Ruaha National Park: Where to stay?
Ruaha has some seriously good authentic safari camps at very good prices. In our opinion this park has some of the very best value properties in Africa.
In our ‘Adventure’ category we have the Foxes ‘Ruaha River Lodge’ and also Essential Destinations ‘Mdonya Old River’. Ruaha River Lodge is a large property and one we use rarely. The location of this property is special but its large size puts off the majority of travellers. Mdonya Old River – also in the same price ‘adventure’ category offers great value in an authentic tented camp experience. Set up by Malcolm Ryan this is a wonderful property with a real focus on value, authenticity and conservation.
Stepping up a level and the first camp in our ‘Classic’ bracket is Kwihala. Kwihala is a good entrance level property in this bracket – a camp that has more conventional comforts than the other classic properties. We find we use this property rarely because of the sheer quality of its competition, but various deals across the year can often make this camp very good value.
The pick of the bunch in the classic level (and arguably in the whole park) is Nomad Tanzania’s Kigelia. This property offers all the activities Ruaha can offer and is run by one of the best companies in the business. Adventurous in style, this classic tented camp sets the standard. Due to the fact that the property has great special offers, we believe Kigelia is one of the best value properties anywhere.
At the top ‘Premier’ level we have Mwagusi and Jongomero – the most expensive properties in the park. Mwagusi is Ruaha’s most famous camp – an old school safari camp that has legendary status within the industry. Whether this camp is still able to take its clients to the dizzy heights that made it famous is debatable. Also, the lack of activities on offer is a major drawback in our opinion – there is no walking and no night safari on offer here.
The most luxurious property in the park is Jongomero – a wonderful property we recommend highly if luxury is important. There is an argument to say that the area is not as good for game as it is in the northern Mwagusi area but the wilderness on offer here, and sheer quality of the camp are reasons to come in themselves. We also always include Jongomero for clients wanting long stays in the park – combining both areas (Mwagusi area and Jongomero area) is a fabulous long stay itinerary.
Ruaha Safaris: The Big Five and general game viewing
In Ruaha the only missing member of the Big Five (lion, buffalo, elephant, leopard and rhino) is rhino - there have not been any in the park for years. There is no doubt that Ruaha is one of Africa’s finest destinations for big cats. The lion concentration here is as high as anywhere we know. A very strong lion population virtually goes hand in hand with healthy buffalo herds whilst Ruaha’s elephant herds are seriously impressive. Leopard are always found in the park with the majority of travellers seeing this elusive feline!
Ruaha is an outstanding safari park due to the fact the park showcases a cross over of East and Southern African species in terms of flora and fauna.
One reason for the hordes of animals in Ruaha is the Great Ruaha River, a vital water source throughout the year but especially during the dry season. The reliability of the river owes much to the success of game drives in this region, as animals congregate predictably on the long shores.
Other features of Ruaha that attract wildlife are secondary rivers such as the Mwagusi, Mzombe and Jongomero; the park’s brachystegia woodland for shelter; and its open savanna dappled with occasional shade from majestic baobab trees. The park also boasts some spectacular rock kopjes among beautiful rolling hills.
As we have already mentioned, Ruaha is one of the best parks in Africa for viewing cats. Lion live here in large prides, often numbering over twenty individuals! Leopard and cheetah love hunting on the open plains, while many smaller species are equally at home here – serval, caracal, civet, genet and banded wildcat. Cheetah are remarkably common making seeing the three main cat species very likely – something that’s rare anywhere in Africa nowadays.
Other mammals also thrive in Ruaha in abundance. The park’s elephant herds are absolutely humongous! Buffalo are plentiful too, as are zebra, giraffe, hippopotamus and an exciting assortment of antelope species such as roan, sable, eland, impala, gazelle, reedbuck, hartebeest, klipspringer – and the largest population of greater kudu in all East Africa! Predators, in addition to the cats, include black-backed jackal, spotted hyena and (less common) striped hyena. The park is also an important area for wild dog, hosting over a hundred dogs at last count.
Akin to its masses of mammals, the birdlife of Ruaha is truly exceptional. For good reason is the park often described as a birder’s paradise! Almost six hundred species have been spotted in the region – such as eagles, ospreys, vultures, falcons, hawks, herons, storks, pelicans, ibises, ducks, geese, quails, guineafowls, crakes, cranes, bustards, plovers, stilts, snipes, sandpipers, pigeons, doves, cuckoos, parrots, owls, nightjars, kingfishers, bee-eaters… the list is endless! And the period from mid-November to March is especially recommended for birdwatchers, as this is when migrant species (from Asia, Australia and Europe) make an appearance.
Ruaha gained national park status in 1964. Today it is managed by Tanzania National Parks, which does its utmost to ensure that the area remains a safe haven for wildlife.
When to go for game?
The best time of year to be in Ruaha is from July through to the end of October. This is the peak of the dry season and a time of year that guarantees Ruaha’s immense volume of game will be focussed around the parks rivers.
When to go for value?
Firstly, we’d like to stress that Ruaha is one of the best value parks in Africa…and so there is an argument to say that travellers should always visit in the dry season when prices are at their highest but value overall (compared to elsewhere in Africa) is still superb! If you compare the prices here to similar lodges elsewhere in Africa then there is no denying that this park offers some of the best value in Africa. July to October is the peak of the dry season and is superb for game viewing – prices however are high. Travel just outside of these months however and you will pick up even better value. Some guides love June because the park looks beautiful after the rains, prices are low and Ruaha remains quiet in terms of visitor traffic. The beginning of November is also a great time to travel – rates drop on the 1st November!
Activities in Ruaha
Ruaha is a National Park and is therefore bound by the rules of TANAPA (the National Park authority). Game drives are standard in every lodge whilst walking safaris are also possible at the majority. We would stress however that there are some very good walking operators here and others who have to rely on the TANAPA rangers to operate their walks. We do NOT recommend that anyone goes on a walk with a TANAPA ranger if they are the only licensed carrier of fire arms.
Jongomero – Game drives, walking safari (licensed), fly camping (minimum 2 nights)…No night safari.
Kichaka – Game drives, walking safari (licensed), fly camping….NO night safari
Kigelia – Game Drives, walking safari (licensed), Night safari…NO fly camping
Kwihala – Game drives, walking safari (licensed), Night safari…NO fly camping
Mdonya Old River – Game drives only
Mwagusi – Game drives only.
Ruaha River Lodge - Game drives only.
Ruaha Top Tips
The Mwagusi area, linked by Msembe Airstrip, is the part of the park with phenomenal concentrations of cats. Travel outside of this area and the cat concentration drops significantly. That’s not to say that areas like Jongomero are not worth travelling to – that part of the park is phenomenal - but if cats are your focus it simply has to be the Mwagusi area.
The longer in this park, the better! For the first timer a three night stay is sufficient, but for a safari enthusiast we would encourage that they travel to two camps within the park, for a minimum of five days. Covering the Mwaguysi and also the Jongomero area is an amazing itinerary.
Kichaka Ruaha is one of the very best walking operations in the whole of Africa. Not only is it supremely good, but one of our Directors has just named this camp as the best value property anywhere in Africa. If walking is your thing then this camp is simply essential.
We have covered the walking safari issue already, but to reiterate – we do not recommend anyone goes on a walking safari if a TANAPA ranger is the only armed guide.