Photography and report by Bert Duplessis
High resolution photos available on Flickr!
OFF TO RUAHA NATIONAL PARK
June 1. After an early wake-up call and breakfast, we were off to Ruaha with Coastal Aviation. Pleasant surprise: our ride turned out to be a Pilatus PC12- not the Caravan which we had been expecting. So we winged our way to Ruaha at 26,000 feet ASL in a roomy pressurized cabin. It would take just about 1 hr 20 minutes from DAR to Ruaha (Msembe), and by 1030A we were back on terra firma, keen to proceed with the real purpose of the trip: being on safari.
KIGELIA RUAHA CAMP
From the airstrip at Msembe it took us about an hour or so to slowly drive to Kigelia Ruaha Camp. It was starting to get warm, but still quite pleasant, along the way. We saw some impala, zebra, elephant and greater kudu en route, although the wildlife was overshadowed by the abundance of baobab trees. There were literally hundreds of them, sometimes in large fairly dense stands – a veritable baobab forest.
We liked the small but tastefully decorated mess (lounge) area, with some comfortable seating under a canvas canopy with rolled up side panels, to allow maximum airflow.
We tried valiantly to take a nap but unfortunately the ventilation in the tent was inadequate, making it uncomfortably hot.
The first game drive out of Kigelia started off slowly and never really produced anything beyond the usual suspects. We did have some nice sightings of elephants, zebra, impala, giraffe and several bird species. The best sighting of the afternoon was a party of three greater kudu which crossed the road in front of us. We were hoping for more exciting things the next day.
Dinner at Kigelia was good and tasty but about as plain as it gets: rice, carrots, broccoli and maharage, a local bean dish. The other meals here were also fine but nothing special. I had some issues with the charging station which did not work most of the time. Manager and guide Mollel went out of his way to help me with internet access, always an issue when traveling in Africa. I had spent some money acquiring a local Tanzania chip which was supposed to work on my Blackberry, but alas it did not. Never could get the BB to pull in my e-mails, other than by using the insanely expensive Verizon charges for ‘roaming’ data. The upshot of all this? Changing from Verizon to T-Mobile and finally getting rid of the Blackberry.
GAME DRIVE – RUAHA NATIONAL PARK
Up at 5:30A, we had a light breakfast before heading out. It was quite cool – you needed a light fleece or sweater to be comfortable. We had all heard some lions calling during the night, and we made a detour to find them but to no avail. The game drive was initially very quiet but we eventually found an impressive maned adult lion, walking along the Great Ruaha River. There were also quite a lot of elephant along the river and I finally made a decent capture of a Lilac-breasted Roller in flight.
Ruaha is rugged and remote and one of its most compelling features is its natural beauty. There are few game sanctuaries that are as markedly and undoubtedly stamped ‘Africa’ with a fantastic mix of baobabs, acacia tortilis, good grass cover and prominent hills. The place is simply alive with the romance of Africa.
The afternoon game drive was rather quiet too. We did see several large groups of elephant along the Ruaha River but for some reason the guide did not stop to look at them. I suppose he was looking for predators but it is a mistake to ignore what is in front of you in favor of something you may or may not find. Perhaps it was a little too early in the season – with the bush still too thick – or we were just unlucky, or both.
June 3. Another early breakfast and then our last game drive out of Kigelia. No predators again this morning but plenty of elephants and one of our best giraffe sightings with about 30 of them in one large tower or journey, with lots of interaction amongst them. We said our goodbyes to Mollel and Eli, and walked into Mwagusi Camp, being welcomed and briefed by care-taker manager Kim.
Starting with the immaculately groomed pathways I was impressed with everything we saw at Mwagusi. Our room #5 could not have been better. High up on the bank of the Mwagusi River it likely has the best view in camp. You simply have to spend some time on the cozy verandah to watch whatever comes along – elephant and kudu while we were there.
Is there a better spot for a room than this one elsewhere in Africa? Not many. Turn around from the view over the river and there is your room – referred to as a banda here – completely covered by a solid thatched structure with a low overhang. There is a large walk-in closet of sorts and an equally spacious en suite bathroom with a shower, flush toilet and lots of space to store your stuff. It turned out that the bathroom area was also home to some bats which were a nuisance because we had to contend with their droppings in the mornings. This is something the property needs to deal with more effectively.
Lunch at Mwagusi was delightful – an array of cold salads, pasta, fresh bread and legumes & more. We were really impressed with the variety of vegetarian/vegan options.
On a fairly short afternoon game drive we encountered lots of giraffe, zebra and kudu, as well as plenty of elephants, dik-dik, and a really close up view of a young adult male lion who couldn’t be bothered to lift his head, in fact he was hard pressed to even open an eye.
By nightfall, we were treated to a bush dinner – starting with drinks – in front of a huge open fire. It was a memorable night on safari. First some jackals, then lions and also baboons were being very local and seemingly close by. Very thrilling! The food lived up to the level of the ‘natural’ entertainment: a peanut soup, bean stew, local ugali (polenta), chickpeas, green beans, sweet potato frites and more -plus a chocolate dessert. Excellent.
On a somewhat jarring note, a person came around at dinner time and presented me with a bar bill to be signed on the spot. It was a classic nickle and dime move, listing every soda water I had consumed. It was really quite annoying and totally unnecessary. If a camp wants to charge extra for soft drinks or ‘local’ drinks (which is dumb anyway), they can handle it discreetly and certainly don’t have to resort to this type of high-handed behavior.
Or better yet – don’t charge extra for soft drinks, beer & wine at dinner. US$3 for a club soda – really?
GAME DRIVE AT MWAGUSI CAMP, RUAHA
June 4. An early game drive today, with packed breakfast. Initially again on the quiet side just like some of our previous drives, but over the course of 4 hours or so we saw plenty of giraffe, kudu and two new mammals for the trip, bat-eared fox and eland.
We enjoyed yet another great lunch back at the lodge: a nut loaf, grilled aubergine, small minted potatoes, sweet potato & couscous salad, coleslaw and pineapple. The cooking at Mwagusi is superb!
In the afternoon we inspected nearby Kwihala (Asilia), a comfortable small 6-room tented camp. It is nothing fancy but the tents are large and well-equipped with in-room charging points and local drinks included. Only 6 persons maximum on game drives, and we were told that the guiding would be amongst the best in the area.
On the way to Kwihala and back to Mwagusi, we saw a large pride of lions just a few meters off the road. Unfortunately I did not get even a single useful photograph due to the thick bush and the park’s policy not to allow any off-roading. Under these circumstances, it would make sense to position the vehicle 5 to 10 meters off the road. It is more frustrating seeing the lions as poorly as we did, than not seeing them at all.
This evening, we enjoyed a perfectly splendid romantic dinner, served in the dry river-bed of the Mwagusi River. Several lanterns suspended in the riverbank created a totally enchanting ‘Aladdin’s Cave’ effect. That plus the sounds of a leopard calling in camp, baboons making alarm calls and a massive starry sky – not to mention excellent food – combined for a perfect night on safari.
Mwagusi is organic and a bit quirky. It doesn’t try to be deluxe or very chic but it is certainly first class and does everything well with the focus exactly right: it is all about the total experience of the wildlife, the guiding, the surroundings and the true safari ambience of Ruaha.
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