This 45,000 square kilometer reserve in southern Tanzania is the largest of its kind in Africa, protecting the continent’s most prodigious large mammal populations, including 150,000 buffalo, 70,000 elephants, 40,000 hippopotamus, and 4,000 lions. Although visitors really only have access to about 1,000 square kilometers, this particular section of the park is remarkably scenic, encompassing the conjoining of the great Ruaha and Rufiji Rivers, a series of five shallow lakes, and the beautiful surrounding miombo woodland and forest. The rest of the reserve is cut up into privately leased hunting concessions, which, along with the $65 per day entrance fee for visitors, covers the costs of management of this UNESCO World Herritage site, perhaps even lining a few pockets along the way. (If I sound bitter, it’s a sore point among expatriates living here in Tanzania that no discounts are offered to tax-paying residents.)
Located a short plane ride, or five-hour drive, from Dar es Salaam, the area boasts a wide variety of accommodation, including several exclusive lodges within the reserve and a range of budget tent camps and mid-range lodges along the banks of the Rufiji a few kilometers from the entrance. Aimee and I recently visited the reserve during a four-day holiday weekend celebrating the end of Ramadan, opting to stay at the comfortable and moderately priced Selous Mbega Camp, where we enjoyed a spacious raised-pole tent overlooking several river islands complete with groups of hippopotamus and a wide variety of birds. From any camp around the Mtemere Entrance you can easily arrange a driving safari through the reserve (approximately $80 per person), a boat safari along the Rufiji River but outside the reserve ($40), and a walking safari both inside and outside the reserve ($40).
Indeed visiting Tanzania’s national parks and game reserves is notoriously expensive, and Aimee and I are attempting to control the costs of our vacations by driving to destinations ourselves instead of flying, using guidebooks and eschewing guides, and budgeting our activities carefully in advance. Camping in your own tent and self-catering are ways to limit expenses as well, although camping at a site within a national park is often as expensive as staying in one of the camps or lodges nearby and ice melts quickly in coolers. There’s also the question of comfort and ease, which we both place a high priority on, especially during a short vacation, and we’ll regularly justify staying at a nicer camp or lodge to ensure we’ll have a pleasant visit, instead of an adventurous one.
Still, getting in the car before dawn on Thursday morning and driving ourselves out of Dar and into one of the more spectacular and little-visited reserves in the country certainly felt adventurous. It was our first independent safari, and we were expecting at least to get lost a few times, have a minor breakdown in our car, or be harassed by the police while passing through towns and villages along the way. Remarkably, though, the trip there was without a snag, and we encountered some excellent wildlife along the last 3-hour leg of our journey, along a narrow 70km dirt road. Baboons were common, and we noted Southern Ground Hornbill, Eastern Chanting Goshawk, and a pair of Violet-Backed Starlings in the surrounding woodland. An African Harrier-Hawk was the highlight, as it swept in to a tree just along the road and probed deep into a hole with its long legs in search of a nest to rob.
After settling into our accommodation at Mbega Camp, we had a walk around the grounds noting several groups of White-Fronted Bee-Eaters, and Crowned Trumpeters, a female Blue-Mantled Crested-Flycatcher foraging with a Yellow-Breasted Apalis, and two solitary Robin-Chats, the White-Browed and Red-Crowned. Enjoying a pre-prandial beer at the restaurant overlooking the river, we scanned the islands below, noting Yellow-Billed Stork, African Fish Eagle, African Skimmer, and Egyptian Goose, as well as two groups of submerged hippopotamus. Occasionally, one of these massive animals would yawn magnificently above the surface of the water or stride out onto the island and graze for a few minutes. The sun was shining, the wind was blowing through the trees, and it simply felt great to be there instead of stressing about my job in Dar.
At 4pm we went on a boat safari with a young Dutch couple who were the only other guests at the camp. We motored down river around various islands, as our driver and guide took great care to put us in good positions for viewing and photographing the wildlife, particularly the birds. Aimee and I were in awe of the quantity of species of kingfishers present, including the Pied, Brown-Hooded, Malachite, and Giant Kingfishers, the latter of which is an impressively stout and densely patterned bird that shocked us on first sight. We were also treated to several huge colonies of beautiful White-Fronted Bee-Eaters that burrow holes in the vertical riverbanks in the hundreds, swooping in and out and chattering sociably in the mornings and evenings. Speaking of social birds, we watched dozens of male African Golden Weavers constructing neatly woven nests out of grass right in front of us in the reeds along one island, hoping that a female would find their work suitable.
