There’s a lion in camp – that’s what I thought when I awoke in my tent at 3am to a loud cat-like purring. Sitting bolt upright, my heart beating with alarming intensity, I anxiously surveyed the landscape around me as it was illuminated by the full moon. It’s fair to say that my first safari had started with a baptism of fire.
I’d been in Tanzania for less than ten hours prior to my camping experience, arriving in the morning at Dar es Salaam (1) and then transferring via light aircraft to Kiba airstrip in the Selous Game Reserve (2) – a wonderful journey where I watched the landscape shift from urban sprawl to lakes, forests and vast yellow plains. I even managed to do some wildlife viewing from the air, spotting the odd tower of giraffe poking their heads above the trees. At the airstrip, we were met by guide Mussa in a 4x4 who took us to our lodge and on our first safari drive en route.
After seconds in the jeep I had my first spot – impala, as much a part of the landscape as the trees and bushes. Then a dazzle (such a great collective noun) of zebra and a troop of baboon. The highlight though was a lioness lazing on her back under a tree with her legs sprawled out. On your first safari, everything is new and beguiling, and you spend your first few hours cooing ‘Ooo’ and ‘Ahh’ like an excitable child.
The lodge was a welcome sight after a day of travelling, as were the refreshing homemade glasses of lemonade and cold flannels that greeted us. Surveying the lodge’s main area, I could only muster a “Wow” which in fairness is a succinct descriptive word for Sand Rivers (3). Set on a bend in the Rufiji River, the views are mesmerising, as are the noises from the hippo that wallow below. The rooms manage to be luxurious (big comfy beds, stunning views) but are also in keeping with the environment (understated, with furniture made from locally-sourced materials). There was just time for a quick shower – where I watched a couple of monkeys eyeing me suspiciously from the trees – before I was told to pack my overnight bag for fly camping.
A night with the crocs
“What is fly camping?” I asked our guide – being more of a ‘boutique hotel’ than a ‘back-to-basics’ kind of girl. “Sleeping out under the stars” he replied. Well that’s a nice idea I thought, that was until I was told where we were camping – Lake Tagalala. It sounds rather innocuous until you know that the translation is ‘lake of 10,000 crocodile’. It’s not a name chosen without reason, which I soon realised upon seeing vast numbers languidly bobbing among the resident hippo.
I surveyed our homes for the night – structured mosquito nets to give you even better views of your surroundings, with canvas tents alongside for your belongings or to dive into during the night should it rain. The tents were about 20 metres from the edge of the lake, prompting another pertinent question: “So what’s to stop the hippo and crocodile from paying us a visit during the night?”
Mussa then patiently explained the habits of the animals. Yes the hippo do leave the water every night when it gets dark to forage for food, before returning to the water around sunrise, but they simply walk around the tents. And being ambush predators, the crocodiles will wait for prey to come to the water’s edge before attacking. So he reassured me that we were safe, although I was still grateful for our ranger who kept a watchful eye through the night.
And it was conversations like that with Mussa that made me realise the importance of a good guide, because the more I learnt about the animals and the environment around me, the less I feared it. So at dinner I relished the opportunity to find out more, and Mussa didn’t disappoint. He could not only identify any animal by its call, he’d also provide you with the Latin name, tell you facts and do the most uncanny impressions. “Do a hyena”, “a leopard”, “a bushbaby” – the requests from the group became more and more obscure.
Looking for leopard
When I awoke in the middle of the night, after a few hours’ sleep fuelled by a couple of gin and tonics and a delicious three-course meal, I dearly wished that I could remember all the different animal calls. Instead, my imagination went wild deciphering the noises I was hearing. If I’d known that the incessant whoop was actually hyena, I’d have been less afraid. As the night drew on, I became all too familiar with the hippo noise and somehow found it comforting rather than alarming. The adrenaline in my body meant that I didn’t sleep from 3am and waited for sunrise. That morning in camp was so serene – the hippo were back in the lake, the birds were full of song and I was just grateful to be alive. In fact, I’m not sure I had ever felt more alive.
