PART 3: Return to Selous

Photography and report by Bert Duplessis

High resolution photos available on Flickr!

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WE RETURN TO SELOUS GAME RESERVE

June 5.  Early this morning, we enjoyed a bird walk out of Mwagusi Camp with Joffrey – it was a nice change of pace from the game drives.  We looked at some animal footprints, droppings and other ‘signs of the wild’ and reconstructed some of what had happened the previous night.  Joffrey was the most enthusiastic of any of the guides on this trip – standing up the entire time and scanning every inch of the bush as we drove along.  He didn’t miss a thing!  

We enjoyed breakfast in camp – and it was superb as were all the meals at Mwagusi.  After a short game drive we were off to the Selous Game Reserve and Sand Rivers Camp. 

From the air, the wide and strongly flowing Rufiji River was unmistakable and on final approach to the Kiba Airstrip we could see the camp tucked away in the thicket on the edge of the river.

We were welcomed by our hosts for the next two days – Cameron and Kate – and a quick look-around confirmed what we had hoped for:  nothing much has changed at Sand Rivers since our first visit in 2009.  It still has a totally sublime setting on the edge of the Rufiji River.  The rooms are still large open structures encapsulating a huge mosquito net and king size bed.  There’s a comfortable couch with a fantastic view over the Rufiji. And most importantly, you still fall asleep to the gentle murmur of the Rufiji rushing past your room on its way to the Indian Ocean.

After an enjoyable light lunch (a selection of green and pasta salads and fresh bread), we enjoyed a siesta – well actually we worked out – and then went on a fishing/boating trip on the Rufiji.

It was good to get out of the vehicle for a spell and to get close to some hippo, crocodile and various birds.  The fishing was so-so; we caught a couple of smallish fish including one tiger fish, but it was incidental to a fun and entertaining outing.  Our fishing guide was clearly new to the job but very enthusiastic and friendly – which is all you need.  

Dinner – unfortunately – despite the great outdoor setting and stellar company – was disappointing due to a misconnect about my vegan food preference.  Vegan does not mean that a person eats only carrots and potatoes but every now and then a camp chef will panic and forget about proteins (beans, chickpeas,  quinoa, brown rice, whole wheat pastas etc.) and just dish up vegetables.  There is nothing quite as boring and disappointing and alas predictable as a ‘vegetarian platter’  – which is what I got, with some potatoes on the side.  The other guests which ironically included some vegetarians, were served what appeared to be a totally splendid meal with either fish or a stuffed sweet pepper. 

For future trips I might temporarily suspend my dietary preferences just to avoid being served the inevitable  veggie platter or murdered tofu.  A couple of weeks of eating ‘regular’ food certainly won’t kill me.

NO ELEPHANTS AT SAND RIVERS

June 6. Breakfast this morning at Sand Rivers was a little disorganized and nobody ever took our order for toast or anything else.  There was a lot of standing around and no clear understanding of who needed to do what.  It was still very early in the season so some staff members were still figuring out their responsibilities, I guess.

Our game drive on this day at Selous Game Reserve could ordinarily have been described as fair to good, highlighted by a very good lion sighting (7 individuals), several of which were seen well.  There were also lots of giraffes, impala, zebra and wildebeest around, as well as waterbuck, kudu, eland, bushbuck, banded mongoose, warthog, yellow baboons, hippo and crocodile.

The elephant in the room though was the absence of elephants.  Game-viewing conditions were not ideal with thick bush and water everywhere so even if elephants were abundant here, we might have struggled to find them.  It is clear though that sustained – and lately increased – poaching in the Selous has resulted in a huge drop in the number of elephants and hence the frequency of sightings.  By most estimates, there were more than 100 000 elephants in the Selous by the mid 1970’s. This number has now shrunk to a meagre 13,000 or so.  Large parts of the reserve have no elephants as the highest numbers are in small pockets in the northwest, central and southern areas.  Over just the last 4 years, Selous Game Reserve has lost more than 60% of its elephants to poaching.  

There’s a lot of blame to go around, and clearly something drastic has to be done to stop the carnage.  If the elephants disappear totally, so will the tourists, in time.  Even now, we won’t make the Selous GR the mainstay of the game-viewing portion of anybody’s safari.  We would recommend combining it with Ruaha (plenty of elephants there) or Katavi in western Tanzania or one of the parks in the northern circuit such as the Serengeti or Tarangire.

Sand Rivers is a perfect spot to enjoy some water-focused activities (boating, fishing, a trip up Stiegler’s Gorge) with one night out spent fly-camping.  For the full big game experience it needs to be combined with a property which offers more reliable elephant-viewing. 