The shorebirds were also a treat to see up close, including the bizarre White-Crowned Lapwing, the mammoth Goliath Heron, and the mostly nocturnal Water Thick-Knees, the same bird that we used to hear calling all night when we lived in the Upanga neighborhood in Dar near the estuary. We also came within extremely close range of the hippos, which I didn’t feel very comfortable with, as there were other boats on the river harassing them in the same manner, but the animals simply submerged themselves fully whenever we came too close. On this section of the river, we didn’t see many mature crocodiles, but later along one of the lakes Aimee and I would watch aghast as a group of thirty of them would ravenously tear apart a dead hippopotamus. Supposedly, this site is also good for spotting Pel’s Fishing Owl, but the guide said he only sees it occasionally flying above the river at dusk. We missed this huge and unique owl during our visit.
The following morning, we drove into the park, first passing a large relic from World War I outside the gate (the “Battle of the Bundu” between Britain and Germany was fought nearby in 1917, where the famed hunter, guide, and Captain Frederick Courtney Selous was shot and killed by a German sniper). We spent the entire day driving around the miombo woodland on unsigned dirt roads, circling several lakes that are visited in the dry season by densely populated groups of large mammals, such as impala, elephant, giraffe, greater kudu, eland, and wildebeest. Consequently, these lakes are also frequented by Africa’s famed feline predators, such as the lion and leopard, making the Selous one of the continent’s most reliable places to witness a kill.
As in most parks and reserves in Africa, the safari drivers are in radio contact with each other, reporting observations and sharing information on the location of desirable game. It’s common, then, for dozens of vehicles to converge quickly at the site of a kill or of a leopard lounging in a tree, which can spoil the quality of a sighting for a lot of visitors, especially in heavily trafficked parks such as the Serengeti. Without a radio, Aimee and I missed seeing any lions or the endangered wild dog on our day in the park; however, we did encounter a fantastic array of birds and also some new game, including the spotted hyena and greater kudu. The experience begs the question of whether you want to see everything or if you’re satisfied to see less but find it, and enjoy it, on your own. As always, Aimee and I have the luxury of being residents here and visiting places multiple times, relieving us from pressures that other tourists may experience.
In the early morning before we arrived at the lakes, we stopped to watch a number of groups of woodland birds. The first was thrilling for me as it contained all new species, such as the Green Wood-Hoopoe, White-Crested Helmet-Shrike, Pale Batis, and Southern Blue-Eared Starling. The second was almost equally interesting as it contained a pair of Common Scimitarbills, long-tailed birds similar to the sociable wood-hoopoes, that inhabit woodland and probe along the tree branches in search of arthropods with their unusually decurved bills. Other notable species in this area included the glorious Lilac-Breasted Roller, a large group of bizarre Helmeted Guineafowl, several small groups of Crowned Hornbill, and a soaring Bateleur eagle. The most common bird was the White-Browed Sparrow-Weaver, groups of which seemed to be calling from everywhere and whose nests appeared to be hanging from the branches of every other small tree.
Despite the bountiful birdlife, we were a bit anxious to arrive at the famous lakes, expecting to see hordes of game and water birds. Indeed, upon arrival at Lake Siwandu, we were treated to herons, lapwings, stilts, and sandpipers, as well as giraffe, wildebeest, impala, and other ungulates. While other drivers raced on to find any of the big cats, we lingered long at each picturesque turn of the road along the water, stopping frequently to take in the site from the safety of our car (while walking safaris are permitted in the reserve, they are only allowed in the company of an armed ranger, and independent visitors are not allowed to exit their vehicles). A couple of times I climbed up on the steel rack on top of our Mitsubishi 4x4 to escape the confines of our car, although this didn’t afford me any real viewing advantage as most animals and birds permit vehicles to approach within a few meters before scaring away.
As the afternoon progressed, we continued driving along the shores of several more lakes, often within a meter from the water’s edge. Not only did this proximity to such a sensitive area make me feel nervous, I was also worried about getting stuck in the sandy track. Still, these roads were our only option for exploring these lakes, and I observed all the other drivers taking the same routes. Eventually, we reached a magnificent viewpoint high above a waterway where we could see over hundreds of square kilometers. Another colony of White-Fronted Bee-Eaters continually came and went under our feet, as we surveyed the area for birds and game, spotting African White-Backed and Lappet-Faced Vultures, giraffes, elephants, and a variety of herons along the shore. Turning back towards the entrance, where I was told the gate closes promptly at sunset (6:30pm), I considered taking a more direct route away from the lakes. After five minutes we had sailed through three unsigned junctions and had no familiar landmarks in sight. Almost needless to say, I quickly turned us around and traveled exactly the same route we had used to enter.
