Ruaha National Park

Southern Circuit, Tanzania

With both Athuman and Gilbert on board, we depart Mikumi for the seven-hour drive (or so I'm told) to Ruaha. The trip starts out along a paved highway, which I am so relieved by after the nightmare journey from Selous, but of course we are stuck behind slow-moving trucks. It's not only the trucks that are sluggish though - Athuman doesn't seem to know where the accelerator is, and spends most of the journey sitting behind the lorries. Listening to Athuman and Gilbert talk to each other in Swahili, I discern that there may be something wrong with the car.

 

For an hour or so we follow the Great Ruaha River, a brown, wide, fast-flowing waterway, gouging its way through a high-walled valley. Thousands of baobab trees populate the rolling green hills looking over the water, and the vivid green shoots of onion plants line the river's banks. It's a dramatic, but beautiful, landscape. Once we leave the river we are surrounded by boulder-strewn mountains, the rocks seeming to defy the laws of gravity. Ramshackle villages stretch out along the highway, interspersed with vegetable crops and vegetable sellers. Red onions are all the rage in these parts, with hundreds of villagers offering neat piles of the bulbs along the roadside.

The last 90km of the trip to Ruaha is along a dirt road, which is corrugated but otherwise level. Athuman still drives like a grandma, even though I'm certain the surface would allow us to speed up a little.

 

Finally, after 8.5 hours, we pull up to the gate and sign in. The ranger pulls out a map for Gilbert, pointing out various locations. Gilbert claims to have nine years of experience in the Southern Circuit parks, so the fact that he requires a map doesn't fill me with confidence. Once inside we drive through a dense forest, where it is almost impossible to see more than a few metres beyond the road. Apparently the trees start losing their leaves in August, opening up the landscape more. I guess my visit is a bit too early for prime animal viewing.

 

We pass a few giraffe beside the road before stopping at a lookout over the famed river. Antelopes meander through the water, but they are so far away they are little more than moving dots. There is supposedly a signed walk around this area, but the track is completely overgrown and the information boards have mostly rotten away.

 

Down the hill we cross over the mighty Great Ruaha River, stopping to admire the view in either direction. The only animal I see is a large crocodile, sitting on the bank. Gilbert offers to take me to the hippo pool but I decline. I've seen enough grey bulges over the last few weeks, I won't regret not seeing a few more.

Past the river we start driving up a hill, but the car loses power halfway to the top. Athuman tries various solutions, yet all he ends up doing is revving the engine violently and not moving anywhere. He believes it's a problem with the gearbox but has no idea how to fix it. Half an hour goes by before a local man passes and stops to give Athuman advice. After a couple of attempts we manage to successfully summit the hill and continue on.

 

Five minutes later the engine dies completely. Both Athuman and Gilbert tinker under the hood, but to no avail. They tell me now there's an issue with the timing belt, and we need to call the park ranger for assistance. Unfortunately, Gilbert can't get any phone reception and they are at a loss as to what to do. They better think of something fast, as it's getting late and I'm not keen on spending the night out here.

 

Forty-five minutes after breaking down they realise that Athuman's phone has a signal, and they make the necessary call (why this wasn't thought of earlier, I have no idea). The sun sets while we wait, lighting up the sky in brilliant shades of orange. I run around taking photos, fully aware that a wide range of animals (including lions) are most active at this time of day. Every rustle in the grass brings goosebumps to my skin, but it's usually just the wind.

 

Park headquarters is only 5km away, but they take 45 minutes to reach us. In record time we are chained up to the ranger's car and towed through the night. Even this isn't without calamity though. The metal chain used to join the two cars snaps, not once, but twice. They give up on the chain and instead use a rope. This breaks too. It's back to the chain again. I'm glad there's a guard with a hefty gun accompanying us, as there are a number of repairs and alterations in the pitch black and who knows what may be lurking nearby. There's one more chain readjustment required before we finally arrive at park headquarters, 30 minutes after the tow commenced. I could have run here faster.

Across the two breakdowns I lost two hours of the day, resulting in me missing out on yet another half-day game drive. I don't feel as though luck has been on my side this week.

 

There's a long wait at headquarters before we are driven down the road to a no-frills eatery. Inside, a game of pool is in full swing and a TV blares in Swahili. Beer and soda is sold through a barred window. Park workers mill about, the only place they have to eat and socialise with each other inside Ruaha. Basic meals are served outside in the cold wind. On the table beside me is a tourist eating dinner with his guide. It looks like he is travelling solo too. 

 

Once dinner is over I am driven to my accommodation, inside the park. My itinerary says I am staying in a cottage, but I am delivered to one of the old bandas, a crude metal hut with two beds, a bare-bones bathroom and not much else. Even the lamps don't have globes. There's no communal area here, no WiFi, no bar, and the tap in the bathroom doesn't work. I am dropped off at 8.45 p.m. and told I will be picked up at  8 a.m. tomorrow morning. In the meantime, I am sternly warned, I am not to leave my hut under any circumstances. It feels like I have been sent to prison. Without much to do, I jump straight into bed and hope for a smoother day tomorrow.

