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Selous National Park

The Selous Game Reserve in southern Tanzania is Africa’s largest protected wildlife area. African Footsteps journalist Mana Meadows visits this special wilderness, finding beauty and adventure in Tanzania’s little-visited jewel, and making some friends along the way.

We were surrounded by a pride of lions and the car wouldn’t start. Lazy, well-fed and relaxed, they panted softly in the shade of the tree where we had stopped to picnic. Normally, I would have savoured this experience, enjoying the company of the lions and making the most of this up-close photographic opportunity. But, right then, the experience was eclipsed by the knowledge that one of us was going
to have to jump out and push the car.

The car had been giving us problems all morning. We hadn’t turned off the engine, unwilling to risk not being able to start up again. But, for the sake of a peaceful lunch, the driver had made an exception. He had parked deliberately on a slope so that a gentle push would get us going again. Only we hadn’t been expecting company. I looked around, nervous, quietly changing my camera’s zoom lens for a wide angle.

The old male of the pride flirted with one of his ladies behind the cruiser. On our left, only a few metres away, four teenage cubs tumbled over each other in a half-hearted effort at play, their mothers staring over them towards the lake in front of us. A tiny cub jabbed at a beetle and, on our right, even closer than the cubs – and in the exact spot where I had been eating my lunch only five minutes previously – an older lioness sat in the noontime sun, her gaze resting on some impala grazing nearby.

Mr Mambo, my driver for the day, grinned and pointed at her. “Your Rafiki Simba,” he said. “She chose the same spot as you to enjoy the view.”

My two companions didn’t seem too fazed by the car-cat predicament. “They are well fed,” my guide Eliza assured me, pointing to Rafiki’s full, protruding belly, which touched the ground each time she exhaled. “Don’t worry, they’re not hungry.”

I was on a full-day game drive in the Selous Game Reserve in Southern Tanzania. The Selous, which is a world heritage site that covers about 50 000km2, is one of the largest protected wildlife areas in the world. It is named after Captain Frederick Courtney Selous, a British explorer, hunter and naturalist, famous for his adventures in Southern and East Africa – who was killed by a German sniper in the Selous in World War One.

The morning’s plan had been to journey to the remote north-western side of the reserve to visit Selous’ grave and the Hot Springs (or Maji Moto as they are known in Kiswahili) but that plan was long aborted due to our car troubles.

Earlier that morning, we had barely entered Mtemere gate, the eastern entrance to the reserve, when the car started clanging like a church bell on steroids. At first, we all politely ignored the noise. But soon the clattering was so loud I was squirming in my seat, sure that the whole of the Selous could hear us coming. Drivers from other camps flagged us down, sympathising with the noise and keen to contribute their diagnosis of the problem.

We limped on but soon Mr Mambo stopped the vehicle. We could smell burning and the noise was now so terrible he could only drown it by breaking the reserve speed limit – a big no-no. Eliza told me we needed to make a quick detour and stop in at a nearby camp to let their fundi fix the engine.

Two-and-half hours later and we were finally on the road again. “It’s fine now,” Eliza announced as we resumed our journey. He was pleased. “Only we have to be careful to park it on a slope so it starts up again. And we’re not going to make it all the way to Mr Selous’ grave today. It’s too far with a bad vehicle. Maybe tomorrow. Today, we’ll go around the lakes. We see many animals.” He sounded confident.

And so we were off again. Before I had started to appreciate the breeze in my hair and the new smoothness of our ride, we turned a corner and drove straight into a pride of lions. Three of them were jaw deep in wildebeest ribs. The rest were taking a late morning siesta under a low-reaching, shady tree. They lay on their backs snoozing, their presence only betrayed by a tawny forest of paws and chins that stuck out from the greenery.

The fan-belt clamour returned just as we neared the pride. Only now, in the quiet of that mid-morning restfulness, the noise was magnified, escalating into a grating, whistling, belting cacophony. Six other vehicles were parked around the kill and people glared as we clanked towards them. We were the black-sheep of the Selous safari vehicle flock and I cringed as we crept towards the cats.

