“It’s an endless sea of colours!” I exclaimed, as the Cessna Caravan descended through a patch of clouds, which opened up into the vast, azure-blue of the East African sky and the huge expanse of lush green below.
This mesmerising mix of colours was my first introduction to the astounding wilderness of East Africa. The big sky belonged to Tanzania, and the never-ending greenery to Africa’s largest – and oldest – game reserve: Selous.
This was one of the most memorable of the thousands of flights I’ve experienced all across the world. Although just a short skip from Dar es Salaam, it seemed as though we were suspended in a bubble of timelessness; a place where the universe opened up a window for us lucky travellers to truly comprehend the sheer majesty and grandeur of one of Mother Africa’s flagship wilderness areas.
Growing up in South Africa, the Kruger National Park has always been my idea of endless wilderness, where the beating heart of Africa lives, giving life to rich, thriving wildlife and bush wilderness. Clearly, I still had a lot to learn about the anatomy of the African bush.
“You know,” said one of my fellow travellers, “this place is nearly three times the size of Kruger.” That was enough to bring me out of my dream state and grind all of my senses to a halt. “What!?” I exclaimed. “That’s surely not even possible. The Kruger is huge!”
And so, my fresh knowledge about African wildernesses the size of small countries had just added to the mix of emotions I felt on approach into Selous: I was already in awe, and itching to explore the vast expanse of this mammoth wilderness.
To read more about the Selous wilderness, continue reading below the advert
Of course, my naivety was confirmed shortly after touching ground. This is not a place one can explore easily. Quite simply, it’s just too big. The rolling hills, looming mountains and meandering rivers that I saw on the stretches of the horizon all around us as we flew in would have to remain wild, untouched places to explore in my dreams.
I have only known and experienced African wilderness areas that are largely accessible – ones with extensive road networks, camping grounds and the ubiquitous sight of clumps of safari vehicles scrambling across the savannah. Ones that are relatively easy to explore.
Prior to this trip, it was somewhat inconceivable to me that such a true wilderness still exists – a place where ginormous tracts of lush, thriving bush are kept completely out of reach of humans; no main roads, no rest stops, no fences – just the wild African bush thriving in its natural state.
After having seen the endless sea of wilderness on the flight in, it didn’t take long to realise that you are stepping into some of the purest and rawest wilderness in all of Africa.
The only way I can describe it is by comparing it to the feeling of stepping onto a remote island after travelling across a vast expanse of ocean. And for the duration of your stay in Selous, you’re essentially just an islander lost and stranded in a great sea of wilderness. What a feeling!
Very few people will have the privilege to experience that truly humbling feeling I describe; to be given perspective on the insignificance of your singular occupancy on this planet by stepping foot into grand wilderness, infinitely bigger than you.
It’s a feeling I haven’t shaken off yet, some months after my return – the knowledge that ‘out there’ lies the real Mother Africa; infinitely bigger and wilder than you could possibly imagine from afar. There isn’t a strong enough word to describe how I feel about the fact that I don’t have to simply imagine that; I can now picture it for myself.
To read more about the remote safari experience, continue reading below the advert
The remote safari experience
The emphasis here is on experiencing a tiny, remote slice of a true wilderness in what I like to call ‘minimalist ecotourism’ fashion. Astoundingly, in an area as ginormous as Selous, there are only eight tiny, remote-access lodges acting as safari bases – which, for reference, means that at full occupancy, there are roughly 0,002 people per km² in the entire park. Like I said, be prepared to be stranded on your safari island, lost in the sea of Selous wilderness.
And that’s exactly what most travellers make the journey here for – to come to a place where they can be furthest removed from crowds and the heavy influence of bustling society on their souls. I don’t think there’s a better place on the planet to get lost in the wilderness and recharge your body, mind and soul than Selous. And luckily for us travellers, there are some pioneers in authentic African hospitality who are experts at delivering that exact experience. That’s part of what I travelled here for, too.
If you’ve never heard the sound of a hippo grunting in the African wild from close range, well, it’s an experience to say the least. Both the ground and the airwaves all around you vibrate, deeply. It’s much like having a jackhammer jump out at you while you’re walking down an empty street. Most of the time, you’re not expecting it.
Hippos are plentiful in Selous – the Great Ruaha River flows and winds its way through the lush landscape and is home to one of the world’s largest known populations of hippos. It’s really only humans that are scarce here…
I awoke one night in a completely confuddled state to the sound of a heftily manoeuvring visitor right outside my villa-style tent. I had been sleeping with the tent zipper wide open, because well, I thought, “oh Selous, Selous”, when in Africa…
The hippo’s deep grunt shook me right out of my slumber. It sounded only inches away, munching grass on the banks of the river and mindlessly keeping me awake fearing for my life – or more precisely, fearing that I wouldn’t make it to the toilet in the absence of my askari to escort me…
I was staying at Azura Selous – a boutique lodge on the banks of the Great Ruaha – the hippo’s generous visit will give you some indication as to the proximity of my tent to this famous river. Navigating potentially fatal wildlife encounters is but a small price to pay for a location as remarkable as this one.
