The long rains began in earnest as soon as I returned from my trip to the Eastern Usambara Mountains, and the unpaved roads in Dar es Salaam quickly deteriorated. My gentle commute to work by bicycle became a mud bath, and while driving was cleaner it was hardly any easier as my car bounced along painfully through flooded potholes. Originally, I had hoped to fly to a remote park or reserve in Tanzania for the Easter holiday weekend, but many of the landing strips were closed for the rainy season, and the remainder of flights to Arusha, Pemba, and Mwanza were already sold out. Even accommodation at nearby Mikumi, Sadaani, and Udzwunga National Parks were booked, which didn’t leave me with many palatable options. I could take the long highway to Ruaha Naional Park (12 hours), brave the dirt road to Selous Game Reserve (7 hours), or hang out in Dar. Although I wanted to make the best of the short vacation, it was with considerable trepidation that I set off to Selous Game Reserve for five days, knowing that the road conditions would be formidable and the chances for good wildlife viewing slim.
I had made arrangements to stay at Selous Mbega Camp, which is located along the Rufiji River just outside the Mtemere Entrance Gate, asking the manager to reserve a particular park ranger named Apollo to accompany me on my game drives. Aimee and I had had a peaceful stay at the same camp in October, and Apollo had worked effectively with our student group while on walking safari for three days in February. During the latter trip I was impressed with how well he knew the birds of the reserve and had discussed the possibility of exploring the reserve with him further, focusing on finding bird species unique to the Miombo forests of southern Tanzania. Having a park ranger with me would also reduce the likelihood that I would get lost, stuck, or both and have to sleep in the reserve while waiting perhaps a day or longer for rescue. The setup certainly had potential, but the margin of error would be slim.
First, I had to complete the long drive from Dar, which proved wet, muddy, and treacherous in parts. The worst section was along the final three-hour stretch, where the road drops down into a floodplain and circumvents a bridge in a state of interminable repair. Here, groups of men from the village nearby were escorting the occasional vehicle across a two hundred meter stretch of mud and through a deep but narrow stream. As it hadn’t rained for a few days, the mud was relatively dry and I snaked through it without trouble, but I had to reflect a few minutes at the water’s edge before attempting to complete the passage. The water came up over the hood as I plunged the car blindly forward over a few thick boards that had been lined up underwater over the deep mud. A bit surprised I had made it across, I continued on into a powerful thunderstorm that persisted for over an hour, leaving the regular dips in the road overflowing with water.
With the feeling of having dodged a bullet, I slid across the mud into a parking spot at the camp and unwound over a late lunch. The river was swollen and flowing fast, and all the grassy islands that had harbored a variety of bird life in the dry season were now submerged. A boat safari would be pointless in these conditions, where as in the dry season it had been remarkably rewarding. While the woodland along the river was more verdant than before, I saw very few birds as I patrolled around the camp that afternoon, aside from a White-Browed Robin-Chat and a pair of Terrestrial Brownbuls. It was great to relax on my tent platform in the evening though, reading with the aid of a kerosene lantern and listening to the chatter of the Bush Babbies in the trees nearby. Even later that night as I listened to the rain in my tent, I was glad I had come and optimistic about exploring the reserve over the next few days.
Although the weather was clear and sunny in the morning, I felt terrible by the time I met Apollo at the entrance gate. I had already changed a tire that morning, and my left arm was swollen painfully from the hand all the way above my elbow thanks to the bites of a tsetse fly. My stomach was also reeling from the salad I had foolishly eaten at dinner the previous night. Explaining carefully to Apollo my hopes for the next few days and stating the birds for which I was searching, I agreed to drive to several different sites in the reserve, where we would explore on foot. After paying the entrance fee ($50 per person per 24 hours) and negotiating his price ($35 per day), we set off on a nearby circuit along the Rufiji River. The grass was high and green along the road, but we saw a variety of large game, including Greater Kudu, giraffe, elephant, as well as warthog and impala.
Stopping at a viewpoint above the river, we admired a large group of African Skimmers flying in v-formation low over the water. There was plenty of bird activity in the vegetation along the riverbank, including a group of wary White-Crested Helmet-Shrike and a single Bohm’s Bee-Eater. Red-Billed Quelea, Pin-Tailed Whydah, and Eastern Paradise Whydah males were all dazzling in their breeding plumage as they displayed in flight and on treetops. Along Lake Mzizmia we also found Water Thick-Knee, Scarlet-Chested Sunbird, and Brown-Hooded Kingfisher, all good birds but ones I’ve also seen in Dar. The majority of our time was spent navigating through difficult stretches on the road, as Apollo would scout a path for the car through the saturated black-cotton soil. After half a dozen risky but successful dashes through the mud, we finally got stuck only a few meters from the main road. Fortunately, a Land Rover soon passed by and within thirty minutes we were back on the road feeling fortunate.
