Words and pictures by André Pöhl.
Selous Game Reserve and Ruaha National Park
It’s a long way to Tanzania but that didn’t deter reader André Pöhl and friends when they set off last year on a 54-day epic overland journey. And they drove all that way to visit two parks! Was it worth it? Read on and find out.
We pick up the story with André and his travelling companions – four couples in a convoy of four vehicles – about to enter the Selous Game Reserve, having reached Tanzania after a 31 day journey up the length of Mozambique.
From Kilwa Masako, we drove on to the Selous Game Reserve. The road to the Game Reserve had many deviations where the road was under construction; at one point it was blocked by two lorries and we were forced to drive through the bush next to the road.
When we reached Selous, we were in for a surprise – the camping spot outside the Mtemere Gate which had been recommended to us, no longer allowed campers. The locals informed us that there was only one camp outside Selous Gate which allowed campers. So we settled in at the Hippo Lodge Camp on the banks of the Rufiji River, outside the gate – camping inside Selous is extremely expensive.
The camping areas at Hippo Lodge were small, but we nevertheless enjoyed our stay there; the ablution blocks were clean and the staff very helpful, and we also found the view of the river quite exquisite. After camping for one night at Hippo Lodge, we entered Selous at Mtemere Gate on the park’s eastern side. We were careful not to enter the gate before 10h00, as the permits issued for visits to the reserve are based on 24-hour periods – and we had to be at Matambe exit gate before 10h00 on the day of departure, otherwise we’d be liable for the cost of another 24 hour permit!
One of the conditions for a self-drive tour in the Selous was that you have to be accompanied by one of the park’s guards – at a fee. But, at the entrance gate, we were informed that there was no guard available! Fortunately, the official at the gate contacted his counterpart at Tagala Camp and explained that we would be arriving without a guard and they should provide us with one on arrival. Our first experience of driving in the Selous was exhilarating. Realising that we had reached our goal had us euphoric, and the surroundings did nothing to disappoint; in fact, they were even more beautiful than we’d imagined.
Self-drive tours were only allowed in the area north of the Rufiji River. The dominant vegetation of the reserve is deciduous Miombo woodlands, and this area is scattered with lakes. The game drives followed tracks between the lakes and on the lakes’ edges. Our game drive on the first day took us past the northern shore of Lake Siwandu, to the northern edge of Lake Nzerakera, and then on to Lake Manze. From Lake Manze we headed for Lake Tagala in search of the campsite with the same name. Along the route we saw plenty of game: elephant, hippo, lion, buffalo, Lichtenstein’s hartebeest, kudu, Nyasa wildebeest, crocodile, giraffe, etc. The birders in our group were thrilled with all the species they were able to tick off their lists.
Finding our campsite wasn’t easy; we drove up and down the edge of Lake Tagala without success. When darkness set in, we had no option but to make a bush camp. Fortunately, we had stumbled across the Maji Moto Hot Spring in our search for Lake Tagala campsite, so we returned there for the night. This afforded us the opportunity to go for a wash in the delightfully hot spring. One of the highlights of the whole tour was the night we spent there by ourselves.
The next morning we found Tagala camp within an hour, as the distance to it from the point where we had turned around the previous day was only about one-and-a-half kilometres. The main reason that we’d not been able to find the campsite was that the original campsite had been shut down and a new camp erected not far away from the old one; and the new position wasn’t indicated on our dated T4A mapset. Tagala camp consisted of a half-built ablution block (the building abandoned long ago) and a foul-smelling pit latrine. Not even water was provided. We convinced ourselves that we weren’t paying for the facilities provided, so much as we were paying for the privilege of being there, and considered it a bargain at that. As it turned out, the official at Tagala camp was also not able to provide us with a ranger to accompany us on our game drives.
The next morning we had to leave early, so that we could reach the Matambe Gate on the north-western side of the park before 10h00, but en route we made time to visit Frederick Selous’ grave. From Matambe gate our route took us in a northerly direction. Our intention was to overnight at Kimboza campsite, a few kilometres south of Morogoro. The dirt road from Matambe Gate to Morogoro runs through very scenic mountainous area, but road conditions vary from fair to bad. The road passed through a number of chaotic towns, and many of the vehicles encountered on the road were driven by madmen. At one stage I had to swerve right off the road into the bushes to avoid an oncoming bus that had been driven way too fast around a corner. The bus came sliding sideways across the road, right onto the side we were travelling; but, thank God, there were no obstacles on the side where I had to leave the road. (Ed: Ah yes, those amazing Tanzanian buses; they’re a law unto themselves. See my article on Tanzania travel in our November 2012 issue.)
In some of the small villages, the market was situated right on the road, with street vendors placing their wares onto the edge of the tarmac. Buses stopped in the middle of the road, obstructing the way completely in both directions, until all their passengers, leaning out the windows, had bought whatever they wanted. All we could do was to wait patiently. Everyone else seemed to be happy with this arrangement! The vistas were so enthralling that the congested villages, crazy drivers and bad sections of the road didn’t spoil the drive.
