At first it was just a rustle in the bushes. Then the breaking and crunching of brittle deadwood underfoot. And then there they are.
Two enormous elephants come into view across the sandy riverbed, enormous ears flapping in the dry heat. And then we see three, four, five… eight of them — two babies and a couple of younger elephants vying for attention. A whole family barely 300 feet away, idly pulling branches from trees with their dextrous trunks and enjoying brunch in the scorched woodland while I look on in amazement.
I’ve been in Tanzania for a matter of hours — in camp, just minutes — and yet here I am, practically face-to-face with these graceful creatures whose every move is almost in slow motion, each step as carefully considered as a chess move. With a complete disregard for my presence, it’s as though they’re saying: “this is our territory, don’t think you’re special here…”
I sit on the veranda of my ‘tent’, jetlagged, beer in hand, the complete and utter silence punctuated only by the call of two birds singing in harmony, as the tranquillity and sheer expanse of the wildlife and bush before me gradually begin to sink in.
I hadn’t quite anticipated exactly how remote Jongomero is. The ‘short’ transfer from Dar es Salaam actually takes an hour and 40 minutes, flying 8,000ft-high over Tanzania’s central plateau — a never-ending expanse of flat, earthy colours occasionally interrupted by a river or an expansive lake and the odd patch of green. There is absolutely no sign of human life. Tanzania might be home to Mount Kilimanjaro in the north-east and the Great Lakes of Lake Victoria and Lake Tanganyika in the north and west respectively, but in the centre it’s largely plains and arable land — miles and miles of it.
Heading towards Ruaha National Park, I imagine an airport, or at least a discernible runway, will give an indication of our destination. Instead, we land on a dusty red airstrip cleared among the thick African bush. An awaiting Land Rover — our lift to Jongomero Safari Camp — is the only indication we are not alone.
Set along a dry riverbed — entirely different during the rainy season, camp manager Andrew ‘Molly’ Molinaro assures me — Jongamero is, without exaggeration, truly in the middle of nowhere. The only camp in the southern portion of Ruaha National Park (there are just five in the north) Jongamero accommodates just 16 people, as well as its staff, in eight thatched tents on raised platforms. Having doubled in size four years ago, Ruaha is now the largest national park in Africa covering 8,880sq miles. And with just 3,000 visitors a year, and parts man has never so much as laid eyes on — thanks to the aggressive tsetse fly — it epitomises remote.
But Ruaha’s attraction is not just its wilderness. In a unique transition zone where the East African and Southern African species of flora and fauna meet, it offers a spectacular array of both rugged landscapes and wildlife — some 10,000 elephants, 530 species of bird, the elusive wild dog, rare antelope and four of the Big Five (rhino were last sighted in 1982).
The first game drive that afternoon for our group of six reveals the bush of Ruaha — and its many elephants. At almost every turn an elephant, or five, rear their heads and look our way; inquisitively at first and then defiantly nonchalant. And then impala, baboons and giraffe, before we come across two lions. Almost perfectly camouflaged in the long grass, the two females barely notice our presence, clearly sleeping off last night’s dinner and strangely akin to domestic cats lazing in the sun — completely still, as long as we remain in the jeep. After gazing at them from various angles for what could be nearly an hour, but feels like minutes, we move on. As we pull over for sundowners by the riverbed, we hear the cackle of baboons as they scurry off to bed, somewhere my weary head is aching to lay itself down.
Into the bush
Feeling spoilt by the previous day’s game drive, the early morning walking safari offers a different approach to our new habitat; an insight into how everything is connected, how it survives and thrives when the environment is left as nature intended. And this is where Molly comes into his own, with a half-hour discourse on the fascinating, intricate, complicated lifespans of a termite mound; the mating habits of impala and dik-diks; dung in all its shapes, sizes and forms, and the importance of its role in the germination of seeds.
There’s no doubt, that despite the magnificent wilderness and range of wildlife, Molly is one of the main attractions in Ruaha. Born in Nairobi, with a degree in zoology from Cardiff University, and years studying and working in the bush, Molly is practically a walking encyclopedia. His enthusiasm is infectious, his knowledge endless; the remoteness of this corner of Tanzania is clearly where he’s most at home.
Getting up at 5.30am is an effort, but any nagging doubts are soon dispelled as we begin to appreciate our surroundings and see beyond what simply looks like a mass of dry, half-dead trees and bushes. While it’s more than likely we’ll scare off most wildlife on foot — centuries of survival and evolution clearly dictate that man on foot is dangerous while jeeps can be blithely ignored — it soon becomes clear that the way flora and fauna co-exist is finely balanced, and understanding this equilibrium is as important as game-viewing itself.
