Long in the shadow of the iconic northern circuit wilderness areas, the parks and reserves of the southern and western reaches of Tanzania are undoubtedly the greatest happening in African safari today. Undeveloped and wild, and boasting exceptional wildlife the southern parks are gaining a reputation as the place for a safari to Africa.
© Girafef encounter near katavi Wilderness Camp
The Southern Tanzania Safari Circuit consists principally of the Selous Game Reserve and Ruaha National Park. Both of these are wild, remote and harder to get to than the northern parks. But for the visitors who do make it to this area, the rewards are great - the landscape is very different from the northern parks and the species found here differ too, with some southern African mammals such as kudu being present alongside East African residents.
Even more remote than the Selous and Ruaha wilderness areas are Katavi and Mahale national parks in the 'wild west' of the country. Mahale, only accessible by boat, offers the chance to watch the wild chimpanzees that inhabit its dense forest. Katavi, by contrast, offers wide open plains full of huge herds of buffalo and antelope, alongside rivers heaving with hippos and crocs.
Ruaha National Park
Ruaha National Park is Tanzania's second largest
, a vast wilderness in the south-west of the country visited by only a handful of travellers each year. At the park's heart is the well-named Great Ruaha River, a massive watercourse that dwindles to only a few pools in the dry season, but bursts its banks and roars over boulders at the height of the rains.
Converging with the Great Ruaha are hundreds of sand rivers
, natural game corridors when dry and sparklingly clear streams when wet. Waterbuck, impala and the world's most southerly Grant's gazelle risk their lives for a sip of water - the shores of the Ruaha are a permanent hunting ground for lion, leopard, jackal, hyena and the rare and endangered African wild dog. Ruaha's elephants are recovering strongly from ivory poaching in the 1980s and remain the largest population in East Africa.
Ruaha represents a transition zone
where eastern and southern species of flora and fauna overlap - lesser and greater kudu co-exist with northern species such as Grant's gazelle. Rare sable and roan antelope are also here in abundance.
Between the rivers is a massive, completely unspoilt landscape of plains, rocky gullies, thick miombo woodland and distant purple hills. Ruaha is a dramatic park, its scenery ever-changing and full of detail - the white blossoms that appear on the bald, stark branches of baobab trees
, or the gigantic blue-black granite boulders that lie in tumbled plains in the river valleys.
This drama also extends to one episode in the area's history - Ruaha was the scene of the beginning of the Maji Maji (or 'water') rebellion, a widespread revolt in which various southern Tanzanian tribes, led by a charismatic spiritual leader named Songea, rose up against their German overlords at the turn of the 20th century. The warriors who led their people into battle
were protected by sacred water given to them by Songea and believed that this water, once drunk or applied to the body, would stop the bullets of the colonialists. The water itself came from a set of sacred springs that today still bubble up in green, pungent swamps within the borders of the park.
Ruaha Wildlife Highlights:
Described by ecologists as the park of the future Ruaha is considered the crossover between southern and east Africa in terms of species distribution, leading it to be considered one of the best birding destinations in Tanzania. Ruaha is the southern-most range of the lesser Kudu and Grants Gazelle. It also hosts a big predator population and herds of elephant and buffalo.
Selous Game Reserve
Named after Frederick Courteney Selous, a Victorian hunter and naturalist, the Selous Game Reserve is one of the earth's last great wild places
: 55,000 square kilometres of untamed bush, untouched forests, crocodile-filled lakes and emerald green floodplains. That's slightly larger than Switzerland, four times as big as the Serengeti, and the second biggest protected natural area in the world. Uninhabited since an outbreak of sleeping sickness evacuated the human population back in 1945, the Selous is one of the few places on earth, and certainly in Africa, that visitors can find utter, perfect solitude of the kind described by Peter Matthiessen in his bestseller Sand Rivers.
'Behind the heat and the still trees resounds the ringing that I hear when watched by something I cannot see... The power and the waiting in the air
...the stillness of the glittering water, the yellow water lilies and the tawny marsh grass, the circle of still trees that hide this lovely place from the outside world, the resounding silence and expectancy, as though the creatures of the earth's first morning might come two by two between the trees at any moment...'
Walking through the Selous, in the same way as Matthiessen did, is harder work than driving, and doesn't provide the same number of 'instant hit' game sightings. But stick at it and sooner or later you will be rewarded, perhaps, with the electric excitement of creeping towards a young bull elephant browsing
in a patch of miombo woodland, closer and closer until you can hear his stentorian breathing and see the little midges that cluster in the corner of his eyes. Brown mud is caked on his skin, the edges of his ears are delicately ragged, and still the distance shortens until the life force of him is right upon you, ears flapping suspiciously, and the camera becomes an imposition, an impossibility, an obstacle that must be laid aside in favour of simply gaping with a foolish grin and pounding heart...
And at the end of the day, fly-camping with just a mosquito net between the sleeper and the stars, nothing can disturb the feeling that one might be the first visitor, or even the first person, to come here - Adam or Eve, drifting off to sleep in the Garden of Eden.
Selous Wildlife Highlights:
Gaining a reputation as Africa's greatest wildlife sanctuary, Selous is home to more than a million animals including the largest elephant population in Tanzania and one of the largest wild dog populations in Africa. Other predators such as lion are plentiful.
