Situated far off the beaten track in Tanzania’s largest national park, the Camp is a rare gem on the safari circuit. One of the very few owner-run camps in the area, I arrived at Mwagusi Safari Camp to find a charming, small, exclusive tented camp of 13 bandas, which snake along the sandy banks of the river.
Mwagusi Safari Camp offered me a unique and comfortable tented safari experience, with a hint of understated elegance. Almost all of the camp is built from natural materials such as grass thatch, timber, drift wood, stones and reeds, allowing it to be in perfect balance and harmony with its surroundings. This well-established camp was first started in 1987, I am told, and it is an expression of the unwavering love and passion of its owner, Chris Fox (pictured below right), for the Tanzanian bush, its wildlife and its people.
“This is the Africa you imagine when you shut your eyes,” Chris tells me as we sit around the campfire one evening. “It’s real, rugged, wild savannah. There are moments of great drama, great beauty. The first rains are very dramatic, and there is always different light, or something different happening – huge lion / buffalo confrontations, for example, where you watch a pride of lions take out a buffalo and at the same time, the buffalo is attacking the lions. You really feel like you’re ‘in’ nature. I don’t think there’s any other place I’ve seen where you can get up in the morning and suddenly there’s an elephant walking past.”
Chris was born and raised in Tanzania, and is passionate about Africa in general and Ruaha National Park in particular. His knowledge of Ruaha extends back to long holidays spent camping in this area before it even became a National Park, and his family helped to ensure that the land was gazetted and fully protected in 1964. When he was a boy, he and his family were often the only visitors. As an eight-year-old, he would go hunting on foot with his father in this secret, unheard-of paradise. Apart from schooldays spent in Devon, he has known the Ruaha all his life and his passion for it shines through in everything he says and does. “As children, we were very lucky,” he smiles. “We could camp wherever we wanted and we could do whatever we wanted – life was completely free. But it was a very different life – sometimes, my brother and I would disappear for the whole day!”
Chris is notorious for his profound knowledge and experience with the wildlife, people and the land of Ruaha. He is best known for his deep understanding of animal behaviour, especially with wild African elephants, and has formed astonishing relationships with these incredibly intelligent creatures. “It’s not something that you could do now, but I could put my hand in her mouth and she would lick my hand,” Chris says of one particular pachyderm.
Mwagusi Safari Camp is renowned for its high-calibre of local guides and their in-depth knowledge of the African bush. Local Tanzanians benefit from an in-house guide training programme aiming to provide top-class guides with excellent wildlife and bush knowledge, who have an ability to read animal behaviour – knowing when to sit patiently and watch a natural sequence of events unfold.
It is thought that Tanzania has lost half of its elephant population to ivory poachers since 2007. I am told that at the Selous Game Reserve, the epic herds for which it was once justly famous have been all but decimated. Perhaps as a result of this, Ruaha now holds the record for the largest concentration of elephants in the country, as well as huge herds of buffalo, tracked by a tenth of the world’s lion population. Such abundance is always encouraging, but with it comes the responsibility of protecting it, a difficult task in an under-utilised park of this size.
“We have good, healthy populations of wildlife right now,” Chris tells me, “but things can turn on a sixpence and so it’s a bit unpredictable. Everything is ebbing and flowing, either influenced by man or nature. Here, elephants are given the ability to roam freely. They will destroy a bit of habitat here and move on somewhere else, and the habitat will regenerate after they’ve flattened it – you know, the trees and bushes – and then the grazing animals will come and feed off what the elephants have left behind. So there is a balance. It’s not a balance in the way that we would like to see things, where we count numbers and expect those numbers to stay the same. You will have the crises and you’ll have the droughts and you’ll have things die off. But the more we try to interfere with it, the more we make a mess and we think we know better. But we don’t know better. I’ve spent a long time around elephants and they are highly intelligent, highly interactive and have incredible memories.”
