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Elephant family in Ruaha in southern Tanzania
© Beate Apfelbeck

One of our favourite places to visit on safari is Ruaha National Park in southern Tanzania, the largest, but maybe least explored of Tanzania’s national parks. The lifeline of the park is the Great Ruaha River that unites several smaller streams on its way from the Southern Highlands through the Usangu wetlands. The gentle, undulating landscape is dotted by ancient baobab trees that bear the signs of the numerous elephants inhabiting the park.

There are several accommodation possibilities within the park – from high-end lodges to the comfortable park-owned cottages and bandas. Having stayed at the cottages during our previous stays, we wanted to be even closer to nature this time and decided to go camping.

The landscape of Ruaha National Park in Tanzania
© Beate Apfelbeck

The public campsite No. 1, also called Tembo (elephant) campsite, is situated in the Msembe area close to the park’s headquarters, on the riverbank of the Great Ruaha River.

Now in September – at the end of the dry season – the once forceful river had partly dried up and was narrow and shallow. However, as it is one of the few water sources that remain, animals congregate around it, and the riverbed at the campsite is especially frequented by elephants.

Two children watching elephants in the distance in Ruaha in Tanzania
© Beate Apfelbeck

When we arrived at the campsite in the afternoon, a family of elephants was cooling off in the Great Ruaha River and we enjoyed watching them from the top of the riverbank. The little family emanated calmness and peace, their ears flapping slowly, low rumbling noises of content vibrating through the air. It is amazing how silent these giants move, gently rocking back and forth when walking while feeling comfortable and happy.

On the other side of the riverbank, three male elephants slowly alighted into the riverbed, grabbing bits of grass and leaves with their trunks, constantly eating. After a little bath, they moved along the riverbank in search of the sparse green vegetation. Later, they decided to cross the river, the water reaching just above their ankles. They started slowly moving towards us, still eating along the way.

Three elephants on a riverbank in Ruaha in Tanzania
© Beate Apfelbeck

Soon it became obvious that they were heading for the campsite. The biggest and boldest of the three males seemed curious about us. His trunk was curled upwards, sniffing the air, as he approached, then he would snatch at the grass, pretending to eat. He was now really close and my heart started beating faster. He was massive, and I was feeling small and humble. I was overwhelmed by his presence.

We realised then that he had decided to climb the riverbank just where we were sitting, and hastily, but moving slowly, we retreated backwards without disturbing him.

Male elephant in Ruaha in Tanzania
© Beate Apfelbeck

Within the blink of an eye he was already on top of the riverbank, still eyeing us with interest, sniffing the air with his trunk. The other two males were shier than their leader, and followed him more hesitantly. He passed behind our car, giving it a thorough consideration with his trunk – luckily we had removed all the eatables from the car earlier! He then gave us a last glance over the top of the car, before ambling away.

An elephant inspecting safari vehicles in Ruaha in Tanzania
© Beate Apfelbeck

We were all very excited. Meeting an elephant on foot, ‘eye to eye’ so to speak, is very different from watching them from the safety of a car. One can feel the power within their massive bodies, while they soft-footedly, and without making a sound, move past you.

Watch the video below, taken by Beate Apfelbeck, of the curious elephant bull


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Beate Apfelbeck

I first travelled to Tanzania in 2010 and was overwhelmed by the diversity of life, both nature and people, I encountered there. It is my second home now and I regularly travel to East Africa (Tanzania and Kenya) for several months a year. When I am not studying birds, I enjoy village life in south-west Tanzania, or go and explore the mountains and national parks in the region. As a biologist I study how environmental variation influences the behaviour and physiology of birds. I am also a passionate photographer and love to share my experiences of the African way of life and my adventures in the field.