While most safari-goers flock to Tanzania’s northern parks, try the country’s south: home to one of the largest reserves in the world, it's even wilder and – better yet – wonderfully people free
"You wanna fly?” The pilot glanced across at me, a quizzical eyebrow raised above aviator sunglasses.
Sitting up-front with him had seemed like a good idea when we’d taken off from Dar es Salaam, ten minutes earlier. I was the only passenger in the six-seater, single-prop Cessna and I wanted to watch the vast wildernesses of the Selous and Ruaha seep across the horizon as we flew west. Now suddenly my eyes were glued to the instrument panel in front of me. I felt my fingers close like talons on the joystick as the pilot tapped a series of dials.
“Airspeed, vertical speed, direction, altitude...”
I stole a quick look through the cockpit window to my right. Rooftops on the outskirts of Dar glinted like tin-foil confetti 8,000ft below. Then I looked ahead and saw the thunderclouds. Towering columns of cumulonimbus, they rose before us like the pillars of some forbidding celestial temple.
Rather than take back the controls, the pilot simply looked up from his logbook and waved a hand from side to side. “Go around them, this way, then this way,” he said, before promptly returning to his notes.
The first time I eased the joystick over and felt the Cessna slide away, I felt my stomach and my travel insurance go with it. But a nudge the other way and the fiercely throbbing little plane tilted level again. I was flying! Slowly, euphoria conquered nausea as I threaded the Cessna through the slalom of thunderheads.
After 20 minutes, the Rufiji River, lifeblood of the Selous, streaked the horizon with quicksilver. Civilisation had long since been sloughed off and we were flying over an olive-and-ochre patchwork of acacia forest and grassland, great blotches of cloud shadow now stamped across it.
Such was my grip on the Cessna’s joystick that cramp writhed between my shoulder blades, but there was another sensation there as well – a prickle of anticipation. Huge, remote, inviolate... that’s how the Ruaha and Selous – the grand duo on my ten-day safari in Southern Tanzania – had always seemed to me. Selous Game Reserve alone is nearly four times the size of Serengeti National Park, and a majestic 90,000 sq km if you include adjacent conservation areas. You could almost squeeze Hungary inside its borders, while Ruaha National Park and its associated protected areas could virtually swallow Switzerland.
Some of Africa’s greatest concentrations of wildlife are found in these mighty reserves and yet only a handful of safari camps provide access. The promise of solitude was a potent lure as we flew on, another two hours beyond the Selous and into the highlands of the Great Rift Valley, to reach Ruaha National Park.
Controls handed back to the pilot, I gazed down on a land flushed with new growth and glittering with sunlit water. It was late February – ‘green’ season – Ruaha had recharged.
“If you want to see lots of wildlife in large numbers, then dry season is best.” Andrew ‘Moli’ Molinaro shrugged his shoulders theatrically as we sat down for lunch at Jongomero Camp, deep in the heart of Ruaha National Park. “All the animals are forced near the river. But it’s a hard time for them. They’re starving; they’re struggling to survive. They’re thin and in poor condition. The land is dry and dusty and there’s barely a blade of grass.”
The enigmatic camp manager looked genuinely saddened as he painted a desolate picture of what he deemed ‘most people’s general impression of Africa’. Born in Kenya, Moli was about to complete 12 seasons of managing camps in Southern Tanzania. He’d been guiding all his life and had an almost Shakespearean passion for extolling the wonders of the bush.
“Visit now in the wet season and it’s completely different – a total contrast. The grass is shoulder high, the trees are in leaf; it’s like a jungle. The animals are in great shape. They’re fat and they’re happy.”
A procession of soufflés, salads and fresh fruit arrived as Moli went on to explain the realities of a green-season safari.
“The thick bush makes it a bit tougher for us. We have to put the work in. It’s not like the Serengeti; lions are not everywhere. It’s more difficult here. But...” Moli paused and let the word hang for extra effect, “...the best thing is that we are isolated. It’s 70km to the next camp. Civilisation is way out there.”
He flung out an arm in a broad sweep that encompassed the riverine forest in front of the camp and the timber-and-thatch roof of the lounge and dining area that reared like a rustic Sydney Opera House behind us.
“I guarantee you will not see another vehicle while you’re here.”
Moli was right. Our first game drive was a wonderfully lonely affair. We nosed about in woodland along the banks of the Jongomero River, savouring each and every sighting, from courting red-billed hornbills to a forest kingfisher flickering gas-flame- blue through the emerald canopy.
During the wet season, around 80 species of migrant birds visit Ruaha, boosting its total avian tally to around 530 – one of the highest diversities of any national park in East Africa.
Moli had explained earlier that Ruaha lies in a unique convergence zone where the fauna and flora of the north and south meet against a dramatic and varied topography. The park also boasts the most antelope species in East Africa, including impala, Grant’s gazelle, greater kudu, waterbuck, klipspringer and dik-dik.
We saw many of them the following day as we drove a wide loop through the park.
Kudu and dik-dik favoured the dense Miombo woodland that stubbled Ruaha’s hills and escarpments. We watched a pair of klipspringer skittering across tumbled boulders on a more rugged slope, while waterbuck could sometimes be glimpsed when we paused beside the Great Ruaha River to scan the floodplains.
Over the next few days, our game drives were punctuated with occasional star appearances by lions – often with young cubs – but it was Ruaha’s elephants that held centre stage.
There are an estimated 15,000-20,000 elephant in Ruaha National Park. We saw lone bulls wading through baobab- studded savannah, carving silvery channels through the grassland, their ears flapping like loose sails on a tallship. Breeding herds also fanned out across the plains, scything the tall grass with their endlessly swinging trunks.
