Tanzania is one of Africa’s top wildlife safari destinations. Wildlife lovers have a choice of two very different safari routes- referred to as the northern and southern circuits. The contrast is most obvious in the topography, habitat and climate. On the northern Tanzania safari circuit, which I have talked about in another article, you visit such renowned wildlife havens as Serengeti, Ngorongoro, Tarangire and Lake Manyara. The southern safari route is anchored on Dar es Salaam, and covers Ruaha, Mikumi, Udzungwa Mountains National Parks and the Selous Game Reserve.
The southern circuit is more discreet, less accessible and has fewer visitors. Adventure lovers and those who seek closer contact with some of Africa’s most complex ecosystems will be rewarded. Here you can view game in a variety of new ways- walking, riding and boating. If you have not had the privilege of getting up close to wild animals in their natural habitat, it is an exciting and refreshing experience. For this encounter, the park authorities require that an armed ranger escort you. It is therefore not as dangerous as it may first appear.
Mikumi National Park is the most accessible of the southern game sanctuaries. It is 283 km to the west of Dar es Salaam – Tanzania’s coastal commercial capital. Occupying 3,230 sq km, it carries a variety of wildlife including elephants, lion, giraffe, impala, warthog, zebra, buffalo, wildebeest, hartebeest and eland. Wild dogs- considered an endangered carnivore species -are found here in good numbers. Other resident animals are crocodiles, hippos, and monitor lizards. Birds are most plentiful in the wet season when up to 300 species gathers here.
Many of these are Eurasian migrants, exercising to the full, the freedom that comes with wings.
The Mikumi flood plain is the dominant feature of the park, which is bordered on one side by the Uluguru Mountains and on another by the Lumango range. Mikumi forms the northern border of the Selous Game Reserve and is part of a vast wilderness ecosystem covering 75,000 sq km. Open grasslands stretch on the plains, while the miombo woodlands cover higher ground.
The park is accessible year round- unlike some of the sanctuaries in the southern circuit. To get to Mikuni from Dar, you spend 4 hours on road or 1 hour by air. Budget travelers take a bus ride to park gate, from where game drives are organised. There is limited accommodation at a few luxury lodges and tented camps and at 3 campsites. If you find yourself in Dar on a weekend, this is where you head to see wildlife.
The 1,990 sq km Udzungwa Mountains National Park is 348 km west of Dar and 65 km southwest of Mikumi. The mountains are part of the Eastern Arc Mountains that fall southeast of Kilimanjaro. The park is unique in Tanzania, having been created primarily to conserve plant life. The pristine mountain forest habitat hosts numerous rare plants. There are six primate species, out of which two species are endemic – the Iringa red colobus monkey and the Sanje Crested Mangabey.
At the plateau area, you find elephants, lions, hunting dogs and buffalos, though not in as large numbers as in some of the other Tanzania parks. Birds also do well here, and indeed the park ranks as one of Africa’s most important bird conservation areas. Scientists have in recent times come across at least four previously unknown bird species. The best time to visit is over the dry season between June and October. The hiking trails over the wet season are slippery, which can be quite a nuisance.
The Ruaha National Park is rightly named after its lifeblood- the Great Ruaha River. Occupying 12,950 sq km, it is Tanzania’s second largest national park and its biggest elephant sanctuary. Home to numerous crocodiles and hippo, the Great Ruaha draws many thirsty waterbuck, leopard, buffalo, reedbuck, wild dogs, lion and hyena to its banks. Plain animals such as zebra, greater and lesser kudu, sable and roan antelope, impala and giraffe are found on the plains stretching from the rivers edge.
The topography is agreeable to hiking and walking safaris are allowed. In wet season months of March to April and October to November the bird population peaks and the park has over 370 bird species, including some Eurasian migrants. The flora is very diverse and over 1650 plant species flourish here. The Ruaha has the unique distinction of having plant and animal life found in both eastern and southern Africa. The climate here is hot and dry and temperatures can reach 40°C in October.
The Ruaha is located 128 km west of the central Tanzania town of Iringa. It was previously inaccessible, but there is now year round road access. From Dar, road travel is a backbreaking 10 hours while a charter flight takes 1 ½ hours. The best time for a safari is over the dry season- May to December. Then, the Ruaha River is magnetic to the animals and right at the banks, the drama of their daily life is on display- feeding, fighting, courting and mating. The accommodation is currently limited, but there is a luxury lodge, and a few self-catering chalets and campsites.
Selous Game Reserve is the star of the southern safari circuit. The reserve is named after the intrepid Fredrick Courtney Selous, a celebrated Victoria era explorer and naturalist. He met his end here in a sideshow of the First World War. The Great War had spilled over from Europe as the Germans then ruled parts of today’s Tanzania. Located 500 km to the southwest of Dar, the reserve occupies a staggering 55,000 sq km – larger than Switzerland- and is the largest of its kind in Africa.
The Selous was designated a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1982 due to the significance of both its flora and fauna. This immense wilderness has a diversity of habitats including savanna woodlands, swamps, open grasslands and forests. Over 2,100 species of tress and plants have been recorded. The mighty Rufiji River is the lifeblood of the reserve and its numerous tributaries and oxbow lakes are ideal for boat safaris. The wildlife to see here includes buffalo, hippo, black rhino, lion and wild dog. Elephants in particular are numerous and are estimated to number over 60,000.
Other inhabitants of Selous are bush back, waterbuck, reedbuck, impala, eland, giraffe, baboon, zebra, and greater kudu. Birders will also find a trip to Selous worthwhile – over 420 species are on record. In the very large game sanctuaries of the south – Ruaha and Selous in particular, game is scattered and a slow pace is advised, with at least 3-4 days in each. Photographic safaris can be very rewarding here. Most visitors take the time to visit to Stiegler’s Gorge, which also happens to be a spot favoured by leopards.
From Dar, you arrive after a 1-½ hour charter flight or by traveling for 7 hours by road. Travel by road is not advised, except for the most adventurous souls. Selous is near the coast and is just a few hundred feet above sea level. The climate is hot and humid, particularly between October and March. Part of the reserve is closed in the wet season between March and May. The best time to visit is over the dry season period of June to October. Then on safari you can walk, boat and ride a 4WD vehicle. Accommodation is limited to just a few luxury tented and no-frills camps.
The typical southern safari will usually combine Mikumi, Ruaha and Selous. After the safari, a stay in Zanzibar rounds off an unbeatable holiday experience. It is generally recommended you take an escorted southern Tanzania safari package that includes transport, guide, park fees and accommodation. Particularly in the large sanctuaries of the southern circuit, tour guides bring valuable useful local knowledge – where to find the animals, and how to get where you are going.
On safari, avoid bright colours as this may get you in trouble with wild animals. If you are wise you will pack brown, beige and khaki clothing. It rarely gets really cold on the southern circuit and short sleeve shirts, shorts and trouser for men are adequate. For ladies, short sleeve blouses, slacks and skirts are ideal. But carry a jacket or sweater for possible chills in the evening and early mornings. Sunglasses will shield you from the at times harsh tropical glare; and a hat can save you from sunstroke. Bring along a sensible pair of shoes that will allow you to walk comfortably in the bush. Binoculars will come in very handy for spotting animals.
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