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.
One steamily somnolent afternoon I am reading in my open-fronted banda, the stillness, heat and buzzing zizz of insects making my mind heavy and dull. On the brink of submission I am revived by a refreshingly cool gust of air as it blows through, ruffling the makuti in the high roof and carrying the unmistakable promise of water hitting heat-dried dust. A stronger gust and the branches outside are erratically swaying, the river below suddenly choppy. Heavy rolls of thunder precede a huge crack overhead like the sky has broken open and sheets of water instantly shroud the view of the river to a grey mist. A fine spray blows in as the storm swirls outside and I breathe the smell of life in deeply. Nowhere on Earth does it rain like in Africa!
My starry-sky photography plans for this trip are thwarted by a huge full moon which bathes the earth in silver light each night. One night at Roho I am woken by nearby crashing in the bushes and sit up startled to see three, four, five giraffe running in graceful, swaying slow-motion across the open front of the tent, glowing like mythical creatures magically silver under the full moon. Silence falls to be broken a while later by the huffing vibration of lion calls some distance away. Other nights it is the cough of nearby leopard or the whoop of hyena I listen to or the raucous call of bush-babies, so brash and loud for such gentle, timid creatures. I smile to see the silhouette against the night-sky of one bush-baby as it scampers along the railing of my verandah.
Selous was hard to leave, what a stunningly precious water wonderland brimming with a myriad of creatures and birds and unlike any other safari destination I have visited. Ngorongoro Crater is dubbed the Garden of Eden but, in my mind, I am tempted to take its crown for Selous.
All images property of Ellie Hill Photography and prohibited from use.
With thanks to the staff and management of
Roho Ya Selous – Asilia
Sand Rivers Selous – Nomad
Siwandu – Selous Safari Company
**Work has started on a dam across the Rufiji River for hydro-electric power at a narrow point of Steigler’s Gorge. Conservationists world-wide are highly concerned about the impact on the rich eco-system of the areas of Selous that will be down-river from the dam.