Ruaha National Park: a fascinating escape

Majestic baobab tree shading a herd of impala in Ruaha

Welcome to the wild landscapes and infinite wildlife of Ruaha National Park. Where marvellous mornings lead to adventurous afternoons and fiery sunsets.

This article guides first-time visitors through one of Tanzania’s best hidden gems. It covers when to go, park highlights, animals to see, and how to have the best Southern Highlands safari experience possible.

Tanzania’s lesser-known yet largest national park (it is even bigger than Serengeti National Park) packs in an enormous amount of adventure for those willing to seek it.

From picturesque scenes of predators tracking prey to elephants siphoning up water from otherwise seemingly barren earth, this destination is not to be missed!

With over 20,000 square kilometres of mostly untouched African savannah, you should allow for two to three days of game drives mixed with walks, especially around the Ruaha River.

Unlike many of its sister parks up north, Ruaha National Park offers an especially wild and authentic environment. It has a drama and atmosphere unlike any other Tanzanian park.

Where is Ruaha National Park?

Riverbed dotted with palm trees in Ruaha National Park

Located in the heart of Tanzania, this massive park makes up part of the country’s lesser-known Southern Circuit. It lies to the west of the Selous Game Reserve, which was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site thanks to its undisturbed nature and diverse wildlife.

Ruaha National Park is far from Tanzania’s major cities and airports. This only makes for a more authentic and off-the-beaten path experience to those who make the trek.

With a vast archetypal African landscape to explore you will need time. The Njombe River in the northwest flows across a valley and to the Great Ruaha River in the southeast. To explore it all takes more than a day trip!

Getting there

The two ways to reach Ruaha National Park are by air and by road. Since the construction of a bridge across the Great Ruaha River, visitors can enter the park year-round, not only in the dry months but also during the rainy season when the river runs strong.

In the air

There are two airstrips in Ruaha National Park

There are regularly scheduled flights into Dodoma Airport (260 km north of Iringa) from Kilimanjaro Airport and Dar es Salaam. Then it’s a bumpy four-wheel drive journey to the park.

For those who fly on safari link flights, there are two airstrips used by the park: the Msembe Airstrip at Msembe (the park’s headquarters) and the Jongomero Airstrip (near the Jongomero Ranger Post).

Flying is obviously more expensive but will save long and arduous travel days. It’s also beautiful to discover Ruaha National Park from the air.

On the road

The majority of visitors coming by road will start their journey in the bustling port city of Dar es Salaam, about 625 km east. The town of Morogoro is a worthwhile stop along the way, with the towering Uluguru Mountains as the backdrop.

The entrance to the park is approximately 130 km from Iringa town. Be sure to hang onto your safari hats, as most of that road portion is not paved.

History of Ruaha National Park

Elephants quench their thirst in the Great Ruaha River, in Tanzania

The park’s history dates back to the early 1900s when it was originally considered a part of the Rungwa Game Reserve. It has been classified as a fully protected national park and held its own name since 1964.

The name “Ruaha” originates from the Hehe word for river, “ruvaha”, with the park being named after the Great Ruaha River that flows along its southeastern margin. The Mtera and Kidatu dams were constructed in the late 1970s in order to harness the strength of this river to power the majority of Tanzania’s hydroelectricity.

With humans affecting the environment, Ruaha National Park is no exception. The Great Ruaha was known to run dry, but it is now becoming a regular occurrence, with certain agricultural practices and rice-growing initiatives upstream causing the problem. This has been a serious ecological threat to the resident variety of wildlife, especially for river fish, crocodiles and hippos.

The Usungu Game Reserve and other wetlands in the Usangu Basin have been annexed into the park over the last decade. This has made Ruaha National Park the largest park in Tanzania as well as all of East Africa.

Ruaha National Park Highlights

Male lion yawning in Ruaha National Park, Tanzania

Ruaha National Park is a paradise for a variety of plants and animals, including those that cannot be found in any other national park. Safaris here are unique thanks to a largely untouched and unexplored ecosystem.

Here are ten highlights that make this park a definite must-visit for any traveller to Tanzania:

  • It’s a predator’s paradise, with a healthy population of leopards, lions, and cheetahs
  • Over 500 recorded species of birds
  • Guided walking safaris for an up-close and personal experience
  • Truly unique and diverse range of landscapes and habitats
  • Both the greater and lesser kudu co-exist here (something rarely seen on the continent)
  • An elephant population of over 10,000 strong
  • Hot air balloon safaris that offer bird’s eye views
  • One of the best places to see wild dogs in all of East Africa
  • Not many camps inside of the park, meaning an uncrowded safari experience
  • Sip on sundowners as you watch the sun set over the savannah

Ruaha wildlife

Hippo in pond, covered in vegetation

The concentration of predators is beyond exciting and better than most other parks in Tanzania. Ruaha is home to approximately 10% of the world’s lion population and has the third largest wild dog population in all of Africa.

The wild dogs are the real attraction to most safari goers and are especially easy to locate when they are denning from June to August.

There are only a handful of parks where these charismatic pack animals are easily observed and many parks simply do not have the space for them to thrive.

While all of the big cats are also regularly seen, the lion viewing around the Mwagusi area is particularly rewarding for those looking to see large prides. These prides can sometimes exceed twenty individuals and regularly attack large animals like Cape buffalo.

