Home to sweeping herds of antelope, all-conquering prides of large carnivores, elephant families that churn up the river beds, as well as a vibrant bird population – the Ruaha National Park is one of our planet’s last remaining vestiges for nature in its rawest form.
Lying deep in the southern part of central Tanzania lies the vast, untamed wilderness that is the Ruaha National Park. The park forms part of the Iringa region and was called ‘Ruaha’ by the Kihehe people, which aptly means river. The Great Ruaha River courses along the southern border of the park and is central to all life in the region, drawing people as well as wildlife to its banks.
In this article:
- Why is Ruaha famous
- Wildlife paradise: Elephants, 10% of the world’s lions, wild dogs, leopards and more
- Getting here
- Weather and best time to visit
Ruaha National Park – Africa’s Untouched Land
Established in 1964, Ruaha is one of the newer reserves in East Africa situated in an area of the world known for its endless horizons, sprawling plains and all-encompassing wildlife arenas. Ruaha is neighboured on the south by the largest national park in Africa, the Selous Game Reserve.
Ruaha has within the last few years earned the right to call itself the largest protected area in all of Tanzania. Having recently incorporated the Usanga Game Reserve into its borders in 2008 and several other wetland areas, Ruaha now spans an area covering an enormous 20,226 square kilometres.
Although the biggest, Ruaha is by no means the most frequented area of Tanzania and it attracts a relatively smaller number of tourists. In doing so, the Park has maintained a glorious aura of mystery and intrigue about it as one of the untouched lands of Africa.
Why is Ruaha Famous?
The park’s unparalleled predator sightings recently put Ruaha into the spotlight. The Big Cats of Ruaha documentary by National Geographic aired a saga of three lion families sharing hunting grounds in an idyllic oasis along the Mwagusi River known as ‘the Glade’.
The Ecosystems of Ruaha
While the Glade has become one of the iconic images of Ruaha, the park is so vast that within it lie several vastly different biomes all tainted differently by the seasons. From mountainous regions and skeletal baobab groves to the vast, open expanses of the plains, Ruaha will leave visitors awestruck at its varied and dramatic scenery.
Although most associated with the sight of hundreds of wildebeests and buffalo kicking up dust on the plains, Ruaha is transformed in the rainy season. Rusty red baobabs morph into intense green canopies bustling with life. Dry, arid plains turn into lush, green fields beckoning migrant birds from as far afield as Europe, Asia, Australia and Madagascar.
Huge Elephant Population
On the opposite end of the scale to the birds that flit through the vegetation are the parades of elephants that look to the greenery for sustenance. The Ruaha ecosystem is one of the last few real wilderness refuges for large mammals on the planet and is home to the largest elephant population in East Africa.
Despite heavy poaching, the elephants in the park thrive and over 12,000 migrate through the greater Ruaha area each year. In scenes that are normally reserved for television, guests at the park have the chance to witness elephants digging for freshwater with their trunks and tusks along the desolate riverbanks during the dry season, a behaviour that has been copied by some of the park’s lions.
Founded in 2009, the Ruaha Carnivore Project is a much-commended programme dedicated to protecting the park’s bountiful population of large carnivores. Ruaha has a proud reputation as a conservation unit with roughly 10% of the world’s lion population residing in the greater Ruaha landscape. Prides of over 20 lions are regularly spotted, making the lions the undisputed kings of the park.
The Ruaha National Park is also home to the third-largest remaining group of critically endangered African wild dogs, with around 100 reported in the area. One of the four remaining cheetah populations in East Africa also calls Ruaha home as well as a host of hyenas, jackals and leopards.
Other Animal Sightings
While the big predators are a major drawcard for visitors, the Ruaha region also boasts a vast and varied array of antelope. Both the lesser and greater kudu can be found here as well as some of the more unusual and lesser spotted species such as Roan and sable.
Over 500 different species of bird also call the reserve home. Although the rains scatter the herds and larger predators, the birds revel in the verdant foliage and blooming wildflowers of the park in the wet season.
How to Get to the Ruaha National Park
One of the reasons for Ruaha’s exclusivity is its significant distance from any major civilization. The nearest major town of Iringa is a 130km drive west of the park. With over 500km separating the reserve from Tanzania’s largest city, Dar es Salaam. The drive from this point will take about 10 hours and can be quite rough. A recommended halfway overnight stop is Mikumi National Park.
A scheduled flight directly to the park’s airstrip from Dar es Salaam is the more recommended way to get there. Coastal Aviation and Safari Airlink are the airlines to contact that offer daily flights.
There are also flights that can be booked as part of a larger northern or southern safari package.
Weather in Ruaha
Being close to the equator, the temperature fluctuates little throughout the year. In recent years the weather has become more temperamental due to climate change and can’t be as easily predicted as before.
Dry season (June-October)
The dry season is generally cooler, with temperatures around 27°C (81°F) in the day and 15°C (59°F) at night.
Wet season (November-April)
The wet season generally has more hot and humid conditions, with temperatures mostly around 28°C (82°F) in the day and 17°C (63°F) at night. It rarely rains the whole day and afternoon showers are usually expected.
The temperature peaks at the start of the rainy season during November and December and can reach a high of 38°C (100°F).
Best Time to Visit Ruaha
Dry season – The best time for safaris
Safaris are most prolific in the dry season due to the animals congregating at river edges and watering holes. Although more popular for tourists, the park is remote enough that even in the height of the optimal game-viewing season it remains wonderfully peaceful and unspoiled by diesel engines.
Another benefit of the dry season is fewer mosquitoes and a reduced chance of catching malaria.
Wet season – The best time for bird watching
Those visiting the park this season have the chance to witness jaw-dropping vistas encompassing crisp, exuberant grasslands. Bird enthusiasts will be treated with the opportunity to see abundant flocks of both resident and migratory birds, including the Yellow-collared lovebird, ashy starlings and the recently discovered Tanzanian, red-billed hornbill.
The rainy season sees many of the lodges closing their doors from March-May. For budget hunters, however, the lodges still open for business in this period offer significantly reduced rates.
Accommodation: Where to Stay
Ruaha is known for its wide selection of lodges – classics include Kwihala Camp, Kigelia Camp, Jabali Ridge, Jabali Private House, Jongomero Camp, Ikuka Safari Camp and the newly established Asanja Ruaha. All these options offer guests a high level of comfort and luxury set amid the rugged landscape for a variable cost.
For those looking for an immersive experience in the great wilderness area, there is Mdonya Old River Camp. Set in acacia woodland, the camp is simplistic in style but unparalleled in its ability to make its guests feel part of their surroundings.
For superbly guided walking safari, Kichaka Expeditions and Jongomero Walking both grant travellers the chance to explore remote areas of the park on foot, providing a wilderness experience like no other.
The largest and oldest camp in the park, Ruaha River Lodge, also provides the most economical accommodation option. Set in a beautiful location along a rocky river, the attractive lodge maintains a very natural feel with excellent service and is also the best option for those on a tighter budget.