Part 3: Into the Wild, Ruaha National Park

Photography and report by Bert Duplessis

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The Cessna Caravan flight from the Selous Game Reserve to Ruaha National Park on Feb. 3 was one of the most interesting safari flights we have undertaken in several years. Just as we were gaining altitude coming out of the airstrip at Selous, the pilot pointed out the location of Sand Rivers Camp to us. We would return to this property a couple of days later. It has an ideal location right on the bank of the Rufiji River, overlooking a wide expanse of water.

En route from the Selous to Ruaha, we had some great views over the Rufiji River. We would return to this area (Sand Rivers Camp) a couple of days later

Somewhat further along the flight, we reached the Uzungwa escarpment which separates the coastal plain and central plateau

Further along the way to Ruaha, we flew over some massive sugar cane plantations. Next was an impressive mountainous area which demarcates the escarpment. From the air I could clearly identify some prominent gorges, cliffs and waterfalls. Our pilot put the more than willing Caravan into a gentle climb as the ground was now 3,000 feet closer to us than when we were flying over the Selous. Finally, we descended into the Jongomero Airstrip for a rather tricky uphill landing. The Canadian pilot handled it with skill and confidence. I’d fly with her again anytime.

Jongomero had arranged a very nice welcoming ceremony for us with what appeared to be the entire camp staff complement bidding us a warm welcome, complete with damp towels and a refreshing drink. Our hosts Greg and Isabel introduced us to the camp, gave us the usual briefing (don’t go walkabout at night, watch out for Kingo the ‘camp’ elephant, by all means drink the water but there’s bottled mineral water at extra cost if you prefer) etc. and then left us alone to unpack and settle in.

Interior of our very comfortable room at Jongomero

The bathroom at our Jongomero tent; the shower is in the far right hand corner of the room; there is also ample space to store clothing and other stuff

Kathleen looking out from our verandah, over the dry riverbed of the Jongomero River. The Jongomero would not be this dry for much longer

Soon after, we were treated to a splendid lunch on the riverbank of the dry Jongomero River, a tributary of the Ruaha which in turn spills into the Rufiji. Yeah it took me a while to get it too. How vegan can you be in a place like this where people have to drive for 9 hours one way for a fresh tomato? Very. Jenny’s Noodle House here in Houston would have been thrilled to serve such a nice spread including cellophane noodles, a fresh green salad, and an excellent aubergine side dish. The omnivores had some chicken satay.

A partial view of the airy lounge area at Jongomero

Another area of the lounge as well as the bar

On this day, lunch was served al fresco, on the banks of the Jongomero

At 1530 that afternoon, over tea, we met with our guide Kim for a safari briefing and then set out on our first game drive in Ruaha National Park, which is just about as remote an area as you can get to, nowadays. Remote, beautiful and very atmospheric. This is the Africa of old, when the word ‘safari’ did not immediately conjure up images of massive designer rooms, fresh cut flowers in the room and spa treatments. Ruaha is the real deal where you don’t see many other vehicles. How about NO other vehicles! It might not be the best destination for people going on safari for the very first time. For them, Northern Tanzania’s Serengeti and Kenya’s Maasai Mara would be a better bet, with their wide-open spaces where the animals are essentially just waiting for you to clap your eyes on them. At Ruaha, you have to work a little harder to gain your game-viewing spurs. And certainly at this time of the year (February, after the first rains had fallen & many of the animals had dispersed) the game-viewing can be challenging, as the bush is exceedingly thick and you have to be persistent – and get lucky – to see some of the more elusive mammals. For example, we had a tough time finding buffalo, even though there are several thousand of them resident in the park.

However, if you are a real safari aficionado who had been to a few other places already, and if you appreciate Africa’s truly wild and unspoiled places and everything they offer, then Ruaha is for you. By all means stay for a few days. Certainly no less than three nights, four would be even better. This place is made for slow travel. Put aside the Blackberry, banish thoughts of spreadsheets from your mind, and embrace the relaxed pace of the bush. Look at the stars, wake up with the light and enjoy the cleanest air you might breathe all year. Ruaha’s climate is about as good as it gets on safari. This was mid-summer and we had to wear wind-breakers on the early morning and later afternoon game drives. There were some pesky tsetse flies here and there on game drives, but we found Mossi Guard (it is available for sale at the camp) to be practically 100% effective against these persistent pests.

On this late afternoon, we did pretty well by finding a couple of male lions, many dik-dik (superb tiny little antelope, bring your binocs!), some zebra (they just would not stand still for a pic!), a couple of elephants on the move, a few waterbuck and giraffe everywhere. I also picked up several new life birds, always a thrill. Ruaha is simply a dazzling birding destination, so if you also happen to be a birder, you’d be in heaven. Our guide Kim was an expert on the local birds so it was great to have him around.

We spotted this diminutive dik-dik antelope on our first game drive. It was involved in some kind of interaction, probably a territorial dispute, with another individual.