And Mr Mambo wasn’t about to turn off the engine. He wasn’t sure it would start again. The atmosphere from the surrounding vehicles was tense, to say the least. This was understandable.To avoid a mauling by our irate human neighbours, I suggested to Mr Mambo and Eliza that we shouldn’t stay too long. My worries were waved off carelessly. After the morning’s car shenanigans, they were delighted to have found lion. We weren’t going anywhere soon. The lions themselves weren’t fazed by these noisy newcomers and didn’t look up from their meal. Soon the reverberating kwa-kwAA! kwa-kwAA! kwa-kwAA! didn’t seem so bad.

We stayed with the pride for nearly an hour and then drove away to do a few scenic loops of the lake. It was lunchtime. Mr Mambo and Eliza knew the perfect spot for a picnic. We parked beneath a lone tamarind tree overlooking Lake Nzerakera, one of the four lakes in the eastern side of the reserve, and Mr Mambo carefully positioned the car on a slope before turning the engine off.

Midway through our cold chicken and boiled eggs, Eliza quietly announced, “Simba – behind the vehicle.” There, in a line about 20m behind us, was the whole pride from the wildebeest kill; sitting watching, their eyes following our movements with mild feline interest.

I was in the car in a heartbeat. Eliza and Mr Mambo followed soon after and, one by one, the lions walked up and sat in the shade of our tree – the pit-stop on their path to the water.

So there we were, an hour later, in the midst of a cosy feline scene. They were definitely a tolerant lot. By then, other safari guides had spotted us, and a gaggle of whispering people peered from their vehicles “ooohing” and “ahhing”, pointing happily. I sat back, smug at our prime position. When the lions and their human entourage left to go down to the water’s edge, Rafiki Simba stayed behind with us, her quick panting the only sound in the noontime stillness. She moved closer to the shade of the car and I held my breath as I watched the fat ticks trekking through her fur.

Half an hour later, the old lioness got up and walked the short distance to the lakeside. When she was a reasonable distance away, Eliza jumped out, took a quick scan around the car for any lingering lions, and gave us a push while Mr Mambo started the car. The engine coughed roughly into life and once again we were on the road.

After a few more winding circles of the lakes and seeing lots of other wildlife, it was time to leave the reserve and check in at my lodge. My guides dropped me at Jimbiza Lodge, a tented lodge just outside the Mtemere gate. I said a warm thank you to the men who had provided me with an unforgettable introduction to the Selous. They needed to return to Dar es Salaam to fix the vehicle and they had a long trip ahead of them.

At Jimbiza Lodge, 15 spacious tents overlook a stunning stretch of the Rufiji River, Tanzania’s largest river. In the outside lounge, I sank into a low chair overlooking the water with a happy sigh. All was silent and still save for the occasional hippo chorus and the croaky chirps from the nesting white-fronted bee-eaters in the cliff-face below. There was the faint whiff of roasting garlic and fried onions as the evening’s meal was prepared. I gazed at the river below, looking up at the soft splash of a lone paddler in his roughly carved canoe, the noise carrying from far down the river. I watched his slow passage upstream until he was out of sight.

The next morning I woke to the sounds of hippo dialogue and a baboon family having a domestic dispute somewhere behind my tent. After a healthy breakfast I arranged another full day’s game drive, this time with the Jimbiza guides. We set off to the Hot Springs and Selous’s Grave and our journey towards the north-western side of the Selous was without incident. This vehicle behaved itself.

My visit was in the middle of August, which is peak dry season. Game is more easily visible than it would be during the rainy season, especially around the water where it is usual to see impala, giraffe, zebra, kudu, buffalo, wildebeest and often waterbuck and elephant. It is also peak tourist season but the magic of the Selous is that you can escape the crowds that are typical of northern Tanzania. Even at yesterday’s lion kill, the six drivers from the various camps were considerate and courteous – politely circling the lions at a respectful distance and allowing newcomers a view. Even noisy newcomers. There are very few vehicles in the Selous and there were even fewer in the area that we were driving through.

The route was dry for most of the way but the vegetation changed often and we saw a good variety of game in the scattered grassland. When we neared the Beho Beho river area, the vegetation was more lush and we crossed a dry river bed where the cruiser was suddenly invaded by dozens of blood-sucking tsetse flies. They left sore, itchy welts and I was briefly distracted from searching for black rhino while I waged a one-man flip-flop war on the critters.