After a morning dip in the nearby hot springs and a boat safari along the Rufiji, it was back to the 4x4 and to my new obsession: leopard spotting. The fact that leopard are elusive made my desire to see one even more intense. I fervently scanned the baobabs, knowing that these predominantly nocturnal creatures spend much of the daytime resting in them. So when the jeep pulled up alongside another tree I wasn’t really hopeful, until an excitable hush that only comes from spotting something special descended. I quickly surveyed the branches and lo and behold lying along one was a beautiful leopard. After a hurried burst of photography, we all watched in silence as it climbed down and gracefully slinked off into the undergrowth. What luck – I smiled to myself all afternoon. And that’s one of the most special aspects of the Selous, the fact that it’s so vast (45,000 square kilometres – nearly twice the size of Belgium) and little-visited means that you get to experience sightings such as these to yourself.
Our final activity of the day was a walking safari led by uber professional Mark who runs Sand Rivers with wife Chloe, where we learned more about the smaller aspects of the environment. It’s incredible how the trees have adapted to protect themselves. Take the whistling thorn trees, which not only have sharp thorns to detract giraffes from feasting on them, they are also home to stinging ants that burrow homes inside the thorns and swarm out of their nests and attack when an intruder is present. The walk ended with a beautiful Tanzanian sunset and a chilled glass of champagne. Hardened by the fly camping experience the previous night, I slept soundly at the lodge. The sadness that I felt leaving Sand Rivers the next morning was eased by the knowledge of our next destination – Fundu Lagoon on Pemba Island.
Pemba (4) is a verdant island dotted with fruit and clove trees in the Zanzibar Archipelago and boutique hotel Fundu Lagoon is nestled in the southwest corner. There are no roads to the hotel, so arrival was via speedboat, which would have been very Bond-esque if it hadn’t been for the intense shower (typical of November) that necessitated donning a rather unglamorous yellow mac. There was a sharp intake of breath from the group upon seeing Fundu’s location – it occupies its own stretch of sandy beach, shared only with mangrove trees and the occasional fisherman. The fact that there are only 18 thatched tented rooms adds to this feeling of seclusion.
I spent the first afternoon kayaking in and out of the mangroves followed by some windsurfing – if this is an accurate term for standing on the board, pulling up the sail and falling into the water. Though one huge advantage of doing activities such as these in the Indian Ocean is that dropping into the turquoise water is like getting into a bath. That evening we were treated to Swahili Night, where delicious local specialities such as coconut milk curries, fresh seafood and delicately spiced dishes were served. This was all enhanced by infectious drumming, dancing and singing of songs like ‘Jambo Bwana’ (hello mister), which became the soundtrack to my African experience. And so after wishing each other ‘lala salama’ (sleep well) another peaceful sleep followed, induced by the gentle lapping of the waves just in front of my room.
The next morning we took a 15-minute speedboat ride to Mesali Island, where you can snorkel just off the shore or head further out to dive. It is known as one of the best diving sites in Africa with good reason – the coral and fish are vibrant and abundant here with yellow back fusiliers, blue striped snappers, surgeonfish, angelfish and grouper amongst the 300 species to be found. That evening it was back out onto the ocean for a sunset dhow cruise where we sailed peacefully around the shores with drinks in hand, chatting and laughing as we enjoyed another glorious African sunset. It is such a serene part of Pemba that later that evening, Ellis (one of the hotel owners) said she could hear our laughter from her hotel room.
Getting waved off
The following day there was just about time to squeeze in one more activity – an early morning dolphin cruise on the shores of Mesali Island. About 50 of these elegant, fun creatures swam alongside the boat, an incredible sight. And so, all too soon, I was leaving another wonderful part of Africa, fully understanding why so many people choose to combine a safari with a few days’ relaxation on a beach or otherwise afterwards – it really is the perfect antidote to all the drama and early mornings.
Calling myself a ‘safari sceptic’ is a bit of a hyperbole but I certainly wasn’t someone who had desperately longed to go. I was with a group of Africa experts who’d all told me that by the end of our week together, I was sure to get the ‘bug’. How right they were. Safari is an addiction of sorts – you start a mental checklist of animals you want to spot, which grows longer and more obscure the more you see. And like skiing (they have afternoon cakes in common) it isn’t just about the game drives – it’s the whole package: the wildlife, the beautiful landscapes, the sharing of experiences, the sundowners and the adrenaline. Because although once back in the UK I felt incredibly safe in terms of the wildlife that surrounds us, I was surprised to find that I felt a little bit too safe. I had felt so alive on safari and as I lay in my big comfy bed with only harvest spiders for company at home – I kind of longed to be back in my see-through tent by Lake Tagalala under the magnificent stars of the southern hemisphere.