April 13, 2009

Tanzania Safari on the Rufiji River

This Tanzania Safari was the perfect surprise. I arrived at Dar es Salaam Domestic Airport thinking I was about to meet some important visitors for a breakfast meeting. I had been grumbling all the way to the airport. Who organises a breakfast meeting anyway? As I was telling the taxi to wait my wife pulled some bags out of the boot and told me not to bother. It had recently been my birthday, now we were getting on a plane.

Soon we were in the air and heading towards the Selous Game Reserve. The city gave way to a patchwork of sandbanks and meandering streams dotted with hippo. The purple Beho Beho hills loomed ahead and the wilderness stretched further than we could see in all directions. The Selous is the largest conservation area in the world with the exception of the Polar regions.

After a comfortable flight of around 45 minutes we touched down on a bush strip near the Mtemere Gate of the Selous. Here we were met by a safari-converted Landrover and transferred to Rufiji River Camp. After a short welcome and briefing we went for a cold drink in the bar. The view was simply stunning. The bar area is located on a bend in the river and as we arrived we could see a mother and baby hippo out of the water and several large pods wallowing. There were also several large crocodiles basking, mouths open on the white sand.

Once we had settled into our comfortable room we enjoyed a light lunch before splashing around in the pool until it was time for our afternoon boat safari. It is amazing to think that in just 45 minutes of travelling you can escape the hectic urban melee of Dar es Salaam and be in the heart of one of the world’s great wildernesses. The clamour of horns and dala dala engines is replaced by the grunting of hippo, the chitter of playful vervet monkeys and the shrill keening of eagles.

We were welcomed by our guide Bernard and led down to the boats. The boat was a sturdy aluminium flat-bottomed craft propelled by a powerful outboard. We relaxed in comfortable chairs as we glided into the Rufiji River. We headed upstream, the light breeze of our smooth motion kept us cool despite the high temperatures. This really is one of the most comfortable, relaxing ways of enjoying a safari.

The first thing that struck me was the sheer abundance of birdlife. The bushes on the banks literally shimmered with glorious avian opulence. The golden weavers, glossy starlings and brightly-coloured white-fronted bee eaters took my breath away. The sand-spits were traversed by elegant saddle-billed storks, yellow-billed storks and goliath herons. Even the air above the water was filled with hovering giant, malachite, pied and pygmy kingfishers, every so often plunging into the swirling water to emerge with fish. The majestic fish eagles perched high in the borassus palms, surveying their domain. We were informed by our guide that these great birds pair for life.

One of the steeper banks was home to a colony of several hundred white-fronted bee eaters. These spectacular birds swooped about us entering and emerging from their deep burrows. ‘Only eggs inside now’ the guide explained, otherwise you would hear the chicks.

We continued upstream, winding our way between crocodile-covered sand banks and pods of hippo. We saw a monitor lizard climbing into a bush on the bank after eggs. Other animals we spotted on our cruise up the river included waterbuck, impala and a spectacular dazzle of zebra coming timidly to drink.

We also saw a one of the most dangerous animals, a lone old male buffalo. As a herd animal that can no longer keep up with its peers they become cantankerous and need to be given a wide berth.

Our guide produced some cold sodas from a cool box as we stopped briefly on a sand bar whilst watching a herd of around twenty elephants with young babies drink and splash at the edge of the river. For a while it looked like they might cross but the lead cow thought better of it. The leadership of the matriarch is so important that she lives well past breeding age, leading the herd.

We returned as the sun set, a huge glowing red orb that turned the river into a mass of sparkling azure and magenta. I was still reeling from this totally unexpected and wonderfully different safari. We arrived back at camp in time for a sunset beer and wash before an excellent dinner.

After relaxing by the log fire for a while, enjoying a nightcap we were escorted back to our tent by a Maasai askari. We slept well, drifting off to the honking of hippo, the cackling off hyena and the hoot of owls.