Part of Tanzania National Parks’ plan is to encourage visitors to Ruaha, which will in turn swell the park’s coffers and help pay for anti-poaching efforts. In the past year, the United Nations has helped fund road upgrades (the network, compact as it is, works brilliantly) and also train rangers whose job, other than to occasionally accompany walking-safari guides, is to patrol the park. “We have Tanzanians who are passionate about conserving wildlife in Tanzania,” Chris tells me. “What we need to do is just preserve the land areas as National Park status. I think in the immediate future, wildlife conservancies will play a role where governments are still a bit immature [about this issue]. There comes a point where we as a human race have to say, we are one planet and we’ve got to fund those places whose governments can’t afford to sustain them. Otherwise, we’ll lose the land and the animals, and we will all pay the price.”
To the relatively few who know and love Ruaha, its appeal as a first-class wildlife sanctuary has never been in doubt. By rights, with its diverse ecosystem, healthy wildlife populations and reputation for excellent guiding, it should be rated right up there with the top game parks in Africa. But so far, its safari camps have been mostly pretty basic, and run on tight budgets with nothing in the pot for improvements. With Mwagusi Safari Camp paving the way for attracting the tourists who will, somewhat ironically, be sustaining the future of the Parks (albeit through their wallets), perhaps hope is not lost just yet.
Our first encounter with Africa’s wildlife happened sooner than we anticipated. Coming into land on the tiny, undulating airstrip at the first camp we surprised a small herd of elephants that harrumphed off into the bushes. But an impala – a small, delicate antelope – was less lucky. Running beside the plane as it touched down it suddenly cut across in front and was caught a glancing blow by the propeller. Result – one dead impala and one unflyable plane.
We pushed the plane under the trees, sat on our bags and waited. In the blinding light, the air shimmered. Giraffes emerged from the bush, curiously examined the corpse, and passed silently on. Vultures circled lazily and we dozed in the sweltering heat – until the drone of our replacement aircraft disturbed our reverie.
Only a couple of hours late at Mwagusi Camp in Ruaha park – 22,000 square kilometres of savannah – we were greeted with cool, lavender-scented flannels, a glass of freshly squeezed orange juice and, possibly, the most spectacular bedroom I have stretched out in anywhere.
Our banda was an enormous thatched affair with low stone walls, dividing screens made from reeds, and a huge terrace overlooking the dried-up river bed. At the terrace’s far end was a separate reading area with hammock and sofa set among the boulders. Inside was an enormous bathroom, dressing area and separate bedroom in a zipped mosquito-proof tent containing the biggest bed I have ever seen. There was easily room for six – and it was all ours.
There has been a sharp rise in luxury game lodges in the past decade as holiday companies have discovered an untapped appetite for five-star living in hard-to-reach locations. The appeal of Mwagusi, we soon discovered, lay in its determination to provide an authentic wilderness experience without compromising on comfort.
Outside the banda, animals wander freely through the camp – at night guests are escorted everywhere – and we watched elephants digging for water in the river bed below our terrace, troops of baboons ambling past. An Agama lizard, with luminous orange head and turquoise tail, hunted dragonflies on the boulders in front of us.
Inside, it was the details that caught the eye – towel rails fashioned from driftwood, stone water baths for the birds, bunches of dried grasses, animal skulls, woven baskets, arched recesses in the reed screens for clothes, a big wooden trunk for our bags. You could almost define Mwagusi by what it is not – not mass tourism, not over-protected (tents are so much better than walls), not hedged about by the health and safety police.
Dinner on our first night was served down in the river bed, next to a roaring log fire, the riverbank hung with enough oil lanterns to light a small town. With toes in the sand, we ate tender beef in ginger, roast vegetables spiced with chilli and rosemary, fried aubergine, puréed pumpkin and new potatoes – indeed, there were never fewer than half a dozen delicately flavoured dishes cooked by the chef Meru at every meal.
We had been chatting noisily for perhaps an hour when there was a rustling by the bank and someone swung a torchbeam to reveal a bull elephant browsing the leaves not 30 yards away – having his dinner, too. He was a regular in camp and quite unfazed by the commotion. As the memsahib said later, intoxicated by the scents and sounds of the night: “It is the mixture of extreme peace and extreme danger that I find so compelling.” Twice during our four-night stay elephants blocked our way to the dining room and we had to be led on a wide detour to avoid them – which helped remind us, if it were necessary, who were the visitors in the park and who the hosts.