As we amble through the bush, woodland and clearings, we can see how diverse this landscape is — from magnificent baobab, redbush willow and marula trees and acacia woodlands to dry scrub and open grasslands. During rainy season the park is transformed, but otherwise it’s easy to know when you’re close to a river, the lush green vegetation a giveaway.
Having lost all sense of direction we find ourselves approaching where the Jongamero River meets the Great Ruaha River — an expansive confluence where 30 hippos are bathing, heads bobbing in the water, grunting like angry cows. Their laugh sounds uncannily like Frank Bruno’s. They’re quite happy to ignore us for the time being, their sun-sensitive skin demanding they stay submerged in the water by day. At night though, hippos head off in search of up to 110lbs of grass, regularly following established trails, marked by spraying faeces, often through camps such as, er, ours. Armed guards and intuitive Masai warriors are a reassuring presence.
We wander further downstream on the grassy riverbank. While hippos got the raw deal in the evolutionary stakes, crocodiles have remained unchanged for 65 million years; the absolute pinnacle of perfection in nature — in Molly’s opinion at least. Barely visible, 20 or so lurk under the water, their eyes the only giveaway of these huge, deadly creatures.
“Who’s hungry?” enquires Molly. Our eyes light up, assuming the camp is nearby. It’s been four hours since I munched a homemade biscuit and quickly necked a cup of tea. “I’ll show you how to eat in the bush…”
The disappointment is palpable — until we turn a corner, to find a white-hatted chef standing before a table laid out beneath a tree. We eagerly tuck in to a cooked breakfast while we quiz Molly about everything we’d seen.
Heading back towards camp, we leave the lush green landscape behind — and a wealth of wildlife from hippos and crocs to stork, heron and kingfisher — to find ourselves 150 feet away in dry, dusty red sand and endless bush, the song of cicadas our only soundtrack. The difference could not be more pronounced.
The rare and elusive
As well-known as it is, the term ‘Big Five’ now seems a little redundant, given that it refers to the five most difficult animals to hunt. Clearly we’re not hunting, and elephant and lion haven’t proved too taxing to spot. So over lunch I ask Molly and camp manager Noelle Herzog what the Big Five in Ruaha would be; which are the most difficult beasts to track?
After a minute’s reflection, Molly suggests the following list: “Aardvark, pangolin, aardwolf, Rohan antelope and striped hyena.” Warming to the theme, and without skipping a beat, he adds: “Better still though, is the Big Five poo — aardvark, pangolin, aardwolf, otter and honey badger.”
Years of tracking and walking safaris clearly focuses the mind on the rare, the elusive and the lesser-spotted. The endangered wild dog doesn’t quite make the list but they clearly have a very special place in Tanzania, home to the largest population in Africa. Molly’s very much in awe of the success rate of these efficient killing machines; nearly 80% of wild dog hunts end in a kill compared to lions, for example, who only achieve 30%.
The afternoon game drive doesn’t offer us any wild dogs but we’re soon watching five very large bull elephants who glare at us menacingly. With their rugged, wrinkled skin they appear elderly, but we’re assured these are fairly young males, as we observe them pulling dry branches from the ground with their trunks between glances in our direction.
Wisely, we move on from the parched bush to the more fertile river, and Molly motors along it, almost instinctively sensing the afternoon movement of the larger animals in the vicinity. We spot seven or more skittish zebra, their hesitance explained by what we come upon around the corner: seven lions.
The two males are familiar to Molly but the three females and two cubs are new. It’s incredible to be this close, a mere 150 feet or so from these beautiful cats basking in the sun — lions seem to do a lot of basking — blissfully unaware of, or at least untroubled by, our incessant cameras.
The shallow, lazy river barely makes an impression on the dry and rocky, but grassy, riverbed, and you could easily imagine the view to be in any national park in the UK, apart from the herds of impala and bushbuck, the jumpy zebra, a couple of giraffe casually surveying the landscape, the odd heron and an Aslan-like male strutting up and down in front of us. The sound of tsetse flies is our only concern, and we watch for a good half hour or more, savouring the precious moment.
Molly gets a call from Kimaro, the other guide — more lions. We meet the camp’s other jeep en route, and it transpires the gaze of a giraffe has led them to a pride. Obviously there’s time for sundowners — nothing gets in the way of G&Ts on safari — and we admire the changing sky as the sun begins to fall behind the clouds, turning orange then pink, an eerie light bathing the landscape. And then we’re off, passing giraffe, warthog and a stray jackal, taking a left turn off the dusty road on to a dirt track and then a right turn into the bush. A finger points ahead. “There they are.” Molly pulls up and kills the engine. We are within a few feet, face-to-face with six lions. Well, one. The others are lazing under a tree with absolutely no interest in the jeep. And we sit. And look. And stare. And we marvel at the experience of seeing 13 lions in the wild, sharing the experience with nobody but ourselves.