Selous’s grave is a short distance from the Beho Beho river. The simplicity of the understated monument is fitting, given the reputation of this gritty man who was known to collect specimens in his butterfly net after a hard day’s combat during World War One. Near the grave are the scenic Maji Moto hot springs where sulphurous hot water flows over rocks in little streams and waterfalls, surrounded by lush vegetation. The pools are cool enough in some places to swim in and make a perfect crocodile-free place to wash off the dust from the drive.

The next morning I went on a boat safari with Jimbiza. Boat trips on the Rufiji are bound to get you great sightings of everything from hippo, crocodile and water monitors, and with a little luck, elephant and buffalo. Jimbiza, like most other camps in the Selous, offers boat safaris, walking safaris, game drives and cultural village visits. On our trip we got very close to a hippo and her calf. They stood frozen on their small sand island while they watched the approach of our boat, their piggy eyes blinking slowly. When we got too close for their comfort, they disappeared in a rapid shuffle into a deeper channel of the river. We watched a lone elephant bull make his precarious way down the steep riverbank to take his morning drink, while black-and-white colobus and grey vervet monkeys capered in the thick canopy above him.

If you are a keen birder, the boat trip will hold even more delights as the Rufiji is home to more than 450 bird species and the lakes and meandering channels of the Rufiji river system provide a wonderful opportunity for “water-birding”. It is easy to soak in the quiet of the river and possible to drift soundlessly downstream, catching sight of shy river birds like the green-backed night heron and African skimmers.

After a few days exploring the different areas of the park with Jimbiza, it was time to leave the friendly staff at the camp who looked after me so well and move on to a new area of the Selous.

Magic at Manze

My tent was on the central elephant highway. It was 6.30am and in the 20 minutes I had been awake, five elephant bulls ambled within meters of my front-door flaps. They were after the fallen fruit of the doum palms that shaded my tent and they passed so closely I could have plucked a hair from their tails if I dared try.

They were silent save for the crack of vegetable ivory as they crunched the fruits, their long lashes blinking slowly. It seemed that this was a daily ritual.

I was staying at Lake Manze Tented Camp in the central area of the photographic section of the reserve. Twelve secluded tents nestle in a forest of doum and borassus palms, tagalala, tamarind and ebony trees, all of them overlooking one of the smaller lakes of the Lake Manze water system. The camp is fairly new, having opened in June 2007. A fantastic aspect of a stay at Lake Manze Tented Camp is that animals wandering through the camp are a part of daily life.

Take, for example, last night’s brief dinner interruption. While enjoying a sumptuous candlelit-meal beneath the stars, our festivities were interrupted several times during the main course to deter the advances of one young bull which hovered at camp’s edge. Was he after the roast butternut? Some guests wondered if it was Rafiki, a solitary young elephant bull who is the camp’s favourite. But Richard, a knowledgeable guide who works at the camp, said it was a different elephant: “Rafiki isn’t cheeky like this one”. A few claps and bright torchlight aimed at him from the askaris and he melted back into the bushes, rumbling grumpily. At Lake Manze Tented Camp, guests must always be accompanied after dark by a Masai guard as a precaution against unexpected encounters with game wandering through the camp.

The older bulls outside my tent that morning seemed the mellow sort and as it was time for my early-morning walking safari, I bid a reluctant goodbye to my elephant neighbours. Walking safaris and boating safaris are activities that the Selous is particularly well known for. Walking allows you to get to know the flora and fauna of the environment a little more intimately – without the noise and constraints of being in a vehicle. Accompanied by a guide and an armed ranger, most walks are about two to three hours. For those wanting to take this experience a step further, some camps in the Selous offer “fly-camping safaris”. These are guided walks over several days where guests are offered the back-to-basics experience of camping in true wilderness, although still in the comfort of a tent set up for them while they are out.

There were five of us on the walk, four Italians and me. At the start, I eyed out my fellow walkers: who would I be able to outrun should we become lion bait? One guy was in flip-flops, which helped my cause. But it turned out running is not always such a good idea. Our guide Samuel gave us the run-down on most of the Big Five: “An elephant may pretend that he’s going to charge, shaking his head, flapping his ears, but stand your ground. If you turn your back on him he may think that you are scared and follow through. But when he puts his ears back and head low, he’s coming. Watch out!”

