The Safari Air Link Cessna is approaching the Mtemere airstrip. This is the last stop on my journey around the little visited wildlife sanctuaries of Tanzania’s Southern Circuit. After a lengthy flight from the remote Katavi National Park, in the furthest southwestern reaches of the country, I have now come all the way back east to the great Selous Game Reserve.

Selous is defined by its network of rivers and oxbow lakes,

First declared a protected area over a century ago, Selous expanded over time to become a boundless swathe of mostly unexplored bush teaming with wildlife. With almost no roads into its remote interior, it is one of the least visited major parks in Africa, and at 52,000 square kilometers (20,000 square miles), an area larger than Switzerland, it is the largest game reserve on the continent.

 

Life Along the Rufiji River

Elephants thrive along the Rufiji River.

A defining feature of Selous is the network of rivers that converge into it from the surrounding highlands to become the powerful Rufiji River. As it meanders through the northeastern part of the reserve on its way to the ocean, the river’s eco-system sustains an exceptional diversity of wildlife and exuberant vegetation

The Rufiji River Camp offers an exceptional view of the river.

A black heron attracts fish by forming a shady canopy over the water with its wings.

Stretched along a bluff overlooking the Rufiji River, at the especially scenic northeastern tip of the reserve, the Rufiji River Camp provides a variety of game viewing opportunities. Its privileged riverside location, which includes its own boat slip and flat-bottomed game-watching boats, makes for a rare chance to enjoy a floating safari. A leisurely day-long cruise allows me to explore the lush riverbanks, islands and oxbow lakes upriver from the camp, and to enjoy a lovely riverside picnic lunch.

Home to over 350 species of birds, Selous is a birdwatcher’s paradise, and birding from the water for a front seat view of birds nesting along the banks is a photographer’s dream. It allows me to capture such close-up gems as my only sighting ever of a black heron, the only heron to fish by forming a canopy over the water with its wings, thus reducing glare and attracting preys to the shade. I am also able to document the unique moment when a startled  Goliath heron realizes that the fish he had just caught for its breakfast proves to be larger than its gullet can ingurgitate.

The Best of the Bush

A herd of giraffes scampers at our approach.

A lion cub wanders away from its mother.

Game drives in the camp’s open-sided vehicles are equally amazing. Buffalos, zebras and all manners of antelopes are everywhere. Breeding herds of elephants nudging their calves along as they forage through the underbrush are also a frequent sight; as are families of giraffes swaying across our path, or pausing to prune the underside of thorn acacias into neat umbrellas while they wait for their wobbly calves to catch up. On one very special drive, I spend delightful moments watching a pair of lionesses patiently nursing their cubs, while trying with limited success to keep the most adventurous of the offsprings in check.

Back at the camp, my spacious side-entrance tent is especially light and welcoming. Nestled in a grove of mature trees and raised on a high deck under thatch, it features a wrap-around veranda with two separate lounging areas overlooking the river to give a whole new meaning to the concept of armchair safari. In addition to the large pods of hippos jostling for position in the water, I have a clear view of the far bank where rows of crocodiles laze in the sun and elephants come to drink. Meanwhile, every  rustle in the canopy is a bird sighting opportunity – or a hint that a hopeful vervet monkey is getting ready to pounce on any snack I may have left unguarded.

Pods of hippos were a constant sight in the river.

With its sprawling, open-sided central lounge and dinning area taking full advantage of its scenic setting in the heart of some of the best wildlife viewing in East Africa and its welcoming relaxed atmosphere, my stay at the Rufiji River Camp is a grand finale worthy of my memorable tour of the unfairly overlooked wilderness reserves of Tanzania’s Southern Circuit. 

Endangered Eden

The waterbuck is instantly identifiable by the distinctive white ring on its rear.

Tanzania has long been considered one of Africa’s prime hunting destination and remains to this day a major draw for safari hunters. More than sixty species can legally be hunted, including four of the famed “big fives” – buffalo, elephant, leopard and lion. Only the critically endangered, rhino escapes the list, but not the poachers. The country remains frequently mentioned in the international press for large scale poaching incidents, illegal ivory, rhino horn and bush meat traffic.

