Classic | Tanzania

Usangu: A place to return

Marketing Content Manager Jenna Gradidge recently returned from a familiarity trip that included a visit to one of southwestern Tanzania’s most extraordinary and remote wildernesses: the Usangu Wetlands. Here, Jenna shares ‘the absolute highlight’ of the trip, a stay at Usangu Expedition Camp.

Located on the edge of the Usangu Wetlands in the little-visited Ruaha National Park, past the (oddly thrilling) tsetse fly-infested miombo woodlands, and far from the mega crowds of the northern circuit, Asilia’s Usangu Expedition Camp was, in every way, the absolute highlight of my recent adventures in southern Tanzania. There are so many reasons for this, some of which I dive more into below, but the overall stand out had to be just how wonderful an example Usangu is of what good the right kind of travel can do for unique and vulnerable habitats like this.

A two-hour drive from Jongomero airstrip, I arrive at the first and only camp in the area for 40 miles. Instantly, my inner introvert settles: this is a place I once saw in my dreams. The camp set up is unfussy and beautifully simple, allowing all the attention to shine on the landscape, and it is in the small details, such as old bicycles once used by poachers hanging in the communal space, that tell the story of this landscape’s past and hope for the future. At Usangu, less really is more: just four tents, two ethanol-powered Land Rovers, and thousands of miles of mostly unexplored wilderness to adventure in – what more could you ask for?

The Usangu wetlands, located within the Usangu Game Reserve, form some of the most valuable ecosystems and wetland areas in Tanzania. At its heart is the Ihefu Swamp, the source of the Great Ruaha River, which collects water from the surrounding highlands and flows east through Ruaha National Park, joining the Kilombero River and emptying into the Rufuji Delta, the lifeblood of Nyerere National Park (carved out from about two-thirds of what is formerly the Selous). Home to massive herds of roan, sable and topi antelope, packs of wild dogs, and thousands of migratory bird species, much of southern Tanzania’s diverse ecosystems and wildlife would not exist were it not for the Usangu wetlands.

Until recently, the area mainly went unprotected, degraded by decades of hunting, intensive livestock grazing, illegal fishing and mismanaged irrigation from rice cultivation. In the 1960s, when Ruaha was granted its national park status, the Usangu Wetlands area fell just outside its borders, and it was not until 2006 that they were included under the park’s protection. The region’s road to recovery only really began back in 2017, when plans to build the camp were granted and followed by a team of researchers who were sent out on expeditions to conduct an audit of the wildlife and survey the environment to better understand how to protect it. This all was made possible by the partnership created between Asilia, Tanzania National Parks Authority (TANAPA), and the Tanzania Wildlife Research Institute.

The wetlands’ difficult past lives on in wildlife that is decidedly skittish, making close sightings few and far between. It would be easy to believe that maybe there’s not much out here, but with excellent guides, Fadhili Saning’o and Anderson Mesilla, by our side and the helping hand of camera traps, a very different story is revealed. Even we were sceptical, and how very cool it was to learn how wrong we were – civet, bat-eared fox, porcupine, mongoose, jackal and wild dog were just some of the wildlife captured on their night wanderings.

Camera traps are one of the many tools the team is using to study the species found here, and they’re proving that there is indeed much to be seen and protected in this precious land. In just a few years, the animals are returning and, in some areas, being slowly habituated to human presence. For the most part, the wildlife keeps its distance, and much is still to be understood on their numbers and movements, and while this doesn’t make for the wildlife experience expected of a Big 5 tick-box safari, it is exactly what makes a visit here that much more special and exciting.

With the many questions to be answered here, guests get to become the researcher and can join the guides in collecting and logging data on the area alongside the camp’s on-site Douglas Bell Eco Research Station.* The camp’s ‘citizen-science’ activities include placing camera traps, logging rare sightings, counting herd numbers and, depending on the time of year and for an additional donation, joining the team on a collaring expedition.

Of course, this type of immersive safari experience will not be for everyone. It is, however, for a certain kind of traveller curious to explore the lesser-known and have an impact while doing so, the perfect fit. Personally, I can’t think of anywhere I’d prefer to be. A landscape that expands on forever; the golden open grasslands; starry nights spent fly camping and dining under a thousand-something-year-old baobab; the meals cooked over coals; the conversations around the fire; the dedication of the team to the land and the animals that land holds — this, for me, is the meaning of safari. It’s a refuge. Where life is slow and there is time to dream. It’s where the impossible becomes very much possible. It’s nature at its most resilient.

With the camp having only turned one this June, it is exciting to imagine all that will be achieved by the team and research station over the next five years and beyond. At a time of over-tourism, the choices we make as travellers matter more than ever and really do have an impact. While I’d love for this remote corner of Ruaha to be kept a secret, it is so important to get as many people out there to experience and understand the role ecotourism can play in conservation. This experience was a powerful reminder of how, when done right, travel can make all the difference. In every way, Usangu is a place to return to — again and again.

*The research station is named after conservationist and walking guide Douglas Bell, who tragically passed away in the months just before the camp opened. He was massively involved in this project from the very beginning — from the research preparation to data gathering and even digging out the area’s first roads  — and in the dream and plans of what Usangu Expedition Camp is now and stands for.

To discover more about Usangu Expedition Camp, and arrange travel to this remote part of southern Tanzania, please get in touch with our Senior Destinations specialist Hannah Rayner. 

All images courtesy Jenna Gradidge

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