“And buffalo?” someone whispered.

Buffalo, said Samuel, can be a little trickier. He smiled. “Buffalo. They are very unpredictable. There is no advice for that situation.”

We waited, expectant.

“If you can’t find a tree, rather lie down so that his horns can’t get you. That’s when the trouble starts.”

Luckily, our walk was not so dramatic. It was a gentle meander about a kilometre from the camp area; the point was to take in a little more than is possible from a vehicle. We examined hippo and elephant skulls, peered at spoor, dissected various animal droppings and learnt about the habits and feeding preferences of their owners. We watched bees busy with their hives in a baobab tree and learnt a few of the hundreds of uses for the different parts of a baobab. We could take the time to stop and appreciate the host of different bird calls, their chorus magnified now that we were away from the distracting hum of vehicle engines. We learnt the African myth about why hippos scatter their dung and examined the hippo paths that crisscrossed the landscape.

After the walk, I returned to my tent and sat at the table on the small veranda to make some notes. Completely engrossed, I did not notice the silent approach of a young elephant bull that stood, just metres from me, crunching his way through the ready vegetable-ivory pantry.

On noticing him, I rose and tiptoed towards the tent for my camera. The abrupt movement from the shaded veranda surprised the elephant and he rumbled at me, letting me know he was there, ears flapping, still feeding. I froze, suddenly appreciating his proximity. Two steps and I could have touched him.

Feeling my puniness, I took another step towards the tent. With my eyes on the elephant, I tripped and fell into the tent in a sprawling, noisy heap. This, then, is how it ends, I thought. I awaited certain death.

But there was no raging scream, no thundering steps or heavy trampling. There was only the whistle of a rocketing vegetable ivory, which the elephant had hurled in the direction of my clumsy acrobatics. The fruit bounced off the table and skidded harmlessly into the shrubs behind as I shrank, terrified, into the tent. Pretty good aim.

He blinked. I blinked.

Just as scared as me, my new friend backed away. I heard peals of laughter from a neighbouring tent where an askari had watched the whole performance. He gently ushered the elephant back towards the lake while I recovered, my hands shaking and the camera, which now held no interest, feeling heavier than usual.

A stay at Manze would not be complete without a sunset boat safari around the lake. An experienced guide will take you close to the usual crocodile, hippo, and water monitors as well as some fantastic and varied bird life. On my trip, we watched a herd of elephant playing in the shallow water while two bulls were play-fighting on the side. Giraffe, impala, baboon, bushbuck and three old buffalo bulls walked along the muddy lakeside edge. White cattle egrets caught insects in the buffalos’ wake.

Aside from the game there is little to beat saluting the end of the day with a cold beer on the water. We listened to the fish eagle’s cry and watched the colours in the sky pale as the first hippo made her way out of the water to begin the night’s feeding.

The sunset cruise marked my final night in the Selous. I had just been contemplating the charm of an open shower beneath the rustling palms and the last sounds of the birdlife settling in for the night when once more I heard a soft, steady crunching. The owner of the football-sized droppings that I saw earlier outside my tent had dropped by to say hello. Naked, I scrambled for a towel and pressed my nose to the tent netting for a better look. A large elephant bull was passing within metres of my tent but so quietly that the only way I knew he was there was by the glint of the full moon on his tusks. I watched him until he was out of sight and then I could only hear the cracking in the undergrowth as he fed nearby.

Later in the tent, the rustlings of a gecko were drowned out by a shower of rain that muffled all other night sounds. I fell asleep to the distant eerie whoop of a hyena while the sweet scent of wet doum palm fruits, newly drenched by the rain, invaded my tent.

Even if you don’t get to share your lunch hour with a pride of lion or have an elephant throw his brunch at you, the Selous is a magic place. Get there quickly, before everyone else does.

Swahili translations

Rafiki: friend

Simba: lion

Fundi: expert

Askari: guard

There, in a long line about 20m behind us, was the whole pride from the wildebeest kill; sitting watching, their eyes following our movements with mild feline interest