It is a rare thing in this world with a population of 7.5 billion to find a corner of the planet where you can be the only human being in a 100km radius. For example some of the largest cities on earth have a density of 72 000 people per square mile!
Ruaha National Park is already as remote as it gets being located in southern Tanzania a full 700 km from Dar es Salaam, our fly camp is situated downstream of the seasonal Jongomero River about 12km from the lodge. During the dry season the river is a sand river meandering its way through the incredibly diverse Ruaha landscape before spilling into the Great Ruaha River. It is along this sand river underneath the shade of a small Acacia forest that we will find ourselves for a night out in the wilderness.
Guests arrive in the main camp area for tea, walking kit is ready and overnight bags are packed, already the air is filled with a sense of adventure and everyone can feel the slight sense of healthy trepidation lingering in the atmosphere. We are after all going on an intrepid adventure into the African bush! Driving out from camp we drive past several majestic Baobab trees as we head to the drop off point for a 2-hour exploration on foot in the remote section known only as the forest between marsh A and B.
We disembark from the vehicle and I do the safety briefing explaining how we will walk, where we will walk and what to expect. The beauty of this area is that it is shaped only by the actions of the animals themselves. No humans besides us ever walk here and because each walk is different in terms of what we see or experience every time my guests and I are like new explorers in an ancient world.
We look at some recent Leopard tracks skirting the marsh, examine Hyena dung which has aged into a brilliant white, advertising its presence as an important source of calcium. We learn how to orientate ourselves using the position of the buffalo weaver nests, see who can find the heaviest sausage tree fruit that has fallen and dig deep in conversation about the ages of Baobabs. This first afternoon is a gentle yet exciting introduction into the ecosystem.
Walking into camp we are greeted with an amber sunset and we watch it dip below the horizon while ice cubes crack under the flow of gin and tonic. The night some say at fly camp is so still and peaceful that for those coming from the city the silence can be deafening. Just as you settle into your dome tent and start to drift off a Hyena begins its whooping call not far from camp. You could say this broke the silence but it seems in nature nothing is purposefully offensive and while her call is loud it has broken nothing but the idea that humans are still supreme in the natural world.
We enjoy a fire cooked breakfast and a much-needed coffee to wake us in the crisp but refreshing morning. My guests comment how they made it through a night in the wild, sleeping better than they ever have yet humbled by the experience of being on the ground level where predators roam.
Our epic walk begins back to Jongomero Camp, 12km of pure wilderness await us ahead. We traverse the river several times all along the way analysing events of the night before. Elephant tracks remind us that we are not alone out here, the antlion pits and trails help us age the tracks of these giants as these little creatures generally move at first light and have already formed their little pits in the footprint of the Elephant. They were here last night. We encounter herds of Zebra, Impala and Giraffe and as we settle into our rhythm a Honey Badger dashes from cover in front of us, a rare sight. It’s not long before we encounter our first Elephants, excavating water from the sand river they dig holes a meter deep to get to the water table. The wind direction is perfect, we skirt around them out of view and come back into the sighting where we have cover and a good wind. They continue their business totally unaware of us sitting literally a few meters away on the safety of the sand bank.
We leave them none the wiser and come across the tracks of a large male Lion. His paws the size of our open hand remind us of his power and we follow his tracks in open country that lead us to another Elephant water digging. He must have drunk here, his tracks turn away from the river bed only pausing to urinate on the ground, the ground is still wet and warm. He was just ahead of us by minutes but now his tracks move up the hill and into tall grass, we decide not to follow but continue our path with the nervous excitement that he may have been watching us all along.
We negotiate around several Elephant herds this morning; it’s a busy day it seems. We reach another beautiful forest and find Elephant but also an enormous herd of Buffalo, possibly 300 of them moving towards a group of Elephants on the other side. Our wind direction is good but I can see the Elephants are getting agitated by the Buffalo, I notice a small rocky hill with several boulders big enough to deter an animal up a hill and tell the guests to follow me there. It was a good call, just as we were ascending the hill the forest turned into a thunderous chaotic madness with Buffalo being pushed towards where we were by the Elephant, they panic as we watch from the safety of the rocks and run towards our position. They now get our scent having run into the wind, its one occasion where being detected by scent helped us and I have often used this tactic to “move” buffalo herds. As if hit by an olfactory wall they stop dead in their tracks and head immediately in the other direction. Our hearts are pounding in our ears, the adrenalin has our palms sweaty but we have never felt more alive.
Descending off our hill and continuing our path the guests and I relive the tale, sandwiched between Buffalo and Elephant from the safety of our little hill we realised how small we really are. We head back to camp continuing learning along the way. Yes, I can teach you about the intricacies of the ecosystem but every step the guests and I took after our experience had a renewed sense of humility in it and that was a lesson only nature could teach.