My expectations of Ruaha National Park in Tanzania were high, but they were easily exceeded during my two days there – with an amazing drive up to Ruaha National Park, an abundance of wildlife compared to virtually no other tourists, an unparalleled landscape, several carcasses, the fearsome roar of a lion in close proximity and a thrilling chase by a herd of angry elephants. If you want to see wildlife, go to any national park in Tanzania. But if you want to experience the wild life, I strongly vouch for a safari adventure in Ruaha National Park.
For a perfect safari adventure in Ruaha, you will need a perfect team. My guide Joseph and driver/guide George were so energetic, passionate and excited about the trip, it sometimes seemed like it was also their first time to Ruaha National Park. We met at the small Iringa Airport and immediately drove straight to Ruaha National Park. The roads were rough, the landscape ever changing and we hardly saw any other tourists. In the two days I’ve spent there, I probably saw less than five tourist jeeps. Ruaha National Park was freedom for me. We simply drove and drove through the wilderness for hours. At first, my untrained eye only recognized the beauty of the landscapes, but with the help of Joseph and George, I quickly also discovered dozens of zebras, elephants, hyraxes, hippopotamuses, impalas, crocodiles, kudus, buffaloes, boars, baboons, velvet monkeys, jackals, giraffes, lions and dozens of birds. The surprises hidden within Ruaha National Park seemed to have no limits.
Far inside of Ruaha National Park, we spotted some vultures on top of a tree, which usually means one thing: an animal carcass that they didn’t dare to approach yet. Why not? Predators, probably lions. Our assumption was quickly confirmed when a terrible smell and the sound of hundreds of flies hit us seconds before we found a huge decaying body of a young elephant. The stomach was ripped open and the trunk was gone. For a second there, I felt like in the scene of Jurassic Park where the scientist found the sick triceratops. I was standing on the co-driver’s seat, documenting the elephant carcass through the opened roof and opened window. My awe quickly turned into fear when I suddenly realized that we had driven directly next to two lionesses, lying in the shades of a bush. The lioness unexpectedly erected herself and I immediately dropped like a rock into my seat and broke the USB charger of George. It’s unlikely that the lionesses had actually killed the elephant (it probably died from disease), but it was still the nearest and least protected I’ve ever been to such dangerous animals. I quickly tried to laugh off my insane adrenalin rush, apologized for the broken USB charger and decided that this had been enough action for a day…how wrong I was! Nothing could have prepared me for the even more thrilling wildlife encounter shortly after: very, very angry elephants.
The sun was slowly setting over Ruaha National Park, when Joseph spotted a herd of elephants right next to the dirt road. Four big elephants with two baby elephants. I started recording with my GoPro Hero 3+ and took dozens of photos with my DSLR camera. We turned the engine off to reduce noise and vibration. The baby elephant looked at us and stretched out its trunk – so incredibly cute. It almost seemed like posing. We had watched the elephant herd for a couple of minutes, when they seemed to slowly regroup – hiding the kids and facing us directly. I looked at Joseph who knew what I was thinking. He then said to me: “You see how they raised their trunks and they’re ‘smelling’ at us? It’s a warning. They feel threatened. Next, they will open their ears.” And as predicted, they opened their ears, still looking at us. George started the engine of the jeep. “You see? You see? They will charge. It’s a warning. If they take a few steps back, they will charge.” And charge they did. I’m not an elephant expert, but I knew two things at that point: first, elephants can easily crush a car, as they can even pull out entirely rooted trees. Second, they’re fast. Ridiculously fast. And sure enough, the elephant got bigger and bigger – time to hit the gas. Then everything happened very quickly. The loud trumpeting of the elephants, the howling of our engine, huge dust clouds and my panicked laugh. We had already driven roughly 500 meters when we realized that they were still closely chasing us! We drove off again, passing a group of zebras, which all started to run over the dirt road right after – subsequently blocking the elephants’ path, which luckily forced them to slow down again. As they stopped, we stopped. After a few seconds of staring into each others eyes, the angry elephant mother and I silently agreed on peace. Then we safely drove off – peace!
Did you enjoy our Ruaha National Park adventure so far?
But before we could end our adventure safari in Ruaha National Park, the king of animals demanded that we would first pay our respects. He was walking alone on the road when we spotted him already from far away. We slowly drove up to him and he didn’t seem to mind. Nobody in the car dared to say anything, while the lion confidently walked along and roared (it sounded more like moaning): insanely loud and deep bursts of sound that reached every part of our guts. The appearance of the lion king in free wilderness was already intimidating, but his powerful roar took it to an entirely new level. It was absolutely frightening. He was marking his territory, his kingdom. And after this mighty appearance, I was definitely not going to stay in the way of that.
The day ended with good laughs, memories for life, a cool local beer and a clear night sky with several shooting stars. We could have slept outside of Ruaha National Park, but I preferred to stay in bandas (little huts) inside of Ruaha. Advantages being that you wouldn’t have to first drive into Ruaha National Park the next day and being able to enjoy the wildlife already during the morning hours. Before we could go to bed, however, a ranger had to scare an adult elephant away from our bandas (by knocking with a metal rod against the house). I sneaked into my banda and tiredly fell asleep, occasionally hearing the King of Ruaha National Park several kilometers away.
Generally, there are two options on how to get to Ruaha National Park. The first and more expensive option is to fly right into Ruaha National Park. You’ll need a privately chartered aircraft or book Auric Air (coming from Dar es Salaam or Iringa) for this. However, I recommend the second option: getting to Ruaha National Park by car. It’s mostly dirt roads, but you’ll pass by many beautiful Tanzanian villages where children will wave at you and shout out “pipi!” (candy in Swahili). It’s about a two hour ride from Iringa to the entrance of Ruaha National Park. Getting to Iringa is easiest by air (usually only from Dar es Salaam with Auric Air), but you can also take a long-distance bus from almost every city (including Arusha or Moshi. It will take roughly 13 hours, however). I personally flew to Iringa where Joseph and George were kind enough to pick me up. On the way back, I took the long-distance bus to Moshi. It’s very cheap, but extremely exhausting and actually fairly dangerous due to the reckless driving style throughout Tanzania. On a final note, let me assure you that Ruaha National Park is truly a hidden gem and probably one of the best-kept “secret” national parks of the country. Every bit of effort getting there will be absolutely worth it, so don’t complain.
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I founded Don't Complain Travel in 2010 with the goal to experience, document and share travel adventures from all over the world. From Zurich, Switzerland.