In hindsight, I can see that I should have asserted myself at this point, scaling back on our risky driving and focusing more on watching birds. Apollo had his own ideas though, and took us deep into the reserve at a site he claimed was good for Purple-Crested Turaco. Three hours later and at least five kilometers off the main road we finally arrived at a deserted camp along Lake Manze. The site was indeed good for birding; however, it was already late afternoon and the western sky was darkening with clouds. I tried to enjoy myself for a while, watching a pair of Green Wood-Hoopoes scour over a massive Baobab tree, but I had a growing sense of dread. I noted Brown-Breasted Barbet, Chin-Spot Batis, Green-Winged Pytilia, Collared Palm-Thrush, and Village Indigobird as we walked slowly through the ruins of the camp. Whenever we were on foot Apollo always took his rifle, and he cautiously surveyed the environment before moving ahead, especially as we passed through closed areas.
His judgment turned significantly worse once we were back in the car as he guided us toward the main road, at one point directing me through a trackless field of tall grass. Driving into it, I knew we were headed for trouble, but he had successfully pushed me through dozens of muddy stretches so I just let go and followed his command. Within minutes we were bottomed out in a swampy patch of black-cotton soil, barefoot and up to our knees in mud as we tried to dig the car out with our hands. We had seen a total of five cars all day, and none of them had been off the main road, so we understood very clearly that we were going to spend the night in the car if we didn’t extricate ourselves within the next hour. After collecting stones and branches, desperately digging, and wildly shifting gears, we were back on track only to get stuck again five minutes later. Although we worked furiously, the car stubbornly slid back into the mud each time we almost had it back on track. It wasn’t until it was dark and had begun raining were we finally free.
Even this feeling proved to be illusory, as we headed back to the entrance gate over fifty kilometers away. The rain quickly drenched the main road, leaving it in a retched condition similar to the side roads, and we barely skidded through muddy sections with speed, not traction. As we careened recklessly through the night, we encountered hordes of birds and animals that seemed to be in an equally frenzied state. Large groups of impala dashed back and forth across the road, hundreds of thick-knees and nightjars flew up into the headlights at the last possible moment, and several massive hippopotamus raced at impossible speeds as they fled from the car on way to their feeding grounds. We even came within meters of a menacing Spotted Hyena that boldly stared us down as we passed. With the rain pouring down and the lightning flashing, the scene beyond the muddy windshield was terrifying, and the nightmare didn’t begin to subside until we reached the gate just before 10pm.
I finally made it back to camp that night, but not before getting the car stuck one last time, ten meters short of the parking area, where I simply left it. It had been a long and traumatizing day, and my confidence behind the wheel was deeply shaken. It’s not that I would have been that scared or uncomfortable sleeping in my car in the reserve; it’s that I would have rather spent the day observing birds than pushing my car to the limit. I appreciate taking the occasional risk and feeling adventurous, but I had learned that going on driving safari in the rainy season is only for the most fearless drivers and toughest vehicles. The other guests at the camp were still up gossiping about the road conditions and discussing how they were going to get back to Dar by Wednesday (it was only Saturday). Myself, I decided to leave the following day after hearing about the worsening situation at the bridge, where I had barely made it across in dry weather (the other alternative would be to drive twelve hours through the reserve to Morogoro). It would take four hours and six determined men to get my car through those two hundred meters of deep mud, and I wouldn’t arrive back in Dar until midnight, but I would need the remaining two days of vacation to recover from the physical and psychological wounds of the trip.
Notable birds seen: Hamerkop, Marabou Strok, Little Egret, Palm-Nut Vulture, African Fish Eagle, African White-Backed Vulture, Eastern Chanting-Goshawk, Tawny Eagle, Helmeted Guineafowl, Black-Bellied Bustard, Water Thick-Knee, White-Crowned Lapwing, Crowned Lapwing, Three-Banded Plover, African Skimmer, Speckled Mousebird, Brown-Hooded Kingfisher, Bohm’s Bee-Eater, Little Bee-Eater, White-Throated Bee-Eater, White-Fronted Bee-Eater, Blue-Cheeked Bee-Eater, Lilac-Breasted Roller, Green Wood-Hoopoe, African Hoopoe, Von der Decken’s Hornbill, Crowned Hornbill, Trumpeter Hornbill, Brown-Breasted Barbet, Crested Barbet, Nubian Woodpecker, African Pied Wagtail, White-Browed Robin-Chat, Thrush Nightingale, Spotted Morning-Thrush, Collared Palm-Thrush, Chin-Spot Batis, African Paradise Flycatcher, Terrestrial Brownbul, Purple-Banded Sunbird, Scarlet-Chested Sunbird, Black-Backed Puffback, White-Crested Helmet-Shrike, Yellow-Billed Oxpecker, White-Browed Sparrow-Weaver, African Golden Weaver, Red-Billed Quelea, Green-Winged Pytilia, Southern Cordon-Bleu, Red-Billed Fire-Finch, Eastern Paradise Whydah, Village Indigobird, Black-Winged Bishop, Pin-Tailed Whydah, African Golden-Breasted Bunting.