Southern Tanzania is vast and incorporates a number of small and some truly massive national parks and reserves that are often overshadowed by the Serengeti and the more easily accessible parks in the north. Therein lies some of the attraction to the southern parks, while they don’t have an incredible migration or volcanic craters, they have much fewer people, diverse habitats and a fantastic sense of wilderness. The premier attractions down south are the Selous Game Reserve, Ruaha National Park and then to the west is Katavi National Park.
The Selous is something like the ‘Amazon’ - a watery wilderness of palms and forests, savannahs and sandy islands. In 2019 Tanzania’s National Park Authority, TANAPA, announced a change an identity change for the northern sector of the Selous to Nyerere National Park, in honour of Tanzania’s first president Julius Nyerere (1922-1999). While the boundaries of Nyerere National Park are still being established, we understand it will encompass the northern sector of the Selous, which was dedicated to photographic safaris [non-hunting activities] and extend into the wilderness zone south of the Rufiji River. The vast area south of the Rufiji is carved up into hunting blocks, something Conservation Safari Company does not offer at all. On the whole, the national park status should be a positive change for the region, bringing increased investment and additional wildlife protection.
Covering 45,000km² of wilderness, with grassy plains, open woodland, mountains and forests, the Selous Game Reserve (pronounced 'seloo', and named after the 19th-century British explorer and hunter, Frederick Courtney Selous) is Africa's largest game reserve. It's about three times the size of South Africa's Kruger National Park, and twice the size of the Serengeti National Park. It is also one of Tanzania's three World Heritage Sites, acknowledging it’s importance within the country.
The main artery of the Selous Game Reserve is the Rufiji, the country’s largest river, which forms a complex network of channels, lakes and swamps that create one of the most incredible ecological systems in East Africa. This river also splits the reserve into two different sections:
The northern Selous covers only around 5% of the reserve’s total area. No hunting is allowed here; this area is dedicated exclusively to photographic safaris. All of our preferred camps operate in this area.
The southern Selous, south of the Rufiji, is split up into a number of ‘hunting blocks’ – each of which typically cover about 1,000km². Who knows, perhaps in time, as the photographic tourism sector grows, those hunting blocks will be converted to photographic activities which has happened in other parks.
The Dry season (June to October) is the most popular time to visit the Selous, and you will likely encounter the majority of visitors drawn by the season’s clear blue skies. It's at this time animals converge on rivers and waterholes, and the dry bush is sparse enough for views of wildlife to be unobstructed. If you do visit in the wetter months, the birdlife is incredible and most lodges close their doors from March to May so we plan outside of those months.
Ruaha National Park is hot, dry and wild, a vast and untapped adventure that may be Tanzania's best kept wildlife secret. Now even bigger, since Usangu Game reserve merged its borders with Ruaha in 2008, transforming it into Tanzania’s largest national park covering more than 20,000km². There are still only a handful of camps found here, which has built Ruaha’s reputation as Tanzania’s best kept game viewing secret. Ruaha’s wild and untouched feel is what sets it apart from other reserves, making it a popular choice for repeat travellers to east Africa.
Ruaha is well known for its varied dramatic scenery, which includes rolling hills; large open plains; groves of skeletal baobabs and along its southern border, the Great Ruaha River, from which the park gets its name. This is by far the most dominant geographical feature of the national park and, for the wildlife it is the most important. Ruaha has a hot, dry climate which means the animals don’t tend to stray too far from dependable water sources. This makes predicting game movements far easier, particularly in the dry season.
The best game viewing in this national park is generally from May to November, but the bush is greener and prettier from January to June, and birding peaks during the European winter months of December to April.
The far west of Tanzania is home to two of Tanzania’s lesser known national parks: Katavi National Park and Mahale Mountains National Park. This western circuit is extremely remote, tricky to access and pretty costly to visit. As a result few people make the effort to come here and so it has remained an untouched, unique experience, and absolutely worth visiting.
Katavi National Park is one of the best parks in Africa and many safari operations would love to start camps here. However, the logistics and costs are a challenge, and as a result there are only a couple of small, permanent safari camps sharing this 4,500km² of wilderness. You sometimes run across more prides of lion than other people on a game drive.
Mahale is famous for it’s chimp viewing, thanks to Jane Goodall and her research many years ago, it offers one of our most desirable lodges and wildlife experiences in Africa!