In a previous post, I introduced Ruaha National Park in southern Tanzania, part of the 'secret' southern safari circuit. The main park of that region is actually the Selous Game Reserve, the largest game reserve in Africa and one of the world’s largest conserved areas. The Selous in combination with Zanzibar and its surrounding islands, are often referred to as a 'bush and beach' safari.
At around 50,000 square kilometers (20,000 sq mi) the Selous is larger than Switzerland and unquestionably Africa’s greatest big game wilderness. Even so, only about ten percent of the park is open to photographic safaris, with just a handful of camps dotted along the Rufiji, on the abutting plains and around oxbow lakes. As tantalizing bait, the Selous has the biggest lion and buffalo populations in Africa , as well as equally impressive elephant, giraffe, leopard and wild dog numbers.
(For the record, the reserve was named in honor of the reconnaissance scout Frederick Courtney Selous, a former hunter often referred to as 'the Great Nimrod,' during the First World War. He was part of the British force dispatched to East Africa to hunt down and subdue the German army of General Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck. They never did and, in the meantime, Selous took a German sniper's bullet in the head. His humble grave lies where he fell, and you can pay your respects if military history fires your desires.)
With great size comes great diversity of landscape and habitat, ranging here from baobab savanna to moist miombo woodland, and through all this flows the landmark Rufiji River where equally impressive crowds of crocodiles and hippos congregate and water birds gather in dazzling profusion. In recognition of all this natural splendor the Selous was named a World Heritage Site in 1982: although, in the face of out-of-control elephant poaching, and the fact that rhinos were shot to local extinction there in the 1980s, this designation is currently under review.
Official status aside, it is a place of extreme seasons where swift flowing rivers turn to sand as if by divine sleight of hand, one day to the next. On his first visit there around a decade ago, Colorado-based Africaphile Robert J Ross wrote:
“Flying low over the miombo woodland, palm forests, the open savannahs and the meandering sand rivers on the bumpy ninety-minute flight from Dar es Salaam, I knew I was headed for somewhere special. Peering excitedly out the window of the airplane, our shadow in the sand below … Stepping down from the small Cessna I was welcomed by a blast of equatorial heat and the sounds and smells or wild Africa: my exploration of the Selous had begun.”
You can read that in the introduction to his book The Selous in Africa: A Long Way From Anywhere, the most impressive book – and one of only very few – on one of Africa’s greatest game parks.
The Selous, sometimes with Ruaha, is often packaged as the bush part of a “bush and beach” trip to Southern Tanzania. The “beach” part is usually a drop-in at one of the Shirazi-style resort hotels on Zanzibar island, with Stone Town at its romantic heart. Zanzibar recalls the height of the 19th-century slave trade from Africa and the exploits of that great abolitionist and missionary Doctor David Livingstone. It was here that the sheikhs of Oman created a paradisaical entrepot from which to conduct their African business – slaves, ivory and gold. Their impressive trading dhows rode the seasonal monsoon winds: riding high in the water from December to March the Kaskazi southwest to Africa, returning fully laden on the Kusi from April to November.
The mixing of Arabic and African dialects led to the creation of Swahili first as a lingua franca for trade, and later into a fully embracing culture defined as Afro-Shirazi. There are few experiences more romantic and breathtaking than sitting on the shoreline of coral-rag Stone Town, sipping a sundowner as dhows with their lateen-rigged sails glide on the trade winds to and fro across the technicolor sky at sunset. These, after all, are the fabled spice islands where the zephyrs carry hints of clove and cinnamon to flavor the scene.
A Beach & Bush Safari
For a beach escape that reflects the rich tapestry of the Swahili Coast, secluded beach resorts can be found along the coastline of Zanzibar Island, as well as the more remote islands of the archipelago. Relax into the soporific Zanzibari schedule where the question “what time do we go?” will be met with a “it depends on the tide, and the wind.” You will discover that it is only when you succumb to the hypnotic gyration of time and tide that you can dance the ebb and flow with Mother Nature.