I felt some pressure to arrive at the gate at least half an hour before it would close, so I sped along the dirt roads at considerable speed, passing birds and mammals left and right, until something caught my eye in the trees above. Stopping the car, I watched as a fierce Red-Necked Falcon tore into a dove it had caught just a few minutes before, flinging feathers in the air as it ripped into the bird’s flesh. Having already watched a large number of crocodiles destroy a hippopotamus carcass in an hour, Aimee and I were starting to appreciate the predatory nature of wildlife in east Africa, where all birds and mammals are either hunting or being hunted. Somehow in Ecuador, where plants and fruit grow in such abundance, this vicious cycle of life seemed less apparent.
Reaching the entrance gate with a few minutes to spare, we walked around and picked up some outstanding birds in the dying light, including African Hoopoe and Brown-Breasted Barbet. Surprisingly, we realized that we would have two hours left on our 24-hour entrance fee that we could use the following morning from 6:30 to 8:30am, and so we returned before breakfast the next day, seeing two spotted hyenas, a gorgeous male Green-Winged Pytilia, and several more Green Wood-Hoopoes and Common Scimitarbills. Perhaps we would have seen much more had we paid another $130 and 50,000 Tanzanian shillings for another day in the park, but we decided it was best to take a day off and rest, as the following day would again be spent in transit back to Dar.
Between naps, I did a small walking safari on my own around the Selous Mbega Camp area, which I’m sure violated the safety rules but also landed me a few new bird species, including African Paradise Flycatcher, African Black-Headed Oriole, Retz’s Helmet-Shrike, and Trumpeter Hornbill. I also briefly spotted a wild dog before it ambled away into the dense woodland. Walking around through protected habitat is certainly daunting, not because you might be stalked by a lion, but because you could surprise an elephant. Over dinner on the previous night, an older German couple told us about their walking safari within the park that morning, where they had come within five meters of a massive female elephant with its young. Their armed guide had whisked them away behind a nearby tree and was fully prepared to shoot the elephant should it have charged them.
Notable birds seen: Black-Crowned Night-Heron, Goliath Heron, Common Squacco Heron, Hamerkop, Yellow-Billed Stork, Marabou Stork, African Open-Billed Stork, Hadada Ibis, African Spoonbill, Egyptian Goose, African White-Backed Vulture, Lappet-Faced Vulture, African Fish Eagle, Eastern Chanting Goshawk, African Harrier-Hawk, Bateleur, Dickinson’s Kestrel, Red-Necked Falcon, Water Thick-Knee, Black-Winged Stilt, White-Crowned Lapwing, Spur-Winged Lapwing, African Skimmer, Kittlitz’s Plover, Helmeted Guineafowl, Ring-Necked Dove, Namaqua Dove, Brown-Headed Parrot, Brown-Necked Parrot, Pied Kingfisher, Giant Kingfisher, Brown-Hooded Kingfisher, Malachite Kingfisher, Little Bee-Eater, White-Fronted Bee-Eater, Lilac-Breasted Roller, Crowned Hornbill, Trumpeter Hornbill, African Grey Hornbill, Southern Ground Hornbill, Green Wood-Hoopoe, Common Scimitarbill, African Hoopoe, Brown-Breasted Barbet, Speckled Mousebird, Wire-Tailed Swallow, Lesser Striped Swallow, African Pied Wagtail, Yellow-Breasted Apalis, White-Browed Robin-Chat, Red-Capped Robin-Chat, Collared Palm-Thrush, Black-Throated Wattle-Eye, Pale Batis, Blue-Mantled Crested Flycatcher, Black-Backed Puff-Back, White-Crested Helmet-Shrike, Retz’s Helmet-Shrike, Black Cuckoo-Shrike, Southern Blue-Eared Starling, Violet-Backed Starling, Olive Sunbird, Scarlet-Chested Sunbird, Purple-Banded Sunbird, African Black-Headed Oriole, African Golden Weaver, Black-Faced Weaver, Southern Cordon-Bleu, African Firefinch, Green-Winged Pytilia, Yellow-Fronted Canary.