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Tanzania's Southern Circuit: Selous, Ruaha, Katavi and more - August-September 2015


Safaridude
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The northern safari circuit in Tanzania is soooo yesterday… (Well, in fact, it was February for me. Ha!) The hot, tsetse-ridden southern interior is where it’s happenin’. Only glimpsed on a previous “drive-by”, the vast area to me still represents mystery and possibilities. Craig Doria is not soooo yesterday. This is my sixth safari with Craig, and despite his greying beard, he never gets old. Even for those who, like Craig, specialize in safaris in Tanzania, the southern circuit is seldom visited, and it constitutes a refreshing change of pace. A sense of adventure is palpable as we review our itinerary in the sultry night air of Dar. It reads… 3 nights Selous Impala Camp, 4 nights Kwihala Camp (Ruaha), 3 nights Katavi Wildlife Camp, 5 nights Lukwati Game Reserve.

 

 

Selous Game Reserve

 

No, it’s not like the ’90s female tennis player Monica. It’s more like the answer (in non-plural form) to the question what does a peddler of toilets do for a living? Ok, now that I’ve gotten that out of the way…

 

It’s a strange thing that a protected area be named after a professional hunter, and a stranger thing that it was once a battleground between the Brits and the Germans during World War I. (“A strange place to fight a war”, quips Rolf Baldus in Wild Heart of Africa, a recent, comprehensive book about the Selous Game Reserve.) And what other major park or reserve in Africa has designated areas for both trophy hunting (allowed south of the Rufiji River) and photographic safaris (north of the Rufiji) under the same protected area name? In fact, strange – and wonderful – would become the recurring theme of my first foray into the Selous. Or as Craig would put it, everything is a bit different here – and awesome.

 

“Low-lying”. “Hot”. “Humid”. These bandied-about descriptions of the Selous conjure up green floodplains and palm trees. So, it is to my surprise that the drive from the Mtemere airstrip to Selous Impala Camp first skirts drab, bone-dry scrubland. Until we near one of the oxbow lakes formed by the Rufiji River or the River itself, we shall remain in the bone-dry, though the two characteristic trees of this part of the Selous, Terminalia spinosa and Acacia zanzibarica, quell the drab half way into the drive. The former, with its stiff, layered branches and brilliant green leaves, is reminiscent of a Christmas tree. The latter, with light branches blanketed in long, white thorns, evoke a White Christmas. “No place I know in Africa looks like this,” to Craig declare I.

 

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Zebras amidst T. spinosa and A. zanzibarica

 

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T. spinosa

 

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Greater kudu bull and young

 

 

Impala Camp is set overlooking a lovely stretch of the Rufiji River. A sprawling mess structure and a separate bar both afford one the opportunity to view hippos and crocs. All the basic bush comforts and luxuries are provided – no less and no more (well, there is at the bar the badass Italian coffee machine brought in by Fausto, the camp manager). Dennis, a 12-year veteran of the Selous, is our excellent local guide with a baritone voice that leaves no doubt as to who is in charge. A dry season safari in the Selous basically consists of game drives around the oxbow lakes of the Rufiji and powerboat rides on them. From Mtemere going roughly northwest, the lakes go, in order… Mzizima, Siwandu, Nzerakera and Manze, with Tagalala some distance west of this cluster. Impala Camp lies between Mzizima and Siwandu, just where T. spinosa and A. zanzibarica begin to add liveliness to the landscape, and it has easy access to Lake Siwandu by boat.

 

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Dennis (foreground)

 

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Breakfast on the Rufiji

 

 

So compelling is the boat ride from Impala Camp, I, ordinarily not much of a boat-safari dude, would end up enjoying it twice. The boat station is on the Rufiji proper and is steps away from the bar. The Rufiji, freely flowing and teeming with fish, fish-eating birds, hippos and crocodiles, is possibly the healthiest looking river I have seen in Africa. The number of crocodiles is truly astounding, triggering the sophomoric question of how much money would have to be dangled to entice one to swim across the approximately 75-meter-wide river. Craig: “it would probably be okay crossing just one time, don’t you think?” I negotiate Craig down to an embarrassingly low amount (don’t worry, you Doria children – it’s just hypothetical) until – tick-tock, tick-tock – a monster reptile with chilling green eyes swims by us. After a few minutes on the Rufiji, a slight right turn of the boat gets you onto the tranquil waters of Lake Siwandu. Hippo pods seem more numerous here. Waterbucks and buffalos graze out on the small peninsulas full of sunning crocodiles. A group of zebras emerges from the thickets to water. White-fronted bee-eaters, in smaller numbers than the carmine bee-eaters of the Luangwa Valley but no less brilliant and showy, have formed a nesting colony on the riverbank and do their industrious bee-eater thing. The sun sets behind a seemingly manicured row of borassus palms. Yes, it’s all a cliché, and it’s real.

