A Family Safari in the Selous: Peaceful, Uncrowded, Surprising

Since her first safari in 1997, EJ Safari Specialist Lara Ray has traveled extensively throughout Africa with her husband and two children. She’s witnessed firsthand what a transformative, magical experience travel can be for children of any age. Here, she shares her account of her family’s carefree, rambling safari through Southern Tanzania’s crowd-free gem, the Selous Game Reserve.



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 just wrapped up a weeklong classic Serengeti safari with my two kids, 13-year-old Elsa and 10-year-old Graham. My husband, Jim, flew in to meet us for the second part of our trip to Tanzania. Together, we’d be exploring the country’s expansive, uncrowded Southern Circuit which includes the Selous and Ruaha.

Two young adventurers, Elsa and Graham, stand at the door of a private jet for their flight to the Selous
Elsa and Graham en route to the Selous

Journey to Sand Rivers Selous

We were the only passengers on the one-hour flight from Dar to the Selous. 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, obviously looking hard for something worth the creative aerial maneuvering.

As we soon learned, wild dogs had been seen in the vicinity, and our pilot was doing some aerial scanning across the camp to see if he could locate them. He was unable to spot the dogs, but we loved his enthusiasm! He was just the first of many incredibly kind people we met on this trip.

We settled into the safari vehicle with Joel, our guide for our three nights at Sand Rivers Selous. Joel was soft spoken, very sweet, and, as we'd soon learn, incredibly knowledgeable.

The views upon our arrival at camp were absolutely beautiful. The lodge at Sand Rivers, 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. (By the time we’d left the camp for our next stop on Zanzibar’s Mafia Island, Elsa had swapped recipes with the chef, Graham and Jim had frolicked in the pool and I even got a chance to do some water colors of the scene looking out over the hippos.)

Surprises Around Every Corner: Wild Dogs and Fighting Birds

Soon after our arrival, Joel also mentioned the wild dogs our pilot had been looking for. He asked if we'd like to try and find them! Elsa and Graham had seen dogs on another safari but not yet in Tanzania; as such, they appreciated how rare a sight they are. With Joel’s help, we looked and looked for them, covering lots of likely ground. Still, no dogs to be found.

A wild dog with giant ears sits low in the grass, alert and watchful

But the Selous is never one to disappoint. While the dogs kept out of sight, we did encounter 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. This enormous eagle is swooping low to the ground and trying to grab one when a fish eagle barges in and tries to chase off the martial eagle! The two birds circle around each other, and all the while, the guinea fowl are screeching and darting from bush to bush. The two eagles alight in the same tree. 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 finally have a chance to settle down.

That took our minds off the dogs!

And wouldn't you know it, about five minutes later, Joel spotted the flick of a tail in shady patch under a tree. We had found the whole pack!

We spent the better part of a half hour just watching the dogs laze away the afternoon. The younger pups played with one another while the adult dogs gazed out. They seemed to be listening to something, but the whole pack never got up and on the move.

It was a lovely, intimate way to simply chill out with this very special predator. Lazing about to observe the dogs also gave Joel time to teach us more about the species—and for Elsa to grab her sketch pad in an effort to capture those magnificent ears! What a special introduction to the surprises around every corner in the Selous.

Although southern Tanzania’s game viewing may not be as prolific as it is in the Serengeti (we never saw elephants, leopards, or lions), the Selous has a remote, untamed feeling that can’t be matched. And what game you do see you have all to yourself!

Fishing in Stiegler’s Gorge

The Selous is home to a vast network of lakes and rivers. As such, it’s a major draw for fishing enthusiasts and safari-goers alike.

One day, later in our journey, we headed upstream to Stiegler’s Gorge for some quintessential Southern Circuit boating and fishing.

We cruised along the Rufiji River toward the gorge in a powerboat complete with a nice canopy and a cooler box. As we made our way, the river got narrower and narrower with trees hanging precariously 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 that looked like something straight out of Jurassic 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 that like to frequent the rocks, and then settled in to do some fishing.

Safari guide Joel stands with Lara's husband Jim and son Graham, smiling. Graham has just caught a catfish in Stiegler's Gorge.

Over the course of three days, we fished many times. We tried for the elusive tigerfish but reeled in mostly catfish. Graham was really keen to catch a tiger, but they are tricky, so he'll just have to come back to try on another trip!

