit’ game sightings. But stick at it and sooner or later you will be rewarded, perhaps, with the electric excitement of creeping towards a young bull elephant browsing in a patch of miombo woodland, closer and closer until you can hear his stentorian breathing and see the little midges that cluster in the corner of his eyes. Brown mud is caked on his skin, the edges of his ears are delicately ragged, and still the distance shortens until the life force of him is right upon you, ears flapping suspiciously, and the camera becomes an imposition, an impossibility, an obstacle that must be laid aside in favour of simply gaping with a foolish grin and pounding heart…
And at the end of the day, fly-camping with just a mosquito net between the sleeper and the stars, nothing can disturb the feeling that one might be the first visitor, or even the first person, to come here – Adam or Eve, drifting off to sleep in the Garden of Eden.
Selous Wildlife Highlights:
Gaining a reputation as Africa’s greatest wildlife sanctuary, Selous is home to more than a million animals including the largest elephant population in Tanzania and one of the largest wild dog populations in Africa. Other predators such as lion are plentiful.