 

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Lake Siwandu

 

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Buffalo from the boat

 

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Hello

 

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Fresh blood stains

 

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Tick-tock, tick-tock

 

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White-fronted bee-eater

 

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A drowned leadwood

 

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A row of borassus

 

 

On terra firma, we scour the fringes of Siwandu, Nzerakera and Manze and the dry plains (now looking a bit like Tarangire, by the way) just north of those lakes for predator activity early morning, and then watch the magical “nine o’ clock magnet” phenomenon while enjoying a picnic breakfast. It is as if someone flips the switch on at nine, and the lakes hypnotize the animals and tow them in. One can, over a cup of coffee from a good vantage point, watch pretty much all the plains game species pass by on their way for a drink. The Selous offers up all the familiar plains game, but each species is a bit different (strange?) from the norm. Impalas here, though classified as East African impala, are small and dull-colored and more similar to the Southern impala. The zebras betray narrow stripes, suggesting they bleed into the Crawshay’s category. The giraffes are categorized as Maasai but with less pronounced blotchy patterns typical of the type. (By the way, the giraffe purportedly does not occur south of the Rufiji in the Selous.) The hartebeests are of the Lichtenstein’s variety, slightly out of their elements in this dry, non-miombo part of the Selous. The greater kudus look the same here as anywhere else in Tanzania but appear to be on a different calendar. Most everywhere in Africa where they are found, including other parts of Tanzania, greater kudu bulls mix and mate with females at the end of the rains in May/June and then occur almost exclusively in bachelor groups later in the year. Every magnificent kudu bull encountered here would still be seen with his girlfriends.

 

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A typical late morning scene

 

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Lichtenstein's hartebeest

 

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Greater kudu bull

Edited by Safaridude
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When Dennis asked me on the first day what species in particular I was interested in seeing, I resisted the temptation to indicate wildebeest. This honest answer may have resulted in Dennis’ spitting out his drink in violent laughter and pulling a rib cage muscle – and that doesn’t help anyone. In any case, it must be said here that seeing the Nyassa (or Johnston’s) wildebeest in the Selous completes my “wildebeest slam”. Real quickly… there are two species of wildebeest: black wildebeest and common wildebeest. Furthermore, there are five subspecies of common wildebeest: western-white bearded (Serengeti/Mara); eastern white-bearded (Amboseli/Tarangire/Nairobi); blue (Southern Africa); Cookson’s (Luangwa Valley); and Nyassa. The Nyassa wildebeest is groovy (as in “cool”) gunmetal with a hint of pink and black beard. Interestingly, those occurring south of the Rufiji often sport white chevrons just below the eyes, but only a tiny percentage of those occurring north of the Rufiji sport them.

 

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Nyassa wildebeest

 

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An individual with a faint white chevron

 

 

Of course, I am as interested in seeing lions as the next person, and the Selous would deliver them on every game drive: a small pride with two adult males near Nzerakera (this pride would later be seen occupying an open-air picnic area under a thatched roof!); three young lions at Lake Manze proper; a mating pair on the plains north of Manze; and two young males (new to Dennis) at Lake Manze proper. As is the norm for lions living in hot, low-lying areas, the Selous lions appear to be small-bodied and scraggly maned.

 

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Picnic spot taken

 

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The two species of great significance in the Selous are wild dog and elephant – the former, for its success and relative abundance, and the latter, for its recent annihilation by man. It turns out that the wild dogs are elusive this season. A pack is denning far away from all the lion activities near the lakes, and we strike out against the dogs. As for the elephants…

 

One evening during a boat ride at Lake Siwandu, the palm leaves begin rattling against each other on the peninsula behind us. It must be the wind, right? Rattle, rattle… But wait, the lake is glass: no wind. The rattles soon turbo-charge into jolts, and the vegetation begins to sway violently – almost comically. The only beings I am aware of that can churn that much stuff with that much commotion are T. rex and elephant. And elephant it is. A whole breeding herd is feeding in an impenetrable combretum thicket, essentially hiding in that patch during the day. Clever beings that they are, many of the elephants in the Selous have gone stealthy and nocturnal in the face of extreme poaching pressure. “Life will not be contained… life finds a way”, espoused Jeff Goldblum as Dr. Ian Malcolm in (speaking of T. rex) Jurassic Park, and the Selous elephants are definitely trying to find a way. It is my sincere hope that the human race lets them and that I can return to see an abundance of them, as in the past, in this strange and awesome environment.

 

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Sneaking out of the combretum thicket

 

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A not-so-shy bull out in the open

 

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Goliath heron

 

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Open-billed stork

 

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Craig

Edited by Safaridude
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As always, your writing and pictures are a piece of art. Outstanding start, bravo!

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Great story telling and super sharp fantastic pictures. Selous is a great place. Look forward to the rest - hurry up. :-)

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Great start and nice pictures ! It´s been 2 years of our visit and your report refresh our great moments in Selous , boating the Siwandu lake or enjoying the nice Nyassa wildebeest.

 

Looking forward for more .

 

Paco

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Great itinerary and wonderful photos and writing, looking forward to more.

 

I was interested in your initial summary of what makes Selous different and strange which is thought provoking and maybe I will head off and read more about WWI in Tanzania.

 

I like the idea of a wildebeest 'slam' - something to aim for on future safaris.