While still abundant in the “photographic tourism” part of the park, the elephant population is being decimated by poaching.

Crocodiles navigate the Rufiji River.

Since its inception over a century ago, Selous has been managed as a hunting reserve with only a small portion – approximately eight percent in the spectacular northeastern part of the reserve – eventually dedicated to photographic tourism. Vast areas south of the Rufiji River remain allocated to game hunting through a number of privately leased hunting concessions.

Designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1982 for ”its wildlife diversity and its natural immensity relatively undisturbed by human impact,” Selous is the only site in southern Tanzania to have ever been awarded this distinction. However, by 2014, the characteristics that had earned the site its prestigious status had deteriorated to the point that Selous was placed on the list of World Heritage in Danger. Rampant poaching had reduced the elephant population in the reserve from nearly 110,000 in the mid-1970 to less than 16,000 – a loss of ninety percent in four decades. And the rhino population had dwindled dangerously close to extinction within the Selous ecosystem.

Nyerere National Park

Siesta time in the Nyerere National Park.

In December 2019, it was officially announced by the government of Tanzania that to further develop tourism in Selous, the northern part of the reserve would be excised to form a new national park to be known as the Nyerere National Park in honor of the first president of Tanzania, Mwalimu Julius Kambarage Nyerere. The new park, the largest in Africa with a surface of 31,000 square kilometers (12,000 square miles) or two-thirds of the original reserve, now falls under the authority of the Tanzania National Parks Authority (TANAPA). This new status means that hunting is no longer permitted in the area that falls within the park, which doesn’t change anything for visitors to the previously designated  photographic area as no hunting was ever permitted there anyway.

However the residual one-third of the land is still managed as a hunting reserve. It remains to be seen whether this change in status can reverse the devastation that industrial-scale poaching has inflicted in recent decades on the elephant population and the ensuing damaging effect on the ecosystem of the overall Selous area.

The Rufiji River Camp stretches along a scenic bluff overlooking the river.

Good to Know

  • Getting there — Tanzania’s main airport is Julius Nyerere International Airport, located 13 kilometers (eight miles) southwest of Dar es Salaam, which is the entry-point for visitors to the southern parks. There are no direct flights from North America to Tanzania, and only one direct route from Europe: KLM Royal Dutch Airlines, which offers a daily flight from Amsterdam to Dar es Salaam. Another option is to fly to Nairobi, Kenya, where there are a number of daily connection possibilities to Dar es Salaam.  From there, the Selous Game Reserve Mtemere airstrip, the closest to the Rufiji River Camp, is a mere 45-minute flight.
  • Getting around — My entire itinerary from Dar es Salaam throughout the Southern Circuit, including all air transfers via Safari Air Link, was seamlessly managed by Foxes Safaris.
  • Environmental Red Flags — Unrestrained poaching is not the only threat to the survival of the overall Selous area as one of the greatest wildlife conservancies in Africa. 
    • Uranium mining. A boundary change was decreed in the past decade to excise some  400 square kilometers (155 square miles) from the southwestern border of the reserve, thus allowing the exploitation of uranium deposits. This would pose a serious environmental threat to the surrounding areas in the form of toxic emissions (most notably Radon and Carbon Monoxide), windblown dust dispersal and leaching of contaminant including heavy metals and arsenic into the water. While at the time of this writing, according to the State Party no active mining is taking place, the threat potential continues to exist.  
    • Hydropower dam. Although highly controversial, construction of a dam across the Rufiji River at the scenic Stiegler’s Gorge, in the northeastern confines of the park, received government approval in 2018. Construction began in 2019.  After completion, the power station and reservoir lake are projected to occupy approximately 1350 square kilometers (520 square miles) within the Nyerere National Park and cause serious environmental concerns. Firstly, the dam will flood over 2.2% of the parks total area, reducing its forest and riverine habitat. Additionally, the dam project will directly impact a main area of biodiversity in the reserve, a large area of wetland, marsh and savanna, and risk cutting off wildlife migratory routes. 
    • NGO reactions. UNESCO World Heritage Center, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) as well as other prominent international conservation NGO’s  have registered strong opposition to both projects and are calling for action to protest them.

Location, location, location!

Rufiji River Camp, Tanzania