The next day we awoke to the dawn chorus and enjoyed some bird-watching from our porch before breakfasting. We then went on a more traditional, vehicle-based safari. This was excellent and we were fortunate enough to see a leopard, two groups of lion (one with a wildebeest kill) and many other large mammals. We enjoyed a tasty picnic lunch under a spreading acacia and returned mid afternoon in time for a swim and another great sunset over the Rufiji River. I could write more about the game drive but it is enough to say that it was excellent. This area of Selous has a wide variety of safari activities to choose from: driving, walking and boat safaris are all available here. This makes it a superb location for groups with varied tastes in safari

The next morning I requested another boat safari; this is something that is particularly special in Selous. The only comparable locations for birding on a boat safari are the Kilombero and the Wami Rivers. These however do not compare to Selous for the diversity and abundance of wildlife.

As we pulled away from the bank a large number of Ptychadena anchietae (ridged ‘rocket ‘ grass frogs with very powerful back legs) leapt spectacular distances, looking for shelter as our bow pulled back and exposed them. This was a nice cheerful start to another memorable boat safari.

‘Look! Crocodiles have a baby hippo!’ our guide exclaimed slowing the boat and pointing. Sure enough we could see a lone baby that had become separated from its mother. As we watched it was rolled and snapped at by a huge crocodile. The sharp teeth scored beep lines in the rubbery hide and the baby hippo’s ears flicked in panic. Crocodile usually drown their prey rolling them in the water until their strength gives out (before hiding the body underwater to soften up). I couldn’t help but think it must be pretty difficult to drown an animal so well adapted to an aquatic existence that it can suckle under water. It struggled desperately towards the safety of the sand spit but was rolled again and again. Its strength was fast failing and we left the uneven struggle to its inevitable conclusion. When we returned a few hours later there was no sign of the hippo.

As we continued we saw several journeys of giraffe coming to drink with their legs splaying into giant arches. The giraffe were great to watch but it was the elephants that stole the day, completely upstaging them. First we came across an old bull wallowing in the mud at the edge of the river. His skin glistened, slick with brown Rufiji mud and he flicked huge clods from his tusks, rumbling his satisfaction deep in his throat. Next we encountered the large herd of females and babies, this time on the other side of the river.

We enjoyed cold sodas whilst watching a herd of around fifty impala coming down to drink. We sat in silence watching for a crocodile strike, this time the Impala were lucky. They had chosen their drinking spot well, with shallow water for a good distance allowing them to see the approach of any deadly living dinosaur.

Bird Island is so named because it is how to breeding colonies of spoonbills, open billed storks and ibis. It a small island literally covered in birds. The scrub was festooned with nests and the cries of hungry fledglings filled the air. We were also rewarded with a good view of the timid black crake. Crocodiles lurked below nests that overhung the water, waiting for any unwary youngster to fall.

As the sun rose and the temperature started to rise we began our journey back to Rufiji River Camp. Storks stood on the sand banks, arrow-straight with wings spread, allowing the wind to cool the blood in their capillaries (acting as a radiator like elephants’ ears).

We happened upon a final magical moment as two young bull elephants entered the river and swam using their trunks as snorkels. Then they began to play-fight and wrestle sending up huge plumes of spray. The clack of ivory on ivory, the splashing and trumpeting contrasted to the gently gurgling of the water. Eventually they tired of their teenage boisterousness and stood to dry, glistening in the sunlight. This was a splendid finale to a memorable weekend in Selous.

Boat safaris are very comfortable and by far the most relaxing way of exploring the Selous. I enjoyed every minute of it and will definitely return for more. For birdwatchers especially a boat safari in the Selous is one not to miss. Whilst we waited at the airstrip a herd of about twenty elephants came onto the runway and had to be chased away! As I boarded the plane for my flight back to Dar it was with regret to be leaving so soon.

Visit Wild Things Tanzania Safaris for more information on visiting the Selous.

Article Source: http://www.ArticleStreet.com/

By: Roy J Hinde

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