Selous Game Reserve (Part One)
Southern Circuit, Tanzania
At 7 a.m. on the dot I am picked up by Athuman, my driver for the week, for the six hour journey from Dar Es Salaam to Selous Game Reserve. Driving through the city in peak hour is frustratingly slow, facing long waits at intersections and traffic hurtling towards us on the wrong side of the road. For a while we have no choice but to drive along the footpath, forcing pedestrians to scurry out of the way. It's a nerve-racking experience. I try not to look up too much.
Leaving the urban area behind, we drive through rolling green hills dotted with palm trees. Athuman identifies various fruits and vegetables growing along the road - coconuts, mangoes, pineapples, cassava, bananas. It's a tropical paradise, one that's making me hungry after not having eaten breakfast this morning. Athuman also points out cows and donkeys, as though they are unique species to Tanzania. They are not a highlight.
After three and a half hours the road turns to dirt and the drive becomes a bit bumpier. We still maintain a good speed, although I have no way to measure this as the speedometer doesn't work. Every now and then we pass a village, each of which contains only a few dozen mud huts with thatched roofs. Adults sit listlessly by the side of the road, while kids run around entertaining themselves.
Four kilometres before the park gate we turn off to African Safari Camp, located down a sandy track in the middle of nowhere. The accommodation is absolutely amazing, and I have the entire place to myself. Large huts are spread out around a central swimming pool, while communal spaces are spacious, open-air, and topped with domed thatched roofs. My hut is bigger than my entire apartment back in Hong Kong, and the bed is twice the size of the one I sleep in at home. There is no glass on the windows, only fly screen, and the breeze is wonderful. The bathroom is lined with bamboo, letting in tons of natural light in the spaces between the poles. Stunning artwork is hung on the walls. Danny would love it here.
I am told that I am not allowed to walk around outside by myself at night, as elephants sometimes come wandering through. If that happened, this would hands down be the best place I have ever stayed. There is no phone in the room, but I'm given a whistle for emergencies.
Lunch is served in one of the enormous wooden huts, me their only guest in a restaurant that could hold a hundred. The waiter brings me the best soup I've tasted in Tanzania (and I've gone through more soups than I can count), followed by pizza with cheese, which I don't eat (I guess my dietary restrictions got lost in translation somewhere), salad and potato wedges. This is my first meal of the day, and it isn't particularly filling, but it is the highest quality food I have eaten in weeks.
I have a couple of hours spare, so I put the bartender to use by buying a bottle of South African white wine. So far I have counted six staff, but there could easily be more lurking about. As you would expect, service is outstanding. The weather is warm, as is the wine, but I'm sitting outside, in the shade of another empty hut that I'm sure is usually teeming with guests, in an African paradise. It's perfect.
At 4 p.m. Athuman arrives to take me on my boat safari. He has changed into a traditional Maasai outfit, despite not being member of the tribe himself. A guide joins us, who has a name I can't pronounce and an accent I struggle to understand. He carries a book on local birds. I hope that's not all we see.
Arriving at the launch point on the Rufiji River, I expected to see a narrow waterway lined with thick forest, and animals coming down to drink at the water's edge. It is nothing like that. The river is several hundred metres wide and dotted with sandy islands, the trees are sparse, and a steep bank prevents larger mammals from coming close. I soon realise that this isn't the sort of safari to see the iconic African animals.
The boat is a tiny 8-seater, loud, rusted, sitting low in the water. The driver, who speaks no English, spots most of the wildlife. He alerts my guide, who then alerts me. Athuman joins us, seemingly to enjoy the ride and to take photos for his company. It is peaceful on the water, except for the sound of our boat, and a slight breeze creates superb weather conditions. On the downside, I quickly discover how difficult it is to take photos from a rocking boat.
Almost immediately we spot pods of hippos swimming through the water. For the most part they just look like grey lumps, until they stick their heads out to take a huge yawn. They then retreat below the surface again, the show over in mere seconds. They aren't the most engrossing animals to watch.
