Situated in the southern part of the country, the Selous is a park of superlatives. Bigger than Wales and four times the size of the Serengeti, the park is one of Africa’s largest game reserves. Encompassing approximately 50,000 km2, it boasts a panoply of habitats, from lakes and hot springs to acacia woodlands, riverine forest and open grassland. Compared to the northern parks, it receives a fraction of the visitors due to its more remote location and fewer accommodation options. Tourism is confined to the region north of the Ruaha and Rufiji rivers, which comprises 12% of the park’s total area. World famous photo-journalist and expert diver, Scott Bennett finds out what the Selous has to offer.
WORDS AND IMAGES BY SCOTT BENNETT
I awoke in mid-air. I had been enjoying a peaceful pre-dinner slumber, when a colossal trumpeting roused me with a heart-stopping jolt. Reverberating through my tent, it was a noise I had never heard an elephant make before. An hour earlier, I had been escorted to my tent at the Manze Lake Camp in Tanzania’s Selous Nature Reserve, where a quartet of elephants had been feeding on borassus palm fruit metres from my front verandah. With an hour to spare before dinner, I opted for a quick snooze; the elephants, however, had other ideas.
Muscles tensed after the initial blast, I lay immobile in the darkness awaiting a follow-up. It never came, with the chirping of crickets and the distant snort of a hippo the only response. Fumbling for my torch, I hesitantly gazed to the tent flap, where I expected to see a pair of elephantine eyes peering through the mesh. Here in the Selous, nature is never very far away!
From Dar es Salaam’s domestic terminal, the Coastal Aviation flight was under an hour, including stops at the park’s other two airstrips. Prior to takeoff, a bit of drama unfolded at the check in counter. Despite leaving my dive gear in the stored baggage room, I was still WAY over the allotted 15kg (my camera gear alone exceeded it.) Fortunately, the flight wasn’t full and after a stern lecture from the English lady at the counter, everything was waived through.
Soon after takeoff, Dar’s urban sprawl quickly gave way to endless miombo woodland, with the occasional road the only sign of human habitation. Making our final descent, wildlife was already apparent. Hippos frolicked in cola-brown water while zebra, giraffe and impala bolted for the safety of the trees. The airstrip was bustling, with several vehicles and a crowd of people waiting for the return flight to Dar. Patiently waiting was guide Victor and driver Ally, who promptly loaded my gear into the open-sided safari vehicle. I discovered the drive to camp would take an hour. “We will do a game drive on the way,” added Victor.
My 4-day trip was booked online at the last minute and coincided with the arrival of the rainy season. While most people visit during the dry months when wildlife congregates around diminishing water holes, the rainy season offers its own unique rewards. Although game is more widely dispersed, the landscape is verdant and birdlife abundant. Best of all, the crowds are absent, ensuring that a safari experience doesn’t entail a squadron of vehicles parked around a hapless lion. With less than two weeks to go before closing for the rainy season, I would have the camp virtually to myself.
As the Selous is a Game Reserve, off road driving is allowed, unlike in Tanzania’s national parks. When Victor spotted giraffe, zebra, waterbuck and greater kudu way off in a clearing, we set out after them cross-country! Shortly afterwards, the road was blocked by a convention of marabou storks. A large bird with a sinister appearance, the marabou boasts a wingspan of at least 3.5m, one of the largest of any land bird. A frequent scavenger, it eats mainly carrion, but will also take fish, frogs, eggs, small mammals and reptiles. With over twenty birds to choose from, it made photography a challenge!
A sign soon proclaimed the turnoff to the camp. Enroute, we stopped alongside the lake itself. Like ghostly sentinels, dead trees rose from the placid waters, their tangle of spreading branches bare against the clear blue sky. A shrill cry announced the presence of an African fish eagle perched atop one of the highest branches. A small crocodile deftly snapped up a fish as sacred ibis, blacksmith plovers and yellow-billed storks patrolled the shallows. An African pied kingfisher, Africa’s largest, hovered high above the water like a miniature helicopter before plummeting to the surface to spear an unwary fish. All this and I hadn’t even unpacked my bags yet!
Arriving at the camp, I was warmly greeted by resort manager Sarah Gigli. Hailing from Italy, she was the sole woman in a staff of fifty. Manze’s communal area consists of an expansive thatched roof spreading above a sand floor, with armchairs and sofas to observe the animals come and go. Although initially dismayed to discover the tents lacked electricity, I was relieved to discover an extensive bank of outlets at the bar for charging camera batteries and my laptop.
During my briefing, a loud trumpeting caused my eyes to widen, much to Sarah’s amusement. “Was that an elephant?” I queried, with a smidgeon of nervousness creeping into my voice. “Yes, they come through the camp all the time” she responded nonchalantly. At that moment, civilization seemed very distant indeed!
