Southern Tanzania is home to the very accessible Selous Game Reserve, the largest wildlife reserve in Africa, the beautiful and little-visited gem of Ruaha, the country’s largest National Park, Mikumi National Park, the Udzungwa Mountains, and the ancient trading port of Kilwa.
SELOUS GAME RESERVE
Selous Game Reserve is on the coastal plains, with the Rufiji River running through it, supplying a system of lakes with water year-round, allowing for boat-based game and bird viewing too. Both reserves are linked by daily flights in light aircraft operating from bush strips within each reserve/park. Ruaha can also be linked to the superb and even more seldom-visited Katavi National Park in the west, three times a week.
The enormous, 50,000 square-kilometre reserve (almost twice the size of Belgium and two and a half times larger than the famous Serengeti in the north) also prvides the most varied game viewing experiences in the country, with boat-based game viewing, mornign walking safaris, and standard game drives all an option. Some lodges also offer an excellent fly-camping experience. The landscape here has remained almost as it was before tourism began and the massive park has only a few accommodation options inside the reserve and low visitor numbers, which creates a more authentic experience than safaris in the northern circuit.
For the more budget conscious traveller, there are some good-value options just outside the main gate that we have excellent relationships with.
Flora and Fauna
The reserve contains a great diversity of vegetation types, including rocky acacia-clad hills, gallery and ground water forests, swamps and lowland rain forest. The dominant vegetation of the reserve is deciduous Miombo woodlands and constitutes a globally important example of this vegetation type. Because of this fire-climax vegetation, soils are subject to erosion when there are heavy rains. The result is a network of normally dry rivers of sand that become raging torrents during the rains; these sand rivers are one of the most unique features of the Selous landscape. Large parts of the wooded grasslands of the northern Selous are seasonally flooded by the rising water of the Rufiji River, creating a very dynamic ecosystem. The reserve has a higher density and diversity of species than any other Miombo woodland area: more than 2,100 plants have been recorded and more are thought to exist in the remote forests in the south.
Selous protects an impressive amount of game; it contains globally significant populations of African elephant, black rhinoceros, and an estimated 1,300 of the worlds’ roughly 5,000 remaining rare wild dogs, giving guests an opportunity to glimpse all of these exotic animals in true unspoilt wilderness. It also includes one of the world's largest known populations of hippopotamus (18,200) and buffalo (204,015). There are also large populations of ungulates including sable antelope (7000), Lichtenstein's hartebeest (52,150), greater kudu, eland and Nyassa wildebeest (80,815). In addition, there is a large number of Nile crocodile and 350 species of birds, including the endemic Udzungwa forest partridge and the Rufous winged sunbird.
How to get there
The best way to access Selous is by flying in from Dar es Salaam or Zanzibar in a light aircraft, landing on a bush strip, and being collected by the lodge. Flights are from US$170 per person each way. It is also possible to arrange drive-in safaris from Dar-es-Salaam, but we do recommend to fly, as the drive can take anything between 5 and 8 hours to Selous, depending on the road conditions.
A safari to the Selous can also be combined with a trip to Ruaha National Park, another little-visited gem. To visit the Selous there are two types of camp. Those inside the reserve itself, and those just outside.
RUAHA NATIONAL PARK
The hidden jewel of Africa...
The rolling wilderness of Ruaha National Park, studded with the great baobab trees, and intersected by the Ruaha river, is known for its elephant population, large herds of buffalo, big lion prides, rarer antelope species, and its bird life. Park fees are lower here than in the Serengeti and the Ngorongoro Crater, and visitor numbers incomparable. With only a dozen lodges and camps inside the park, which covers 24,000 sq. km, peace and tranquillity are assured. It’s not uncommon to not encounter another vehicle on a game drive.
Of all the reserves and national parks in Africa, Ruaha is in our top three favourites. Nothing can beat its variety of stunning landscapes and dry season wildlife action. Combined with only having a handful of lodges and being bigger than the Serengeti, if you really want to feel in the heart of Africa, Ruaha is the place for the ultimate safari.