 

 

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Fantastic report and some wonderful photos - dont think I can write up any thing as remotely captivating as yours when I produce my report of Selous Impala Camp from our very recent trip to Selous, Ruaha, Katavi and Serengeti.

Edited by Julian
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As always, your writing and pictures are a piece of art. Outstanding start, bravo!

 

+1 - Michael took the words right out of my mouth (or head)! I especially love the wildebeest in post #2 in front of the enormous tree trunk and the picnic spot already taken cracked me up. I hope we will get at least one photo of @@Safaridude himself in this report - that's a rarely seen specimen!

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@@Safaridude - brilliant start. Can hardly wait for the rest of it ............

 

and Oh - Thanks for the Wildebeest 101 lesson!!!

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@@Safaridude, #1, who'd have thought, Kudu under fairy lights. Lovely, oh and enjoyed the explanation of the pronunciation, that should stick, got one for Ruaha?

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Loving it. That first kudu bull is magnificent (animal and picture). The calf makes him look extra big.

 

Look forward to the rest. Hope you can fit it in before the next trip!

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@@Julian

 

When were you there? I guess we just missed each other? My traveling dates were Aug 31 - Sep 15.

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More photos from the Selous...

 

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Malachite kingfisher

 

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Grey heron

 

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Yellow-billed stork

 

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Zebra

 

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Egyptian goose

 

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Ground squirrel in camp - this one is definitely a striped ground squirrel, defying Kingdon's distribution map (according to which, the ground squirrels in the Selous

should be unstriped).

 

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Malachite kingfisher again

 

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An eland cow crossing the road near Lake Mzizima

 

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A steam engine left behind by the German army during WWI

Edited by Safaridude
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this TR is - of course - up to your usual impeccable standard Mr Dude.

 

I'm enjoying it very much and am so pleased that you ventured out on to the water. Boats on the Rufiji are great vantage points.

Very envious that you've been staying in some of my favourite camps.

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@@Safaridude Did Rolf Baldus's book "Wild Heart of Africa" help you with researching what to do and what parts of the park to visit? Members may be able to still order a signed copy of the book directly from Rolf at this link. It is a stunning book... And did you discuss the uranium mining project?

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@@Safaridude Did Rolf Baldus's book "Wild Heart of Africa" help you with researching what to do and what parts of the park to visit? Members may be able to still order a signed copy of the book directly from Rolf at this link. It is a stunning book... And did you discuss the uranium mining project?

 

Baldus' book is an outstanding resource. It is beautifully made.

 

However, there are two books that do a better job of where to visit: The Great Savanna by Olli Marttila and Selous Game Reserve by Rolf Baldus, Ludwig Siege and Javed Jafferji

 

And no, I did not discuss mining with anyone.

Edited by Safaridude
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Spendid bad puns, splendid photo's and an informative commentary-it is a pleasure to read your report

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@@Safaridude - excellent TR as usual - many thanks for posting. in your first post, I love the sunning Croc facing you with its mouth open, as well as the sequence of the Croc going into the water.

 

Question: is the “nine o’ clock magnet” phenomenon perhaps due to Lions or other predators becoming more sedentary after things begin to warm up? Did the guides offer any explanations or theories to account for it?

 

 

 

 

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... maybe I will head off and read more about WWI in Tanzania.

 

I don't want to hijack Safardude's thread, but:

@@Treepol - I learned a lot about WWI in Tanzania by reading "Too Close to the Sun" - the Denis Finch Hatton biography by Sara Wheeler.

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@@Safaridude - excellent TR as usual - many thanks for posting. in your first post, I love the sunning Croc facing you with its mouth open, as well as the sequence of the Croc going into the water.

 

Question: is the “nine o’ clock magnet” phenomenon perhaps due to Lions or other predators becoming more sedentary after things begin to warm up? Did the guides offer any explanations or theories to account for it?

 

 

 

 

 

 

@@offshorebirder

 

I think the "9 0' clock magnet" occurs pretty much everywhere in Africa during the dry season. Obviously, animals think about watering when it gets warmer. During the cool morning hours, herbivores are busy grazing or browsing (taking advantage of the dewy moisture on the vegetation too). Late morning also coincides with predators becoming less active, as you suggest.

 

In the Selous, it's just that much more noticeable, because there is a main road that runs between the edges of the lakes and the dry plains. From the main road, you can start seeing the faces of impala, zebra, wildebeest, etc. peering out from the dry bush/plains at around 9, and if you stick around some, there will soon be a row of them passing by your vehicle on the way to the lakes. This goes on until about 1pm or so.

Edited by Safaridude
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@@Safaridude

 

Your "Striped Ground Squirrel" is definitely a Striped Bush Squirrel (Paraxerus flavovittis). They are common in woodlands in the Selous, especially close to rivers. Neither species of ground squirrel (Striped or Unstriped) occurs in the Selous; I don't think Striped GS occurs in Tanzania at all - the nearest place I have seen them is in the Central Highlands of Kenya (Northwest Laikipia), where they are sometimes seen in wetter savannas.

 

Striped Bush Squirrel is not a very widespread species (much less common than Striped Ground Squirrel), so a really great sighting and photo of a species I'd love to see someday!

Edited by Anomalure
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