Selous and Ruaha
with Adventure Camps
Dear Friends in Travel to Tanzania,
I have just got back from a trip to southern Tanzania, where I visited the Selous Game Reserve and the Ruaha National Park, two of the exciting new venues for safari, which can be visited by road or air. I'd like to share with you my observations and experiences.
On 19th December I flew from Dar es Salaam to Mtemere Airstrip in Selous (about 45 minutes) with Coastal Aviation and landed there mid-morning but it was pretty warm already, unlike the snowy landscape I had just left in UK. An Adventure Camps vehicle was there to meet me with a cheery new guide I hadn’t met before, Vincent Horry. On the half hour journey to the camp we passed the usual impala and giraffe grazing on the dry scrub – the rains had not yet come and everyone was waiting. Suddenly the guide in the back spotted lions, so Vincent slowed and we drove slowly towards them. A pride of 9, including several young males eyed us warily. They were panting heavily in the heat, lying in the shade of an Acacia.
We moved on but soon Vincent was slowing again – this time it was a lone bull elephant, right in our path. He had enormous tusks; he chewed contentedly at a thorny tree branch as we drew up about 10 yards from him. He ambled slowly towards us - I was taking video of him but when he completely filled the screen with his head I started to wonder – how close was he going to come? He seemed to be very curious, and reached out for a juicy spray of bushes, brushing my arm with his trunk as he did so. I could hear loud grumbling in his tummy and he cocked an eye at me as he chewed. We sat very still. I turned enquiringly to Vincent, raising an eyebrow – he smiled and mouthed ‘just keep still.’ Eventually the elephant ambled away, snorting a little as he did so.
I was relieved to reach Selous Impala camp and cool off with a quick shower in my tent before joining Onno, the camp Manager for some lunch on the cool shady verandah of the lodge. I was in the furthest tent, number 1 – quite a long walk as the camp is very spread out. There are only 7 tents – 3 on one side of the lodge, and 4 on the other, all on the banks of the Rufiji River. One of the tents is a family tent – it is really 2 tents on one platform, each with its own ensuite bathroom. All the tents are on high African hardwood platforms, for shade and to be away from insects; they have double roofing for coolness and there are many shade trees too – but there are also floor fans, for the hot daytime hours. They all have wooden verandas overlooking the river, and ensuite bathrooms and dressing rooms at the back of the tent. There is hot water supplied by solar energy, and a generator brings electricity during the daylight hours, usually being turned off around 10pm or so. There are TZ/UK type square 3-pin power points in the tents, so one can charge batteries and so forth. There is cool clean drinking water in large thermoses and safari desks for those who feel like writing up their memoirs or letters after a nice game drive.
I love the décor of this camp, distinctly “Out of Africa” style, professional, possibly a little on the masculine side, with the emphasis on sturdy canvas tents furnished with kikoys, polished wood, brass and comfortable sofas and tables are spread out in the attractive lodge area, with its open verandah for dining under the stars.
Onno offered me a choice of a boat safari in one of the two sturdy boats with high-powered engines, or a game drive. I chose the latter, and after a delicious lunch and a short nap I headed out with Vincent in one of the five powerful Landrovers. The equipment, vehicles and boats of Selous Impala camp are some of the best in the Selous, of that there is no doubt. And each vehicle has its own driver as well as an experienced guide. So it is rare for guests who don’t know each other to be squashed in together for game-viewing.
We started out in a northerly direction, heading for Lake Siwandu. The sky to the east was thunderous and black, but still no rain. Many of the trees and bushes were putting out startlingly green shoots and leaves, so we knew it was on the way. Suddenly a dog-like creature flitted in amongst the roadside vegetation. Could it be an African hunting dog? I was desperately hoping to see some of these rare and endangered creatures, indeed the Selous and The Ruaha are two of the very few places in Africa where they can be seen, though in twenty years of game trips in Tanzania, I had only seen them once.
This was a false alarm – it turned out to be a hyaena. There were several of them, some of them young. We suddenly heard a keening cry in a gully to the right, off the road; a hyaena mother was being pestered by her offspring, who yipped and yelped until she gave in and lay down so that it could suckle. They almost made a pretty picture in the evening light.
We drove on further and all at once, I turned my head and there they were – the distinctive black and fawn patterned heads with large rounded ears – two scouts sitting on a little hillock. For sure there were more of them. Vincent eased the vehicle towards them gently, keeping a fair distance to give them space. We counted 10 wild dogs in all, peacefully resting, waiting for the cool of evening when it would be time to hunt. A few of the younger ones were restless and hungry, we watched for a long time and every so often some of them would jump up, start chivvying the others, touching noses and generally meeting and greeting. Then they would all sit down again and go to sleep. We drove on to watch the sunset at the nearby lake, and then went back in time for candlelit dinner at the camp. ‘Watch out for elephants’ said Onno, as a Maasai askari lead me off to my tent, carrying a good strong torch in one hand and a spear in the other.
During the night I heard the pride of lions roaring, receding into the distance. In the morning I woke to the birds’ morning chorus, and then the sound of a tea tray being put down on the veranda table. A hippo was snorting and wallowing in the river below, and a flock of open-billed storks were combing the waters for fish and other edibles.
