Leaving the dry heat of Ruaha behind we fly an hour and a half to reach Selous Game Reserve. Circling into Siwandu airstrip the Rufiji River winds and snakes below in glittering blue, its curving banks shouldered with white sand and green vegetation. Where Ruaha boasts forests of ancient baobabs Selous is rich with Doum and Borassus Palms. The sandy tracks, sparkling water of its rivers and lakes and the sound of the wind stirring the palms confuses the mind with coastal tones that are hard to blend with the notion of a safari. However there is no doubt that the wildlife is rich and dense.
Within twenty minutes of leaving the airstrip we come across a pack of stunning wild dog. The family, twenty-six strong, of rare, endangered creatures are spread between the shade of three low-branched palm trees. Their bodies intertwined, their coats a jumbled, painted patchwork of black, brown and white fur and their wonderful rounded ears erect and alert even while dozing. Unlike an inanimate pride of resting lion, a pack of snoozy wild dogs is always in motion, always a head is lifting, eyes are watching, unconcerned but alert.
Selous is a delight of ever-changing landscape and habitat, seemingly full of wildlife at every turn; giraffe in impala-like numbers; numerous small herds of elephant; fat, lazy lion; a hyena den of muddy trenches, home to a dirt-dried thuggish pack with soulless staring black eyes; trotting warthog families; greater kudu and all their less regal cousins.
For bird-lovers Selous is a true Shangri-la. I confess very little knowledge of birds but even in my ignorance could not help but understand how special and diverse the bird-life is. An hour was spent watching at least twenty fish eagles wheel, swoop and make water-skimming passes sometimes soaring up with a prize dangling in their talons while their shrill cries broke the air around us against a back drop of spoonbills, heron, and storks wading along the water’s edge and an egret taking a hippo-back ride. Add to this Selous’ sparkling rainbow of bee-eaters, parrots, barbets, rollers, kingfishers, flycatchers, sunbirds and weavers and sightings of osprey, bateleur, goshawk …. the list goes on.
In November the air of Selous is steamy and humid and boat rides are a refreshing break from game drives. A gentle late-afternoon cruise from camp (Roho ya Selous) around Lake Nzerakera offers close-up viewing of basking crocs and great pods of grunting hippo. A flock of swooping black and white African Skimmers perform a fluid dance, banking and turning as one to graze the water’s surface with orange-red beaks brilliant in the evening sun. Sundowners on a lapping shore, the light a last golden blaze across the water and a boat ride back to camp in the light of the rising moon.
Several days later as the sun rises my guide and I leave from a second camp (Sand Rivers) to motor up the mighty Rufiji, life-blood of the Selous. We skim by hundreds of yellow-skinned crocs sun-soaking on the sandbanks some who, disturbed by our passing, raise, stalk then launch silently into the waters around us, leaving only a ripple as they slip below the surface to join countless unseen others. An hour or so upriver the water narrows to enter Steigler’s Gorge, evocative of pith-helmeted explorers and big white hunters, an icon of colonial East African history and now threatened by blinkered politicians and a growing population.** Boulder-strewn banks of the river rise into steep, densely treed gorge walls and the river runs fast and strong making our motor work hard for us to reach a sandy beach among the boulders where we stop for breakfast. Walking barefoot across the smooth sand marked only by a few dragging hippo tracks we find a flat rock amongst the water-smoothed jumble that will all be submerged when the river rises in the rains. We drink hot strong coffee while quietly watching kingfishers and fish eagles, alongside rainbow lizards sunning on the rocks.
We float back downriver with the engine off, letting the flow of the water carry and slowly spin us, steering only to keep from the shallows or to avoid sweeping through the middle of countless semi—submerged pods of hippo along the way. Hundreds of hippo eyes watch us float peacefully by and some giants raise to shout their grunting laugh, a few splash threateningly towards us before diving humpily below the water. Once, the boat is bumped from below and a gleaming pink-grey back surfaces alongside and then disappears as we pass out of his territory.