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A Family Safari in the Selous

Our family of four was reunited on the tarmac of the Dar Es Salaam Airport, not an inspiring location, but a great springboard for exciting times to come! I'd been on a classic Serengeti safari with my two kids, Elsa 13 and Graham 10, for a week. My husband Jim had flown in to meet us for the second part of our trip to Tanzania as we explored the Southern Circuit which includes the Selous and Ruaha. We were the only passengers on the one hour flight from Dar to the Selous and our pilot was friendly and enjoyed pointing out landmarks as we got closer to our destination. As we approached the airstrip he began circling and swooping the plane low, looking hard for something. It turns out that wild dogs had been seen in the vicinity and he was doing some arial scanning for the camp to see if he could locate them. He did not, but we loved his enthusiasm and he was just the first of many incredibly nice people we met on this trip.

We settled into the safari vehicle with Joel, our guide for our three nights at Sand River Selous Camp. He was a soft spoken, very sweet and as we'd soon learn, incredibly knowledgeable. He also mentioned the wild dogs, and asked if we'd like to try and find them! Elsa and Graham had seen dogs on another safari, but not yet in Tanzania and appreciated how rare a sight they are. Well, we looked and looked, covering lots of likely ground, and no dogs. We did see a really interesting bird interaction. I know that doesn't sound amazing compared to wild dogs, but picture this…. We see this HUGE martial eagle trying to hunt guinea fowl. The silly guinea fowl are running all around and trying to hide under bushes and this enormous eagle is swooping low to the ground and trying to grab one, when a fish eagle comes in and tries to chase off the martial eagle! They circle around each other, all the time the guinea fowl are screeching and darting from bush to bush. The two eagles alight in the same tree and no sooner do they land but a giant yellow fruit bat comes flapping out from the tree! Both eagles take off and the guinea fowl start to settle down. That took our minds off the dogs, and wouldn't you know it, about 5 minutes later Joel spotted the flick of a tail in shady patch under a tree and we had found the whole pack!

We spent a good half hour just watching the dogs laze away the afternoon. The younger pups played with one another while the adult dogs gazed out, seemed to be listening but the whole pack never got up and on the move. It was a lovely intimate way to just chill out with this very special predator. It also gave Joel time to teach us more about the species and for Elsa to grab her sketch pad and do a few drawings trying to capture those magnificent ears! What a special introduction to the surprises around every corner in the Selous.

The Selous (and Tanzania’s Southern Circuit in general) is a great place to visit once you have experienced a classic safari in say the Serengeti or the Masai Mara. It is remote and uncrowded and offers a wide range of activities that you cannot find in the Serengeti. We had seen amazing wildlife up in the Serengeti but had been on so many game drives we were ready for a change of pace. The team at Sand River set us up with lots of active ways to explore the environment during our stay; including walking, fly camping and boating. The game-viewing may not be as prolific as the Serengeti, (we never saw elephants, leopards or lions) but the Selous has a remote, untamed feeling and the game you see you have all to yourself!

One day we headed upstream to Steiglers Gorge in a power boat complete with a nice canopy and a cooler box. As you head upstream towards the gorge, the river gets narrower, and narrower, with trees hanging off sheer cliffs on either side. We sighted a pair of Pel’s fishing owls, heard Colobus monkeys and saw hundreds of hippos and crocs along the way. An hour later we came to a stop at an area which looked like it was right out of Jurrasic Park, with dense foliage, steep rocks and a wide sandy beach area. We enjoyed our snacks and tea, looked around for any sign of the leopards who like to frequent the rocks and then settled in to do some fishing. Over the course of three days we fished many times, trying for the elusive tiger fish, and mostly getting cat fish. Graham was really keen to catch a tiger, but they are tricky and he'll just have to come back on another trip!

One of the most memorable things about our trip one of the real draws of the Selous is the ability to get out on foot in the bush. You really have a heightened awareness and appreciation for your surroundings when you are out of the vehicle! We had asked to do some walking and had gotten permission (as Graham was on the young side) and met up with our guide and a ranger, Hamadi who carried a gun for safely. Hamadi was fantastic, one of those guides who is quiet but has the best stories once you get him talking. He got our kids more interested in a termite mound than I ever thought possible! The walking is engaging, as you have a heightened awareness of being part of the bigger picture when you are out of the vehicle.

After walking for 2 and a half hours we walked right into our campsite for the night. What a delight! A roaring fire right down by the banks of a huge lake. The camp was just for us and we had about eight support staff for the four of us. Bread was baking, appetizers set out and cold drinks miraculously appeared. We listened the elephants trumpeting their displeasure that we were camping right where they'd intended to walk, and later heard lions calling to one another just behind the camp. Our dinner was delicious, hot bucket showers for those who wanted, a private toilet area and changing tents, our every comfort was looked after! We slept under the stars with comfy bedrolls, looking up at the night sky. Elsa, who had been a little nervous about this sleep out, loved every minute of it. There is nothing like waking up with a hot chocolate delivered to you in your tent as you listen to the birds dawn chorus to win you over! We had to pull ourselves from this magical spot, to head to our next stop - the hot springs.

With Hamadi in the lead we headed up and up, twisting turning narrow trails till the forest opened up and we saw the pools. Both kids were getting dirty, on the lookout for animals and totally in their element! We finally came to them and the pools were terraced on different levels, the highest up were the hottest and smallest, with water falls linking each pool together. The kids plunged in while Jim and I took a bit more time! Before long we were all in swimming around. Elsa was led by Hamadi up even higher to find the source of the pools which was superhot and eagerly reported back that several frogs were floating in that part, apparently boiled alive! Our swimming area was frog free, but we did find the bones of a long gone hippo. Dripping wet and delighted we headed back to camp.

The lodge, set on a bluff with views of the Rufiji River, was a real pleasure with a welcoming staff, spacious villas and a great pool overlooking the river. Elsa swapped recipes with the chef, Graham and Jim frolicked in the pool and I even got a chance to do some water colors of the scene looking out over the hippos. I'd recommend this spot to any family interested in breaking away from the game drive vehicle and experiencing a vast river oriented wilderness area during their time in Tanzania!

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Elizabeth Gordon