I started towards the lodge for breakfast, but drew back to wait as a herd of six elephant – including two babies – majestically ambled their way past on their way to the river.
After breakfast, I said goodbye to Selous Impala and headed for the airstrip to wait for the Coastal plane to Ruaha. This duly came and we flew off over the Rufiji, a network of sandbanks and watercourses, soon to be swollen to a brown torrent when the expected rains came.
The flight took about 2 hours and we landed at the main Airstrip at Msembe, the Ruaha National Park headquarters. Malcolm Ryen, the overall manager of Adventure Camps was there to meet me and told me that we were not going to the camp but to Jongomero first, to lunch with some friends, who turned out to be Sue Stolberger and Rob Glen, two artists who live in the Ruaha, each with their own camp close by on the Great Ruaha river.
They were making a film using some of the Adventure Camps’ guides, to help educate people in the Ruaha ecosystem about African Wild Dogs, in order to try to stop them being hunted and killed by the villagers in the area, who fear them.
Sue’s camp was very simple and attractive, quite small but efficient, and very ecologically run. Looking out over the river, I was horrified to see how little water there was in what was once a mighty all-year-round river. This is because of rice-schemes upriver in the cachment area – over the past 10 years this beautiful river has slowly shrunk, and it seems that nothing can or will be done about it. Sue is helping the Ruaha Conservation Fund who are seriously concerned about these problems.
You can see her site at: http://www.suestolberger.com/rcf.htm
Here, as in the Selous, they were waiting for rain – the Ruaha was even drier though, and would have to wait longer until the winds from the monsoon in the east reached the area and catalysed the rainy season.
After lunch we drove to Mdonya Old River camp, in the south west of the Park, opposite its own dry sandriver, a corridor for game. While I was in camp I saw elephant, giraffe, buffalo, zebra, impala, kudu, hyaena, jackals, baboons and lots of other wildlife wander through, in perfect viewing distance from the tents.
I was happy to reach the cool green shade of the camp – one of the prettiest areas in Ruaha, with high Acacia albida and other spreading trees dotted generously about.
My tent was airy and spacious and quite a bit cooler than the Selous had been. I took a shower under the stars – here the bathroom is open-roofed, a wondrous experience. Then I dressed for dinner and went over to the lounge tent for a drink and to browse the library there, chatting with other guests. Dinner was delicious, beautifully served by smiling waiters. Malcolm took me to see two genet cats who regularly come to visit the office banda in the evening; one was courageous, the other very shy.
Next morning, after tea in my tent and more bird choruses, I breakfasted and went for a look at the camp, also very spread out over a large area. There are 11 tents in all, 3 of which are family tents, which have an extra tent room with twin beds, zipped on the front of the double tent, while the normal tents have a large veranda instead. At the back is a dressing room and the "skylight" shower and loo. None of the tents are close, privacy and peace are the rule.
After this we took off on a game drive – Malcolm had heard that wild dogs had been seen not far away.I could not believe my luck when I saw my second pack in two days, in two different reserves – unheard of by me at least!
This group was larger than the Selous dogs – about 29 were counted altogether, resting in the shade of tree on the banks of the Mwagusi sand river. It was magical. We watched them for hours and I felt I got to know them quite well. A giraffe came to drink nearby but kept an extremely wary eye on them. One youngster got up and attempted to hunt it, but got no cooperation from its brothers and sisters, and withdrew into the shade again and went to sleep.
The area you can see in Ruaha is large and very spread out, with many different types of terrain, from riverine, to forest, to escarpment scrub, to thick bush, to open plains. So many different species of animals and birds are there – over 529 species of birds, over 400 in Selous. One often sees the shy Kudu, as well as elephant, eland, buffalo, zebra, giraffe, lion, cheetah, leopard, bush buck, dik dik,ostrich, jackal, hyaena and many others.
I spent two nights at Mdonya but really, it would all have been so much more enjoyable if I had had more time. I would suggest that visitors stay at least 3 nights in Ruaha, and 2-3 nights in Selous and that they drive at least one part of the journey, if not all - Caravan Safaris can provide excellent vehicles and drivers who can look after you. Most camps have special drive-in rates if you come with your own vehicle. (ask at email@example.com)
And particularly for Ruaha, driving makes some sense, as it is probably going to be quite a lot cheaper than flying, and the journey is so interesting that it adds to the experience. Going by road, you can get to the Selous from Dar es Salaam in about 6 hours via the Pugu Hills. Or travel on the main road west to Mbweya and turn off at Morogoro, this takes a bit longer. The journey form Dar to Ruaha takes about 10-12 hours, and can be done in a day or you can stop at Mikumi and overnight on the way. From Selous to Ruaha you should allow a day for the journey, and you can visit the Udzungwa National Park on the way, well worth seeing. All the camps will make you a picnic lunch to take with you, on request.
by a frequent visitor to Tanzania
Vincent with his Landrover
A curious elephant
Tent interior at Selous Impala
Hyaena cub suckling, Selous
African Hunting Dog in Selous
Flying over the Rufiji
Sue Stolberger's camp in Ruaha
A tent at Mdonya Old River
The skylight shower at Mdonya
African Hunting Dogs in Ruaha