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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.