Discover Southern Tanzania: Insider Guide to Selous and Ruaha

EJ’s safari specialist Emily Cottingham knows Tanzania like few can. Not only does she travel in-country each year, she spent five years living and working there. With that kind of expertise, we were thrilled to have her investigate the latest properties in Tanzania’s lesser-known southern circuit – the sprawling Selous, and Ruaha National Park, along with a few days soaking up the sun on the private Thanda Island.

Tanzania holds a special place in my heart; it’s my favorite destination to share with travelers and help them fall in love with it the same way I did. That made my latest trip all the more exciting, because even though I’m in Tanzania all the time, there’s always more to learn and explore! While southern Tanzania and Thanda Island are off the beaten path for most travelers, these regions really embody the EJ spirit of exploration and genuine wilderness experiences. What I loved about this trip was feeling truly remote, while also getting to see the conservation and sustainability focus of so many properties.

Selous Game Reserve

The Selous is Africa’s largest wildlife area, and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It’s home to all the big names, like lion, leopard, elephant, buffalo and even the very elusive black rhino as well as wild dog and an array of river and bird life. However, because wildlife has so much space to move in, it can sometimes be tricky to get all the big sightings you want due to sheer geographic space. That said, I had a number of great animal encounters here, including following wild dogs for two full hours in the middle of a hunt. While the park’s got plenty of other animals, it’s the wild dogs that really make the park.

The reserve also has quite a bit of water, with several lakes and rivers, namely the Rufiji River, and diverse terrain, so boat-based activities are a big draw. Seeing so many crocodiles and hippos while dining on a little pontoon boat, or venturing up the channels is quite a thrill! A few of my travel companions and I got especially close to a number of hippos when we spent a night fly-camping, which was a real highlight of the trip for me. (For those who don’t know, fly-camping typically involves walking a few hours away from camp with your guide to spend the night in a remote area under very basic camping conditions. Basic still includes a 3-course meal and cute little bar set up by the camp fire!)

Our makeshift camp was all set up for us by the time we arrived, and set right along a local lake – with tons of crocs and hippos! I loved the adventurous, off-beat experience, but it’s not for the faint of heart either. If you’re very leery of bugs, or being so near big animals like hippo, you might be too stressed to enjoy the magic of sleeping under the stars in real wilderness, which is the whole point! The following morning, we watched the sun rise over the lake while enjoy fresh coffee, then spent the next few hours exploring the natural hot springs!

Selous Shout Out:

Roho ya Selous is a great new option in the area. It’s got a tented camp feel but more creature comforts like permanent stone floors and multiple fans to help keep you cool even in warm months.

Photo courtesy of Roho ya Selous

Ruaha National Park

While technically smaller than the Selous, Ruaha is part of a series of connected wilderness areas in southern Tanzania which, combined, cover over 50,000km², so you give game a lot of freedom to traverse landscapes. You get everything from rolling hills, large open plains, groves of baobabs and, along its southern border, the wide Great Ruaha River and the dry Mwagusi River.

With much fewer camps in the park and few visitors compared with more well-known areas like Ngorongoro Crater, Ruaha is a total treat to feel removed from the modern world. Ruaha is a place you can really immerse yourself in nature, and we were often the only vehicle out on game drives! That means the park’s huge herds of elephants, lions, phenomenal birdlife, hyenas and leopard could truly be enjoyed, as we had them almost entirely to ourselves! One afternoon, while out on a game drive, we came across an elephant who had died. While this was definitely hard to see, it was also pretty astounding to watch how other wildlife came alive around it – lions growling and weaving in and out, taking turns trying to claim carcass, hyenas cackling and surrounding, vultures flocking, all while the mourning elephants were trumpeting their loss and trying to keep everything else away from the body. It was such a special, unusual sight, and we were the only car there. That’s a big deal when other national parks can sometimes have throngs of cars vying for a single wildlife sighting.

Another bonus to Ruaha are walking safaris and night game drives, which offer a very unique experience and chance to see some of the more elusive nocturnal wildlife.

Ruaha Shout Out:

Kigelia Ruaha: I was totally enchanted by this tiny, barefoot camp. The manager and every team member were obviously passionate about living and working directly in Ruaha, which made all of us that much more excited to be there and experience it together! The staff also perfectly brought together professionalism and attention to detail with genuine warmth and ease. Everyone was friendly and personable, making it easy to laugh and connect while always feeling very taken care of.

©Kigelia Ruaha

©Kigelia Ruaha

Ikuka Safari Camp: If you’re not ready to be quite that close to nature, Ikuka was another favorite. It’s not as rustic, but gives you beautiful, expansive views of the area, more polished luxury and outdoor swimming pool, and plenty of space to relax and make your own.

©Ikuka Safari Camp

©Ikuka Safari Camp

Thanda Island

This one surprised me. As a safari-goer who would be happy to spend all day, every day, on game drives, I didn’t expect to love a private island off the Tanzanian coast this much, but it really won me over! The private villa (with amenities like spa, gym, and more) is gorgeous, but it was all the available activities that made it for me. Days could fill quickly with snorkeling, jet skis, fishing, long meals and then of course, relaxing with a good book on the beach!

©Thanda Island

©Thanda Island

Swimming with whale sharks was an absolutely breathtaking wildlife experience that most people would never think of for a safari, but it was a highlight of my trip. We spent part of a day out in open water following the whale sharks, and diving in whenever we caught up to spend some time right next to them in the water. Their sheer size is truly staggering, and one even stuck by us to swim together for about thirty minutes, which is unusual for them. It was such a personal, raw experience – I would love more of our travelers to experience that kind of up-close magic!

All in all...

At the end of the day, I’m more in love with Tanzania than ever. We get so used to the big numbers and game of the Serengeti, but this last trip renewed my passion for remote and intimate experiences that show you the magic of a more raw, offbeat Africa.

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Jamie Mehrotra