I write you from the very dry heart of Tanzania where the ground is very brown, the grass is lion-colored and the trees look like they could all use a bit of water. I tell you Gio, it is everything you imagine Africa to be: forever skies with evasive clouds, the hot, hot sun, the baked earth and that special smell of the air—that unique African potpourri of acacia flowers, dried tree bark, red dust, elephant dung and the tease of rain.
Everyone and everything is waiting for the rain to come. Ruaha is one of the driest parts of the country (during the dry season) and also one of the hottest. By midday, the temperatures are over 100°F and the sun so powerful, it propels me towards the shade.
I spent the past four days here in Ruaha National Park, which is the largest national park in all of Tanzania. How big is it, you ask? Well—it’s as big as New Jersey!
I always find it interesting how as Americans, we must qualify the size and shape of geographical entities by comparison to one of our own fifty states. France is incomprehensible until we tell ourselves it is exactly the size of Texas, and thus it is with Ruaha.
The Tanzanians told me how Ruaha National Park was the size of Rwanda and Burundi combined, but this does not interpret easily to an American audience and so I did a bit of research. Ruaha was recently expanded to its current size of 22,000 km2 and when searching the American states, I noticed that New Jersey is 22,608 km2 (8,721 square miles).
Whenever I think of New Jersey, I think of you, Gio (how can I help it when you are the proudest New Jerseyan I know?). My question to you then, is, can you imagine a national park as big as your home state? Without any cities or people or anything—just open wilderness, filled with all of Africa’s greatest animals?
Even better, Ruaha itself is surrounded by game reserves and other protected areas, so that in conservation terms, it forms an even larger and more critical ecosystem. I think that too often, we outsiders believe the whole of Africa to be this huge wild space devoid of people and happy with abundant wildlife, when in fact, there are major populations pressures on the landscape. Land that isn’t set aside specifically for animal conservation tends to be denuded and cultivated and soon emptied of the flora and fauna that make places like Ruaha so incredible to visit.
I have spent my days in search of these African creatures, starting always very early—before dawn—and riding up and down the long dusty stretches of savanna, rumbling in a bumpy safari jeep and then stopping to consider three or four giraffe, or the flash of some tropical bird or to merely take in the sight of elephants parading along the horizon, their young babies trying to keep up.
Ruaha has been heavenly, actually. So quickly I have begun to think the world is mostly empty and very quiet, the moon and stars always bright and visible, the wildlife safe and content. The day’s drama only derives from sightings of wonderful creatures—a cheetah an hour from here (let’s go now!) or an angry herd of elephants that chased us away. In just a few days, I have adopted nature’s pace, and like the animals, I wake in the dark and retreat before noon, only to emerge at dusk for another hunt in the wild, armed with my camera and bird book and the hopes that I might see another terrific animal.
I especially love the dik-diks, which are the smallest antelope and unfortunately, the ones that get picked on the most. When they are running and dodging bushes, they look like bunny rabbits and when they are standing and staring at you, they look like an anime version of Bambi. You typically see them in pairs, as they mate for life, and while they tend to be targeted by anything with teeth, they’ve survived as a species due to their quick wit and quick legs.
I also love the red hornbills, and the species they have here in Ruaha is in fact, endemic to the park. You forget them when seeing them because there are so many of them around, but they have bright red curved bills, and bright yellow eyes and they hop and flit from bush to bush, picking off the bugs.
I am guessing you do not have dik-diks and hornbills in New Jersey, but imagine if you did? Imagine if every car on the turnpike wan an impala (the animal, not the car) and every town a watering hole, busy with thirsty warthogs and poised giraffe? This is Ruaha—it’s a state ruled entirely by animals—the king of which is obviously the lion.
Without even trying, I saw lions—seven of them. Honestly, it was a bit frightening, driving along the road and looking into the shadows of the nearby bushes and then realizing that was a lion lying there in the grass, not twenty feet from the car. And then another, and another, until I counted seven. They were magnificent, yet so tired after working so hard for their meal—I could hear their heavy panting and admired their very sharp teeth from pretty close up.
Perhaps the best part of all is that I got to see all of this alone—meaning that in four days, mine was one of the few jeeps out looking at wildlife. Ruaha is still kind of a safari secret, which is why I’m only writing you to let you know.
I know that your own travels have often led you to some of the places I have been, so I just wanted to nod quietly towards Ruaha and say, go there. I’m afraid the secret won’t last long, as we’ve just announced Ruaha as one of National Geographic Traveler’s Best Winter Trips for 2013.
So, you know, if you’re ever in the mood to be screamed at by elephants, or eyed by giraffes, or to laugh at the antics of baby baboons, I think you’d love this place. It’s almost as wonderful as New Jersey, only slightly less green than the Garden State. I hope you make it over someday.
I send you my warmest wishes—my best to Josh, and to your mother, who has been following my travels from the beginning. Stay well in Washington, DC, don’t work as hard as you are prone to do, and as they say in Swahili, Kila la kheri—good luck!
Have a terrific week—