Dinner this evening was just what the doctor ordered:  Some rice and beans plus fresh veggies and a nice fruit salad for dessert.  Now how difficult was that?

Last word about Sand Rivers:  it is still one of my favorite places in Africa.  The location is mind-blowing and it is a place where you can and should take the foot off the safari throttle a little bit.  Get out of the vehicle, enjoy the main lounge, pool and bar area – have a couple of drinks, spend an afternoon in camp, go up the Rufiji to Stiegler’s Gorge and just absorb what is around you.  This is why people come to Africa.

ON TO BEHO BEHO

June 7.  We slept in this morning, had breakfast at the lodge and then hopped on to the car for a road transfer to the Hot Springs where we were met by our guide from Beho Beho.  

Beho Beho is one the oldest and most well-established properties in the Selous Game Reserve and it has a sterling reputation for accommodation, food, guiding and all-round hospitality. 

It was easy to see why Beho Beho has gained its reputation.  First impressions count and our arrival briefing from Manager Walter Jubber was likely the most comprehensive yet interesting one we’ve ever had.  Walter is a font of information and in-depth knowledge and is clearly a very accomplished guide as well, with exceptionally good birding skills. 

There was not a stone or a blade of grass out of place at Beho Beho.  It has the mother of all walkways between rooms, a great lounge and dining area, a cozy bar and nice pool area.  Plus a full-sized billiards table.  Definitely a spot where one should spend several days.  A minimum stay of 4 nights is recommended here as there is much to be seen and done including game drives, Lake Tagalala Experience, walking, a sleep-out in the Treehouse and spending some time in camp as well.  

In no time, we had dropped off our stuff and sat down poolside for a delicious meal – some nicely grilled prawns, a lentil bobotie, several salads and freshly baked corn bread.  

After a short siesta – we worked out – it was time for a drive to a nearby hippo pool and to take a look at the camp’s tree-house sleep-out facility.  We saw a nice herd of elephants along the way which really made the day, considering our disappointment with these animals at Sand Rivers.

The Treehouse is a highly recommended ‘night out’ for anyone spending 4 nights or more at Beho Beho.  After enjoying a sundowner on the 3-meter high deck,  with a bed which can be rolled outside under the stars (with a mosquito net) we went back to camp for dinner.  It was an elaborate affair with a starter (haloumi) and a main course of duck with orange sauce.  For the vegan guest, an eggplant stuffed with chickpeas and some very tasty organic potato.  It was one of the most memorable evenings of our Africa trip, thanks to Food & Beverage Manager Karin Kruger. 

THE TAGALALA EXPERIENCE

June 8.  We were up and out early this morning – at 0630A – for the Tagalala Experience.  This took the form of a slow drive to Lake Tagalala, with superb bird-watching and very good game-viewing en route.  Amongst others we saw zebra, several wildebeest herds, giraffe, huge herds of impala and then – as we were going through a dry river-bed – a pride of 7 lions, the so-called Bibi’s pride.  They were resting up and grooming themselves in a shady area.  We had some nice close-up views – watched them for a while and then continued on to Lake Tagalala. 

We spent about an hour cruising Lake Tagalala on an aluminum skiff and enjoyed good views of dozens of crocodiles sliding into the water.  The birding was excellent with particularly good views of three species of kingfisher namely Giant, Pied and Malachite Kingfisher.   There was an impressive territorial dispute amongst two pairs of African Fish Eagle and we also saw a very rare bird – a Humboldt’s Heron which has been seen here regularly over the last 7 years. 

Then it was time for an al fresco breakfast – lakeside.  Back in camp later we relaxed for the afternoon enjoying the pool and the camp itself.  We took a look at the very imposing Bailey’s Banda, a 2-bedroomed private house.  At an additional cost of $250.00 per person per night (pretty much what you would pay for a private vehicle at most camps of this caliber), you can have all the privacy and exclusivity you can possibly desire, with a private vehicle and guide, a dedicated chef and room attendant and a superb view over Selous Game Reserve.  This is not a superior Beho Beho experience – just a private one. 

The bottom line on this property:  Beho Beho is expensive  at around $1,000 pppn  but I have seen few other lodges in Africa to equal it in almost any respect:  location, view, rooms, food/ catering, management, guiding and wildlife: this place does everything right and it becomes clear the moment you first set foot there, that it is going to be a fantastic experience.  I told Walter on our departure that Beho Beho can be used as a blueprint for how a safari property should be managed and I meant it. 

Early this afternoon we said our goodbyes, clambered back into a Cessna Caravan and took off to DAR, a 45-minute trip.  From there it was a quick hop of less than 20 minutes to Zanzibar, the Spice Island.  Stone Town, here we come!

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