With the sun creeping towards the horizon, Sarah informed me an escort back to my tent was required. Waiting dutifully at the path was one of the resort’s staff of Masai. Colourfully garbed in striking crimson robes, his weaponry consisted of a slender wooden staff with a conspicuous lack of sharp points. I didn’t want to contemplate how he would deal with a rampaging elephant. Then again, with generations of experience dealing with Africa’s megafauna, I knew I was in good hands.
My accommodation was a Meru-style canvas tent complete with windows, washroom, outdoor shower and a covered verandah. Candles and kerosene lamps provided lighting. Simple yet comfortable, I felt like I’d been transported back to the safari days of old. All I was missing was the pith helmet!
I was soon grateful for my escort as my torch beam illuminated an elephant lumbering across the path. Near the reception area, we made a slight deviation. Sitting at the base of a tree, a large puff adder sat motionless, waiting for prey to come within striking distance. Apparently, it had already been there for two days. I would definitely be making a return visit during daylight hours with a tripod and along lens.
Before dinner, Sarah asked what activities I’d like to do during my stay. On offer was a walking safari, game drives and a choice of boat cruises. Although fun, I have found walking safaris not to be particularly conducive to photography (especially when one may have to climb a tree at a moment’s notice). Instead, I opted for a boat cruise in the morning followed by an afternoon game drive. After a delicious dinner under the stars, I ventured back to my tent to prepare camera gear for the next morning.
Around 4:00AM, I was roused by heavy footsteps shuffling around outside my tent. It was somewhat unnerving to realize the only thing separating me from “it” was a thin membrane of canvas. Suffice to say, the ensuing few nights proved sleepless, but exciting!
Sunrise was heralded by a cacophony of white-browed sparrow weavers residing in the tree beside my tent. A jumbled medley of birdsong soon punctuated the morning air, with ring-necked dove, red-billed hornbill and go-away birds contributing to the chorus. Stepping outside, I stopped dead in my tracks. A short distance away, a buffalo stared menacingly. I didn’t venture past the verandah until my Masai escort showed up!
After a coffee, I boarded the truck by 7:00. A short drive brought us to a channel leading to Lake Manze. In a continent where the pendulum swings tempestuously between wet and dry, the area’s permanent water supply is a welcome relief to the local wildlife. Having never done a water-based excursion before, I was eager to see what the morning would reveal. Transferring to my canopied boat, I met my guide Elton. Although we would concentrate on the channels, we started with a short detour into Lake Manze itself.
The early morning light was glorious. Ahead, a flotilla of bobbing heads indicated the presence of hippos. Piled atop one another, snorting and squabbling, there’s just something about hippos that I find inherently amusing. Their comical appearance belies the reality however, as they kill more people in Africa every year than all other animals combined. Not wanting us to join the statistics, Elton maintained a healthy distance.
Fortunately, the first pod possessed a benign temperament and we were able to approach reasonably close. Glancing through my viewfinder with the 80-400mm fully zoomed out, I noticed something surprising; adorning the animal’s snout was a striking tangle of black whiskers. Despite each animal easily outweighing our boat, they were surprisingly skittish and soon disappeared beneath the surface.
The myriad of channels proved to be a bird photographer’s delight. Numerous yellow-billed storks flanked the waters’ edge, along with open-billed storks, African jacana’s, goliath herons, Egyptian geese and white-faced whistling ducks. Crafty hunters, black egrets spread their wings over the water, generating shade to lure unsuspecting fish right to their feet. Reeds fringing the shore were home to Africa golden weavers, whose basket- shaped nests dangled precariously above the waterline. With the entry at the bottom, deft maneuvering was necessitated on the birds’ part. Jewel-like malachite kingfishers were everywhere and were exceedingly tolerant. More than once, we actually got closer than my lens’ closest focusing distance and had to back up!
Motoring around a bend in the channel, we happened upon a lone buffalo foraging at the water’s edge. Gently drifting right up to the enormous beast, it glared at us, eyes imbued with brooding malevolence. Daintily perched atop its head, a cattle egret completed the picture. Unfortunately, the harsh light combined with the white of the egret and buffalo’s dark tones made for a metering nightmare. Salvation appeared in the form of a large passing cloud, which instantly rendered the entire scene with even lighting. Riveting stuff!
Before long, it was time to head back to the camp, where a delicious full breakfast was waiting. Even in the dining area, wildlife was never far away. Sparrow weavers hopped about my feet while a crested barbet waited patiently for errant crumb atop a nearby chair. I stopped to see if the puff adder was still there. It hadn’t budged, so I quickly returned to my tent to grab my tripod and get a few shots.
After uploading my photos and a change of memory cards, it was time for the afternoon game drive.
Despite being on the cusp of the green season, wildlife was abundant and easy to spot. Impalas were virtually everywhere. Nicknamed “bush fast food” due to the prominent black “M” emblazoned on their white rumps, they are reasonably nervous, no small part due to being on the menu of every major predator. Giraffe were equally plentiful; so much so that I soon stopped taking photos of them unless they were in exceptional light or striking a unique pose. One individual, frightened by our vehicle, lurched forward into a lumbering gallop, both ungainly and graceful in equal measures! Despite appearing to topple over, I marveled as the animal ducked under a protruding tree branch with ease.
