Ruaha National Park: The Complete Guide

Lioness and cub crossing the road in Ruaha National Park, Tanzania

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Ruaha National Park

Address
369 Iringa St, Dar es Salaam, Tanzania
Phone +255 743 218 219

Tanzania's Serengeti National Park and Ngorongoro Conservation Area top the bucket list of many safari lovers. But, Ruaha National Park, another pristine wilderness located in the south-central part of the country, is considered Tanzania’s best-kept safari secret. Spanning more than 7,800 square miles, Ruaha is the largest national park in East Africa. The park is named for the Great Ruaha River, which flows along its southeast border and provides a vital source of water for animals during the dry season. Its habitats range from rolling hills to open grasslands, and from groves of baobab trees to dense miombo and acacia woodlands. These pristine environments provide a home to an incredible variety of wildlife, making Ruaha a perfect destination for dedicated safari-goers wanting to escape the crowds and experience untamed Africa.

Things to Do

Visitors come to Ruaha National Park primarily to spot wildlife, and there are several different ways to go about it. The park’s camps and lodges offer guided game drives and night drives, giving you the benefit of an experienced ranger who knows which areas yield the best sightings. You can also head out on a self-drive around the park during daylight hours. This is an exciting option for adventurers who like to explore independently.

Walking safaris are also popular in Ruaha, whether you choose to sign up for one through your lodge or with the Tanzanian Parks service. The latter offers guided day hikes that last from two to four hours, in addition to the multi-day Kichaka to Kidabaga route. You can also view the animals and landscape from the air by embarking on a hot air balloon safari.

Back on the ground, enjoy bush meals organized by your lodge or guided safari trip, go birdwatching, or visit cultural and historical sights, like the Nyanywa rock paintings, the natural pillars at Isimila, and a trip to the Mkwawa Museum.

Wildlife Viewing

Ruaha National Park is particularly famous for its large predator sightings. Research conducted by the Ruaha Carnivore Project, established in 2009, showed that the park is home to a whopping 10 percent of Africa’s lions, including large prides with 20 or more members. This land also supports one of only four East African cheetah populations with more than 200 adults, and boasts the world’s third-largest population of endangered African wild dogs. Ruaha is also an excellent destination for leopard and spotted hyena sightings, while jackals and bat-eared foxes are relatively common, as well. Of course, all these predators have to eat, and Ruaha has an extensive menu for them to choose from. Antelope species are varied and abundant, including waterbuck, kudu, roan, and sable.

The park also has one of Tanzania’s largest elephant populations, with over 10,000 of the magnificent animals roaming freely across its vast expanse. The Great Ruaha River provides the perfect habitat for aquatic creatures, including hippos and Nile crocodiles. The only notable absence on the park’s wildlife roster is the rhino, which was poached to extinction here in the early 1980s.

Several lodges and outfitters give you the option to view all these magnificent creatures up close. In fact, a few will turn your walking safari into an unforgettable "fly camping" experience. This trip style includes a night or two spent under the stars in the middle of the bush, with nothing but mosquito netting separating you from the wilderness.

Birding

Serious birders should carve out time to spend in Ruaha National Park, as more than 570 different species live here, including an exciting mix of birds from both Southern and East Africa. Keep an eye out for endemics like the yellow-collared lovebird, the ashy starling, and the Tanzanian red-billed hornbill. Raptors occur in abundance here, and vultures are a specialty. In total, there are six vulture species in Ruaha, including the critically endangered hooded vulture, the white-backed vulture, the white-headed vulture, and Ruppell’s vulture.

The rainy season offers some of the best birding in Ruaha National Park, as the migrant species arrive from Europe, Asia, and North Africa. Rising water levels in the Usangu wetlands and around the Great Ruaha River attract a plethora of waterbirds, including large flocks of white and Abdim’s storks. Rare, smaller birds of prey are another highlight of summer in central Tanzania. Sooty falcons, Eleonora’s falcons, Amur falcons, and Eurasian hobbies make an appearance at this time of year, while resident birds are sporting their breeding plumage.

Where to Camp

Five public campsites offer tent space within the park, while a plethora of private operations provide glamping opportunities in permanent and seasonal camps. Some offerings include a "back to the basics" approach, complete with only a tent, a meal, and a fire, while other, more extravagant outfitters boast tented main lodges and luxury camping suites.