The raised crest on this dik-dik is indicative of its state of agitation

The next morning, I was up very early and tried to do some ab and core exercises, but my heart wasn’t in it. Even with the best of intentions, it is difficult to remain in an ‘exercise’ mode when you are on safari. However I think even camps without mains electricity would do well to make a stationary bike and a rowing machine (a Concept2 of course) available to their guests. But I digress. Breakfast was ‘a la carte’ with eggs to order, and sides of bacon, sausage, beans and mushrooms. I settled for a very creamy porridge of oatmeal cooked with soy milk, some toast and more of the lovely fresh fruit which turned out be a staple item at every meal we had in Tanzania. While enjoying breakfast, a dark shrike-type bird hopped out of the bush on my right hand side, and starting calling quite prominently, duetting with another bird not far away. Setting aside the marmalade, I picked up the binoculars, had a good look, checked out Birds of Africa and voila, a life bird (almost) before breakfast! Slaty-coloured Boubou.

The morning game drive (it starts at 0800A at Ruaha) was somewhat on the quiet side, although we got some excellent looks at giraffe, which seemed to be abundant in the area. Other sightings included Defassa waterbuck, some very elegant kudu (my favorite antelope I think), the ever entertaining warthogs, ubiquitous impala, zebra (skittish!), several troops of yellow baboons, vervet monkeys, and dik-dik around every corner. We were back in camp around 1200 noon.

Giraffes have very long tongues (up to a foot and half) which are covered with hard bumps (papillae) which protect them from thorns. Combined with their prehensile upperlip, they can select individual clumps of leaves or just strip an entire twig.

Another shot of a giraffe chomping away.

Giraffe are most vulnerable while drinking

This lion was not interested in us and clearly not in the mood for photography. It was nap time

I would return to this camp just for the food. Lunch consisted of a delightful local white bean salad, fresh green tossed salad, a potato and green bean salad and beer bread. Dessert was chocolate tart for everybody else, fruit salad for yours truly. Apple, granadilla, watermelon and the sweetest pineapple you can imagine. After lunch I caught up on a few e-mails on one of the camp laptops. It was great to have access to the internet (wireless at that!) here in the middle of nowhere but at the same time frustrating due to the slow speed of the connection. We are so spoiled with broadband nowadays. Does anybody even remember the pioneer days of commercial internet usage when e-mails trickled in and out at a snails pace of 1200 bps? Positively antediluvian.

The afternoon game drive initially started out slow but picked up later when we saw a nice herd of elephants with two young babies, in a very relaxed mood in the middle of the road. We stopped and observed them from far away, so as not to spoil their almost contemplative mood or cause them any stress. The elephants remained in the road for quite a while, peacefully milling about, browsing here and there and just totally in control of the space. Finally, they slowly drifted into the bush and disappeared from view.

There were lots of these Defassa waterbuck to be seen at Ruaha. Unlike the Common waterbuck, they do not have the ‘target’ ring around the tail

Ruaha seemed to be overrun with giraffes. They were everywhere!

We kept our distance from this relaxed elephant herd, who dawdled in the road for a while before slipping quietly into the bush

At the conclusion of our sundowner stop on the banks of the Ruaha River, where we had been observing some waterbuck and a few marabou storks staring at the water in their usual desultory fashion, Kim started to pack away the fold-up table and other paraphernalia when Kathleen spotted something on the other side of the river. More lions, six of them in fact, standing and moving around in what appeared to be an agitated state. They were just a bit too far for a useful photograph but we had some good looks through the binoculars. Anticipating some action, Kim skillfully maneuvered the truck closer. Maybe the lions had some designs on the waterbuck? It was not to be and we returned to camp.

In the middle of the night Kathleen and I woke up to the sound of running water, of the ‘babbling brook’ variety. I immediately realized what had happened. Sometime the previous day, heavy rain had fallen in the catchment area of the Jongomero well upstream from the camp and this was essentially a flash flood. This was confirmed the next morning at first light. The Jongomero had turned into a real river overnight, having been a river of sand until then. Apparently this usually happens a little earlier every year, but we were happy to be there to observe the phenomenon. The water flowed quite shallow but more than 30 meters wide, the advancing rush of water carrying large chunks of foam with it. Some of the animals in the area must have been just as excited as were were to witness this welcome event. At around 0500A I had heard heavy splashing noises, no doubt caused by some hippo getting their feet wet.

The Jongomero turned into a real river overnight

Another view of the Jongomero in flood

Our last morning game drive at Ruaha was one of the best yet with some great close-up views of an elephant, a most relaxed bull who stood just meters from the vehicle, contentedly selecting mouthfuls of fresh green shoots. We also spotted several black-backed jackals, grey duiker, and naturally more giraffe.

All too soon we had to say farewell to the friendly people of Jongomero Camp. We hope to return here someday perhaps in the dry season and we will be sure to go out on a walk with Molly if he is still there. Next stop: Sand Rivers Camp on the mighty Rufiji River.

Continue to Part 4

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