Next morning we were woken at 6am with tea, stepped out into the milky dawn, climbed into the open Land Cruiser and set off into the park. It was late January; the first rain had fallen and the thirsty earth had pushed up tender leaves and grasses of vivid green, which glowed against the murram tracks of burnt orange.
Some game parks are flat and featureless. Not Ruaha. Its boulder-strewn hills and tree-lined gullies yield magnificent vistas. We stopped the Land Cruiser on the lip of a valley and sat in silence watching the herds of elephant, giraffe and zebra drifting soundlessly across the landscape under the giant, bull-necked baobab trees. This is the greatest pleasure – to gaze on a scene unchanged for millennia, as if on the origins of life.
There were animals everywhere – families of elephants with young no more than a month old, jiggling their trunks uselessly as they struggled to master the 55,000 muscles that control it, giraffes regurgitating their cud from their four stomachs, the pin-tailed wydah birds which, uniquely, take four males to each female – to the memsahib’s unconscionable delight.
Our guide, Jofre, could spot a whisker at 200 yards. He also had that other essential quality, a good parkside manner – knowing what information to deliver, and how to gauge it for his audience. Mwagusi is one of the few owner-operated camps in Tanzania (by the charismatic Chris Fox, a native Tanzanian) and has established an apprenticeship scheme for staff which sees them working as water carriers, waiters, plumbers and stone masons before being identified as potential future guides.
Then they get a chance to track the big cats. On our second day we came upon a solitary lioness, seeking the rest of her pride. She uttered an impressive roar, sauntered a couple of hundred yards and lay down again to wait. Then Jofre took a call on his radio – cheetahs had been spotted on a kill. We drove swiftly to the spot where four sleek, long bodies were lying in a perfect cross, their heads bobbing as they pulled violently at a carcass. It was a mother and her three full grown cubs. Every few minutes one would sit up, its jaws smeared with blood, and look around warily for rival predators. Cheetahs are fast but not strong and must eat quickly before they are challenged for their kill.
We shared that scene with two other vehicles, the only time we encountered other tourists in four days. A key part of what draws people to Ruaha is its isolation. Being distant from the coast (and expensive to get to), it has a fraction of the visitors of the northern parks. When a queue of vans is passing through it feels less like a wilderness and more like a zoo.
On our final night we came upon a pride of six lions with their cubs waiting to ambush a group of approaching zebras. While the cubs frolicked and the adults prepared to pounce, a back-up vehicle delivered our drinks. As dusk fell, white wine in hand, we raised our glasses and toasted our extraordinary luck.
I mused about how few people have retained this way of life, and how lucky I was to be with one of them – the creator of the human footprint, Chris Fox, who lives among the wild creatures of this vast and remote sanctuary.
I was snapped from my dream by a noisy chorus of green wood hoopoes , brilliant birds foraging the forest that flanked the riverbed, and moved on to join Chris, who was waiting for me downriver. His family owns and runs a tented camp that sits on a high bank overlooking the Mwagusi. As usual, Chris was wearing as little as possible: no shoes, a pair of shorts and an unbuttoned, short-sleeved shirt. His case with the wilderness – he walks it without a rifle – was contagious.
We had begun this walk in the golden light of late afternoon. Ambling along the sandy riverbed, we passed small pools created by elephants, who use their forefeet and trunks to quarry the subterranean water. After they’ve quenched their thirst, their wells are used by a host of other animals – evident by the footprints surrounding the pools. A troop of yellow baboons galloped in front of us. Now and then, curious, they stopped and watched us gain on them, then bounded further down river through shadows of palms, acacia, tamarind and sausage trees.