To cap off a stunning drive, we were rewarded with a pride of lions, including a male, five females and a bevy of restless cubs. Stopping within a few metres of them, I spent a very pleasant half hour photographing to my heart’s content. During the entire drive, I don’t think I saw more than one other vehicle.
The ensuing two days yielded never-ending photo ops. On an early morning drive, a young male elephant, clearly miffed by our presence, decided to show us to show us who was boss. With ears flapping like giant leathery umbrellas, he charged, halting a scant few metres from our front bumper. I turned to my guide Emanuel. “Is it wise for us to be this close?” I queried, my voice quavering with alarm. “He’s just trying to scare us” was the nonchalant response. I couldn’t help but think that he was succeeding! After a minute of bluster, the belligerent teenager retreated and resumed feeding.
While photographing a white-fronted bee-eater perched in a borassus palm, I was dumbfounded when a malachite kingfisher landed right beside it. With so many branches to choose from, I’m still amazed it would pick that particular one!
Additional trips through the channels and Manze Lake were equally spectacular, offering numerous up-close encounters. As the heat subsided by late afternoon, hippos started moving ashore. One large bull flanks criss-crossed with a bevy of scars, lunged towards a female with a calf resulting in an open-mouthed standoff. Fortunately, no damage was done and the quarrelsome male melted into the dense vegetation.
There was still one bird I was eager to see. Despite having observed both little and white-fronted bee-eaters, one colourful relative had thus far remained elusive: the carmine bee-eater. Motoring across the lake to an island of vegetation, we came across not one, but an entire garrulous colony! With nothing to rest my lens on, I was forced to shoot at a higher ISO to compensate for the rapidly waning light. Thank goodness for the VR function!
Alas, my visit flew by all too quickly and my final morning drive had arrived. We would do a game drive enroute to the airstrip, stopping for a full-on bush breakfast. Ironically, carmine bee-eaters seemed to be everywhere! Out on the savannah, they were easy to spot, perching on the upward spreading limbs of fallen trees. Stopping to observe one specimen, it swooped off, only to return moments later with a bee firmly clasped in it its slender bill.
Focusing on its preferred perch, I was able to get a number of images as the bird made several forays, returning to exactly the same spot. Strikingly attired lilac-breasted rollers also proved cooperative, as we were able to come right up to them as they perched on roadside shrubs. A little bit of flash dialed down to –1 filled in unwanted shadows and added a touch of catch light to the eyes.
Having breakfast beneath a sprawling acacia tree with emptiness of the bush spreading in all directions, it was impossible to comprehend I would be back home the next day. Suddenly, the radio crackled to life. It seems my flight had arrived an hour early, but they would happily wait. In this day and age of stringent airline policies, that’s something that doesn’t happen every day! Sadly, the game drive ceased and we immediately headed for the airstrip.
My stay at Selous, albeit brief, was simply incredible. Although the mammal photography was superb, it was the birds that I especially enjoyed. In the Selous, full frame images could be easily produced without hauling around a monster lens. Despite seeing so much, I barely scratched the surface of what the park had to offer. There was, however, one notable creature I missed entirely; the African wild dog. Next time!
KNOW AND GO
When travelling in Africa, photographers wielding a mountain of gear had better brace themselves. Due to the small planes utilized on the domestic routes, airlines are exceptionally stringent when it comes to baggage weight.
Despite storing one bag in the Coastal Aviation office, I was still WAY over the 15kg allotment, with my camera gear alone exceeding it! Fortunately, as it was the end of the season, the flight was pretty empty and after a stern lecture and warnings about “next time”, they let me through.
Scott’s Safaris are organised by The African and Oriental Travel Company.
As both you and your baggage will be weighed at check-in, bring only what you absolutely need. To help minimize gear, zoom lenses are a good bet. A big zoom is a must for portraits or distant animals, while a mid range is ideal for environmental shots. Today’s superior optics combined with high ISO shooting capabilities of newer DSLR’s, make monster lenses an unnecessary burden. Mind you, if you have a 600mm 2.8, definitely bring it along: It could also be used in self-defense!
My gear consisted of a pair of D200 bodies with an 80-400mmVR and 17-70mm lenses. A wireless flash was useful for shooting tame birds found around the camp. A polarizer is also essential to cut down the glare from the harsh African sun. As the vast majority of shooting is done in a boat or vehicle, tripods are pretty much impractical. A beanbag is a much better option. As I forgot to take one, a rolled-up blanket or pillow did the trick. On a final note, try to wear as many of your clothes as possible on your departure day. You may broil, but definitely worth it! Finally, keep a pair of cameras at the ready at all times. Expect the unexpected!