A Walking Safari, Fly Camping, and a Night Out Under the Stars

One of the most memorable things about our trip—and one of the real draws of the Selous—was the ability to get out on foot in the bush. The walking is engaging, you have a heightened awareness of your surroundings, and you quickly come to appreciate your small place in the bigger picture—especially while outside your vehicle!

After asking to do some walking and getting permission to (Graham was on the young side then), we met up with our guide and a ranger, Hamadi, who carried a gun for safety.

Lara, Elsa, and Graham follow after their guide, Hamadi, on foot during a walking safari. Hamadi carries a rifle for safety.

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!

After walking for two-and-a-half hours, we strolled right into our fly-tent campsite for the night.

Waiting for us was a roaring fire right down by the banks of a huge lake. What a delight! Bread was baking, appetizers were set out, and cold drinks miraculously appeared.

Joel and the Ray family enjoy a comfortable, home-cooked dinner in camp. The table is set with blue linens and full place settings.

Our dinner was delicious, and the company couldn’t be beat! We listened to the elephants trumpeting their displeasure that we were camping right where they'd intended to walk. And later, we heard lions calling to one another just behind the camp.

The camp was set up for our exclusive use. For those that wanted them, there were hot bucket showers, plus a private toilet area and changing tents. Our every comfort was looked after.

There were about eight support staff for the four of us. Honestly, though, it feels silly to call them “staff” because our entire group felt like one big family, having fun and enjoying each other’s company on the sleepover of a lifetime!

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.

Dozing off under the stars can’t be beat, but there’s also nothing quite like waking up at dawn to hot chocolate delivered straight to your tent. We sipped our morning treat as a chorus of birds thoroughly won us over (as if the chocolate needed help!).

Eventually, we pried ourselves away from this magical corner of the world to head to our next stop: the hot springs near Beho Beho.

Soaking in the Hot Springs

With Hamadi in the lead, we headed up twisting, turning, narrow trails toward Beho Beho. Both kids were on the lookout for animals, getting dirty, and totally in their element!

Finally, the forest opened up, and we saw the pools. The kids plunged right in while Jim and I took a bit more time! Before long we were all in swimming around.

The pools were terraced and linked together by waterfalls. The pools highest up were the hottest and smallest, and they cascaded into the lower pools, each one cooler than the last.

Hamidi led Elsa up even higher to find the source of the pools which was super hot. She 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.

Swimming in Mountain Springs in the Selous

Selous Family Safari Takeaways

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 Maasai Mara. It is remote and uncrowded and offers a wide range of activities that you simply cannot find in the Serengeti.

While our wildlife sightings up in the Serengeti were amazing, we’d gone on so many game drives that by the time we arrived in the Selous, we were ready for a change of pace. The team at Sand Rivers set us up with plenty of active ways to explore the environment during our stay. We loved mixing things up with walking, fly camping, and boating.

I'd recommend the Selous to any curious, active family interested in breaking away from the game drive vehicle and experiencing a vast, river-oriented wilderness area during their time in Tanzania!

The Top 5 Things Lara’s Family Journey Can Teach You About Southern Tanzania

  1. The Selous is the perfect safari destination for beating the crowds and adventuring farther afield.
  2. The game viewing may be less prolific, but it’s no less exciting, and the uncrowded landscape can’t be beat.
  3. Game drives aren’t the be-all end-all. Walking safaris offer a welcome change of scenery and a chance to stretch your legs.
  4. From the starry night sky to the good-morning hot chocolate, fly camping is a feast for the senses not to be missed.
  5. The hot springs at Beho Beho are a delight, but unless you want to boil like the frogs, stick to the lower pools!

The Ray Family’s Itinerary

If the Ray family’s travels inspired you to take a closer look at the under-explored Southern Tanzania Circuit, check out this incredible itinerary. We can help you retrace a similar route through the Selous—or design a unique journey according your family’s specific tastes. And if Lara’s off-the-beaten-path experience seems your style, you can learn more about adding fly camping to your journey here.

One exciting addition to this itinerary that we offer is a stay at SEGA Girls School. If you’re keen on connecting with wildlife and making an impact on local children, this is a perfect element to include in your journey to the Southern Circuit.

Remember, we customize every journey for our clients; no two trips are ever the same.

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Kim Green