TIA Tales – Authentic Selous
So the adventures began back in May this year with a safari into Selous – the world’s largest game reserve – more than three times the size of the Serengeti, and larger than Switzerland! The text below is from one of the articles I wrote about the trip (it’s already been published in Travel News so I’m allowed to put it on here – keep an eye out for other articles in Destination, Salt and Pepper and Bird Watching over the next month or two!). You guys get the added bonus of loads and loads of photos! I’ve added Authentic Tanzania’s contact info – the company that I went with, in case any of you are interested in doing something similar.
The day the message arrived I had no idea what sort of a journey was to come. I had been invited to experience a ‘nomadic’ or wilderness camp – one that moves to follow game movements – with Authentic Tanzania, a specialist company which has exclusive rights to use sites outside of the standard public camping spots. ‘Sure’ I’d said, just excited to have the opportunity to visit Selous, but with no concept of all the adventures that awaited me.
I was to ‘shadow’ (anyone who knows me knows that a ridiculous term for me – shadows are quiet!) two clients who were visiting Tanzania for the first time from the USA. Jude had done a safari in the Mara before, whilst Debs had never been in the bush at all. They were both seasoned travelers but neither knew quite what to expect. So, three of us and the Authentic Tanzania team all met up at the gates of Selous where their plane landed (I had driven in from Dar es Salaam earlier that day with Sven Liebchen, the company’s owner and our guide for the trip).
Entering the Selous
Going through the gates felt somehow more significant than in any other park I’ve been to. Perhaps it is the weight of history present in this reserve, or the knowledge of how wild, isolated and huge it is. Perhaps it was the closeness of the vivid green wet season undergrowth or the treacherous sections of black cotton soil on the roads – either way, we were all pretty excited.
It was already mid-afternoon so we began to make our way to camp, but we were already getting a feel for this very unique landscape. It changes constantly; opening out into scrubland, then marshland and lake, hilly backdrops, Acacia forests, crazy cacti and dried river beds. Sven, our driver and animal expert, explained that you can cross a road or river section and then return just a few hours later to find it has completely changed due to rain. This is a place where you need a sense of direction – I’m glad I had Sven!
We quickly spotted Impalaand giraffe; lots of giraffe – little lollipop lines of babies all apparently born in the off season. (The Selous is closed during the worst weather of the year since the terrain just becomes too extreme). The Selous is known for its giraffe.
It was perfect, just to watch the world go by. We had almost reached camp and were beginning to relax into the safari experience when our first outstanding safari moment occured. Sven spotted a obra and then quickly realized it was under attack. A Slender Mongoose, a diminutive little thing with pretty fur… and razor sharp teeth was attacking with all its guile, whilst the snake did it’s best to fend him off. Sven launched into a Steve-Irwin-style-Attenborough-content excited commentary of exactly what was going on. ‘Even though he had done this thousands of time, he was as excited as we were for each new animal encounter,’ commented one of the girls. It was riveting and we all leaned forwards, straining to see the events unfold through the long grass. Quite a scene!
With our Cobra mortally wounded and the mongoose settling back to wait it out, we then moved towards camp… And there another spectacular scene awaited us.
Gin and tonics were instantly produced and before we knew it we were settled in and enjoying a fire under the star studded sky before dinner.
These private camps really are a totally new way to do safari and experience the bush. The American term is ‘glamping’ (glamourous camping) and it certainly applies here. This is seriously comfortable camping. Authentic Tanzania sends its team out at least a day in advance of the wageni (visitors) and sets up tents with toilets, showers, proper beds and all sorts of little personal touches too. There’s also a camp sitting room, library, mess or dining tent and staff quarters – they’re doing nothing by halves! Solar power means little lanterns light your way at night, and that you can charge essential electrical items like camera batteries, in spite of being – quite literally – in the middle of nowhere.
And the food… was… fantastic. Everything is made at camp – even fresh bread. A full English breakfast greets you at sunrise and a three course dinner follows sunset. Bush lunches and snacks are provided.
Right, so I was all set. The accommodation was certainly a pleasant surprise (I had texted to check if I needed a sleeping bag just prior to leaving – clearly not!). Fireflies danced for us and the tunes of cicadas, crickets, hippo and hyena sang us to sleep.
Safari – day 1
We had the next two full days to explore before a river cruise would take us out of the park along the beautiful Rufiji River.
I’d been warned the roads may be bad and the game may be sparse since this is such a vast and wild environment, but with our guide’s keen eyes and incredible level of knowledge about the animals and their environment we were quickly finding all sorts. giraffe, wildebeest, Yellow Baboons (quite different to the Olive Baboons you’d commonly find in the Mara or Serengeti) and hippos are in abundance, but Sven was always keen to do better. His knowledge of their preferred territories and ability to anticipate their behaviour led to some incredible finds.
For a start, he noticed vultures circling. Everyone knows that means there’s been a kill, but recognizing the type of vulture and thus predicting what state the carcass is likely to be in and tracking the landing patterns to find the exact spot where the dead animal is – now that’s good guiding! Of course it helps that there are multiple routes to take in the Selous so you can access the more remote corners. The little tracks caused by animals and vehicles apparently alter all the time as nature requires, but they are plentiful. This is great as it means there’s usually a way to reach the point where the animals are, and not so great as it would be really easy to get lost!
