On Safari in Tanzania’s Selous Game Reserve

Maasai tribesmen escort guests to the dining compound at Impala Camp. (photo credit: Katherine Rodeghier, c 2012)

“Maasai!”

I hear the shouts ringing across the grounds of Impala Camp, repeated every few minutes by hungry guests. In the Selous Game Reserve in southern Tanzania, calls to members of this native tribe who patrol the camp precede every meal.

Going to dinner requires an escort; lions and elephants and hippos may lurk in the bush. So I follow the protocol, stand on the deck of my luxury tent and call “Maasai,” then wait for one of the red-robed tribesmen to come for me. With spear in hand and eyes trained on the surrounding vegetation, he walks me to the dining compound.

Like most guests, I go right to the bar — not for a stiff drink to settle my nerves, but to share their exhilaration over another day of successful game viewing.

In Your Bucket Because

  • You want to see wild animals up close in their natural habitat.
  • You want a safari with luxury tents and fine dining.
  • Good for those who love animals and wild places.

Dinner at Selous Impala Camp is an elegant affair, with good food and wine, white tablecloths and candlelight, and lively conversation punctuated now and then by an elephant trumpeting from somewhere in the darkness.

Elephant Evidence

When my Maasai escort led me to dinner, I stepped over mounds of elephant dung, so between courses I ask Camp manager Onno de Rover about it. He tells me that a herd of elephants had walked straight through camp earlier that day. While getting ready for dinner, a dining companion tells me she heard what sounded like water running nearby. She peered through the flap of her tent to see a baby elephant relieving itself just a few feet away.

Hippos cool off in the Rufiji River near Impala Camp. (photo credit: Katherine Rodeghier c 2012)

I ask de Rover about the Maasai. Selous Impala Camp employs them for their excellent animal-tracking ability, he says. But a Maasai carries only a spear, not a gun, I reply, so what does he do if an animal suddenly charges? De Rover looks at me over his beer and replies in his thick Dutch accent: “He runs — and you run, too.”

Their job, he reassures me, isn’t to fend off the animals, but to know where they are and steer guests around them before they get too close.

Flying in from Dar es Salaam

The Selous, in Tanzania’s Southern Circuit, is one of Africa’s largest game reserves—about the size of Switzerland—and has no permanent human settlements. Most of it has been set aside for game hunting, though the portion I visit is designated for photo safaris. With few tourists and hunting strictly controlled, big game flourishes in this UNESCO World Heritage Site.

The trip begins with a flight from Selous from Tanzania’s capital, Dar es Salaam, on a 12-seater prop plane. The wildlife viewing starts almost immediately. On approach to the landing strip I look down to see a herd of cape buffalo crossing the Rufiji River. After landing, our group heads straight to the river for a water safari. A buffalo stands on the bank eyeing our boat and as we approach it snorts, spins around in a whirl of dust and runs off.

A hippo prepares to charge at Tanzania’s Selous Game Preserve. (photo credit: Katherine Rodeghier, c 2012)

Hippos, submerged up to their heads, also peer at us. One big male decides to show us who’s boss and charges our boat. He opens his mouth wide enough to show a full set of teeth, shakes his head from side to side and gets within 15 feet of me before our guide cranks ups the motor and speeds off.

As the finale to our river safari, we land on a flat section of bank and disembark to watch the sun set behind a row of palm trees. As the boat edges toward shore, a pair of crocodiles startles and slithers into the river out of harm’s way.

Close Encounter with Lions

Game drives and walking safaris (with an armed ranger) are other ways I view animals in the Selous. From our open-sided truck, I spot a pack of hyenas feasting on a dead hippo. A pregnant lion pants heavily as she stands over the carcass of a cape buffalo. My guide tells me the lioness probably killed it the night before and is in the process of dragging it into the brush where she will guard it until the rest of the pride arrives. A trio of vultures stands vigilantly nearby.

Lions viewed on a game drive seem harmless—at first. (photo credit: Katherine Rodeghier, c 2012)

Our group moves on and I spot four lions lying around the base of a tree. They look peaceful, content—even lazy—as they regard us with disinterest. We drive closer, about 10 feet from them, to get a good photo. Something startles them and in a fraction of a second they leap into the air in an explosion of fangs and fur. They run off in four directions.

By the time my heart returns to its normal rhythm they return, lie back down and begin grooming each other as if nothing had happened.

Practicalities

  • Selous Impala Camp is operated by Adventure Camps of Tanzania. Seven luxury tents sit on raised wooden platforms and have electric lights, comfortable beds, dressing areas and bathrooms with showers and flush toilets. For other camps, consult the Tanzania Tourist Board.
  • The rainy season is November through May with the heaviest rains March through May. Game viewing is best June through August. The coolest month is usually July, averaging about 86 degrees. Temperatures can go above 100 degrees between October and February.
  • Prescription anti-malaria drugs should be started before departure. Pack sunscreen, sun hat, sunglasses, mosquito repellent, durable footwear and rain gear. Lightweight clothing can help protect from sun and mosquitoes during the day; a cover-up may be needed at night. Brightly colored clothing may alarm the animals, so stick with khaki and other muted hues.

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