I sleep for an unusually long time - apparently doing nothing is tiring. Gilbert, Athuman and a new guy, Pascal, arrive at 7.45 a.m. to break me out of my cell. Before we take off I ask about sleeping arrangements for tonight. After some back and forth communication and a check of the paperwork, they concede yes, I should be staying in a cottage, not the bandas. I look forward to seeing my accommodation tonight.

 

My next question involves the car: it's still not working, they say. Not only does the timing belt need repairing, but it also requires a new fan belt. It will be ready by tomorrow, they assure me. Today we will use Pascal's car, which turns out to be a step-down in comfort but it least it functions.

After an underwhelming breakfast, we get started on the game drive, sans Athuman. The thick forest from yesterday continues, interspersed with areas of grassland. Undulating hills and close-packed vegetation prevent long-range views, except when we reach the crest of a hill. Baobab trees increase in number as we drive along, their bare limbs standing tall in the green-and-gold landscape. Several side roads lead down to the river, where the water level is far lower than I expected. The riverine scenery is pretty, but there are few animals about. The dried up tributaries also come up empty.

 

Pascal is a fast, erratic driver, causing Gilbert and I to bump into each other frequently as we stand up in the open roof. We still manage to spot the following:

  • Impala. Everywhere, as usual. Carnivores will never go hungry in these parks.

  • Lesser kudus. Quick to run into the trees, but I later find a few standing still in the distance.

  • Rock hyraxes. We search persistently for cats in the rocky outcrops, but they all seem to be ruled by rock hyraxes.

  • Hippos, lying on the sand beside the river. Even out of the water they still look like rocks.

  • Baboons. As I'm staring at the hippos, an enormous group of over 100 baboons come marching down the dry riverbed, the babies desperately clinging to their mothers.

  • Monitor lizard, sunbathing as usual.

  • Some sort of coucal bird.

  • Grant's gazelles, with elongated, deadly-looking horns. They are much less numerous here than the Thomson's gazelles were in Serengeti.

  • Giraffes. Not the plethora we saw in the previous two parks.

  • Vultures, circling around an unseen carcass.

  • Zebras. Nearly all are far away or in the shade, where the lighting is terrible for photos.

  • Elands. They gallop away as soon as they hear us.

  • Crowned cranes.

  • Lion footprints. We go on the hunt, but it doesn't amount to anything.

  • Elephant. It is only a few metres from the road, but dozens of branches block any photo opportunity.

Coming out of the forest we are met with a valley of baobabs. In every direction I look, they dominate the view. Not long later we reach palm-studded plains, where the scenery opens up enough to see out across the land. Here we find:

  • A large herd of buffalo, far away from us, moving from the river into the forest.

  • A family of elephants. Most of the adults are half-hidden in the grass, while the calves are almost completely obscured. Later on a few elephants oblige us by walking out in the open, in full view of the camera.

  • Warthogs.

  • Dik-dik. We fly past it before we even know it's there.

  • Giraffes. One is covered in a flock of birds that pick at the tasty insects on the its back. Others run as we approach, their gangly legs giving the appearance that they are running in slow motion (although I'm sure they can outrun me).

  • A couple of impala having a grand old time locking horns with each other.

  • Only one riverbed proves fruitful, hosting impala in the foreground and elephants in the background.

 

After a short time in the plains, it's time to turn around and head back to headquarters for a late lunch. I love this section of the park, and I wish I could stay out here all day. A packed lunch would have made more sense in a park as vast as Ruaha, to reduce the time wasted driving back-and-forth to the restaurant.

 

The kitchen staff, working in rudimentary conditions, are in no hurry, and I have polished off my meal before Gilbert even receives his. Once we have all finally eaten, Pascal discovers his car has a puncture. A half-hour wait ensues while the men go about changing the tyre. I sit and watch the local staff hanging around the restaurant, playing music and laughing loudly. I am not laughing.

Once the tyre is replaced, Pascal zooms us over to the hippo pool. I'm not overly thrilled at the prospect of another pond filled with grey blobs, but this pool turns out to be a calm section of river. It is by far the most stunning of all the hippo pools I've seen. A wooden lookout has been built on top of a large boulder, but the first few rungs of the staircase have broken away. Using the still-standing handrail we pull ourselves up to the viewpoint, where we spot a few hippos in the river, a mother and baby hippo sitting out of the water, plus crocodiles lying on the opposite bank. The baby hippo is cute (and ginormous), however I think I take more photos of the scenery than the animals.

 

Following this brief time at the hippo pool, I am then told that we will head to the cottages, the safari is over. It's only been 45 minutes since lunch. I point out that I was promised an all-day game drive, and after missing out on yesterday's safari I am keen to make up for it today. In the end they reluctantly agree to continue on, but Pascal just drives very slowly towards the cottages. The only animals we spot are a handful of kudu and elephants. On the way we make a small loop near headquarters to visit an overgrown observation post. Like most lookouts, trees block much of the scenery.

