Selous Game Reserve, Tanzania

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The Selous Game Reserve in southern Tanzania, which was named in honour of Frederick Courteney Selous (a famous English army officer, explorer, big game hunter and early conservationist who lived in the area for many years towards the end of the 1800’s, and who later died at Beho Beho in 1917 while fighting against the Germans during World War 1), is a vast, virtually pristine and largely untrodden natural wilderness that has no permanent human habitation within its boundaries. The total area extends to around 54,000 km2 (21,000 square miles) making it almost four times the size of the Serengeti. It's the largest reserve of its type in Africa and is regarded by UNESCO as one of the most important ‘protected' wildlife areas in the world, hence its World Heritage listing.

It should be noted though, that Selous is a designated Game Reserve not a National Park and, as such, is primarily a restricted area that's protected and managed for hunting. Whilst the overall size of the reserve creates certain logistical problems with the control of poaching, illegal hunting and extraction of natural products, the management plan and associated legal protection, coupled with low human impact retain a relatively undisturbed on-going ecological and biological process which sustains a wide variety of species and habitats. The integrity of the reserve is enhanced by the fact that it is part of a larger ecosystem adjoining other wildlife areas, including being functionally linked with the large Niassa Game Reserve in northern Mozambique.

Whereas most of the hunting area is dense bush, the land north of the Rufiji River that’s been set aside for safari lodges, game viewing and photographic tourism is far more varied and interesting. It’s a very small proportion of the reserve, but still a very sizeable area of around 1000 km2 (390 square miles). The general habitat offers great diversity with a mixture of typical grassland and dry savannah (depending on season), wooded escarpments, riverine forests and swamps. In addition, the land immediately around the Rufiji forms one of the highest water catchment areas in East Africa, creating a string of five lakes (Tagalala, Manze, Nzerakera, Siwandu and Mzizima) interlinked by meandering waterways that become 'sand rivers' in the dry season.

The reserve is particularly known for its large mammal population, with good numbers of elephant, buffalo, wildebeest, zebra and impala, plus all the normal predators. However, whilst numbers of some species are high, density is low due to the size of the reserve and, consequently, Selous is far less visited than the more popular parks on Tanzania's 'northern circuit'. There is also a large head of giraffe in the tourist sector and, on the lakes and rivers, plenty of hippopotamus and crocodile. In addition, some areas are also known for their packs of wild dog but, although a couple of those areas were close to both of the camps we’ve visited, we have failed to find them during our time there. Selous is also an excellent birding destination with over 400 recorded species.

Travelling to this northern part of the reserve is relatively easy as there are a number of grass airstrips including Beho Beho, Siwandu, Mtemere and Kiba, all less than an hour’s flying time from Dar es Salaam. Another point worth noting is that with Selous being a reserve it doesn’t have the normal park restrictions and, as such, walking safaris and fly-camping are possible under certain conditions.

Selous was the destination of our first safari in 2012, when we’d stressed the importance of wanting to enjoy a true wildlife experience in the most natural way we could and with minimum presence of other vehicles. It was for this reason that we were recommended to combine Selous with Ruaha (jointly known as the 'southern circuit'). We stayed at the Selous Safari Camp, which was renamed Siwandu shortly after our stay. The camp is situated alongside Lake Nzerakera in the northeast sector. We found it a good base as we were able to explore both the surrounding riverine forest in an open-sided safari vehicle, as well as the lake itself in one of the camp’s boats. The lake proved to be very enjoyable as there were often animals down on the shoreline having a drink; it could be impala, a herd of elephants or even a troop of baboons. There were also a lot of waders, plus various herons and storks. And, in the centre of the lake there was a small island, which was covered in spoonbill and ibis nests.

