Old school charm and an authentic photographic safari experience
When considering a safari trip to Tanzania, the first thought that comes to mind (and pretty much any search) is the infamous Serengeti Planes and the Ngorongoro Crater, and rightfully so. With unique ecosystems, a high concentration of wildlife, and iconic landscapes, the two locations are symbolic of what an African safari is supposed to be. In addition, starting in either Mwanza or Arusha, many add a stop at the conveniently located Lake Manyara and/or Tarangire national parks to complete what is referred to as the northern circuit.
The northern circuit is immensely popular, and particularly during the summer months (June to August) it is a busy place. With safari companies offering tours that cater to all budget levels coupled with the the great wildebeest migration in late summer, tourists from all over the globe flock to the northern circuit. So much so that the sight of a resting pride of lions surrounded and outnumbered by open top safari vehicles can be quite common. This unfortunately is the price of popularity and is certainly not ideal if photography is your thing, just see below (taken late morning in the Ngorongoro Crater ).
For a photographer the best way around this is to start your day as early as possible to beat the crowds, and take advantage of the lighting. But other restrictions like no off-roading, other unwanted vehicles in the frame and the viewing angle from your open top vehicle can make it challenging to get that perfect composition.
However, Tanzania has more to offer, a lot more... Especially in the summer months (i.e. the dry season)
Featuring a landscape dotted with baobab trees and rocky escarpments, Ruaha National Park is Tanzania's best kept safari secret. As of 2019, with the establishment of the Nyerere National Park (formerly the Selous Game Reserve), Ruaha (which was the largest national park) is now the second largest national park in Tanzania, spanning about 13000 square kilometres (5000 sq mi). However its relatively remote location means that it sees far fewer tourists than the Northern Circuit and even its larger neighbour Nyerere National Park. Offering some of the best wildlife viewing in the country along with a wild and untouched landscape, the park retains that that old school safari charm and doesn't feel commercialized or crowded.
Location & Getting There
Ruaha is located in the centre of Tanzania a little over 600 km (370 mi) from Dar-Es-Salaam.
The fastest way to get there is with a local flight from Dar-Es-Salaam. These are small flights operated by companies such as Coastal, Auric, and Safari Airlink which service the more remote areas of the country and the national parks. Depending on the destination of other customers, these carriers may make one or two stops along the way to Ruaha. The flight time is typically between 2 to 2.5 hours, and stopovers are relatively short. The route goes around the mountain ranges in central Tanzania and can therefore be quite bumpy at times. The main Ruaha airstrip is called Msembe which is located next to the park headquarters. Often times you'll find animals right on the airstrip and the pilot has to do a fly-by to disperse them before the plane can land.
The alternative is to drive, however with the traffic between Dar-Es-Salaam and Morogoro be prepared for a two day trip with an overnight around Mikumi National Park. The advantage of driving is that you can take your time to see the Tanzanian country side and have ability to stop along the way. Places like Mikumi and Udzungua National Parks are both good options. After the town of Iringa is when the dirt road begins and its about 100 km (60 mi) to the park entrance gate and can take close to 2 hours. It is important to arrive during the day as night time driving is not permitted in Ruaha.
Whichever option you choose, just getting to Ruaha is exciting. If you've done the northern circuit, you'll quickly realize how different the landscape is. Ruaha represents the transition between the East-African and Southern-African eco systems.
Where to Stay
You can find all levels of accommodation in Ruaha from high end 5 star luxury locations with infinity swimming pools and gourmet meals to remote campsites with no permanent structures, and lots in between. For me personally, when I'm on a photographic safari, fancy meals and swimming pools aren't exactly what I'm looking for. For me it's all about the experience and the photos.
My go to is a campsite called Kilimatonge, operated by Authentic Tanzania. Now, this isn't an advertisement or promotion, just my preference. The campsite it totally remote with no permanent structures and is located at the base of the Kimilimatonge Hill on the banks of the Mdonya river. The camp operates only during the dry season. There are 5 basic yet comfortable tents each outfitted with 2 beds, a bucket shower (valved to a shower head, its not like you're lifting buckets), and a chemical toilet. There is no plumbing or electricity at the campsite, but they do provide for all your water needs. Solar panels are used during the day to charge batteries for small lights (for night use) along with your camera gear and cellphones. Centrally located dining and lounge tents provide a small seating area to relax, eat, review your photos after a game drive or just hang out and talk. As the sun sets, a fire is lit to provide warmth and light to the campsite. The entire setup takes you back in time and truly provides that authentic African wilderness experience. The campsite is operated by a handful of people including a guide, site manager, assistant, and cook. It's a basic operation, and you get to know and build a friendship with everyone who plays an important role in your safari expereince.
