The Republic of Tanzania is the largest country in East Africa. Of its landmass of 885,800 square kilometers (or 342,000 square miles – approximately twice the size of California), over 25 percent consists of 21 national parks and other wildlife management areas, home to two world-famous safari destinations: the Serengeti plain and the Ngorongoro crater. Yet, together these two legendary Northern Tanzania national parks account for less than ten percent of the total preservation land in the country. What of the remainder?

The Other Tanzania

Game is exceptionally abundant in the remote wilderness of the Southern Circuit.

As I began to plan my visit to Tanzania, it became obvious that in the southern and western parts of the country, an off the beaten track complex of parks and reserves whose combined area covered more than 77,000 square kilometers (20,020 square miles), remained mostly overlooked by international visitors. These great swaths of remote wilderness, home to prolific wildlife and mainly unscathed by human interaction, became an irresistible draw for me.

Safari Air Link brings visitors to the Ruaha River Lodge airstrip.

Of the handful of upscale bush camp operators that service the area, one  immediately caught my attention: Foxes Safaris. Owned and managed for three generations by the Fox family, the organization is a recognized pioneer in establishing camps in prime game-viewing locations within the southern parks.

 

 

Stanley’s Kopje is perched on a rocky knoll.

To ensure the transfer of visitors across the vast distances between these parks, they have also  implemented Safari Air Link, a sister company with a small fleet of Cessnas offering daily flights between Dar es Salam and the various destinations of the Southern Circuit. Their regular scheduling and friendly bush pilots put the pleasure back into flying as I made my way across the raw immensity of Southern and Western Tanzania.

Mikumi National Park

Shady trees are favorite lounging stops for Mikumi lions.

After an endless international journey to Dar es Salaam, the first stop on my month-long itinerary around Tanzania and the start of my Southern Circuit adventure, was Mikumi, the fourth largest national park in the country. It was home to multiple prides of lions as well as a variety of smaller predators, large herds of buffalos, zebras, and everything that made for gratifying game drives. A short 90- minute flight from Dar es Salaam, or half a day’s drive away, it was also the only national park readily accessible from the metropolis on the Red Sea, making it an attractive destination from the city. Yet visitors were few, and international tourists notably rare.

Mikumi abounds with varied wildlife.

My home in Mikumi was Stanley’s Kopje, the only camp in the entire park to be perched on a high rocky knoll (or kopje – Stanley’s being a nod to the famed 19th century explorer Morton Stanley, who led an expedition through the area). Historic anecdote aside, the site was spectacular, with the camp’s dining area and lounge enjoying a circular view of the vast Mkata flood plain and overlooking one of the best game-viewing area of the park: the Mwanamboga waterhole. The guest tents were spaced lower down the hill, around the perimeter of the kopje, and raised on high wooden platforms under thatch roofs that also shaded their oversized deck.

The fiery sunset dips behind the Udzungwa Mountains.

It was an ideal place to relax and reacquaint myself with the thrill of the African bush. From the serenity of my private veranda, I whiled away the lazy post-game drive hours watching herds of buffalos lumber their way across the plain, and elephants converging toward their favorite watering hole. Meanwhile on the horizon, a fiery sunset outlined the Udzungwa Mountains, and the heady sounds of the bush filled the air, complete with the vibrating roar of a lion coming from somewhere at the base of the knoll.

By the Ruaha Riverside

The Ruaha National is famous for its ancient baobabs. This one has become a scratching post for elephants.

It was a one-hour flight from Mikumi to Ruaha, due west over a landscape of increasingly high, craggy ridges and agricultural plains. Then the farmland subsided, replaced by forest and rock. We were approaching a rippling plateau bordered by a steep escarpment, and a dusty airstrip with a welcoming committee of parading giraffes. This was Ruaha, the second largest national park it Tanzania, known for its exceptionally large population of elephants, giraffes and greater kudus, and for the outstanding diversity of its wildlife. But when I think of Ruaha, what first comes to mind are the baobabs, hundreds of the ancient giants in colossal groves across the plain, and clinging to the rock all the way up the escarpment.

Elephants come to drink in the rock pools of the Ruaha River.

Then there was the Ruaha River Lodge itself, stretched along the bank of the river that gave it and the park their name, where game-viewing was a never-ending feast. It started at breakfast in the riverside dining room, with a Goliath heron coming to preen on the bank right in front of us, and baboons bouncing from rock to rock across the water. It continued with lunch at the hilltop dining room, and panoramic view of a herd of elephants coming to drink in the rock pool below. And evenings on the veranda of my banda (Swahili for cottage) were equally exciting, with hippos stopping by, just a few feet away from my banister, to chomp on the landscape on their way to the river.

The Ultimate Wilderness

Bull giraffes struggle for supremacy.

It was another two hours westward to Katavi, the third-largest park in Tanzania, and a place so far beyond remote that it receives barely one thousand visitors per year. What enchanted me there was Africa at its primeval best, the rich and varied wildlife going about the rhythm of its existence as it had for millennia in a pristine environment of reed-filled floodplains and dense woodlands. On my first morning, I woke up to find a herd of elusive elands emerging from the misty silence of the plain to graze beneath my deck. Later on, I was treated to a neck joust by bull giraffes, each determined to assert his supremacy over the herd.

Katavi Wilderness Camp was nestled in a grove of soaring  marula and tamarind trees.

Nestled under the canopy of soaring marula and tamarind trees, the Katavi Wilderness Camp was an intimate enclave of luxury overlooking the Katisunga Plain as it stretched to the Lyamba-lya-Mfipa escarpment on the horizon. Beyond the pleasure of finding contemporary comforts in such an improbable place, what made the camp truly special was its attentive staff and guide who welcomed me to a level of gracious hospitality worthy of the East African safari tradition of a bygone era.

According to the park authorities records, I was one of only three tourists in the park at the time of my visit, and I never came across the other two. Katavi gave me the intoxicating experience that I had, for a few days, Africa all to myself.

Large herds of buffalos roam the remote parks of the Southern Circuit.

Good to Know

Getting there — Tanzania’s main airport is Julius Nyerere International Airport, located 13 kilometers(8 miles) southwest of Dar es Salaam, which is the entry-point for visitors to the southern parks. There are no direct flights from North American to Tanzania, and only one direct route from Europe: KLM Royal Dutch Airlines, which offers a daily flight from Amsterdam to Dar es Salaam. Another option is to fly to Nairobi, Kenya, where there are a number of daily connection possibilities to Dar es Salaam.

Getting around — My entire itinerary from Dar es Salaam throughout the Southern Circuit, including all air transfers via Safari Air Link, was seamlessly managed by Foxes Safaris.

Location, location, location!

Katavi

Mikumi

Ruaha