After a mile or so we came to a sharp northward bend in the river. Here , near an elephant well, we paused. Sitting still as stones atop a tumble of boulders, we waited and watched. To the south, scores of baobab trees dotted a wide grassy plain, looking like so many stubby-armed maestros conducting a fiery sunset. A pair of ostriches pranced across the plain, kicking up dust. Soon a jackal came to drink from the nearby pool. And the baboons climbed into nearby palm trees to feed, or sat on the bank watching us watch them. Yellow-collared lovebirds and green wood hoopoes dipped and darted among the branches. Eventually, with just enough light to show us the way, we returned to camp.
The 5000-square-mile Ruaha National Park is African wilderness at its purest – a vast unspoiled area that is still more for animals than it is for people, due to the large part to the fact that is more than 300 miles west of the Tanzanian capital of Dar Es Salaam and a four-hour drive from the nearest town of any size, Iringa. In fact, fewer than 7,000 people visited the park in 1994.
The park lies between the Njombe and Great Ruaha rivers and an escarpment stretching the full length of the park divides it between the Great Ruaha River valley of the southeast and the higher plateau country of the northwest. The valley has a road system and features rolling Commiphora-Combretum woodlands, interspersed with grasslands and crisscrossed by sand rivers fringed with greenery. The plateau has no roads and is dominated by a broad-leaved miombo forest.
Although perhaps a fifth of East Africa’s elephants roam the park, it is known primarily for its unusually wide spectrum of antelopes – roan, sable, steenbok, suni, oribi and bushbuck, plus greater and lesser kudu, eland and Lichtenstein’s hartebeest. In additional, buffalo herd trundle to and from the Great Ruaha River for a daily drink, and hippos and crocodiles gather in the river’s deep pools and on its sandbanks, along with an abundance of waterbirds. All told, more than 370 bird species have been recorded in the park (1994), and counting is not complete.
If you use Google as a measure of popularity, you wont be overly inspired to visit Ruaha National Park – there are only 126,000 results. By way of comparison, if you Google Serengeti, you’ll get an incredible 4 820 000 results.
Compare the tow in human terms and you’ll find that the Serengeti pulls in 150 000 people every year, compared to Ruaha’s 7 654. Suffice to say, it doesn’t take too much brain power to work out which park is more popular. But, after spending just two days in Ruaha, I can tell you that is park is my new favourite in Tanzania. The three biggest attraction in this country are Zanzibar, Serengeti and Kilimanjaro; they’re all easily accessible by plane are are all relatively closely clustered together – a quick hope in a small plane will take you from one to another.
Not so with Ruaha, which lies about 130km west of the town of Iringa and forms part of the southern safari circuit. The dirt road from Iringa to Ruaha is very good and takes about t wo-and-a-half to three hours to cover. If you’ve driven up from SA then another couple of hours along a drit road isn’t much in the greater scheme of things. The Trans-Tanzam highway (the main route through Tanzania and Zambia) passes along Iringa, so one is able to get pretty close to the park on perfect tarmac.
So why would you want to visit Ruaha? No, it doesn’t have a million wildebeest, but there are the giraffe-eating lion that move around in large prides of well over 20. If you’re camping, chances are good you’ll have the campsite all to yourself, as we did. We saw no other self-drive visitors during our stay, only those driven by tour operators – and they normally frequent the upmarket lodges within the park. We found this lack of people an attraction, especially considering the experience we’d had in some of Tanzania’s better-known attractions. Ruaha lies in a park of Tanzania that was used by trading caravans during the early part of the last century; continuous attacks by the Sendu people forced these caravans to head north in order to find alternative routes. But the time German East Africa came into being, the Wahehe tribe occupied the Ruaha area; they too were well-know for their fierce battle tactics, and once again this resulted in the area being given a wide berth. Perhaps the only good thing that came out of this last occupation was when the area was declared the Saba Game Reserve. In 1964 it was declared a National Park and today is the second biggest park in Tanzania, pipped only by the Selous.