But it was on the sandy riverbeds that the elephants held us rapt. The monotonous rituals of feeding and resting were enriched with a broader repertoire of behaviours: the matriarch digging a hole from which to drink; adolescent males entwining trunks and jostling one another; a youngster squealing – presumably with delight – as it charged through the shallows; other juveniles rolling and splashing in the water.
Ruaha works for elephants. Not only is the national park and its buffer zones big enough to support a large population, but there’s also space to accommodate seasonal movement of the herds. Ruaha’s sheer size and inaccessibility might also safeguard its elephants from poachers.
Dining under the stars on my final day at Jongomero Camp, Moli was exulting in the dazzling night sky when I broached the subject of poaching. His elation at having spotted the Large Magellanic Cloud (one of only three galaxies visible with the naked eye from earth) immediately switched to an impassioned analysis of the current crisis facing Africa’s elephant and rhino.
“I give it until 2020 for rhino,” he began. “Elephant are also being hit hard. In Selous, the poachers have easy access along the Rufiji. The reserve’s elephants are suffering. In Ruaha, it’s more difficult logistically. But when the elephant have gone elsewhere, Ruaha will come under the spotlight.”
An 11-seater Cessna Caravan arrived the following morning to collect me. With no impromptu flying lesson on offer, I was left to gaze down on the Ruaha as we banked east to begin the 90-minute flight to the Selous. The park’s iconic baobabs suddenly seemed very small, sprouting from the plains below like sprigs of broccoli. Looking west, I could see thunderclouds bubbling ominously along the green ridge of the escarpment.
“It’s amazing how quickly it changes from dry and brown to wet and green.” Allen, one of the guides at Siwandu Safari Camp – my base in the Selous for the next few days – nodded towards the close-cropped swathes of grass through which we were driving. “It happens almost overnight.”
Minutes later, without saying another word, he swung the vehicle off the track and parked next to a pack of 15 wild dog sleeping in the shade of an umbrella acacia. I knew that the Selous was a stronghold for Africa’s endangered ‘painted wolves’ but my hopes of seeing them had been tempered by various discouraging remarks: they’re rare, nomadic, move fast, cover vast distances, it’s a huge reserve anyway... and so on. But there they were, sprawled across the grass like scraps of patchwork quilt. After the hard-earned sightings in Ruaha, it was almost too easy. Judging by their swollen bellies, the wild dogs were unlikely to stir, so we left them in peace and continued to the camp.
Frederick Selous never had it this good, I thought to myself, as I was shown my room – a veritable ‘tent-house suite’ with king-size bed, polished floorboards, en suite bathroom and an outdoor shower that was carefully screened from the elements (and elephants). Shot in the head by a German sniper on the Rufiji River’s banks in 1917, the British explorer and big-game hunter is buried in the reserve that now bears his name. Over 90% of the Selous Game Reserve is managed as a hunting reserve – a fitting, if controversial, epitaph to a man once revered as Africa’s greatest ivory hunter.
Shooting with cameras is confined to the far north of the Selous, where the Rufiji scrawls through a mosaic of open acacia woodland, wetlands and savannah.
Armed to the teeth with memory cards, I tried my luck on a boat safari. Overlooking a lake linked to the river system, the camp is naturally well placed for float trips and it wasn’t long before I’d bagged myself a gigabyte of trophy pixels.
The lakeshore and riverbanks were bejewelled with kingfishers and bee-eaters. Jacanas tiptoed across rafts of water cabbage, while yellow-billed storks, black egrets and Egyptian geese dabbled in the shallows. Hippos were everywhere: sleeping in amorphous masses of grunting, bubble-blowing contentment or drifting warily in deeper water, rafts of dismembered ears and nostrils twitching at the surface. Once, we spotted a female warily emerging from a sheltered creek, her newborn beside her, pink and glossy like wet putty. There were buffalo festooned with egrets as though they’d snagged their horns on laundry lines. We even witnessed a herd of elephants crossing the river, Barossa palms rising behind them like a line of exclamation marks.
Back on land, game drives in the Selous were accompanied by swirling flocks of migrant carmine bee-eaters snacking on insects in our wake. Breeding herds of impala drifted like ochre smoke through the grasslands, mingling with giraffe, zebra and wildebeest. We saw a pride of lion, another pack of wild dog, hyena, crocodile... and we had them all to ourselves.
Like Ruaha National Park, the Selous was almost devoid of other visitors. As I walked out of camp one morning, following my guide and an armed scout on a foot safari, the overwhelming sense of isolation and wildness sent a familiar prickle of anticipation along my spine. Perhaps that was how Frederick Selous felt when he set out on his hunting forays. Or was it simply the primeval tingle of feeling what it was like to slip from the top of the food chain – to walk in an African wilderness like hominids from a distant past.
Whatever the reason, there was no doubt in my mind that Southern Tanzania’s far-flung Selous and Ruaha had been worth flying all that way for. Even if I did have to fly part of the way myself.
William Gray, Wanderlust Contributing Editor, is a multi-award-winning travel writer, author and photographer, with a real passion for Africa. The author travelled with Expert Africa. The Topi Fly-in Safari features three nights in the Selous at Siwandu Safari Camp and four nights in Ruaha at Jongomero camp, from £3,273pp, including full board, all activities and return flights with Kenya Airways from London Heathrow via Nairobi. For a cheaper option, three nights at Lake Manze (Selous) and four nights at Mdonya Old River Camp (Ruaha) costs from £2,651pp.