Waking the next morning, surprisingly fresh after the grazing hippo incident, and with a steaming cup of coffee delivered to my tent at 5am, I was itching to discover a tiny slice of this bush paradise.
Our guide, Vitus, was raring to go at sunrise. Little did we know that he was preparing to show us safari goers one of the most adventurous days of safari travel imaginable.
For some background, I had a semi-bush upbringing as a child – meaning that I spent a lot of time as a wild child in the bush, doing wild things. I drove (raced) my dad’s jeep around from the age of ten on scarcely traversable roads. I walked barefoot for miles through thick bush to fish in hidden dams and secluded streams. I was nowhere to be found on my mother’s radar for the entirety of most afternoons – I was out somewhere in the bush collecting sticks for that night’s campfire.
For that reason, I have always had a special place in my heart for truly wild and authentic bush experiences; they bring me back to my childhood, and to my roots.
It was to my delighted surprise then when, shortly after setting off on our day’s safari – I realised that ‘roads’ are a fairly loose term in Selous. We cruised down empty riverbeds in the Land Rover in search of leopards. We crossed rivers at some (at first glance) inadvisable places. We careered through the immensely thick bush to get up close to stealthy buffaloes and giraffes. We pretended to track lions and, at one stage, Vitus even let me sit on the specialised tracker’s seat – I felt like a child again, my wild roots tugging at me and the sense of pure freedom all around me, and within.
I was filled with a refreshing sense of invigoration at being out in the remote wilderness and travelling in truly adventurous style once again.
A scene to remember
Wild dogs can chew through bone like butter. They might look cute and playful, and of course that’s in their nature as dogs – but, the clue is in their title, they are wild. I had only ever heard stories about the famous painted wolves of Africa; they are some of Africa’s most voracious and successful carnivores.
Vitus told me that, in this particular area, they have a 100% hunting success record. They hunt every single day – imagine how you would thrive if everything you set out to do came back with 100% success? Wild dogs are certainly thriving here, and we were lucky enough to be privy to some of their success.
There was some sudden, muffled excitement that came crackling through the airwaves on the radio, and Vitus changed gear and drove at a pace with purpose. We came around a corner after crossing yet another riverbed, and the scene that I saw unfolding before us both energised me with excitement and shocked me to my core at the same time.
There was a scurry of about ten or so dogs, all tearing into a freshly killed impala. It was as frenetic as a scene of kids at a birthday party tearing into the cake with reckless abandon. It might sound greedy for carnivores to hunt and eat everyday (most, such as lions and leopards, can get by with eating once or twice a week), but when you see the efficiency with which these little meat-eating machines tear through fresh meat and devour an entire living creature in a matter of minutes; well, it makes sense. I can relate to having to snack often, too.
I wouldn’t have said that the pungent smell of freshly spilled impala guts and the hair-raising sound of cracking bones would be a highlight of my trip – but when you add in the fact that this was my first sighting of wild dogs in Africa, experienced from close range in an open-air safari vehicle in Selous, of all places – well, it’s really the context of the experience that makes it such a memorable highlight. If you haven’t experienced either wild dogs in Africa, or Selous, I highly recommend you experience both while you’re still able to travel.
To read more about adventuring on safari in Selous, continue reading below the advert
Guiding without guns
As a general rule, it’s probably not entirely safe to willingly get yourself into close proximity to Africa’s wild animals without any form of protection. But, for the sake of fishing barefoot on the banks of the Great Ruaha River, as close to hippos as you could wish to be – it’s entirely worth it. I asked Vitus what would happen in the hypothetical situation of a hippo deciding to join us for a spot of fishing on the sandy banks. He very nonchalantly said that he would just clap loudly, and the hippo would return to its preferred hangout in the cool, flowing water.
I found this a very refreshing attitude towards safari guiding. I likely have a jaded perspective, from having grown up in South Africa where guns are a part of the safari guide uniform – but as one of Africa’ foremost conservation voices, Ian Michler, once told me before embarking on his Tracks of Giants expedition: “If you get yourself into a situation with wild animals where you have to use a gun, it’s either because you didn’t know what you were doing, or because Africa has other plans for you.”
I love that. And the words rang true for me as I found myself in somewhat of a zen state, watching the current flow by and my fishing line dangle empty – I was so grateful for the opportunity to just be ‘out there’ in the wild. It felt more natural than I can describe, to be standing, barefoot and exposed to the wild around me – and to trust that I was safe, that I had nothing to fear, and that, for this little bit of the time-space bubble, I was where I was meant to be and doing what I was meant to be doing. You don’t get that level of natural relaxation with guns around.