I am disappointed not to see more animals, both in number and variety (especially cats). Overall the park is lovely, the views over the river being a highlight (even if they are often impeded), but the tree density does not make it a prime site for wildlife viewing. Birders would enjoy it here as there are many attractive varieties around, but I have no idea what species I'm looking at. I think I would have preferred to have seen the river area at dawn or dusk, when animals are more likely to be active and looking for food and water. It's a shame this wasn't built into the itinerary.

 

The cottages are quite a step up from the bandas, although their construction is not quite finished. The balcony is a rubbly mess, power sockets hang from the walls, there's no toilet seat and the toilet doesn't flush. The manager comes by to check on me and I mention the non-functioning toilet. He attempts to fix it but can't, so I'm moved next door. Same building, same balcony, same state of incompleteness, toilet still not working. The manager has disappeared and again I am under strict instructions not to leave my room. So I wait, trying not to think about how much I need to pee.

 

Although there are several shortfalls to the accommodation, I can't fault the view. Spread out before me is a long stretch of mostly-dry river surrounded by natural forest, with nothing man-made in sight. I search intently along the water but I am not close enough to spot any animals. I can hear them though - elephants, an assortment of birds, plus several unrecognisable sounds. The landscape changes colour with the sinking sun, but I am not facing the right direction for a dazzling sunset. I stare at the scene for hours.

 

Two hours after checking in, the toilet magically starts working. Relief, both physically and mentally.

 

When Gilbert left the cottages he said he would pick me up at 6.30 p.m. to take me to the restaurant for dinner. We have no way of contacting each other, and I can't communicate with the outside world from my room, so when he doesn't turn up I'm not sure what to do. The longer I wait, the more anxious I become. At 7.40 p.m. he finally arrives, carrying a packed dinner for me. My stress dissipates immediately - I am much happier eating in my cottage than sitting outside at the loud, cold restaurant. As a bonus, the serving size is twice what I have received at my previous meals. I have no problems eating all of it.

Overnight I leave the window open, hoping to hear the sounds of Ruaha. Other than a few unidentifiable groans and an unrelenting mosquito, there isn't much action going on.

 

I awake early enough to catch a hint of sunrise. Through the trees I see the river reflecting the red then golden hues of the sky as sunlight slowly brings the landscape to life. Animal sounds increase as it becomes brighter, but I suspect most of the noises are made by birds and insects.

 

The game drive starts immediately, before breakfast. We have the same borrowed car from yesterday but with a new driver, Felix. Within minutes I can tell that Felix is nowhere near as erratic as Pascal. In the end, I think he is the best driver I've had all week.

 

Today we head out west, in the opposite direction to yesterday, towards a large, boulder-studded hill. On the way out, through the tall grass, we manage to see:

  • A herd of elephants.

  • Giraffes.

  • Greater kudu (a first for me).

  • Camera-shy dik-diks.

  • Rock hyraxes, commandeering the boulders yet again.

 

These animals are all seen within the first 20 minutes, making me excited for what the rest of the safari will bring. As it turns out, though, my excitement is premature. The forest around the rocky hill is full of short, leafy trees that are almost impossible to see through. We search around numerous dry riverbeds and piles of rocks for the next hour but find nothing. The only noteworthy sight out here is a rickety old rope bridge strung up over a waterless river, where I'm told that elephants sometimes hang out. Not today.

 

It's not until we are almost back at headquarters that we see more animals: impala, zebras and a lone giraffe. All the signs for game drive circuits are pointing in the opposite direction to the one we took, so I'm not sure why this route was chosen. I think we would have found more searching along the main river again.

 

After two hours of driving, we arrive back at the restaurant for breakfast. Monkeys inundate the site and take over our parked car, happily sitting on and in the vehicle. While I'm distracted by this sight, one monkey sneaks right up to the table and makes a lunge for my toast. It gets away with a crust. Another finds an unattended sugar bowl, and gleefully scoops out mouthfuls of crystals until it's shooed away.

Once breakfast is finished it's time to leave Ruaha. Athuman tells me he is staying behind, as he has to wait another two-to-three days for the car to be repaired. So it's just me, Gilbert and Felix for the drive to Udzungwa.

 

It doesn't take long to realise that this is going to be a much faster trip than the incoming one. We fly along the dirt road then begin the overtaking game once we hit the highways. Going downhill through a steep mountain, however, the pace is reduced to crawling speed behind a string of trucks. Baboons stand guard along the edge of the road, sitting in amongst a never-ending line of litter. As we drive by I see motorists flinging food scraps at the baboons, who do a remarkably skillful job of catching the offerings. I wonder how much of their diet is natural and how much is man-made.

 

The Great Ruaha River comes into view, where the water is much more voluminous and powerful than in the park. On the near bank I spot an elephant drinking from the water - it's incredible to see these massive creatures roam around the country unimpeded. It's closer to me than many I have seen on game drives, and I didn't have to pay an entrance fee to see this one. But as we are speeding along a highway, there's no chance for photos.

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© 2017 Kim Matthews. All Rights Reserved

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