A further example was when Sven suddenly pulled up and there, right beside us, was a pride of 11 sleeping lions. As though Sven had briefed him, a young male stretched and stood, preparing to exhibit some behaviour a little more interesting than the usual day time sleep we tend to see. We watched, enthralled, as the huge cat launched himself into the nearest tree and then climbed and settled himself – albeit somewhat uncomfortably initially – into the branches, on the look out for something to eat. Magnificent. We stayed alongside the pride for the rest of the afternoon.
That’s another thing about taking a private camp safari – the guarantee of no other tourists in your vehicle means you can choose to stay as long as you like at each point, without needing to accommodate anyone else’s interests.
I got lucky, Jude and Debs were into every aspect of safari. Yes, of course we wanted to see the big cats, but learning that the Lilac-Breasted Roller has sevenshades of blue in its feathers; that the Southern Ground-Hornbill is a pack bird with an alpha male and female; or that the Oxpecker not only cleans but also serves to keep wounds open sometimes, was all absolutely fascinating as well. There was no question we could find that Sven could not answer.
Having discovered Eland, elephants, crocodiles, waterbuck, zebra, hyena and literally hundreds of different birds, we ventured into a clearing beside a dry river bed where Sven said there had been some cat activity last season. Sure enough we quickly sniffed out a fresh kill, but its perpetrator was nowhere to be found. The sun was sinking and Sven advised we return to catch the culprit at first light. The hunt was on.
Safari – Day 2
The following morning we threw coffee down our necks and leapt excitedly into the vehicle again, whilst trying to control our anticipation, knowing we may well see nothing. But Sven was absolutely right and as soon as we pulled up the intimidating yellow eyes of a large male leopard locked onto mine.
He promptly secured his powerful jaws around what now remained of the wildebeest carcass we had found the night before and dragged the deadweight a little further back into the grass, but quickly realized he was safe – we didn’t want his breakfast, the maggots and smell were enough to secure that! – so he didn’t go too far. Once comfortable he continued his meal, crunching bones and chewing noisily, pausing to lick his paws and face at regular intervals whilst we were just a few feet away.
Because we had been positioned right near where Authentic Tanzania felt the predominance of game would be for that time in the season we had been just moments away and were able to make the most of every minute. And we were the only vehicle there to see it. In fact, we hardly saw another vehicle the entire trip (another great thing about Selous). As the sun rose, this beautiful creature took its time, only leaving when it had reduced the wildebeest to skin and bone – literally. What a privilege to witness.
Next it was our turn for breakfast as the Authentic team produced a table, tablecloth, fresh fruit, bacon sandwiches and hot coffee in the middle of clearing just far enough away from the leopard’s territory!
And then we were off again. The girls learned about Yellow Baboons’ red bottoms, Vervet Monkey’s blue balls and the terrifying barbs a male lion features on his unmentionables! We laughed and laughed at the ‘safari smut’, reduced to little children by the shear joy and exhilaration of being so totally consumed by the wilds of Africa.
Our day was positively packed with sightings, learning new facts and understanding the environment a little better. We returned to our camp weary and joyful, enjoying the scene as little Queleabirds moved like shoals of fish against the sunset; twisting and turning in giant formations through the air.
The following morning we had time for one last drive and then we had arranged to meet Selous Great Water Lodge’s boat. The Lodge is located outside the park, right on the river and far enough away from the numerous other camps to maintain the feeling of being entirely in the wild (which it is, inspite of being outside the actual map lines of the park – the animals are not big on maps!).
From water level we were able to enjoy a whole new perspective of the Rufiji – which up until now had presented itself more as a series of beautiful lakes than as one continuous flow of water.
We watched elephant probe the palm fruits, crocodiles launching themselves into the water, hundreds of White-Fronted Bee-Eaters chasing butterflies and insects and great globular pods of hippos.
I was sad to say goodbye to the park as we passed the spot that marks the transition into village life and began to enjoy scenes of people washing and drawing water (using plastic pots tied onto long sticks to avoid the threat of crocodiles) and hopping out of mokoro-style water taxis. But, the adventure was not over quite yet. As the sun set behind us we were welcomed into Selous Great Water Camp, accompanied by the odd little sound of bush babies in the trees.
Our last night
This small camp is simple, rustic even, but very comfortable. It is set in the perfect spot, right on a bend in the river and offers a range of activities to its guests as a result of its location – such as the river trip we did downstream from within the park as well as sunset river cruises, cultural tours to nearby villages, walking safaris through the local forest, and of course game drives in the reserve. Their resident guide is excellent on both fauna and flora. They are also happy to organize other activities on request – a fishing trip and a cycle tour through nearby villages are recent examples. With four banda/lodge rooms and one huge luxury tent, the lodge retains a boutique feel and very personal service, and we were extremely well fed and looked after.
John, the owner, described the previous morning to us where he had arisen to witness a full moon, a golden river and a lion roaring on the opposite side of the bank. Pure magic I thought to myself.
I had to smile when the following morning I awoke to the rolling resonations of a lion just across the water myself.
Getting network in Selous is not that easy! Hence the delay in posting this (well, that’s part of the excuse anyway!).
Authentic Tanzania – bespoke wilderness experiences
Tel: +255 (0) 786 019 965
Selous Great Water Lodge
Tel: +255 784 361 951
Chartered Flights – Coastal
Tel: +255 222 602 430/431