  • Ikuka Permanent Tented Camp: This tented lodge is located in the northern part of the park overlooking the Mwagusi River Valley. Accommodations at Ikuka include seven luxury, open-sided tents with thatched roofs, king or twin beds, a dressing area, a walkway to a bathroom with rain showers, and a large deck and seating area to take in the view. An on-site pool tops off this elegant stay that is slightly less adventurous than some of the other camping options.
  • Kigelia Camp: The simple Kigelia Camp is located in a grove of Kigelia trees and contains six tents in a bush setting. Each tent is furnished with locally crafted wood furniture, an en-suite bathroom, and a safari-style outdoor bucket shower. The dining tent offers tasty locally-inspired meals and evening cocktails. The birdwatching from this location is unparalleled.
  • Kichaka Expedition Camp: At Kichaka, you can choose between three accommodation options. The first includes one of three spacious, airy, and well-furnished tents that hold a maximum of 8 guests. The second option takes you into remote sections of the park where you'll set up fly camps amid the bush. The third option allows you to book out either the entire property, complete with en-suite tents, or the fly camp, for a completely private experience.
  • Tanzania Parks Public Camping: Public camping is available at three campsites within the park (Tembo, Kiboko, and Simba), as well as two special campsites (Mbagi and Ifuguru). The better-equipped public campgrounds have basic facilities, including toilets, showers, and a communal kitchen. Whereas, the special campsites are wild camps with no facilities and should be booked in advance.

Where to Stay Nearby

There are several choices when it comes to accommodations in Ruaha National Park. Luxury stays include lodges inside the park run by private innholders, while more affordable options are offered by the park service itself, and include cottages, bandas, and a hostel.

  • Ruaha River Lodge: Pull up a ringside set to the wildlife action at this luxury lodge located on the banks of the Great Ruaha River. This lodge offers 24 stone chalets, each with comfortable double beds, an en-suite bathroom, and a spacious veranda for game-viewing. Two dining areas, one at the river's edge and one perched up high, offer breakfast, lunch, dinner, and drinks, and a reading area, complete with sofas.
  • Jabali Ridge: Jabali Ridge is perched on a rocky outcropping overlooking the park and offers eight luxury suites, an infinity pool, and a spa. There are also several tented camps on site. The mess tent here serves breakfast and lunch, including homemade specialties like bread, cakes, biscuits, and ice cream, and a three-course dinner.
  • Msembe Headquarters Bandas, Cottages, and Hostel: Tanzania Parks offers a range of more affordable accommodation options, including self-catering cottages, bandas, and a hostel. The bandas sit directly on the river; several have private bathrooms. If you stay in a banda, you can cook in or arrange for prepared meals. The cottages sit on a rise overlooking the river and all have private bathrooms. A dining hall next door serves inexpensive meals. The hostel can be booked for large groups and contains no-frills beds and a kitchen.

How to Get There

The easiest way to get to Ruaha is to fly into one of two airstrips—one is located at the park's headquarters in Msembe, and one is in Jongomero. Coastal Aviation offers daily flights from Arusha, Dar es Salaam, Selous, the Serengeti, and Zanzibar. Auric Air and Safari Airlink also fly to Ruaha from various destinations across Tanzania. Once you arrive at the airstrip, a representative from your lodge or camp will transfer you to your accommodations via a four-wheel-drive vehicle. If you choose to drive to Ruaha, it’s a three-hour drive along a dirt road from Iringa (approximately 80 miles) or a 10-hour drive from Dar es SalaamDon't attempt these drives by yourself during the rainy seasons.

Tips for Your Visit

  • All visitors must pay a daily conservation fee of $30 per adult or $10 per child, plus a vehicle entry fee, which is cheaper for Tanzanians and East Africans, and more expensive for foreigners.
  • Ruaha National Park follows the same general weather patterns as the rest of Tanzania, with a dry season, which lasts from June to October, and two rainy seasons. The short rains happen in November and December, while the long rains last from March to May.
  • The best time to travel to Ruaha National Park is during the dry season, when the weather is sunny, but not too hot, and the roads are easy to navigate. This is also the best time for game-viewing.
  • During the rains, the park is green and beautiful and birding is best. However, some of Ruaha’s remote areas may be inaccessible during this time. 
  • Ruaha’s roads are challenging, in general, especially during the rainy season. You will need a four-wheel-drive vehicle, and the know-how to drive it, if you choose to embark on a self-drive safari.
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Ruaha National Park: The Complete Guide