We had one particularly memorable afternoon on the lake, when shortly after setting off with our guide we were confronted by a big bull elephant right on the shoreline. Instead of retreating back into the trees, he decided to take exception to our presence, making his feelings known by mock charging us with lots of ear-waving and trumpeting. This was highly entertaining to both watch and photograph. It’s amazing just how big elephants are, particularly when you’re in a small boat and they’re towering above you! We later found out why he’d been so keen to see us off and that’s when we saw him come back down and into the lake to swim across to the other side. Or, to be more exact, he managed to walk most of the way across with just the top of his head, eyes and trunk out of the water, only needing to actually swim when he was in deeper water in the centre. It’s not a small lake, so his crossing took quite a while, and all that time we were able to motor slowly along beside him. It’s the memories from encounters and experiences like this that make these trips so enjoyable.

View across Lake Nzerakera
View across Lake Nzerakera
 

We returned to the area in July 2017, again combining our trip with a stay at Mwagusi in Ruaha. This time we stayed at the more remote Sand Rivers camp in the southwest sector of the reserve on the banks of the Rufiji River about 12km downstream of Stiegler’s Gorge. Whilst it’s regarded as one of the most expensive safari lodges in Selous, it's also one of the quietest. This is something we value as we do not want to be seeing other vehicles when out on game drives. Of course you can’t have exclusivity, but you will have a more enjoyable experience if you’re careful when selecting where to stay. We probably spent more time out on the river than in the bush, but when we did go out for a drive we came across very few other vehicles - most of those being from Beho Beho, another remote camp, that is situated to the north of the Kipalala ridge.

Our boat rides on the Rufiji River were almost as good as those we enjoyed on Lake Nzerakera. The main difference, apart from having to combat the flow and avoiding grounding on the sandbanks, was that we hardly saw any animals down on the banks of the river. It would be a completely different experience later in the season when the waterholes are dry but, at the time of year we were there, the main attraction was the birds - primarily shorebirds, herons and kingfishers, plus a few raptors and a couple of surprise like African skimmers. I was hoping to see some different monkey species in the overhanging trees, but the few we did see were mostly well out of camera range. Hippopotamus were numerous, particularly in the shallower, slow moving, lower stretches, but as usual weren’t very interesting as they generally stay almost submerged. On some of the sandbanks we found crocodile basking in the sun, but for some reason they were far more timid than those on the lake and would make an immediate dash for the water as soon as they heard the boat engine. Nonetheless, it’s the shear joy of being out on a wild natural African river, miles away from civilisation, that makes it such an enjoyable experience. It was just the two of us and our guide in a small boat. We’d head off just before sunrise to make our way upstream to Stiegler’s Gorge, stopping occasionally en-route to photograph anything of interest and then, after mooring somewhere for a bush breakfast, drift slowly back downstream in total silence except for the sound of the birds and odd animal. Bliss.

Rufiji River heading upstream towards Stieglar's Gorge
Rufiji River heading upstream towards Stieglar's Gorge
 

We’d like to return later in the year at some point as our guide said that we would see a lot more, but literally a few days before we arrived the Tanzanian government confirmed their intentions of proceeding with the controversial hydroelectric dam project at the top end of the gorge just below where the Great Ruaha and Rufiji rivers merge. Whilst the country may need the resource the effect on the local habitat and wildlife could be devastating. Obviously a project of this kind within a designated conservation area and UNESCO World Heritage site is going to get a lot of attention. Whilst the plans have been kicking around for many years, the new president seems determined to get the project underway. Notwithstanding the logistics and work involved with such a scheme, I think that we’ll put any ideas of returning to one side for now. If they do start work, I sadly would not want to entertain going back until after the project was finished and any effect on the lower stretches of the river, associated floodplains and lakes, surrounding habitat and wildlife was known. And, unfortunately, that could be a long way off as a major construction project of this type would take years to complete.

Moving inland north of the river, the main lake in the area is Lake Tagalala, alongside which are the smaller lakes Mwanamtonga and Makubi. We spent some time driving around all of these where we were able to photograph different wader species, such as African jacana, spoonbill and various storks, than we’d seen on the river. We also saw a leopard and some lions on our game drives, but very few elephants or larger groups of animals. In fact, the most numerous species seemed to be giraffe. But, by combining Selous with Ruaha we knew that we would be seeing many more animals during the trip.