Not a great deal has changed in the park since those days; just ask Chris Fox who apart from a few years of schooling in Devon, has spent his entire life here and now runs Mwagusi, one of the park’s best lodges. The area’s popularity hasn’t been helped by the drying up of the Great Ruaha River, which in turn had had an adverse effect on animal numbers such as the buffalo whose numbers are down from 32 000 to only a few thousand. “Buffalo used to be the primary food source for the lions and it was not uncommon to see up to five brought down in a day. Not so anymore and the lions are not targeting the giraffe, something that was previously very rare.” Comments Chris. The ivory trade of the ‘80’s decimated elephant numbers in Ruaha from 40 000 to only 9 000 and only recently has the population increased to some 12 000 ellies.
The park’s name is derived from the word Luvaha which means “great” in the Hehe language; crossing the Great Ruaha River at the bridge located at the park’s southern entrance gate gave me cause to wonder: was this the Great Ruaha River? This is the only official park entrance, although locals told me of a few hunters’ trails that allow access from the north-west, but these are hard to find. While I went in to pay our park fees the rest of our crew stood on the bridge, surveying this lifeline to the thousands of animals that occupy Ruaha. While this was once a perennial river, today it is dry for up to several months of the year due to activities further upstream.
It was still flowing while we were there, hence our choice to camp at once of the riverside sites not too far from the Msembe HQ. We were the only people at the site and park officials had kindly left us some complimentary wood. While driving into the campsite once of our tyres picked up a nail and as our compressor had given up the ghost I had to visit HQ for assistance once I’d made repairs. The staff were extremely helpful even though it was after home time and the workshop was locked. I gave them a little something as a token of my thanks, making them very happy.
When one thinks of Serengeti one thinks of vast open plains; when I think of Ruaha I think of granite koppies and dense vegetation. There are four distinct vegetation zones within the park: river valley, open grassland, Miombo woodland and undulating countryside where the baobabs dominate. The are around HQ is thick bush and elephants are plentiful, as there’s water close by.
As we made our way towards the popular Mwayembe Hill we drove through a rather nervous looking herd of buffalo – less than a mile down the track we discovered the source of their unhappiness: one of their kin had just been taken down by a lion. There were already several lion on the kill including several cubs. A few minutes later more arrived and soon we were surrounded by over 20 lions, a situation that makes one feel very small and helpless. For the next hour or so we just sat and observed as they slowly reduced this buffalo to a bloodied pile of hide and bones.
The park’s roads are in good condition and the unique signage system helped us to easily navigate our way about. One of the attractions at Ruaha are the wild dogs and lesser kudu, both of which we failed to see during our visit. I wish we’d had more time to spend in the park; due to its size it’s the kind of place you need a few days to explore.
Twenty percent of the park lies next to the Greater Ruaha River and it’s in the land adjacent to the river where one finds the biggest concentration of animals, which gives rise to one of the challenges facing Ruaha.
Legislation approved by government last year details plans to double the size of the four existing camps in Ruaha, and the construction of several new facilities. This might well turn the areas adjacent to the rivers into Serengeti pr Ngorongoro type parks. It will be a sad day when this mass tourism kicks in as roads will worsen (the Tanzanian government doesn’t invest in its park roads, they merely complain that there are too many vehicles on them). Only time will tell what happens at Ruaha.
However, let me conclude this piece with the following advice: pack your bags and head for Ruaha – right now it’s an undiscovered jewel in Tanzania’s wildlife crown, but it’s not going to stay that way for too long.
This is my first sight of Ruaha, and already one question is running through my head. Why did I wait so long? There is a rawness here I have never seen before. It’s the real thing, the unexpurgated Africa of long ago, and I can’t wait to explore it.
Waiting to greet me is Chris Fox, a barefoot figure in faded khaki shirt and shorts. Chris is the owner of Mwagusi, the best lodge in the park. “Straight to camp or the scenic route?” he asks. I choose the second option and head for Kimilamatonge Hill, a landmark I will get to know well in the days to come.
It is late September, deep in the dry season. The blue skies are hazy with the smoke of bush fires. The combretum thickets are in flower, and kudu – the males with handsome corkscrew horns – are nibbling at the flame-red blossoms.
