Disney has a great deal to answer for. Thanks to the likes of The Lion King’s Timon and Pumbaa, the Serengeti is easily Tanzania’s best-known safari destination.
And that means you must pick your safari spot with care. Choose the wrong place, and you’ll share your quest to see the ‘big five’ – lion, leopard, rhino, elephant and Cape buffalo – with herds of tourists.
We opt for the Ruaha National Park, where you’ll find wildlife great and small, and barely another human being. Here, nature is not on your doorstep: you are very much on its. Jongomero, tucked into the south-west corner of Ruaha, is one of three camps in Tanzania owned by The Selous Safari Company. It provides a remote, yet sumptuous, experience.
Camp manager, Kenyan-born Andrew Molinaro – known to everyone here as Molly – explains to us how the camp works. During the day, we are free to roam, but we’re told to stay alert as the site is not fenced and animals often wander through.
At night we are not to leave our palatial tents without an escort. Hippos, elephants and lions are all known to pass by after dark, but we shouldn’t worry, he tells us, because they don’t go near the wooden platforms on which the tents are built. I almost believe him. There are just eight tented suites housing a maximum of 16 people.
During our visit there are only eight of us – and with the accommodation spaced generously apart, my opulent tent feels wonderfully, if daringly, isolated.
Mother’s pride: A lioness and her cub in the Selous Game Reserve
On our first game drive, Molly introduces us to some of Ruaha’s most iconic residents: Giraffe – the supermodels of the bush (so-called because they are remarkably beautiful, if not terribly intelligent) stalk past.
Impala roam in huge numbers, and elephants await us at every turn. We meet dik-diks – tiny Bambi-like creatures that live in pairs and mate for life, and we keep our eyes peeled for honey badgers – rare and vicious animals that belie their cuddly-sounding name. Greater kudu, zebra, baboons and severely endangered wild dogs all make an appearance.
After a sundowner – G&Ts and nibbles served on a folding table – a voice comes over Molly’s radio. You don’t need to be fluent in Swahili to understand the message: Simba. We are back in the truck, weaving our way through the bush and racing against the setting sun to find the lions spotted an hour earlier.
We’re in luck – five of them laze under a tree, round-bellied from the previous day’s kill. We are unnervingly close, only metres away, but Molly assures us that as animals have never been hunted from vehicles in Tanzania, they do not see us as a threat. He’s right. The clan could not care less, rolling on their backs like domestic moggies and laying splay-legged as the night draws in.
Early the next morning, we set off on a walking safari. Molly is the only person in Ruaha allowed to lead these trips, a testament to his knowledge and experience. He knows the park instinctively; its creatures and geography are tattooed on his internal GPS and we feel absolutely safe in his hands.
As we walk in single file, quietly observing the creatures whose paths meet ours, we are also introduced to Ruaha’s less talked-about inhabitants. The mighty candelabra tree, which is cactus-like in appearance and whose milky sap can blind, and the whistling thorn bushes, whose bulbous thorns house hundreds of stinging ants. Even the plant life is fascinating and imposing.
A few hours in, we are beginning to wilt with hunger, so Molly decides to show us how to find food in the bush. The idea of scaling trees to scavenge for marula fruit left by the elephants is not that appealing. So it’s a huge relief when we round a tree to find a chef and two waiters with a very welcome picnic table. Fresh fruit, coffee, homemade scones and a ful l cooked breakfast, with eggs made to order. A lavish feast.