In the words of our expert guide, Rashidi, the campsite is located in lion territory.
You are in their house, and around midnight you you will be woken up by the lions' roar... every night. Different prides communicate throughout the night exchanging calls back and forth as they move through the park. Sometimes, it feels like they are right outside your tent. It's a surreal experience knowing that the only thing protecting you from what's out there is a thin piece of canvas. Often times you will wake up to various footprints around the camp or in close proximity. Yet, I've never felt unsafe or felt that the team didn't know what they were doing. I realize that the above experience isn't for the faint of heart, but for me it's about totally immersing yourself in the safari experience and that's exactly what you get here.
Now, don't let the simplicity of their setup fool you though. This is a carefully planned and well thought out operation, and the team at Kilimatonge is made up of high quality professionals. Our guide, Rashidi, is very knowledgable and is a master behind the wheel of a Landcruiser. He is known as the king of leopards on the count of his ability to spot the elusive cats from far away. The cook, Mzee John, is a magician and is able to pull off delicious meals with what seems like very little. The site manager, Rajabu and his assistant Abdalla make sure you are well taken care of, from getting water for washing to getting your laundry. All in all the Authentic Tanzania team at Kilimatonge Camp is simply superb.
It should be mentioned that with the tight knit operation, there is only one open safari vehicle for the whole site. So if there are multiple groups at the site there will likely have to be some degree of compromise. I personally avoid this and pay the premium to have the entire place to ourselves. This way we can change plans on the fly if needed.
The Wildlife Viewing Experience
Ultimately for me, this is what it's all about, and the game viewing at Ruaha does not disappoint. There are basically three game viewing options, daytime game drives, night time game drives, and walking safaris. The latter two need to be booked in advance as they require the presence the armed park rangers.
Ruaha has one of the highest concentration of elephants in all of Africa along with about 10% of the Africa's lion population. In addition, the elusive leopards and cheetahs also roam the park lands, though they are harder to track down. Other animals in the park include giraffes, zebras, elands, impala, foxes and jackals just to name a few. Ruaha is also a bird watcher's paradise with over 500 species of birds.
Game drives take place in an open safari vehicle. As a photographer this is huge. I can get low and shoot up towards my subjects, I'm not restricted by the structure of the vehicle and I can shoot from either side or front. This is much more advantageous than an open roof or shooting through a window. With the open vehicle, I was worried about the dust and had a bag for my camera. However I found there to be less dust compared to other safaris I've been on as you hardly encounter other vehicles, and very rarely are driving behind one for an appreciable amount of time.
Day time game drives can be either split with a morning and evening drive, or a full day drive allowing you to go further away from the campsite with lunch in the bush. The advantage of two half day game drives is that you are back at the campsite for lunch and relaxation during the hottest part of the day when animals are hiding and the light isn't the most favourable. The full day drives allow you to go further into the park but it does make for a long day.
One of the highlights of a Ruaha is the walking safari. Like everything else, go as early as possible to take advantage of the lighting. You'll start your day by heading the the park HQ to pick up your ranger(s). After that, head to the riverbank for a 4 km walk along the river. The hope is to catch animals as they come for their morning drink. Hippos and water birds are pretty much a guarantee.
Below are some of the success I've had in Ruaha. Be sure to browse through my gallery to see more. When on safari, I try to spend between 4 to 7 days in the bush to maximize my chances. As we all know wildlife photography is a game of patience, and with the vastness of Ruaha there will be times when you don't encounter much action however that's business as usual.
Well, if you've stayed with me so far, I hope that I've inspired you to look at other, perhaps lesser known, parks not just in Tanzania but wherever you may go for your wildlife photography. My aim with this post is not to take away from the beauty and splendour of the northern circuit, but to shed some light on what else is out there. The truth is that popularity can also bring funding and conservation programs to a park. In addition, tourism can provide much needed income for the local population who may in some cases be in conflict situations with the wildlife or even turn to supporting poachers as a source of income. Wildlife numbers are in steady decline globally with habitat destruction being the primary reason. We all have to do what we can to conserve this precious and beautiful resource otherwise our children will grow up without ever being able to see an elephant or a rhino in the wild.