Experiencing that level of confident professionalism in harmonious being with nature made me realise that this is exactly how our relationship with the African wild should be – no frills, no fuss, no fear – just being. More people should be like Vitus, and more places should be like Selous. That’s not too much to hope for I don’t think.
On the last morning of this wild adventure, we had planned to go on a sunrise bush walk. The night before, we had enjoyed an evening of stargazing (somehow the vast East African sky remains stellar blue, even at night) and dining out in the open bush, entertaining some hungry hyenas as guests. Collectively, we’d decided around the campfire that a bush walk was the perfect way to sign off this sensational safari.
And that was a great plan – only, after about five steps into the bush trail there was some loud, frantic crackling on the radio once again. There was no mistaking what we’d heard: “Lions! Lions! Lions!” Before Vitus could even ask, we’d all started charging back towards the vehicle and shouted to Vitus, “let’s go! We want to see lions!”
Whilst hippos, wild dogs, buffaloes and impala are plentiful in this area – lions are not. I’ve seen plenty of lions in the wild in Africa, but I knew that the (male) lions of Selous were totally different – for me, they’re in a class of their own, like the desert lions of Namibia, or the white lions of the Timbavati. And the reason? They’re maneless.
Many people are familiar with the maneless man-eaters of Tsavo, but these lions are thankfully friendlier than that. Some would call them mangy merely from looking at them. But really, they are just different (one person piped up a hilarious comment about lions who dare to be different!).
They are perfectly healthy, and their punk rocker-looking mohawks are the product of differing climates that dictate the phenotypes of who gets to have a full mane in the lion kingdom, and who doesn’t. It was another highlight of the trip for me, and I was completely okay with having sacrificed our bush walk to get a glimpse of these spectacular beasts.
Turns out, whenever you travel, there are many sacrifices you’ll make that reap soul-filling rewards. This was one such sacrifice. If you’re willing to make some sacrifices to travel to Selous – for rare lions and vultures, or bush spas; whatever your reasoning – do it. It’s one of the most special places on Earth. And you wouldn’t regret it while you lived.
Selous Game Reserve information
The entirety of the reserve is actually embedded within the 90,000km² Selous ecosystem, which is comprised of other national parks, forested areas and community wildlife areas. It is also linked with the 42,000km² Niassa Reserve in Mozambique. This entire corridor wilderness is comparable to the size of several different small countries, namely Greece and Nicaragua.
The reserve is named after Sir Frederick Courtney Selous – a prominent and impactful colonial hunter, adventurer and explorer of his time. He was an imperialist who believed the influence of the British empire as a colonial stronghold in Africa to be benign, and instead fought to establish protected areas – like his namesake wilderness.
FAUNA AND FLORA
Selous has a greater diversity of fauna and flora than any other major miombo woodland wildernesses in Africa. More than 2,100 plant species and 350 species of birds have been recorded here. The reserve is also host to some of the most significant global populations of hippos, black rhinos, wild dogs, buffaloes, crocodiles and elephants – although elephant populations have been significantly reduced during an extended period of intense commercial poaching.
SAFARI IN SELOUS
Selous is a true wilderness, perfect for remote exploration on guided walking safaris, or down river by boat. Safari itineraries in Selous generally include exploring and tracking animals by day in a safari vehicle, and remote bush-dining experiences whilst out exploring the reserve.
Selous is accessed easiest on a 45-minute charter flight from Dar es Salaam direct to your lodge. Self-driving is very tricky here, by virtue of the remoteness and a safari infrastructure which is geared for fly-in fly-out safaris.
The best time to visit Selous is generally in the dry season, from June through to September, when safari travel is easiest for crossing riverbeds, and the game is plentiful; sightings are easier in the drier bush and the animals move greater distances to access waterholes.
Travel to Tanzania with Africa Geographic
Travel in Africa is about knowing when and where to go, and with whom. A few weeks too early or late and a few kilometers off course and you could miss the greatest show on Earth. And wouldn’t that be a pity? Read more about Tanzania here, or contact an Africa Geographic safari consultant to plan your dream vacation.
About the author
Hey, I’m Rich. I was lucky enough to have had a semi-bush upbringing, where I discovered the freedom and sweet, abundant elixir in the air of the African bush. I have also since developed that annoyingly persistent global travel bug and have been lucky enough to travel to all the continents (barring Antarctica… one day I hope to ski there… yup, you heard right). In all my travels, the mother continent has tugged deeply at my roots, and I have since returned to share my love for her astoundingly beautiful and special places with those who are enchanted and drawn to her wild allure. Currently in Cape Town, South Africa – because the bush is beautiful but so are the mountains and the ocean! Why is life so hard in Africa?