We reached Kimboza campsite late that day, to discover that it was no more. When we stopped at the derelict campsite to transfer fuel from jerrycans to the main tanks, a nun from a Catholic Mission across the road approached us and asked us if she could be of help. I explained to her that it had been our intention to camp at Kimboza. She informed us that Kimboza used to be run by a nearby community, but differences amongst the members on how to use the income generated had led to the camp’s closure. She offered us camp facilities at the mission and the use of a bathroom and toilet. This was heaven-sent, as we were very tired and dirty, and would have done anything for a nice hot shower. We accepted her offer, each making a small donation to the mission in thanks. We then prepared meals, relaxed, and reminisced about the day’s experiences in the lapa which the mission provided for our use.
After a well-earned night’s rest in our rooftop tents, and a good breakfast, we said goodbye to the friendly sisters and headed for Morogoro. The Tanzanian government had imposed new taxes on fuel which had led to the fuel companies not delivering fuel to the service stations, and by now we had to fill up. We battled to find a filling station with fuel, but after a while found one and filled our tanks and jerrycans. During our stopover at Morogoro, we also replenished our food stocks at one of two upmarket shops – we had asked local ex-pats where to go. Fully stocked, we pushed on through the most beautiful mountains on a perfect tarred road (in places, construction workers were still laying down its finishing touches) to our next overnight stop: Baobab Valley campsite, which turned out to be an acceptable camp. The following morning, when we woke up, we discovered that the rodent which had been troubling us all the way from Pemba had been caught in one of the mousetraps set for him in the loading bay of our vehicle. My wife and I were most relieved!
The following campsite we visited was Chogela Camp, a few kilometres outside the gates of Ruaha Game Reserve. We travelled via Iringa, again through the most beautiful mountainous area, on an excellent tarred road. We refuelled at Iringa, having now adopted a policy of filling up every time we had the opportunity to do so. Our few nights’ stay at Chogela was enjoyable. We met the owner, and ate at his restaurant, where the meat was very tasty – but very tough. The vegetarian food, however, was a great alternative. At this camp, we met very interesting travellers from Europe who advised us to have a bite at the Hasty Tasty Too restaurant in Iringa, when we left.
We then visited the Ruaha National Park. After a fine game drive, on which we saw many animals including impala, hippo, giraffe, and kudu, we settled into our camp at the new campsite. This was on the banks of the Ruaha River, near the airport. Our vehicle was parked on the edge of the Ruaha River under a huge thorn tree, and from a spot next to it, we watched until the sun set as elephant, giraffe, zebras and many other species came to drink from the river. The sunset was glorious, with the sky changing from bright yellow, to orange, and then to hues of blue and purple. After a wash in a very primitive shower and a dinner prepared by my wife, we went to bed in our rooftop tent. I was later awakened by a soft, unfamiliar sound right next to where I was sleeping. When I peered through the gauze window at the moonlit scene outside our tent, I looked straight into an elephant’s eye; it was standing barely a metre away. I quietly woke my wife and we watched in absolute silence as a herd of about 20 elephants fed from the tree under which we’d parked.
We could hear the rumble of their stomachs and the cracking of branches but were amazed at how softly they could tread: not a sound from their big feet! After we had watched the elephants in awe – for how long, I don’t know – the herd moved off into the dark night. That experience is foremost in our minds whenever we think back on our trip to visit Selous and Ruaha.
About the Selous Game Reserve
At over 55 000 km², this World Heritage Site is the second largest game reserve in Africa, it’s almost four times the size of the Serengeti. Though the second largest, it is actually the largest protected area uninhabited by man – the only human habitations allowed are limited tourist facilities. Road access is possible only during the dry season, so most visitors fly in from Dar es Salaam by charter aircraft. Safari lodges are restricted to the top twenty percent of the reserve, which, visitors need to remember, is a malaria area.
The park terrain includes rolling grassy woodlands and plains, and rocky outcrops cut by the Rufiji River – the lifeblood of the park – whose tributaries form a network of lakes, lagoons and channels. There are even volcanic hot springs. The Rufiji offers superb game viewing, especially during the dry season from June to November. Elephants come out of the bush at that time and predators are more easily spotted. During this time, an ancient migration of elephants takes place between the Selous and Mozambique’s Niassa Game Reserves. This is one of the largest natural trans-boundary eco systems in Africa, and at the last consensus it was estimated that 64 400 elephants roam the two parks, the majority residing on the Tanzanian side. The rainy season stretches from January to April and is a wonderful time for birdlife and lush scenery, but many roads become impassable during this time. December to February is still good for game viewing but can be rather hot and humid. The safari lodges are usually closed from March to May. For more information on Selous Game Reserve, go to www.game-reserve. com/tanzania_selous_gr.html
About RUAHA NATIONAL PARK
At 10 300 km² Ruaha National Park is Tanzania’s second largest park. It’s located some 130 kilometres west of Iringa. The best time to visit if you’re keen on predators and large mammals, is the dry season: mid-May to December. If you’re into birding, lush scenery and wild flowers, you’ll want to visit during the wet season: January to April.
For more information on Ruaha National Park, visit www.tanzaniaparks.com/ruaha.html