Numerous crocodiles, of all shapes, sizes and colours, inhabit the small islands in the middle of the river. Every single one of them bolts straight into the water as we approach. One particularly large croc hovers slightly below the surface as we draw near, apparently not afraid of us. In fact, I think I'm more scared of him, as I visualise him jumping up and attacking us in our low-lying boat.
Large flocks of attractive white-fronted bee-eaters are seen darting in and out of small hollows carved into the vertical banks. The guide takes quite some time to identify the bird, even with his bird book. In the end it is the driver who comes to the rescue and gives me a name to put with the photo.
Other animals seen include:
A giant monitor lizard, camouflaged on a rock.
Vervet monkeys, running up and down the banks.
An eagle, high up in a tree.
Various other unidentified birds.
The driver pulls up to one of the islands and we hop off to walk around it (all the crocodiles have fled before we arrive). It's calm and quiet, but there's not much to see. The guide points out several animal prints in the sand, such as hippo and Egyptian goose. This is as exciting as it gets. We spend an inordinate amount of time here staring out at nothing. I think they are trying to fill in time before we are due to head back.
On the return journey we are treated to a dazzling sunset over the water. Unfortunately, the trip ends before the sun hits the horizon, ruining what is, for me, the high point of the afternoon. Overall, the animal haul isn't as impressive as I was hoping. Apart from the hippos, I feel I could be in any country in the world right now. I think I would have been more satisfied if they had called it a sunset tour rather than a safari, and as a bonus there are a few animals to see along the way. Today's outing definitely didn't feel like a safari.
After a ginormous dinner back at camp, a Maasai guard walks me to my hut, in case any wildlife decides to come wandering by. Disappointingly, we see nothing. Athuman spends the night in the local village - I can imagine the quality of his accommodation compared to mine. I feel a little a guilty that I have this entire place to myself, and wish Danny was here to share it with me.
My alarm sounds at 6 a.m. in preparation for today's walking safari. It was cold overnight and the temperature hasn't increased much by the time I leave, resulting in me wrapping up in several layers. Athuman then drives me a couple of kilometres down the road to meet the guide, Didi, and the heavily-armed guard who will join us.
The walking safari ends up being high on the list of the weirdest things I have ever experienced.
Didi is dressed in a baobab tree. I have no other way to describe it other than he has the bark of the tree wrapped around his trunk, leaving a large portion of his body exposed. He also sports some sort of baobab headdress and is barefoot. I am fully clothed and shod and struggling to stay warm. He carries a spear and walks as if he is impersonating a hunter stalking his prey. It doesn't take long to realise that Didi is quite eccentric, a fantastic storyteller, and possibly high as a kite.
Our safari takes place outside the official national park, but the forest is all one and the same. Walking down the dirt road, Didi points out male giraffe footprints. I am impressed that he knows it's a male, until he lets me in on the secret: crossover prints for female, wide zigzag prints for male. He does an impression of each so I fully understand the lesson.
As we walk through the trees, Didi spots a tiny buffalo spider, so-called because it has two curved projections that resemble buffalo horns. Didi states that this is one of Africa's "small five" game animals (as opposed to the "big five"), but Google later tells me that this isn't the case (it's actually the buffalo weaver, a bird, that makes the small five list, not the buffalo spider).
There is a lengthy stop at the elephant poop. You wouldn't think animal crap could be that interesting, but this is where things become strange. At first Didi uses drawings in the sand to describe how he knows if these are male or female droppings, which is fine. Burning elephant faeces is a great insect repellent, he says. Sure, I think, but I'll stick with my DEET, thanks. Then he says the local people sometimes boil the poo in water, and give the water to newborn babies as an antibiotic. Okay, a bit odd, but I can accept that. I'm glad the babies have no idea what they are drinking. Then, to really gross me out, he rolls up a chunk of the excrement in a leaf, lights it with a match and starts smoking it. Like this is a normal thing to do. His face suggests he is getting quite the buzz from this experience, but I feel this may have been for show. As he is puffing away he informs me that it protects against many diseases, including Covid. If I'm keen I can even buy dried elephant turds from herbal stores in the city to smoke it myself. I can guarantee I won't be doing that. Apparently elephants drop around 100kg of dung every day, so the stock is never-ending for those who want to partake.