Ruaha is home to  several antelope species that you will struggle to see in  northern Tanzania, including the roan and sable antelopes, plus the greater and lesser kudu.

In fact, Ruaha is home to the largest population of greater kudu in all of East Africa. This unusually high diversity of antelope is one of the many Ruaha highlights.

There are huge elephant and buffalo herds that roam the park as well as a cross-over of game from Southern and Eastern Africa that help add to the variety.

There are no rhinos in Ruaha, so it is not a big five national park. But you don’t need the big five when the wildlife population is so diverse and abundant.

Top 20 wildlife highlights

Bird's eye view of a crocodile resting on a rock, in the Ruaha river

Birds and reptiles

Male red-headed rock agama during the breeding season, Ruaha

The park is a real paradise for birds in Tanzania, with over 500 species, including birds from other parts of the African continent.

The most substantial and visible populations are of the black-collared lovebird and ashy starlings. There are also six species of both hornbills and vultures, favourites to see for African bird enthusiasts.

Migrating species from Asia, Australia and Europe have also been recorded in the park. The red-billed wood hoopoe, racquet-tailed roller and violet-crested turaco are among the many coloured migrant bird species that visit the park.

The Usangu Basin wetland in Ruaha is recognised by Birdlife International as one of Tanzania’s most important habitats for birds.

Southern ground hornbill about to swallow an insect, Ruaha

You can expect to find water birds such as white-headed plovers, saddle-billed storks, goliath herons and the white-backed night heron along the park’s many rivers.

Raptor lovers will be pleased to find many bateleur and fish eagle, along with Eleonora’s falcon being very common at the beginning and end of the year.

Along with large mammals and feathery friends, the park is also home to a number of reptiles and amphibians. These include crocodiles, monitor lizards, frogs, poisonous and non-poisonous snakes and agama lizards.

Conservation efforts

Game drive in Ruaha National Park

The poaching of wild African animals has been happening for many generations, with many animals nearly being hunted to extinction.

While Ruaha’s elephant population is still one of the largest in any African national park, it used to have over 20,000 elephants recorded in the late 1960s and this dropped to below 5,000 in the span of only twenty years.

The park now boasts a population of close to 20,000 elephants in its most recent census. This is all thanks to the park’s successful anti-poaching action.

Africa lost more than 100,000 elephants between 2006 and 2015. This poaching surge has started to decline, little by little, with efforts being made by China with bans on the ivory trade.

Unfortunately, poaching will only really stop once locals no longer need to turn to this type of work in a desperate attempt to escape from years of harsh poverty.

It is encouraging to see a large number of female elephants with their young on most game drives in Ruaha. Despite culling that has occurred in the park, the elephants remain quite calm around humans.

Planning a Ruaha National Park Safari

Bat-eared fox looking for food in Ruaha

Best time for wildlife viewing

The dry season is the best time for wildlife viewing throughout this park and many others. The middle and end of the dry season is from roughly June to October. Due to thinner vegetation and fewer water sources, wildlife is easier to spot whilst on game drives.

For those wanting to visit the park for birdwatching, the wetter months at the beginning of the year are superb. The beauty of the park is also enhanced during this time, with the blooming flowers of miombo woodland and the breathtakingly green scenery.

Mid-November to March is also when the number of migrant birds increases dramatically. A variety of waders appear along the river banks during this time, sooty falcon fly down from the Sahara Desert, and coming from the Mediterranean are the rare Eleonora’s falcons.

Weather and climate

With Tanzania sitting just below the equator, the temperatures in Ruaha do not change much throughout the year. It is generally hot, with the warmest months lasting from November to April (the wet season), and the coolest lasting from May to October (the dry season).

During the dry season, the Great Ruaha River and other rivers, including the Jongomero, Mwagusi and Mzombe become the main source of water for wildlife.

When the dry season is at its harshest, visitors will often see elephants digging for water from the dry sand rivers using their front feet and trunks to get to the water below!

When to visit

Large buffalo herd on the move, lifting a huge cloud of dust (Ruaha National Park)

During the rainy season afternoon thunderstorms are common, but rainfall does not actually last throughout the day. It can feel especially hot and humid on days before it rains.

June to August are the ideal months to visit because they are best for viewing animals. Ruaha National Park sees far fewer visitors than parks on Tanzania’s Northern Circuit. So you can explore in the best months and not be surrounded by vehicles and crowds.

It’s much easier to see game when the vegetation is not as lush. Lower grass and open vistas make dry season prime to encounter predators and rarer animals.

Where to stay

With lower numbers of visitors than the parks in the Northern Circuit, Ruaha National Park only has a small handful of lodges. Ruaha River Lodge is by far the largest and can be visited year-round. Guests can see game throughout the day from the lodge’s veranda.

There are also seven different tented camps that can be used within the park. Each has its highlights and suits a different budget. Note that all are remote and you will see animals from your tent.

Planning a Tanzania Safari

Magnificent sunset over Ruaha National Park

Ruaha is just one of the many safari highlights in Tanzania. You can explore different parks in our definitive guide to Tanzania safari.

While many people flock to famous parks like the Serengeti and Ngorongoro, Ruaha is a wonderful place to connect with your wild side. It’s authentic, packed with life, and ripe for adventure.

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