Most visitors travel to what is known as the Northern Circuit. This includes the dramatic Ngorongoro Crater, home to around 30,000 animals. Another popular destination is the vast Serengeti with its world-renowned Great Wildebeest Migration. Also high on the list are the exceptionally pretty Lake Manyara and Tarangire National Parks.
As wonderful as these popular places are, Tanzania has much more to offer than these well-known hotspots. If you want to escape the crowds, head to the country’s little-visited yet stunning and wildlife-rich Southern Circuit.
A Tanzania safari in the Southern Circuit
Baobabs of Ruaha National Park.
Safaris in Tanzania ’s Southern Circuit focuses on two main destinations: Ruaha National Park and Selous Game Reserve. Although both are quite remote, they are easily accessed by bush flights from Dar es Salaam to airstrips within the two reserves.
Competing against Serengeti’s wildebeest migration and Ngorongoro’s throngs of animals, the Southern Circuit may lack some of the kudos of its Northern counterpart, but it lacks none of the beauty. And the wildlife, although not always as easy to spot, is even more diverse and rewarding.
Ruaha and Selous are not yet on the mainstream tourist radar, having only a handful of lodges between them. What they have in abundance however, is a true sense of wilderness, of raw and untamed Africa. The Southern Circuit offers a very different – but equally as fascinating – Tanzania safari.
Ruaha National Park
The Ruaha River as seen on a walking safari in the dry season.
Spanning over 20,000 square kilometres, Ruaha is Tanzania’s largest national park. This vast tract of bush, about the size of New Jersey, is home to ten percent of Africa’s lions and East Africa’s highest population of elephants.
They’ve chosen a beautiful home. Skinny palm trees and bulbous baobabs dot the landscape bordered by distant hills and granite outcrops or kopjes. The Ruaha River is the heart of the park. Tumbling across rocky boulders in the wet season and transforming into a broad sand river when it’s dry, it’s a magnet for the wildlife.
Greater kudu in Ruaha National Park.
Ruaha is located on something of a transition zone where East Africa meets the south. As a result, the wildlife here is particularly varied – on game drives and walking safaris, you’ll see greater kudu with their vast spiralling horns, or perhaps roan and sable, all handsome antelopes. The birdlife too is immensely diverse with over 580 species recorded.
Tanzania’s Southern Circuit is one of the best regions for sightings of rare African wild dogs.
Despite its scale, Ruaha National Park is one of the best places in Africa to see rare and elusive packs of wild dog, quirky carnivores with strange saucer-shaped ears and distinctively patterned coats of brown, black and white. Leopards are regularly spotted, either resting in the trees during the day or prowling the plains at night. Look out for large prides of lions too, particularly around the Mwagusi and Mdonya Rivers.
Leopards are often spotted in Ruaha National Park.
Selous Game Reserve
The ubiquitous palms dotting the landscapes of Selous Game Reserve.
Selous Game Reserve, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is Africa’s largest game reserve: spanning some 48,000 km2, it’s roughly three times the size of the Serengeti. However, only a small fraction – around 5200 km2 – is accessible to photographic safaris with the largest chunk south of the Rufiji River allocated as private hunting blocks.
But don’t let this put you off. The Selous is a magical place of lush landscapes dominated by the river and a chain of lakes that make for excellent wildlife watching. As a reserve rather than a national park, it allows walking safaris, boat trips and fly-camping, all contributing to that special sense of discovery and a true wilderness experience.
Discovering Selous’ wildlife
One of the hundreds of crocodiles in Lake Nzerakera, Selous Game Reserve.
A legacy of the hunting activity in Selous Game Reserve is that some animals are quite shy and skittish. But the reserve also offer spectacular sightings. One of the best areas for wildlife is around Lakes Manze and Nzerakera to the east of the reserve. On boat trips, make sure you don’t dip your hand in the water – these lakes are home to hundreds of crocodiles which make for fascinating viewing as you sip your sundowner cocktails. Lions wait for prey to come to drink, hippos harrumph and hide underwater and all kinds of aquatic birds gather on the lake shore.
Discovering the smaller creatures of Tanzania’s Southern Circuit.
Walks around the reserve reveal the smaller creatures of the bush, such as the bugs and birds that you never really get to see in a vehicle. And on game drives, you’ll see plenty of larger creatures too. As with Ruaha, it’s one of the places where you might just spot the rare and elusive wild dogs, often in packs of over 20. Elephants were once prolific until poaching intervened, but look out for babies among the herds, a sure sign that the pachyderms are feeling more settled now. And giraffe are abundant here – they seem to be browsing around every corner.
Encountering giraffe on a walking safari in Selous Game Reserve.
Jabali Ridge, a stylish new lodge in Ruaha National Park.
One thing you won’t encounter in Ruaha National Park or Selous Game Reserve is crowds of fellow travellers. Both destinations have just a few lodges and camps scattered around the parks, ranging from contemporary luxury to simply rustic. They are all relatively small and intimate, enhancing that wild off-the-beaten-track vibe that Tanzania’s Southern Circuit is all about.
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