Later on we come across more elephant poop, which Didi breaks apart to check the colour and temperature. Then, for some inexplicable reason, he licks his finger, clearly savouring the taste. I am in no way tempted to join him.
Moving on (physically, not mentally - I will never get past that) we come to a baobab tree, which Didi starts praying to. Baobab trees are the centre of his belief system, and people from his tribe often pray to them (and other bush spirits) for a variety of reasons, from good health to good weather to good fortune. Baobab trees live for 2000 years, he tells me, and are seen as a pillar of strength and an antenna to the gods. Baobab "juice" is also given to newborns, as it supposedly gives them strength.
Once the praying is over he climbs up the trunk of the tree using a well-placed vine, and performs some sort of hollering ritual within its branches. I watch on politely, completely lost for words, and wait for him to come back down to earth. Once he is on solid ground again, he cuts off a chunk of the baobab wood with his spear and rips it into three small pieces. One chunk goes into each ear; the other he swallows. He says he does this every night, leaving the pieces in his ears as he sleeps to help him dream of the future. I nod, I smile, I have no response.
The next tree we stop at (I don't catch the name) is said to increase appetite in infants who aren't eating. These local babies definitely have a diverse diet. It's the wood that has the medicinal properties, but you can't simply cut pieces off with tools. Supposedly, the only way to obtain this wood is with your teeth. Didi demonstrates this by first breathing on the tree to "warm it up, otherwise the cells in the root aren't stimulated and it won't be effective". Then, once it's sufficiently heated, he runs his front teeth down the length of the trunk in what looks like an incredibly painful process. A few strips fall away. I'm not giving it a go.
There's nothing too unusual about the hippo droppings, just a lesson on pooping behaviours, lulling me into a false sense of normalcy. That is until we come to the termite mound. Didi immediately scales the three metre high stack, where he breaks open the soil-saliva-faeces structure and scoops out a handful of termites. Carefully climbing back down, he draws up close to show me how he squishes the heads of the living termites and pops them in his mouth. If he doesn't crush the heads, they bite. He proves this by attaching a live one to his lip and pulling on the termite, which in turn pulls out his lip. This definitely does not pass the vegan test. Didi goes on to explain that there are millions of termites in each mound and they provide a valuable source of protein and fat in the forest. I can think of a few other foods that provide protein and fat that don't involve killing insects.
Last up is a crocodile tree, apparently good for fighting toxins (of both the animal and alcohol variety). He swears it's fantastic for hangovers. I think this is the only useful piece of advice I have received all morning.
As we continue on Didi makes various animal calls, but I have no idea what animal they are supposed to resemble. Whatever they are they don't work, as we don't spot anything bigger than a spider on the entire tour. I was hoping to see some of the larger, more famous animals up close, but I guess it wouldn't be overly safe to come face-to-face with a lion or buffalo.
During the walk Didi describes to me the best way to shoot many elephants at once. I am obviously mortified by this so I ask a few follow-up questions to determine what role he has had in this. Didi replies that he has never shot an elephant but he was a porter on elephant hunts when he was younger. He says he was lucky and was able to complete school, allowing him to work as a tour guide and not have to resort to poaching to earn money. For others, their crops might die, they end up with no money and will do whatever is necessary to keep their family alive. Since finishing his training, Didi has been active in anti-poaching campaigns and has been instrumental in shutting down many illegal operations. I'm glad the walking safari finished on a high note.