The Selous Game reserve
The Rufiji River, with its lagoons, sandbanks and lakes, and the surrounding forests and woodlands that make up the Selous Game Reserve creates a unique and unusual safari environment. The vast area contained within the reserve boundaries accounts for 5% of the land mass of Tanzania, and yet all options for tourists are high quality, low-impact lodges that provide a high standard of accommodation. The Selous, at 55000km², is the second biggest conservation area in Africa, the largest game reserve on the continent, and a proclaimed world heritage site. To give scale to these figures, the reserve covers an area more than twice that of Denmark, is bigger than Switzerland and is nearly four times the size of the Serengeti.
The Selous Game Reserve is one of the largest areas set aside for wildlife preservation anywhere in the world, although only a small northern portion is allocated for photographic tourism. This is an area that naturally appeals to a photographic lens, as the waterways and plains reflect all the changing colors of the sun and attract numerous fine-feathered water birds and raptors.
The spectrum of wildlife here is diverse, all the more interesting because its southern location attracts a unique combination of East and Southern African wildlife, both resident and migratory, and particularly a curious and colorful assortment of over 440 known species of birds.
The intricate waterways and tributaries of the Rufiji River Delta attract a healthy population of elephant, and are packed full of grunting hippopotami and yawning crocodile that lumber ominously into the water at the first sound of a boat. The banks attract different sized herds of plains game depending on the season, as herds disperse after the rains and then regroup when the water sources concentrate and they are forced to venture into the open to drink, so risking predator attacks with the protection of the crowd.
The scenery is pleasantly varied, with unusually green grasses and tangles of vegetation that inspires a film depleting string of photographic moments with each turn in the path. The river routes are characterized by legions of tall Borassus Palms along the banks that grow up to 25m tall, and leave a tall headless totem when the water courses change direction and they become too thirsty to survive.
The same demise is thought to explain the spooky silhouettes of ancient lead-wood trees that remain preserved intact when they die after up to two millennia of life, leaving a skeletal perch for songbirds and raptors.
The Selous conserves a surprisingly colorful African landscape, and the white forms of the lead woods are in stark contrast to the surrounding vibrancy of well-watered greens and a ranging palette of sandy terracottas that reflect the moods of the sun on the waters.
While most guests visit the Selous on fly-in fully catered safaris, it is possible to drive in with your own vehicle. The Selous is a grand African experience. Once home to the biggest concentration of elephant on the continent (over 110,000), the ‘Ivory Wars’ of the late 70s and early 80s had a devastating effect on the herds, reducing numbers to an estimated 30,000 to 50,000 today.
The black rhino population was similarly laid waste, and today there are perhaps 150 to 200 left out of a population of 3 000 in the early 70s. It would be easy to reduce the Selous to just a set of numbers – 120 000 buffalo, 150 000 wildebeest,
5000 zebra, an estimated half the African population of wild dog totaling some 4 000, 350 bird species, 50 000 impala, and a mere 2 000 visitors a year – but that would be doing it an injustice.
The defining feature of the Selous is the great Rufiji River, which naturally splits the ecosystem into two distinct parts. Stiegler’s Gorge, 100m deep and 100m wide, is a magnificent natural feature with a rickety and gut-wrenching cable car that ferries safari vehicles across the river – not for the faint of heart. Adding to the air of wild remoteness is that there are only six lodges in the reserve. While the bulk of the reserve is miombo (brachystegia) woodland, there are sections of magnificent grass plains, wetlands and swamps and areas of dense canopy forest.
Perhaps the most sublime way of exploring the reserve is by boat, meandering through channels and swamps, and exploring hidden lagoons where elephant often come to bathe. Angling in the river for tiger fish and the giant catfish (vundu), which can reach up to 50kg, can be an exciting way to pass an evening, keeping a wary eye open for crocodiles, hippo and lion. In the Beho Beho section of the reserve are the hot springs at Maji Moto (said to be the source of the water used in the Maji Maji Rebellion) which are a a great place to soak away the dust and bruises of overland safari travel, but immersing yourself in the waters of nearby Lake Tagalala is forbidden – because of big crocodiles!