Tucked away in the far north east corner of the Ruaha National Park, I came across the banks of a sweeping bend on the Mwagusi Sand River in southern Tanzania, which is where I found Mwagusi Safari Camp – hidden amongst the baobabs, volcanic rock and sparkling pink quartz. The Park, with its dramatic landscapes, has an abundance of elephants, well-maintained roads and few visitors, making Mwagusi the perfect camp for those wishing to experience a true wilderness safari. Situated far off the beaten track in Tanzania’s largest national park, the Camp is a rare gem on the safari circuit. One of the very few owner-run camps in the area, I arrived at Mwagusi Safari Camp to find a charming, small, exclusive tented camp of 13 bandas, which snake along the sandy banks of the river.
Mwagusi Safari Camp offered me a unique and comfortable tented safari experience, with a hint of understated elegance. Almost all of the camp is built from natural materials such as grass thatch, timber, drift wood, stones and reeds, allowing it to be in perfect balance and harmony with its surroundings. This well-established camp was first started in 1987, I am told, and it is an expression of the unwavering love and passion of its owner, Chris Fox (pictured below right), for the Tanzanian bush, its wildlife and its people.
“This is the Africa you imagine when you shut your eyes,” Chris tells me as we sit around the campfire one evening. “It’s real, rugged, wild savannah. There are moments of great drama, great beauty. The first rains are very dramatic, and there is always different light, or something different happening – huge lion / buffalo confrontations, for example, where you watch a pride of lions take out a buffalo and at the same time, the buffalo is attacking the lions. You really feel like you’re ‘in’ nature. I don’t think there’s any other place I’ve seen where you can get up in the morning and suddenly there’s an elephant walking past.”
Chris was born and raised in Tanzania, and is passionate about Africa in general and Ruaha National Park in particular. His knowledge of Ruaha extends back to long holidays spent camping in this area before it even became a National Park, and his family helped to ensure that the land was gazetted and fully protected in 1964. When he was a boy, he and his family were often the only visitors. As an eight-year-old, he would go hunting on foot with his father in this secret, unheard-of paradise. Apart from schooldays spent in Devon, he has known the Ruaha all his life and his passion for it shines through in everything he says and does. “As children, we were very lucky,” he smiles. “We could camp wherever we wanted and we could do whatever we wanted – life was completely free. But it was a very different life – sometimes, my brother and I would disappear for the whole day!”
Chris is notorious for his profound knowledge and experience with the wildlife, people and the land of Ruaha. He is best known for his deep understanding of animal behaviour, especially with wild African elephants, and has formed astonishing relationships with these incredibly intelligent creatures. “It’s not something that you could do now, but I could put my hand in her mouth and she would lick my hand,” Chris says of one particular pachyderm.
Mwagusi Safari Camp is renowned for its high-calibre of local guides and their in-depth knowledge of the African bush. Local Tanzanians benefit from an in-house guide training programme aiming to provide top-class guides with excellent wildlife and bush knowledge, who have an ability to read animal behaviour – knowing when to sit patiently and watch a natural sequence of events unfold.
It is thought that Tanzania has lost half of its elephant population to ivory poachers since 2007. I am told that at the Selous Game Reserve, the epic herds for which it was once justly famous have been all but decimated. Perhaps as a result of this, Ruaha now holds the record for the largest concentration of elephants in the country, as well as huge herds of buffalo, tracked by a tenth of the world’s lion population. Such abundance is always encouraging, but with it comes the responsibility of protecting it, a difficult task in an under-utilised park of this size.
“We have good, healthy populations of wildlife right now,” Chris tells me, “but things can turn on a sixpence and so it’s a bit unpredictable. Everything is ebbing and flowing, either influenced by man or nature. Here, elephants are given the ability to roam freely. They will destroy a bit of habitat here and move on somewhere else, and the habitat will regenerate after they’ve flattened it – you know, the trees and bushes – and then the grazing animals will come and feed off what the elephants have left behind. So there is a balance. It’s not a balance in the way that we would like to see things, where we count numbers and expect those numbers to stay the same. You will have the crises and you’ll have the droughts and you’ll have things die off. But the more we try to interfere with it, the more we make a mess and we think we know better. But we don’t know better. I’ve spent a long time around elephants and they are highly intelligent, highly interactive and have incredible memories.”
Part of Tanzania National Parks’ plan is to encourage visitors to Ruaha, which will in turn swell the park’s coffers and help pay for anti-poaching efforts. In the past year, the United Nations has helped fund road upgrades (the network, compact as it is, works brilliantly) and also train rangers whose job, other than to occasionally accompany walking-safari guides, is to patrol the park. “We have Tanzanians who are passionate about conserving wildlife in Tanzania,” Chris tells me. “What we need to do is just preserve the land areas as National Park status. I think in the immediate future, wildlife conservancies will play a role where governments are still a bit immature [about this issue]. There comes a point where we as a human race have to say, we are one planet and we’ve got to fund those places whose governments can’t afford to sustain them. Otherwise, we’ll lose the land and the animals, and we will all pay the price.”
To the relatively few who know and love Ruaha, its appeal as a first-class wildlife sanctuary has never been in doubt. By rights, with its diverse ecosystem, healthy wildlife populations and reputation for excellent guiding, it should be rated right up there with the top game parks in Africa. But so far, its safari camps have been mostly pretty basic, and run on tight budgets with nothing in the pot for improvements. With Mwagusi Safari Camp paving the way for attracting the tourists who will, somewhat ironically, be sustaining the future of the Parks (albeit through their wallets), perhaps hope is not lost just yet.