The first time I came to Africa was in 1998. Bob and I were dating, and I remember feeling that the trip to Kenya was a bit of a test. He grew up in Kenya and wanted to know whether I would fall in love with the place just like he had.
I had never seen an elephant in the wild. On the way to Amboseli National Park to see his sister, Joyce, I saw my first bull. I immediately got teary-eyed. The fact that this magnificent creature still roamed the land freely was overwhelming. On that trip, Africa entered into my blood, and together we continue to explore and discover her beauty.
One place that holds our curiosity is Ruaha National Park. Ruaha is the largest of Tanzania’s National Parks, and it is named after the 300-mile long Great Ruaha River. Located in the southwestern region of Tanzania, the river flows from the Kipengere Mountains. Our visit coincided with the dry season; during this time of year, the remaining pools of water provide life for myriad wildlife and fish.
The Park has a variety of topography and plant life. Baobab trees dot the landscape that is intersected by many sand rivers. There are the iconic big cats: lion, cheetah and leopard. Plus, there are thousands of elephants and over 500 species of birds.
We planned to stay for a few days and camp along the river at one of the public campsites. However, when we arrived, we were surprised to see the river was nearly dried up. Later we learned that since the early 1990’s, the Great Ruaha River is no longer so great. Poor water management upstream has wreaked havoc on river flows. Rice farming and livestock require huge quantities of water and without proper controls, the Park’s wildlife has suffered. Fortunately, there is an effort to address the issue and hopefully the great river can return to its former healthy state.
Traveling farther north from Ruaha, we stopped in Iringa for supplies and then carried on to our next destination: Manyara Ranch Conservancy, the place Ernest Hemingway said was “the loveliest I’ve seen in Africa.”
Manyara Ranch is a 35,000 acre wildlife conservancy established by African Wildlife Foundation. The area is located between the wildlife corridors of Tarangire and Manyara National Parks. Without this vital corridor, wildlife would not be able to make their yearly migrations between the two parks.
National parks are tremendously important for the protection of wildlife, but the land surrounding them is crucial as well. Without buffer zones, animals cannot move freely as seasonal rains and grasses dictate. Manyara was a former cattle ranch and today the tradition continues but to a lesser degree.
The main purpose of our visit to Manyara was for Bob to mentor a young filmmaker who won National Geographic’s Wild to Inspire contest at the Sun Valley Film Festival. We spent a week with a talented film school graduate, Dan Duran. Working with Dan gave us the opportunity to meet many of the people involved with management of the ranch, along with scientists and the rangers who protect the wildlife there.
Manyara was the perfect bookend to the start of our journey in Gorongosa National Park where like-minded people are working hard to preserve wildlife and provide opportunities for the communities that live around the Park.