Eventually we reach camp: eight spacious bandas on the banks of the bone-dry Mwagusi River. Each one has a high-peaked roof of makuti thatch, giving them the air of Noah’s arks left stranded among the rocks, although Noah never lived in such comfort. There are hot showers, a same-day laundry service and a hammock on the veranda where I can chill with a glass of mango juice and watch elephants digging for water in the riverbed.
At lunch I meet a fellow guest, an American called Ed who says he’s been all over Africa but doesn’t bother to go anywhere else now because nowhere is better than Ruaha. “I’ve been here only two days and already I have seen three cheetahs, two leopards and God knows how many lions,” he says.
Over much of Africa lions are declining, but not in Ruaha. Chris Fox knows of 185 within 20 miles of the camp, and he’s not spinning a yarn. I know this because one night five nomadic males pay us a visit. For the next two hours they roar and roar.
They are hell-bent on a pride take-over and their message to the resident males is clear: bring it on. Next morning I find their tracks outside my door – each paw print as big as my outstretched hand.
Ed is right. There is nowhere better, and with each passing day, following its red ochre game trails among the smouldering purple hills, I can feel the Ruaha getting under my skin. Unlike the Serengeti plains, there is nothing gentle about it.
Its beauty is of an altogether harsher kind. The parched plains are littered with granite boulders, and wherever you look grotesque baobabs as old as London stretch their bare branches against the sky as if begging for rain.
By chance my visit has coincided with the arrival of John “Steve” Stephenson, the Ruaha’s first game warden. Now in his 80s and living in Dorset, he has come back to see how the park has fared since he helped to establish it in 1962.
Together with Chris we visit the palm grove beside the Mwagusi where he arrived in his beaten-up old Land Rover to set up the park’s first HQ. We poke around in the grass, but apart from an overgrown slab of concrete no trace of the original buildings remains. “It’s as if those days had never been,” he says. But he is overjoyed when we find a lioness suckling two cubs where he used to stroll.
I asked Steve if the park had changed. “There was lots more water in the Ruaha river,” he said. “But once you get into the bush it’s as wild as ever.” Back at camp a bush dinner has been prepared with tables set out in the sandy riverbed.
As we eat under the stars our meal is interrupted by a line of chanting figures coming out of the darkness, each one carrying a lantern that swings in time to the rhythm of their song. Without any prompting, the camp staff are putting on a show to welcome Steve back to the park he put on the map half a century ago.
Next morning we set off on a game drive before the dawn. Elephants cross the road in front of us, led by a matriarch with ragged ears, and as we pass through a grove of baobabs Chris points out a tree with pegs hammered into its bloated trunk by generations of honey-hunters.
On we go, looking for lions along the sand rivers, and with every mile I find myself slipping deeper under Ruaha’s spell. In September the landscape is everywhere painted in the muted colours of the dry season, but at this hour everything glows like amber. It’s the same in the evening, in the golden hour before sundown when we spot three cats in the grass: a mother cheetah and her two cubs.
Over so much of Africa our covenant with the wild has been broken beyond repair. But not here. Not yet. These Ruaha cheetahs no longer run at the sight of a vehicle. The youngsters are almost full-grown and lie apart from their mother, calling to her with un-cat-like chirrups. When at last she rejoins them they rub against each other in an orgy of affection, then jump down into the riverbed and pose for our cameras on a fallen tree trunk.
By now I have realised how lucky I am to have Chris Fox as my guide. Like so many men who grow up in the wild, he oozes charisma. Over a bush breakfast on the banks of the Mwagusi he tells me about the female leopard that sometimes sleeps on his bedroom floor, and I have no reason to disbelieve him. Apart from schooldays spent in Devon, he has known the Ruaha all his life and his passion for it shines through in everything he says.
When he was a boy he and his family were often the only visitors. He remembers how, as an eight-year-old, he would go hunting on foot with his father in this secret, unheard-of paradise.
