Anyone who’s ever looked into going on a Tanzanian safari will have heard of Northern Circuit icons like the Serengeti National Park and Ngorongoro Conservation Area. But very few know much about Ruaha National Park, a pristine wilderness in the south-central part of the country that those in the know have named as Tanzania’s best-kept safari secret.
Spanning more than 7,800 square miles, Ruaha is the largest national park in East Africa. Its habitats range from rolling hills to open grassland, and from groves of baobabs to dense miombo and acacia woodland. These pristine environments provide a home for an incredible variety of wildlife, making Ruaha a perfect destination for dedicated safari-goers who want to escape the crowds and experience Africa in all its untamed glory. 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.
Ruaha National Park is particularly famous for its predator sightings. Research carried out by the Ruaha Carnivore Project, established in 2009, has shown that the park is home to a whopping 10 percent of Africa’s lions, including large prides with 20 or more members. It 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.
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 thought to roam 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.
A Haven for Birds
Birders should also make space for Ruaha on their Africa bucket list. More than 570 different types have been spotted in the park, including an exciting mix of species from both Southern and East Africa. In particular, keep an eye out for exciting endemics like the Yellow-collared lovebird, the ashy starling, and the recently-described Tanzanian red-billed hornbill. Raptors occur in abundance, and vultures are a specialty. In total, there are six vulture species in Ruaha, including the critically endangered hooded, white-backed, white-headed, and Ruppell’s vultures.
The rainy season is a uniquely rewarding time for birding in Ruaha National Park, as this is when 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.
Top Things to Do
Visitors come to Ruaha to spot wildlife, and there are several different ways to do so. The park’s camps and lodges offer guided game drives and night drives and give you the benefit of an experienced ranger who knows which areas yield the best sightings. You can also self-drive around the park during daylight hours, an exciting option for adventurers who like to explore independently. However, be warned that Ruaha’s roads are challenging, especially during the rainy season. You will need a 4x4 vehicle and the know-how to drive it.
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. Several lodges give you the option to turn your walking safari into an unforgettable fly camping experience. These include a night or two spent out under the stars in the middle of the bush, with nothing but a mosquito net separating you from the wilderness around you.
Where to Stay
There are several choices when it comes to accommodation in Ruaha National Park. Ruaha River Lodge and Jabali Ridge are two of the park's best lodges. The first sits on the banks of the Great Ruaha River and includes 24 stone chalets, each with a veranda for private game-viewing. The second perches on a rocky outcrop overlooking the park and has eight luxury suites, an infinity pool, and a spa. There are also several tented camps. Top choices include Kigelia Ruaha and Jongomero Camp, both with ensuite bathrooms and al fresco dining.
Tanzania Parks also offers a range of more affordable accommodation options, including self-catering cottages, bandas, and campsites. The latter are divided into public campsites (Tembo, Kiboko, and Simba) and special campsites (Mbagi and Ifuguru). Public campgrounds have basic facilities, including toilets, showers, and kitchen facilities. Special campsites are wild camps with no facilities and should theoretically be booked in advance, but this isn't always necessary.
Weather & When to Go
Ruaha National Park follows the same general weather patterns as the rest of Tanzania, with a main dry season (June to October) and two rainy seasons. The short rains last from November to December while the long rains last from March to May. For most visitors, the best time to travel is during the dry season, when the weather is sunny and dry but not too hot, and the roads are relatively easy to navigate. This is also the best time for game-viewing because animals tend to congregate around the park’s water sources and are therefore easier to spot.
However, the park is green and beautiful during the rainy seasons. Birding is best at this time of year, although some of Ruaha’s more remote areas may be inaccessible.
The easiest way to get to Ruaha is to fly in. There are two airstrips—one at the park headquarters in Msembe and one at 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 should be waiting to transfer you to your accommodation by 4x4 vehicle. If you choose to drive to Ruaha, it’s a three-hour drive along the dirt road from Iringa (approximately 80 miles) or a 10-hour drive from Dar es Salaam.
All visitors must pay a daily conservation fee of $30 per adult or $10 per child. Vehicles with a Tanzanian or East African license plate are charged an entry fee of TSh 20,000, while foreign cars cost $40.