Our Africa expert Peter explains just why you should explore Ruaha National Park in Tanzania - one of Africa’s last great wildernesses - for an exceptional luxury safari holiday in Africa.
Tanzania has been top of the list for safari-goers for many years, with most heading to the north of the country to visit the renowned Ngorongoro Crater and to see the spectacular Great Migration, when herds of wildebeest and zebras make their way across the plains of the Serengeti.
However, there’s even more to a safari in Tanzania than that. The south of the country is home to a number of superb national parks and game reserves which offer a wonderful and quieter alternative to the busier parks on the Northern Circuit, including the Ruaha National Park.
A secluded safari experience
To set some perspective here, the Ruaha National Park occupies some 22,000 square kilometres (roughly the size of Denmark) with just nine lodges within the park. By contrast, the Serengeti National Park, at 14,700 square kilometres (slightly larger than the Bahamas) has around 175 lodges, including seasonal mobile operations. Whilst visitors to the Serengeti will see tens of other vehicles every day, those who spend time in Ruaha will only see a handful of vehicles from other camps each day, ensuring a wonderfully private and exclusive safari experience.
Wildlife spotting and beautiful landscapes
When it comes to wildlife, Ruaha has a huge population of elephants, which number around 12,000, as well as some 2,000 lions (10% of the world’s lion population), alongside leopards, wild dogs, large herds of buffalo and wonderfully varied plains game - so it rivals anywhere else in Tanzania for wildlife viewing. Add to this a beautiful landscape of baobab-studded plains, miombo woodland-dominated hillsides and the Great Ruaha and Mwagusi rivers, and you have one of the most scenic parks in Africa.
Ruaha's emergence on the scene
So why has Ruaha been regarded for so long as a hidden gem, rather than one of the country's more mainstream national parks?
Access has always been an issue with Ruaha - unlike northern Tanzania, the road network in the south is virtually non-existent, meaning visitors need to fly in to the park, which can be expensive as well as off-putting for those who don’t like small planes. Also, the smaller number of lodges means that the park doesn’t have the same presence as the Serengeti, so many visitors will gravitate to the more well-known north where the accommodation options and safari experiences are more well-known.
However, in recent years, Ruaha has been starting to grow in both reputation and the number of lodges, and is becoming a viable alternative to the busy and increasingly expensive north. Old favourite camps such as Kwihala and Mwagusi have been in the park for years and continue to be popular with guests, whilst the wonderful Beho Beho is a perfect option for understated luxury.
True luxury comes to Ruaha
Ruaha has been missing one key ingredient to bring it international attention - a true luxury accommodation option - but that all changed in late 2017 when Asilia Africa, a renowned East African lodge operator, opened the breathtaking Jabali Ridge, which has helped to really put Ruaha on the map.
Perched on top of a rocky kopje, Jabali is home to eight beautifully designed rooms, all of which command stunning views out across the bush. The main area of the lodge is a multi-layered series of decks with a dining area, bar and lounge, a small library, a curio shop and a swimming pool perched on the top level of the lodge with a self-service bar for guests to help themselves from whilst relaxing there. On one side of the lodge is a private house, hosting up to four adults and two children in the utmost privacy.
With superb food, attentive service and outstanding guiding, Jabali has really raised the bar in Ruaha and is helping to establish this area as a luxury safari destination, rather than one for the purists, as it has been in the past.
The future of Ruaha
All signs seem to point to the fact that this could be the path Ruaha is set on for the foreseeable future, with new areas being earmarked for lodge development, the internal park road network being opened up and access to the park being improved, which will help facilitate the new lodges springing up. The sheer size of the park means that these new lodges can be easily absorbed without affecting visitor experience - but there is a certain magic in knowing that you are one of a just a handful of visitors in this sprawling, untamed landscape. This is especially true for visitors who head to Ruaha in the shoulder season between November and March, and also in June, when many lodges are less than half full.
Naturally Ruaha is never going to become another Serengeti, with lodges popping up all over the place and vehicle numbers increasing in peak season, but I would advise getting there before it becomes more mainstream, so you can boast of having spent quality time in this vast wilderness and shared it with virtually no-one else - just the wildlife.
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