As well as hosting 450 bird species in its abundant trees, Ruaha is also home to the elusive and rare, stinky but beautiful, African hunting dog. With a varied landscape there is also a good chance of spotting a cheetah stalking on the open savannah, encountering the majestic Sable antelope and its dry grassy areas make it a great habitat for cheetahs. Ruaha has unusually large prides of lions, and encountering a pride of 20 or more is not uncommon. As the river slows to a trickle in the drier months, the game concentrates on the dwindling stream, and the game viewing is superb. In the wetter months after the rains in March and April, the game viewing is still very good and the birding excellent.
Ruaha has the widest range of antelopes in the region, being a crossover/meeting point of southern African and eastern African species. Roan antelope, Sable antelope, Common waterbuck, Defassa waterbuck, Greater kudu, Hartebeest and Tsessebe can all be seen there. Ruaha is a sublime step into safari wilderness.
A vehicle safari can cover the ground and will deliver you concentrations of animals – you can count yourself unlucky if you don’t see a large pride of lions here - but walking safaris take you closer, both physically and spiritually, to the soil. Walking with a park ranger alongside the river the next morning, hearing nothing but the wind rustling the vegetation and your own footsteps makes the bush an even more intimate place. With so few tourists around and covering such a vast area, you are no longer visiting the bush, you are the bush.
Sightings of distant crocodiles and, by keeping downwind, nearby giraffes, zebras, and antelope are the norm, but you can also look at the bizarre, sprawling nest of the hammerkop, a large stork-like bird that buries its eggs in a three-roomed nest decorated with old bones; inspect spoor (field guide talk for prints and poop) of some of the bush’s unseen nocturnal inhabitants like the aardvark and the genet, the choggy footprint of a hippopotamus and an impressively large lion paw; and prod biscuit barrel sized elephant pats. And all this before brunch and heading on to your next destination for dinner.
How to get there
The best way to get to Ruaha is to hop in a light aircraft. Ruaha can also be accessed by light aircraft from Selous Game Reserve, offering splendid views of the savannah and the Udzungwas. Despite being larger than the Serengeti, there are only a dozen lodges and camps inside the park. It’s a 10-hour drive from Dar, so is best broken up with a stop over in Mikumu and/or the Udzungwas.
Mikumi National Park
West of the bustling town of Morogoro, Mikumi National Park is small reserve with some lovely scenery and offers a gentle game experience – ideal for a two-night stop and a good base for daytrips to the Udzungwa Mountains. Mikumi shares a border and its game populations with the Selous, so you'll find plenty here, including elephant, giraffe, wildebeest, zebra, warthog, impala and buffalo. The vast Mkata plain is often a good place to search for lion, whilst the lucky will spot leopard or even wild dog.
The park is bisected by a major road, which detracts from its feeling of wilderness, but does make it easy to reach by vehicle; it's just four hours south-west of Dar es Salaam.
There are a few fairly simple camps here; all suitable for stopping at with your own vehicle and guide. The best in the area is Foxes Safari Camp with twelve en-suite tents. And the recently renovated Mikumi Wildlife Camp is also good with 12 simple, clean cottages made of stone and thatch. There is also Vuma Hills which is only 15 minutes from the park entrance and has 16 spacious en-suite tents. It's a convenient location for a stop-over and short safari en-route to Ruaha, but we wouldn't recommend more than two nights here.
Udzungwa Mountains National Park
Part of the 'The Eastern Arc', an ancient group of mountain ranges stretching across Tanzania and Kenya, the Udzungwas are the most extensive mountain range in Tanzania. They were formed at least 100 million years ago and many endemic species have evolved here, making them something of 'an African Galapagos'. Local taboos have helped to preserve the wildlife, and now this national park protects almost 20% of the Udzungwa Mountains.
Amongst the larger attractions are 10 species of primate, three of which are endemic: the Uhehe (aka Iringa) red colobus, the Matunda galago and the Sanje crested mangabey. The last of these is amongst the world's 25 most threatened primates. With a day to explore slowly, you'll usually see the red colobus, along with the black and white Angola colobus. Blue and vervet monkeys and yellow baboons are also common.
More than 400 species of birds live here, including many regional endemics like the Udzungwa forest partridge, which was new to science in 1991. With more scientific research, further new species are bound to be discovered. A quarter of the plants here are endemic, including some Saitpaulia species, closely related to African violets. There are also endemic amphibians, reptiles, and butterflies.
