By Robert Blake
At about the same time as William the Conqueror was thinking that Hastings would be a good place to visit, a seed from a baobab tree germinated and so began its long and distinguished career as a tree. That tree still stands. It is a mighty tree and one that is no doubt much photographed by visitors to The Selous Game Reserve in Southern Tanzania. We were grateful for its shade as we stood beneath it, having spent several hours on a game drive en route to Lake Manze from our lodge, the Serena Luxury camp.
This was day two of our stay in Selous, one of East Africa’s most impressive wildlife sanctuaries, covering an incomprehensible 21,000 square miles: Switzerland fits comfortably inside it. It is not all sanctuary, as the majority of the reserve is given over to hunting blocks, but the northern part is strictly for shooting only with a camera and this is where we found ourselves for five nights, staying at the two Serena Camps.
We had arrived by air, flying down from Nairobi, over a virtually snow-less Kilimanjaro and into Dar es Salaam. At Dar we went through the rather bizarre but painless rituals that surround the purchase of a visa before transferring to the domestic terminal. (If you go there, seek out the well-stocked book shop that also serves a very good cup of coffee). Suitably caffeinated, we boarded the small plane that would take us on the 60 minute flight to Selous. It was a very small plane – just enough room for the two of us, a couple of cases and the two pilots but this allowed us some spectacular views; MMA (miles and miles of Africa) was in abundance and as we descended we could see the sinuous Rufiji river winding its way through the bush, leaving sand banks and oxbow lakes in its ancient path.
Banking over Stiegler’s gorge, we touched down and were met by Ahmed, who was to be our driver for the next five days. He proved to be accommodating, knowledgeable, a good listener, a fine teacher and, best of all, the possessor of a fine sense of humour. He warned us of the tsetse flies that we would encounter on the way to the lodge but also provided us with insect repellent, which was both welcome and efficacious.
Our first two nights were spent at the Selous Luxury Camp and it more than lives up to its name. The twelve rooms are in fact spacious tents under thatched roofs, with their own verandas and even air conditioning should you desire it. The main dining and seating area is tastefully designed in an understated fashion and opens onto a large wooden deck, overlooking a bend in a seasonal river. The deck is shaded by two huge trees, a tamarind and a kigelia or sausage tree, which attract birds as well as a few well-behaved and unobtrusive vervet monkeys.
After an excellent lunch (the food is superb) we headed out into the surrounding miombo woodland. Miombo is characterised by large numbers of brachystegia trees, interspersed with shrubs and long grass. It is quite hard to spot game, even from the elevated position afforded by standing up in the back of a vehicle, but that makes it all the more exciting when you do see something. As dusk was falling, Ahmed said “Leopard!” and we just quick enough to catch a glimpse of her as she jumped down for the branch where she had been resting. We were not quite shark enough also to see her nearly full-grown cub, but Ahmed had seen him, a real treat for him as much as it was for us.
At night, we heard hyena and lion, and the local hippo lived up to his reputation for being unusually vocal. The following morning, we set off through the miombo with its endemic bird species, up and over the hills and down onto the plains where we saw Nyassa wildebeest, a paler and generally more handsome fellow than his Kenyan cousins. After a short stop under the giant baobab we continued on our way to Lake Manze, a large body of water that is home to crocodiles and hippo, as well as hundreds of birds. It also attracts much of the local game and we saw evidence of a large buffalo herd, as well giraffe, impala and zebra. We were not fortunate enough to see some of Selous’ famed hunting dogs, we did see some lions, doing what lions do during the day, namely sleeping and having their photographs taken. It’s a long day (nine hours) so we were glad to be back for showers and sundowners before another five star meal.
Breakfast over, we said our goodbyes to the excellent staff at the camp and headed off to our next lodge, Mivumo River Camp. If you can, you really must go there as it is, quite simply, superb. Set above the Rufiji River, the rooms are built on platforms, each with its own deck complete with outdoor shower and bath. Lying back under a starry sky, listening to the grunts of hippo and cries of hyrax and bush babies is a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
Just upstream from the camp is Stiegler’s gorge, where the river flows between tree-clad cliffs, home to fish eagles, kingfishers and, if you are lucky enough to see them, leopard and elephant. We spent many happy hours cruising slowly up and down the river, taking in the stunning scenery and just being there.
The river was quite low, so we had plenty of opportunities to beach the boat on a sand bank, having first approached cautiously to allow the huge crocodiles time to slip into the water. With crocs and hippo in the water by your feet and with the possibility of elephant coming to share your bit of bank, it may seem a little unwise to linger, but if you don’t then you won’t experience one of life’s ultimate experiences: catching a tiger fish. Armed with an impressive array of needle-sharp teeth, these fish grow to a healthy size and they are, pound for pound, one of the strongest and most acrobatic of fish. Not only are you likely to hook one of these magnificent fish, you are also likely to attract the attention of the fish eagles, who wait patiently in the trees. They know when a meal is in the offing and have a good rapport with the boatman. Having gained their attention, the boatman Issa threw a small fish onto the bank. Seconds later, a fish eagle, wings spread and talons to the fore, swooped down and gratefully accepted his supper.
During our three night stay at Mivumo, we took advantage of the chance to walk in the bush, accompanied by a diminutive but fascinating game ranger. We also made the trip to Lake Tagalala, which is reputed to have the highest density of crocodiles in the world. To say that there are a lot of them is a serious understatement and some of them are very, very large indeed. Even if you’re not a great croc fan, it is well worth the trip. The terrain changes with such remarkable speed that one minute you are in thick forest only to find yourself suddenly surrounded by doum palms and sand dunes.
On our final morning, we took advantage of a rescheduled flight to make one last trip on the river before driving out to the airstrip and boarding the same small plane that had brought us, a few days but a lifetime of experiences ago. As we banked over the gorge, we looked down on places that were now familiar to us and we wished Selous a fond farewell, but ‘au revoir’ as we hope to be back to this most special place before too long.
Peponi House School
PO Box 23203, Lower Kabete
Nairobi 00604, Kenya
TEL: +254 (0) 20 2585710 – 712