On the waterfront
If you can, avoid flying in a small propeller plane after 11am in Africa — or indeed, I imagine, any hot climate. As the sun rises and begins to heat the ground, the hot air rises in bubbles causing pockets of turbulence. One very bumpy flight later we arrive at the Selous Game Reserve, a 75-minute hop east of Ruaha. The heavens open, and sheets of rain pour down, causing the welcome party to scramble, moving the tables and chairs under cover. Camp manager Jenny Hartree is mystified: “It never rains in September,” she says. The sun soon emerges, drying the rain but bringing a humidity we haven’t experienced in Ruaha.
Set on the banks of Lake Nzerakera, which adjoins the mighty Rufiji River, Selous Safari Camp offers an entirely different feel. Where the lack of water is so pronounced at Jongomero, we are now almost surrounded by the stuff. Again, away from the water sources, the landscape changes dramatically.
At 21,000sq miles, Selous is Africa’s largest game reserve and its array of wildlife reflects its size — it’s home to half of Tanzania’s elephants while the Rufiji River houses the largest crocodile and hippo population in Africa. Its bird species count is less than Ruaha, at around 300, but the river and lake systems make for better vantage points.
After a light lunch, our stomachs still delicate from the turbulent flight, we take to the water for a boat safari which proves a tranquil experience. Crocodiles, hippos and hundreds of birds provide entertainment on the still, freshwater lake — our heads and stomachs grateful for the calm. As the sun begins to drop behind the distant palm trees, it seems churlish to refuse a G&T.
The next morning, as I slowly emerge bleary-eyed from a deep sleep — interrupted only by the occasional bird call and hippo ‘laughter’ — I spy what seems like big cats making their way past the lake. Jumping up and grabbing my camera, I realise they’re ‘just monkeys’. Disappointed, I immediately reprimand myself: seeing baboons from my bed is not an experience to be sniffed at.
The lake shimmers in the morning sun, accompanied by a cacophony of birdsong, while elephants, a presence we’ve become used to, roam in and out of the camp. As long as you remain on the raised platforms you’ll be perfectly safe, I’m assured.
The game drive reveals an entirely different experience to Ruaha — we do come across other vehicles, although not to the detriment of wildlife viewing, and we witness large numbers of giraffe, wildebeest and zebra. We soon find six lions — basking again in the shade — and a cub spending what seems like an age debating whether to chase a kudu.
But the walking safari and fly-camping are the highlight. We’re dropped off on the other side of the lake and left in the capable hands of our two guides, Mashaka and Mpoto. We head off through woodland and across grassy savanna, identifying monitor lizard tracks, impala dung, giraffe bones, cocktail ants and distant wildebeest.
As our path snakes back by the lake, we are led to our evening’s accommodation. It isn’t fly-camping in the strictest sense — there are a few frills — but we get to gaze at the stars and experience a carefree night in the bush. A dinner of chicken soup, beef fillet and fries is washed down with bottle after bottle of red wine. The wildlife must be wondering what’s going on. Hippo and hyena come by for a little peek while we sleep, and we are glared at by a rather angry bull elephant during breakfast. This is the most danger we’ve faced all week. Mpoto reaches for his rifle but it skulks off and leaves us to our eggs.
As we make our way to the airstrip on the final morning we finally encounter buffalo and, almost as if it has been engineered, a pack of wild dogs, lazily lounging around like pets. I suppose seeing cheetahs would have been expecting too much, but I’m satisfied I’ve seen the best of one Africa’s most beautiful and beguiling countries.
British Airways has flights three times a week from Heathrow to Dar es Salaam. www.ba.com
Average flight time: 9h40m.
When to go
Ruaha and Selous are generally warm and dry from June to October while November to March is hotter and can see some rain in November and December. April and May is the main rainy season.
Need to know
Currency: Tanzanian shilling (TZS). £1 = 2,500 TZS. US dollars are widely accepted.
Health: There is a high risk of malaria in Tanzania so ensure you have the appropriate prophylaxis. Check with your GP about the required vaccinations.
Red tape: UK citizens require a visa from the Tanzania High Commission at a cost of £38. Alternatively, visas can be purchased on arrival for US$50 (£31). http://tanzaniahighcommission.co.uk
Time difference: GMT +3.
International dial code: 00 255.
How to do it
Audley Travel offers a six-night safari in Tanzania from £3,800 per person, based on two sharing, valid for selected departures in July 2012. The price includes flights from Heathrow with British Airways, internal transfers and accommodation split between Selous Safari Camp and Jongomero Camp on a full-board basis, including daily walking safaris, boat safaris and game-viewing drives, concession and park entrance fees. An additional four nights at the beach retreat of Ras Kutani costs approximately £500 per person. www.audleytravel.com
Published in the May/June 2012 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)