Best kept Safari Secrets, Ruaha

3rd January 2012

There is nothing in the world like soaring over the plains of Africa in a 4-seater Cessna 172.

The aeroplane is so tiny that it seems to have been made from a packet with instructions labelled 1-2-3 Airfix. There is a large proportion of window to fibreglass, so that each small seat has a view.

The country below is Tanzania, and the Cessna is an elaborate form of taxi. For thousands of miles the land is wild and strange, ranging dramatically from the icy peaks of Mount Kilimanjaro, over lush hilltop fields of the Rift Valley and vast savannah plains of the Serengeti. To the east, mile upon mile of white beaches and coral islands are washed by the waves of the Indian Ocean, and here, in the south, swathing paths of sand rivers cut through tropical woodland. From the precarious vantage point of the Cessna it is possible to make out the lumbering bulk of elephants breaking their way through dense bush and palm tree forests, and sandy coloured shapes in the clearing, probably antelope or gazelle.

Some pilots inspire more faith than others. Flying with the helplessly sexy Pascal at the controls, we were thrown into a downward swoop towards a lone rogue elephant taking an enthusiastic morning river bath, while our pilot grinned round at his cargo to boast, “I could have taken zee ‘airs off izz back!”.

Below is Ruaha National Park, 12,950 square km of high plains and forests, where deep terracotta and flame colours of the earth reflect the heat of the African sun. Massive rock kopjes sweep majestically upwards to form a fine line against the sky, poised above wide expanses of rolling land where distances dissolve in a wash of turning colours, marked with gigantic silhouettes of thousand year old baobab trees.

In all this wilderness there are just a few choices for tourist accommodation; and just one camp on the Mwagusi Sand River, owned and run by a man who camped here as a boy, when there was nowhere to stay at all. Such was the seed for perhaps the most passionately loved safari camp in East Africa, the distant, tiny, sand-pathed and makuti-thatched dream of Chris Fox, the bleached bronzed, skinny-limbed proprietor of Mwagusi Luxury Tented Camp. His barefoot passion for the place is contagious. His charm may be lost on the huge herds of elephants that roam at large, (although at least one many-ton female that he calls Constantine will eat palm seeds from his hands), but those who conquer the distances to come here cannot help but fall in love.

It is six am. and the camp is alive with excited cries. The cook has spotted a pack of African Hunting Dog in the bush. They are on the move, and he has trailed them through the gathering light of dawn. Guests are roused, forsaking their trays of morning tea and biscuits to scramble into vehicles, and in moments we are lurching through the bush, testing the speed of these specially modified machines against the drivers’ knowledge of the bumps.

Now the atmosphere changes. The vehicles slow to a grumbling crawl, the passengers are silent, and alert. They wend through the trees following hushed radio instructions from Chris, and, finally are faced by the pack. Twelve barrel-bellied panting bodies are arrayed in a circle on the sandy earth, each marked with fine khaki camouflage. It is breakfast time. The dogs begin to stand, each moving a few yards forward, then settling back in the dust. Chris is ahead of them, predicting their direction into an open clearing, and sure enough they began to assemble in that sunlit arena, watching for possible prey.

Before long the dogs’ attention is diverted by a scuffling in the trees and two blissfully fat, short-legged, helplessly unaware warthog saunter into view. Never has a plump pig run so fast as the one that got away, disappearing in the distance followed by a cloud of dust and half a pack of hunting dog, one chasing, one flanking, one following up the rear. The dogs were running lazily, teasingly, seemingly just stretching their legs, before wheeling back to torment the fatter warthog mate who stayed. Surrounded by dogs, the betusked piggy in the middle puffed up his shoulders, feigning formidable bravado. He tottered to and fro, the dogs edged forward, until one made the run and the warthog floundered, he darted a yard, and, in a puff of dust, vanished down a hole. Occasionally his snout would poke skywards, only to be sharply withdrawn. But the watchers didn’t wait to witness the denouement. It was breakfast time in the cool shade of camp and the hunting dogs, so rarely outwitted, sank back into a heat-sodden torpor.

So starts the day in the wild distances of Ruaha, where each day the diverse wildlife forms and follows its own pattern of life. Safaris here are superbly rewarding, far from the crowds and the minibuses of the northern parks, with a very special camp atmosphere that make each stay your own.