My tickets had been booked since last December but, when it came to it, finding someone to join me on a safari in Tanzania wasn’t easy. ‘Are you high?’ my friend Rebecca asked me. ‘There’s a pandemic, in case you hadn’t heard.’
Of course I was worried about Covid-19. As my dates approached, I began to do a lot of research on the safest ways to travel internationally. I called a few friends working in public health in Dar es Salaam. They all said that Tanzania didn’t have the infection rates that other countries had, and they weren’t seeing evidence in hospital admissions of patients presenting with coronavirus symptoms. One friend reasoned, ‘If you’re going to be on safari, you’d have a higher risk of catching Covid from a lion sneezing on you – and if you’re that close to a lion, you have bigger issues to worry about.’ Safari camps had lost most of their income during the pandemic, but were still open and eager to welcome guests.
Still, planning a safari trip was a lot more complicated than I thought it would be. A friend suggested that I use a booking agent who specialises in the country, and referred me to Sam Hankss with Africa Odyssey. Sam encouraged me to consider Ruaha, at just over 5,000 square miles, the largest national park in Tanzania. I’d never heard of it, but Sam was insistent.
Ruaha has four of the Big Five animals (no rhinoceros) with more than 12,000 elephants, a tenth of the world’s lion population, large herds of Cape buffalo and frequent leopard sightings. For birders, the park has nearly 580 different species, from tiny bee-eaters to large vultures. I was taken with the fact that Ruaha receives only about 13,000 visitors a year – in comparison, the Serengeti receives more than 350,000. And while it is large, only about five per cent is accessible to tourists. Within a week I was landing on the Jongomero Airstrip in a turboprop Cessna to begin my adventure in the south of Tanzania.
When the plane landed, an open safari vehicle drove up. As I was the only passenger, it parked close to me, and the masked driver got out. I extended my hand to shake his, and instead he deftly squeezed a dollop of hand sanitizer into my palm and introduced himself as Lambert, my guide for the next five days.
I was the only guest at Jongomero, a tented camp on the banks of Ruaha’s eponymous river. The drives here are isolated events. There are no other cars or visitors and the place is ideal for solitude. I had wanted some time in the wilderness to get away from the constant buzzing of emails and Zoom meetings, so this was the perfect escape. I could only get Wi-Fi by standing in a particular spot and raising my iPad over my head. Each evening the chef set up a table for me in a different spot. One night, I looked up and could see the Milky Way so clearly that I asked the waiters if they would mind walking down with me so I could photograph the galaxy from the middle of the river bed.
After four nights in Jongomero, Lambert drove me about 40 miles north-east to Ikuka camp. Set high on a hill overlooking the Mwagusi River, Ikuka is run by an affable Brit named Mark Sheridan Johnson. Mark, a dead ringer Channing Tatum, was born in the UK but raised in Tanzania. I immediately felt like he was an old friend I hadn’t seen in years. After university, Mark returned to Tanzania and began working for a safari company before setting out on his own and building Ikuka Safari Camp.
Mark walked me through Ikuka’s Covid-19 mitigation procedures – masks, extra cleaning, hand-sanitiser stations. As a financial incentive, many camps are offering deals and are waiving single supplements for solo travelers. Most importantly, they are also limiting the number of guests on a game drive – so I had the whole car to myself.
As we left camp in the still of the pre-dawn morning, my guide Geofrey stopped the car and pointed to a set of tracks on the red-sand road leading away from Ikuka. I could see nothing, but he said, ‘Look closely, a male leopard was just here. These tracks are fresh. Let’s follow them.’ We drove behind the tracks for several hundred yards until they veered off into the thickets. Soon, we came across a pride of lions – five lionesses and a lion from the Kipunji pride, one of the 36 prides in Ruaha.
Safari guides often radio their colleagues to let them know of any sightings, but because none of the other camps at Ruaha had any guests, Geoffrey and I were alone. Still, calls came in from his contacts letting him know where leopards and cheetahs were last seen, to help with our search. In a remote area of Ruaha called Serengeti Ndogo (‘Little Serengeti’), we got a call that there had been a cheetah sighting several miles away. We sped off. We were driving very fast when all of a sudden Geoffrey stopped. ‘There! The cheetahs!’ I couldn’t see anything, but he said, ‘Look closer… See the ears?’ Sure enough I saw two ears maybe an inch above the grass. It was beyond me how he was able to spot that from more than a hundred yards away, while driving 50 miles an hour.
We pulled up on an elephant track near the cheetahs, and their heads perked up as they eyed us lazily. I started to take photographs while they posed and stretched for me. At any other time, there would have been other cars all over the place, but here it was just us and the cheetahs.
The longer I stayed, the more I felt like I was in paradise – and part of the bliss was the solitude that enveloped me in Ruaha. While it’s normally an off-the-beaten-path destination, the pandemic made it even more so. I had the entirety of the park to myself. What more could one ask for?
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