Setting off in walking shoes, with water and snacks, you'll explore the park's walking trails with a guide. These trails vary in length from a few hours to three days, and do have steep sections, but are always taken at your own pace. Expect to pass streams and waterfalls amidst the thick forest vegetation. We recommend Udzungwa as an excellent day trip from Mikumi - or perhaps a short stay at the new Udzungwa Forest Mountain camp to break up the journey between Dar and Ruaha.
Kilwa – meaning ‘Place of Fish’ – is the collective name given to three different areas on the Tanzanian coast: Kilwa Kisiwani, Kilwa Kivinje and Kilwa Masoko. Exploring UNESCO-listed ruins that tell the story of close to a millenium of coastal history is the main draw.
Kilwa isn’t located on the usual tourist route, so the quality of accommodation isn’t as high, however, travellers who want to learn a little more about the colourful history of this area will find it an adventurous addition to an off-beat itinerary, with comfortable and well-hosted, if relatively basic, accommodation.
The most modern of the three ‘Kilwas’, Kilwa Masoko is where most people base themselves to visit the ruins of Kilwa Kisiwani. There is little of historical interest here, but Jimbizi Beach – where Kimbilio Lodge is situated – is pleasant enough for a day or two relaxing.
Kilwa Kisiwani and Songo Mnara
Kilwa Kisiwani and Songo Mnara were Swahili trading cities and their prosperity was based on control of Indian Ocean trade with Arabia, India and China, particularly between the 13th and 16th centuries, when gold and ivory from the hinterland was traded for silver, carnelians, perfumes, Persian faience and Chinese porcelain. From the 9th century all the way up until the 19th century, Kilwa Kisiwani was a wealthy and powerful port. At its height, the empire stretched from Kenya to Mozambique, and Kilwa Kisiwani’s prosperity was crucial to the development of Swahili civilisation. Kilwa Kisiwani minted its own currency in the 11th to 14th centuries. When the Portuguese took over the coastline in 1505 they assumed control of Kilwa Kisiwani. They murdered the majority of the residents and replaced the Arab palaces with forts. Today, a small number of local fishermen live on the island, but for the most part it is deserted.
Kilwa Kisiwani is now an abandoned city covering much of the island, filled with crumbling mosques, remnants of once glorious palaces, and ancient tombs. Considered one of the most important surviving examples of the Islamic-influenced Swahili maritime trade, it’s quite rightly the main attraction for visitors to the area. The runs of the Sultan's 100-room palace are the largest palatial ruins on the continent, and the Great Mosque the oldest standing in East Africa. Constructed in the 11th century and considerably enlarged in the 13th century, and roofed entirely with domes and vaults, some decorated with embedded Chinese porcelain; the palace Husuni Kubwa built between 1310 and 1333 with its large octagonal bathing pool; Husuni Ndogo, numerous mosques, the prison constructed on the ruins of the Portuguese fort and an entire urban complex with houses, public squares, and burial grounds. In 1331-1332, the great traveller, Ibn Battouta made a stop here and described Kilwa Kisiwani as one of the most beautiful cities in the world.
The ruins of Songo Mnara, at the northern end of the island, consist of the remains of five mosques, a palace complex, and some thirty-three domestic dwellings constructed of coral stones and wood within enclosing walls.
Kilwa Kivinje – a small town on the mainland – was once the wealthy southern centre of the slave trade with up to 20,000 slaves passing through. Banned in 1873, the slave trade is still thought to have continued in Kilwa Kivinje until 1880. Afterwards, the Germans took over the town and used it as an administrative centre, but following the end of World War II the town gradually lost importance and today it is a small port. Travellers can visit the big fort with a cannon leftover from World War I, an old German market hall, as well as an attractive beach where you can watch the local fishermen. Very few people visit the area, so it provides an authentic insight into Tanzanian life.
How to get there
There are light aircraft flights to Kilwa, or it can be reached in an six-hour road transfer from Dar, or four hours from Selous. The island can be reached by a short boat ride, and explored with a private guide for around US$50, including the entrance fee (which the guide will buy on your behalf from the Department of Antiquities). The trip takes at least half a day, or a full day if you want to combine it with Songo Mnara.
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Photographer, conservationist, dive and field guide, teller of bad jokes.