East Africa is famous as a place of 50-mile views and immense grasslands, on which tens of thousands of grazing animals can be seen in a single glance. The region’s most celebrated landscape is that of the Serengeti — specifically its southern short-grass plains — where every January and February, the wandering herds of wildebeest converge to give birth to the next generation. But there is another East Africa. Much of the Serengeti lies at an elevation of more than 5,000 feet, but a little lower, the savannas are replaced by a mysterious and secretive world of tangled bush, where huge herds can hide away in the thick vegetation.
The Selous Game Reserve in Tanzania is Africa’s biggest game reserve, and its 21,081 square miles make up an area significantly larger than Switzerland. Through it flows the Rufiji River (and its major tributary, the Great Ruaha River), which empties into the Indian Ocean, 120 miles south of Dar es Salaam. Much of the landscape is miombo woodland (“miombo” is the Swahili word for “Brachystegia,” a genus of tree comprising a large number of species), but this is interrupted by open grassy areas and punctuated by isolated hills and enigmatic rocky outcrops. Truly wild regions of Africa are shrinking year by year, under relentless pressure from an exploding human population. But the Selous is one of the continent’s surviving wilderness areas — like the Kalahari or the Congo Basin — a vast tract of uninhabited land that in most respects is the same now as it was 10,000 years ago.
The Selous was made a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1982, because of both its pristine state and the huge number of animals it contained, including some of the world’s largest elephant and buffalo herds. In recent years, however, the reserve has attracted publicity for all the wrong reasons. Forty years ago, the Selous was inhabited by approximately 110,000 elephant. Today the number is believed to be around 13,000. The insatiable Asian demand for ivory, the presence in Tanzania of numerous Chinese contractors and the activities of corrupt politicians and officials seeking to enrich themselves have all contributed to this calamitous decline. Some progress has been made in containing the poaching epidemic, but it is still too early to say if the slaughter has been stemmed.
These days the area to the north of the Rufiji is reserved exclusively for photographic safaris, while the land to the south is still set aside for big-game hunting. Despite the reserve’s immense size, there are few permanent camps. In 1979, the American writer Peter Matthiessen made a safari into the Selous, a journey that resulted in his famous book “Sand Rivers.” A few years later, the renowned Kenyan safari walking guide Richard Bonham came the same way and built a small camp at a bend in the Rufiji. Today its successor, Sand Rivers Selous, is perhaps the best-known upscale lodge in the reserve. On this trip, however, I had planned to stay at Azura Selous, the sister property of two remote beach resorts in Mozambique — Azura Benguerra Island and Azura Quilalea Private Island — which in recent times have been deservedly popular with more-adventurous Andrew Harper members.
After an uncomfortable interlude in the decrepit domestic terminal at Dar es Salaam’s elderly airport, I boarded a Coastal Aviation Cessna Grand Caravan for the 45-minute flight to Sumbazi in the Selous. (Coastal operates a network of scheduled light aircraft services throughout Tanzania, which enables travelers to transfer conveniently from the famous northern game areas — notably the Serengeti National Park and the Ngorongoro Conservation Area — to Ruaha National Park and the Selous in the south, as well as to the island of Zanzibar. Those in search of greater convenience and comfort can, at a price, charter one of the company’s fast, pressurized Pilatus PC-12 aircraft.)
Azura Selous opened in 2010, and the lodge is set beside rapids on the Great Ruaha River, about 30 miles from its confluence with the Rufiji. I was picked up at the airstrip by my safari driver and guide, Joseph, and an armed ranger. A three-minute drive brought us to the main public area of the lodge. There, two open-sided pavilions overlooked a swimming pool and sundeck, backed by the surging river, its water stained clay-red from runoff after a recent rain. I completed registration formalities in the lounge pavilion, a stylish and atmospheric space with leather armchairs, white cotton-clad sofas, rustic African carved furniture, sisal matting, piles of books, framed maps and black-and-white wildlife photographs.
My semi-tented villa, one of 12, was situated a two-minute walk away along a dirt path, and I was shown around by my extremely amiable “safari butler.” A heavy wooden door opened into a reception area, to one side of which was a pleasingly spacious bedroom with a king-size bed draped in mosquito netting, a writing desk and an armchair. A wall-mounted air-conditioning unit was augmented by a ceiling fan. Heavy insect screens opened onto a private terrace with a daybed. To the other side of the entry were a dressing area and a bright and surprisingly spacious bath, with two sinks, a generous expanse of counter space and a large walk-in shower. Outside, I found a second shower and, at the end of a short path, a plunge pool with a view of the river and its resident pod of hippo. Overall, my accommodations seemed comfortable, well-appointed and attractively decorated. While not at remotely the same level of luxury as a top South African property like the ones from Singita, they struck me as being appropriate for a wilderness camp.
As it was still only late afternoon, I set off with Joseph in an open-sided Land Rover for a game drive. A friendly, humorous and knowledgeable man, he proved a delightful companion. The treeless areas along the riverbank were ideal for bird-watching, as well as providing vantage points from which to observe the hippos and crocodiles. Farther inland, the miombo woodland was interspersed by football field-size patches of grass, which had been closely cropped by the resident impala, zebra and wildebeest. Although there was nothing like the superabundance of wildlife that you find in the central Serengeti and Kenya’s Maasai Mara, there was certainly no shortage of interest.
After driving slowly for a couple of hours, we chanced upon a pack of rare wild dog, which, judging by their bloodstained faces, had just devoured an unfortunate impala. Other predators in the immediate vicinity of the lodge include three lion prides, one of which, a group of four females, we came across later in my stay. There are no cheetah, as the Selous is too tangled to suit their high-speed hunting style, but leopard are relatively common. According to Joseph, six leopard live nearby, two or three of which have become habituated to vehicles.
As the sun neared the horizon and swelled into a colossal orange ball, we pulled into a dry riverbed and headed up the sandy avenue between dense vegetation. Suddenly, Joseph braked and pointed. About 100 yards away, sitting in the warm sand, was a young male leopard, in the prime of life, his coat glowing in the evening sunlight. We stared at him through binoculars; the leopard stared back. This standoff lasted at least five minutes, but eventually the leopard yawned impressively, stood up and disappeared.
To give me an impression of the immense size of the Selous, Joseph had proposed a daylong safari drive, so the following morning, we set out for a 175-mile-long, 11-hour adventure. We bounced along dirt roads, forded shallow rivers and stopped to watch huge herds of buffalo and graceful groups of giraffe. Four elephants — the only ones that I saw during my entire stay — watched us approach nervously and then hurried away into the bush. We had been traveling for five hours and 20 minutes before we saw another human being.
The principal purpose of a safari in the Selous is to experience a vast and ancient wilderness. Up to 300 vehicles descend into the Ngorongoro Crater on an average day. And around Seronera, in the central Serengeti, it is not uncommon to find 30 vehicles at a lion or leopard sighting. Azura Selous provides a comfortable and hospitable base from which to experience a contrasting area of wild Africa, one that would still be recognizable to the explorers of the 19th century.
The comfortable, well-appointed villas; the friendly and well-trained staff; the excellent food; the sense of being in an extremely remote lodge, surrounded by a vast area of untouched wilderness.
Inevitably, in densely wooded areas wildlife sightings are restricted.
The “long rains” extend from March to May, and this period of the year should be avoided.