Travel: Safari in Tanzania

Mdonya River Lodge, Ruaha. Picture: Esme Allen
Mdonya River Lodge, Ruaha. Picture: Esme Allen
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Esme Allen visits Tanzania’s largest national park

As our tiny eight-seater plane came in to land, swooping low over acacia trees and rocky outcrops, with the vast expanse of the African bush below, I had the feeling that we’d found a rather special place. Ruaha, Tanzania’s largest national park, isn’t on the radar of most safari-going tourists. With an area roughly a third of the size of Scotland and with only eight tented camps, it was looking like we were going to get the crowd-free safari I’d been hoping for.

After clambering into our vehicle, we headed towards Mdonya Old River Camp. The iconic outline of a huge baobab tree soon came into view with a family of elephants, the tiny to the towering, keeping themselves cool beneath it. As we moved on, Milady, our guide, asked us what we’d most like to see. My son, ten, said hippos and my daughter, seven, said elephant, so that was simple, but my husband and I said leopard and cheetah – not the easiest creatures to find. Ten minutes later we came to a halt. There in the bushes were two cheetahs and we were absolutely delighted.

Full of enthusiasm, we eventually reached our lodge. There were 12 tents by a dried riverbed with two communal areas to sit and relax, and another where guests could eat evening meals together at a long table under the stars. On our arrival we were reminded by Mary, the friendly manager, that we were in the bush and that animals did roam through the camp. One honeymoon couple had to delay their return to their tent due to a genet cat asleep in their doorway, and another couple chose to remain in their tent due to a leopard being asleep at the side of it. After dark, Masai guides accompanied guests on their walk back to their tents, and there were clear paths to follow in the day, so safety was a definite priority here.

Over a tasty meal with our fellow guests, where animal anecdotes and jovial one-upmanship over what had been seen on that day’s safari prevailed, we approached our first night under canvas with slight trepidation. The animal noises were tremendous and when we saw our guide early next morning we were soon doing comedy animal impersonations so he could tell us what we’d heard. The following morning, as I showered, a noise made me peep over the canvas, only to see an elephant, feet away. He continued past our tent over to where breakfast was being served, so we sat eating our toast as he munched on grass nearby. Brilliant.

Other than rhino, the rest of the big five are plentiful in Ruaha. Spotting crocodiles, hippos (one happy son) and fish eagles by the Great Ruaha River added to the variety in the park. Driving back to Mdonya after a full day’s game drive on our last day we were even lucky enough to see two honey badgers raiding honey from a hollow tree.

To ward off tsetse fly, a container of smoking elephant dung, which was surprisingly pleasant-smelling, was attached to the back of our vehicles as we set off on our evening game drive. Speaking to Mary about this novel approach, she said: “It does work but apparently so does a spray called Skin So Soft.” The dreaded tsetse fly of Africa and the midges of the Scottish Highlands, both thwarted by Avon (and burning elephant dung).

Our final three days at Ruaha were to be spent at the lovely Kwihala Camp, which was in a completely different area of the park. Here I hoped we’d see our leopard.

As with Mdonya, it was just us, a guide and a driver. On safari, 6am starts are recommended, with breakfast eaten in the bush. Be warned though: in June and July it is very cold in the mornings, although in the day it is pleasantly warm. European visitors who come later in the season can find the daytime temperatures hard to cope with.

Our guides, David and Festo, at Kwihala were very experienced and fantastically knowledgeable. One morning we sat just watching a herd of elephants, with Festo explaining their behaviour patterns and what each one meant. The conversation inevitably moved on to ivory poaching. Although not widespread yet in Ruaha, it is on the increase across Tanzania. Visitors we spoke to from Selous, the neighbouring park, said they’d hardly seen elephants on their stay there – something that shocked Festo. It seems a truly depressing picture and I hope my children won’t be the last generation to see the African elephant in the wild.

On our final drive back to Kwihala, we finally spotted our leopard. A young male walked within touching distance of us after we’d initially spotted him on a rock some metres away. A truly memorable experience.

Before heading to Zanzibar to relax by a pool for a few days, we went to Chumbe Island Coral Park, a tiny forest-covered island lying just off the east coast. Income from the guests and day visitors directly fund educational programmes, the protection of the coral reef and the island’s endangered wildlife. The seven palm leaf-covered beach bungalows all use eco technology such as composting toilets to preserve water. With their handmade bamboo furniture and pulley-operated blinds and hammocks, they reminded us of fantasy treehouses.

After being fitted with snorkels and flippers, our guides – a pair of affable British marine biologists – took us a few hundred metres offshore to swim amongst the tropical fish and pristine coral.

That evening, as we walked barefoot across the sand back to our bungalow, we came to a sudden halt. “That,” said my son slightly nervously, conscious of his bare toes, “is unbelievable.” There in our path, was a giant coconut crab slowly edging towards us. These nocturnal creatures can grow up to three feet in length, and for those of us used to rock pool-size crabs they certainly were impressive.

Due to its proximity to the mainland, you never quite feel like an island castaway here. The bungalows do seem a little tired but the coral is absolutely stunning, the food delicious and the island beautiful. It was very hard to leave.

Rainbow Tours (0207 666 1250, www.rainbowtours.co.uk) offers a 12-night holiday combining three nights each at Mdonya Old River Camp, Kwihala Camp, Chumbe Island Lodge and Unguja Lodge from £4,150 per person. The price is based on two sharing and includes international and internal flights, accommodation, all meals, game drives, park fees and transfers.