Mahale National Park
The green-carpeted mountains rise dramatically into the sky, their tops wisped with steamy clouds. Eagles wheel across the peaks, the sacred burial grounds of Tongwe chiefs. Deep in the forest, with its trailing vines and tangled creepers, a high, shrieking hoot is heard, followed by a wild screaming and a deafening crash of branches. Suddenly a chimpanzee appears
on the rock-strewn path, teeth bared defensively and massive shoulders hunched in aggression. This is the alpha male of the group, Fenana, making his presence felt to the fifty or so chimps that are presently feeding in this part of the forest. He breaks off a branch and charges, flailing the leaves wildly around his head in a wild display of power. The second and third ranking males, who had been enjoying a nap in a pool of sunshine at the edge of the trees, hastily make way, shrieking placatingly and stretching their mouths into deferential smiles.
Unconcerned by the din, an elderly female and a young adolescent clasp each other's hands above their heads as they painstakingly groom the skin parasites from their armpits. A young female with a baby
appears suddenly from the undergrowth - as she joins in the grooming, her baby jumps down from his jockey-style position on her back and amuses himself turning somersaults and chasing the giant blue butterflies that flutter past in the shafts of sunlight that filter down through the trees.
Just another ordinary day for the Japanese research team who have been studying this group of chimpanzees
continually since 1965, doing work just as valuable as their better-known neighbour, Jane Goodall, a few hundred kilometres away in Gombe Stream. Thanks to their work the chimpanzees, while still 100% wild, are fully habituated to human beings, and can be joined in the forest by small groups of visitors, who make the steep climb up through the humid forest to the apes' domain.
Untroubled by their observers, the chimps play out their family struggles and political campaigns in the safety of the National Park forest, demonstrating behaviour that shows how closely related they are to humans as they strip twigs to use as tools and hunt monkeys or bushpigs for meat, sharing out the spoils according to a complicated social system. Visitors can squat unnoticed
on pathways as the chimps nurse and play with their offspring, squabble among themselves over the choicest fruits and berries, or build nests of leaves and twigs in the treetops for a tranquil afternoon nap.
Walking in the forest, with the turquoise waters of Lake Tanganyika
twinkling tantalisingly through the trees far below, is sweaty, humid work. But an hour or two observing the chimpanzees going about their business, waiting breathlessly for the upshot of a hunt, or pressing oneself back into the bushes as a big male shoots by, is one of the most profound experiences to be had anywhere. And after the sweaty exertions of the morning, the clear, fresh waters of the lake beckon, fringed with beaches pristine enough to rival any on earth.
Mahale Mountains Wildlife Highlights:
The highlight of Mahale is undoubtedly the chimpanzees. One of the last strongholds of our closest ancestors, Mahale provides the best viewing in Africa. Other highlights include the amazing birdlife and insect variety - especially brightly coloured butterflies. Numerous other primates can also be seen.
Katavi National Park
The million acre Katavi National Park in western Tanzania is a place for the safari connoisseur - the African insiders' destination of choice. The tiny number of visitors who arrive have worked hard to get there - a four-hour flight in a tiny Cessna, or five days' bumping through hard roads in a Land Rover. But the reward is a perfect, unspoilt wilderness
where rules are left far behind - one can set off on foot along river banks, or track game cross-country across the plains in any direction, far from the nearest road.
In streams, creeks and muddy pools, hundreds of hippo
lie packed together, their silage smell thickening the air and the marshlands resounding with their symphony of grunts and snorts. Calves wallow next to their obese mothers, tiny, unformed snouts resting along the backs of their elders to avoid being squashed into the mire. The hippos of Katavi don't huddle defensively in the water during daylight hours, as though besieged - so confident are they in their vast habitat that they roam the plains contentedly in the sunlight, trotting purposefully across the grass.
It is fitting that the crocodile, that most prehistoric of reptiles
, thrives in the primeval atmosphere of Katavi. The slim, yellow and brown spotted females wriggle on their bellies up the riverbanks to sunbathe, skidding back into the river at the first sign of disturbance. The larger, thick-skinned males slither in and out of the holes they've excavated in the soft mud, gimlet eyes coldly surveying the muddy waters for prey.
Away from the plains, in Katavi's sun-dappled, mysterious woodlands, white cape chestnut trees glow among the acacias and wild figs. A moving mass of shadow becomes a herd of elephant, padding silently along between the trees on their way to the plains, relaxed trunks swinging like pendulums between their forelegs. The silent, graceful form of a giraffe sways away in alarm across a clearing, and on rare, lucky occasions, the honey-coloured shape of a rare puku antelope is glimpsed at the edge of the trees.
Driving in dry season across the primeval swamplands
, with the dry leaves of Borassus palm trees rustling eerily in the wind, it's easy to believe one has entered a lost world, a world in which the beasts rule and man is merely an insignificant mammal, tolerated only at the mercy of the animals. Massive herds of buffalo, visible in the distance as an endless line of black dots wavering in the heat haze, scatter across the yellow dry season grasses. Prides of lion, glutted with prey, roar in the darkness every night. In the wet season, the plains turn brightest green, with the buffalo mired happily in black mud and thousands of birds soaring above the flooded riverbanks.
In any season, though, the lack of human visitors
means that the game is still as wild as it was at the dawn of time. The elephant still charge, the impala still leap gracefully into the air as they skitter away through the trees at the approach of a human. This is Africa as it once was - pure, wild and endlessly exciting.
Katavi Wildlife Highlights:
Vast plains of untouched Africa are home to huge herds of buffalo and other antelope. Predators abound and during the dry season the massive concentration of hippos in the drying pools is a once in a lifetime sight. Birdlife is prolific.