November 2007 A visit to Ruaha National Park

I had not been to Ruaha since 1986 so was excited to spend 9 nights there. My wife Tati and I drove the long tarmac route down from Arusha via Moshi and Morogoro and had heavy rain for 10 of the 14 hour drive. Once we crossed the beautiful Udzungwa Mountains - which create a barrier to the early rains - we were into very dry country again. The next day we drove into Ruaha and on to Mdonya Old River camp arriving by late afternoon. Getting there two nights before our guests arrived, it was our plan to explore a little and relax after that two day hard drive south from Arusha.

Ruaha was really dry and the main river reduced to tiny pools of stagnant water - thankfully this park has numerous springs and seepages that are fed from the North East running escarpment that dominates the views within this fine wildlife area. Having said that the elephants and buffalos looked thin, the hippos seemed doomed and some zebra were very lethargic. Water dependant animals were not doing so well. The giraffe, greater kudu and impala seemed in good health and the big numbers of these species in Ruaha is a joy.

[2007/11a/07.jpg]Mdonya Old River camp sign

[2007/11a/13.jpg]The view from a Mdonyo Old River camp tent

[2007/11a/06.jpg]Mdonya Old River Camp Bush office

Over the next 8 days we explored this park, along its many newly graded roads, and many of the back roads that have seen little maintenance for a good while, and, as this was primarily a birding safari, we sought out as much variety of habitant as possible to maximize the bird species we encountered. Our guests had never been to true Miombo woodlands before in their 14 visits to Africa, so we did three very long days out exploring these woodlands, mainly on top of the escarpment. Lifers (a bird species seen for the first time) for them numbered more than 12 and I even saw two new ones!

[2007/11a/12.jpg]The Ruaha River was very dry

[2007/11a/08.jpg]Ruaha birding is excellent

[2007/11a/02.jpg]A Miombo track

The impression of Ruaha that lingers is of a grand landscape that supports an incredibly diverse plant life, which in turn allows a wide ranging amount of wildlife. The grand views from the escarpment, the tunnel like rough car tracks in the Miombo woodlands, the stark dryness of the low lands and then the sudden surprise when arriving at a spring or shaded riverine drainage.

The increasing humidity in November does trigger a change- the 1000’s of baobabs here were in flower, the acacias had new leaf and had started to flower, the Miombo woodlands were full of new growth and even a few ground flowers (yet to be identified) and each hot day we were willing the rains to come. Over the past two decades the main river has been drained/diverted up river from the park to flood rice fields and, as modern rice growing methods are wasteful by not re-diverting back into the river, and growing rice also in the dry season when the river most needs the water, this grand river that I crossed over twenty years ago by a ferry for my land rover has been reduced to sad looking pools of rank water.

The wildlife that is more water dependant has suffered with a massive reduction of buffalo and elephant numbers. TANAPA is trying to do something about this and has recently increased the park by 70% or so to include the Usangu flats that could, once protected, hold more water in the dry months. The rice producers need to be curtailed and made to understand the effect they have had here. National parks are investing in new roads and bridges to allow more camps to be established in Ruaha, and the park plan has divided this huge wildlife area into 3 massive zones. The high use zone is obviously below the escarpment and the low use and wilderness zones that are on top of the escarpment will still offer visitors wild places to explore. The reality is that investment needs payback and I sincerely hope that the efforts by TANAPA to attract more visitors and improve the dry season water levels in the main river bear fruit and Ruaha once again is recognised as one of Africa’s finest wildlife areas. But to be honest I felt a little sadness for Ruaha and hope this great area recovers - please send the rains there now!

[2007/11a/03.jpg]A Ruaha Bull crosses a sand river after drinking

[2007/11a/11.jpg]Ruaha zebra dig for water in November

[2007/11a/01.jpg]A Lichtenstein's Hartebeest

[2007/11a/09.jpg]Ruaha Klipspringers

Our mammal list included Roan, Lichtenstein’s Hartebeest, Zebra, lesser and greater Kudu, 1000’s of giraffe and impala, grey duicker, bushbuck, Dik Dik, one grant’s gazelle, buffalo, elephant, sad hippos and very fat lions! The females of which seemed huge to my eyes. The other guests at camp were seeing up to 30 lions a day, but as we were more interested in the birds, our drives took us away from the main routes to explore as much as possible. Our bird list was extensive with great views of some very special species. I won’t bore you with an extensive list!

2007 has been a truly full year with many wonderful safaris, some major conservation debates and I look forward to 2008 with apprehension. Please read the debate(external link) on the New Wildlife regulations and you will understand my concerns.

[2007/11a/04.jpg]A Ruaha Chat-yet to be named by science.

[2007/11a/10.jpg]Ruaha Red Necked Falcons

[2007/11a/05.jpg]Combretum flowers attract a red cheeked cordon-bleu

[2007/11a/14.jpg]White headed Lapwing

Many thanks are due the staff and management at Mdonya Old River camp who did a great job of looking after us. Thanks to Malcolm at their head office (an old friend from Tarangire) and Marco – the assistant manager at camp- everything went very well and all the flight connections worked perfectly. The only down side to this safari was that England was knocked out of the Euro football championship competition!

Happy birding and seasonal greetings – Paul.