“Those were the days when a character known as Old Man Scotty used to hunt crocodiles in the Great Ruaha River,” he recalls. “Scotty used an aluminium boat he’d converted from the fuselage of a crashed light aircraft and hunted at night by torchlight, shooting the crocs between the eyes with the same.22 he turned on himself when hunting was banned.”
Even after Ruaha was given national park status in 1964 it continued to be overlooked, and in the mid-1970s its very survival was put at risk by a rice-growing scheme on the Usangu plains – the main catchment area for the Great Ruaha River.
Today the river is so starved of water that it ceases to flow for four months of the year, with disastrous effects for the vast buffalo herds that were the main prey for Ruaha’s lions. “What a sight it was,” says Chris, “to see 1,000 buffaloes, a wall of horns confronting a determined pride.
Often they would bring down five in a single raid. Then the river dried up. The buffs crashed, from 32,000 to 2,000, and those ancient confrontations are history.” Then came the 1980s, the dark decade when the ivory poachers moved in and the elephant population fell from 40,000 to just 9,000.
Every dry season the park went up in smoke as the poachers set their bush fires, and on moonlit nights the woodlands echoed to the sound of gunfire and the whooping of hyenas drawn to the carcasses. At its peak, ivory poaching accounted for 1,500 elephants every year, and rumour has it that the railway built by the Chinese was paid for with the blood of Ruaha’s elephants.
“I thought I would never see an end to the killing,” Fox confesses. But he did. In 1987 a new warden arrived, vowing he would stop the poaching.
“I listened politely but didn’t believe him,” says Fox. “After all, Ruaha was the punishment posting, Tanzania’s most neglected park. But he was true to his word. As the year progressed he drove out the poachers and in 1988 the ivory trade ban ended the killing.”
Now, two decades on, things are looking up. Ruaha’s elephant population has risen to 30,000 – the largest in East Africa – and when the adjoining Usangu game reserve is added, Ruaha will become second only to Kafue in Zambia as the biggest national park in the whole continent.
Visitors, too, are increasing. Twenty years ago Ruaha attracted little more than 350 tourists a year. Today that number has risen to 6,000 – but not enough to satisfy the Tanzanians.
A new national tourism policy drafted last year contains radical proposals that could change the face of Ruaha forever. These plans would double the size of the park’s four existing camps and encourage new ones, bringing mass tourism to what has hitherto been a pristine wilderness.
You might wonder how such an increase could possibly spoil a park twice the size of Belgium. But while the Ruaha looks big on a map, its prime game-viewing circuits are confined to little more than 60 miles of tracks beside the Mwagusi and Ruaha Rivers.
Beyond this stunningly beautiful core area, much of the park consists of monotonous miombo – the crackling-dry woodland of southern Tanzania – where game is sparse and tsetse flies can make life a misery. Far better, urge conservationists, to establish new low-volume, high-yield camps in the Usangu wetlands for the lucrative top-end tourist market.
If ever a park depended upon responsible tourism it is Ruaha. Until now, remoteness has proved its salvation. To fly there from Dar es Salaam still takes the best part of three hours, so it can never hope to compete with easy-to-reach destinations such as the Serengeti or Masai Mara.
These thoughts cast a shadow across my stay, but are set aside next morning when we go out early to look for leopards.
When you have been away from Africa for a long time the eye hungers for the sight of a leopard. Why this should be so is hard to describe, but big cat junkies will know the feeling. It is not just that exquisitely dappled coat, or the leopard’s secretive lifestyle. There is something else. Even the unseen presence of this elegant carnivore injects every game drive with an extra frisson of excitement.
So picture the scene at dawn: the baobabs casting long shadows across the road and a big male leopard stalking guinea fowl in the backlit grass. Chris recognises him at once. “His mother is the one that visits my bedroom,” he whispers.
As we appear the hunt is aborted. Exit guinea fowl in a clatter of wings; tail held in a graceful curve, the leopard strolls nonchalantly towards us. As he walks past our vehicle I can barely resist this insane desire to reach out and stroke him. Then, with not so much as a backward glance, he is gone, melting into the boundless thickets of the park that time forgot.