Southern Tanzania May-June 2014
PART 1: INTRODUCTION & DAR ES SALAAM
Can somebody please perfect hypersonic jet travel so that we, our clients and our friends & family can get to Africa sooner, from the USA? Door to door, it was just on 24 hours from when the garage door rolled down behind us in Houston to when a smiling Sebastian Moshi welcomed us to Oyster Bay Hotel in Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania. Not counting the eight time zones which we skipped.
Would it be enlightening to say that we were dog tired, jetlagged to our roots and in dire need of a bath and something horizontal to stretch out on? Probably not.
As exhausted as we were, we almost turned down the offer of a late meal which would have been a big mistake. We soon found out that it is not a good idea to decline any meal at the Oyster Bay Hotel! More about that later.
Some conclusions & opinions
Our second visit to Southern Tanzania confirmed much of what we already knew about the area: it is very much a remnant of the Africa of old, of long-forgotten journeys and undiscovered places, a little bit of Africa where you can still connect with the wilderness just like people did 30 years ago.
In areas like Ruaha National Park and Selous Game Reserve, you don’t expect to see other safari vehicles out and about and it is almost surprising when you do, and remarkable when you see more than two or three during an entire game drive. Most of the time, it is just you, your guide, the environment and the wildlife. Miles and miles of Africa with plenty of animals and few other vehicles – just the way we like it.
In hindsight, the overall game-viewing was not as good as we had anticipated but perhaps our expectations were a bit on the high side. Southern Tanzania delivers a fine and deeply satisfying safari experience, but it is not the Serengeti. Also, our visit came very early in the season just after a period of abundant rain so the bush was very thick which makes a huge difference in a heavily wooded environment. We would advise would-be visitors to schedule their visit from July through the first part of November. By then the bush is thinned out, the grass is short and animals are increasingly drawn to remaining sources of water.
We visited several properties for the first time and there are a couple of them such as Mwagusi (Ruaha) and Beho Beho (Selous) which we will be using a lot more in future. Other such as Sand Rivers Selous which we have been using for a long time, will remain in the rotation but perhaps in a slightly different mix due to changing conditions. And yet others like Kigelia Ruaha, Lake Elmenteita Serena Camp, Segera Retreat, Sabuk in Laikipia and Sasaab at Samburu will be good choices for specific guests.
We were intrigued and delighted by what we saw and experienced in Zanzibar and all four of the properties we tried out would be great additions to any East Africa trip; it is just a matter of picking one that suits your style and budget. Baraza was the single best property there.
Dar Es Salaam
For once, it was a breeze getting through immigration at Dar-es-Salaam as we already had a valid multiple-entry visa from last November. It’s good for a year so we did not have to shell out another US$100 – thank you very much. We did have our bags X-rayed on arrival which was rather odd as we had chosen the ‘nothing to declare’ customs option. Fortunately we were not muling contraband or smuggling iPads so no harm done.
About an hour or so later, having briefly freshened up in our room at the Oyster Bay Hotel, we sat down to an al fresco meal on the edge of the lawn, a beautifully lit ficus tree forming an imposing backdrop. Every now and then a large fruit bat would dip down to the surface of the shimmering blue pool. Our senses may have been dulled by the deprivations of transcontinental flying, but we knew right away that this was a special place.
Certainly the meal was. Kathleen opted for some expertly grilled fresh jumbo prawns while I enjoyed maharage, a mildly spicy local bean dish infused with coconut milk. It was served with rice, tomato and cooked spinach. We indulged in a dessert as well: grilled fresh tropical mango served with a sweet coconut sauce. Delicious.
A restful day in Dar Es Salaam
May 31: We both slept through the night from sheer exhaustion. It felt good to strap on running shoes and jog about 4 miles along the main coastal road to the Sea Cliff Hotel and back. The Sea Cliff is a beautiful property with a near perfect location overlooking the Indian Ocean and the ‘cliff’ which stretches from the front of the hotel to the north (left). We looked around the well-maintained grounds and checked out the restaurant where we enjoyed lunch a few years ago – seemingly still a good place to go, judging by the number of people there.
It was the last Saturday of the month which is the scheduled day for the monthly farmer’s market at the Oyster Bay Shopping Center. We walked across from the hotel and browsed the various offerings which included some fresh produce, local cheese, cupcakes, a Moringa tree extract, cookbooks, various herbs and spices and a sugar cane juicing stand. Two local ladies were inserting long stalks of sugar cane into a small portable press – the juice was mixed with some fresh lime and ginger resulting in a tasty and apparently healthy drink. Cheers.
Over tea, I got a little work done, meeting with Cliff D’Souza, owner of Savannah Tours – a Dar and Arusha-based destination management company.
Then it was time for lunch: some perfectly grilled calamari for Kathleen while I noshed on a Mediterranean mezze with hummus, babaganoush and a white bean puree, served with pita bread. We spent the afternoon relaxing – and catching up on a few e-mails.
Despite what the New York Times may think – it nominated Dar-es-Salaam as one of the 50 places to visit in 2014 – this city of nearly 5 million people is not the most desirable Tanzania destination. It has a very short list of things to do and see (a couple of museums, a local market and fish market) and parts of it are best avoided – some of the public beaches being on that list. The road network is totally inadequate for the rapidly burgeoning population and as a result the 6-mile trip from town to the airport can take more than 90 minutes at certain times of the day, except on Saturdays and Sundays when traffic is usually light. Dar is a perfectly fine place to spend a couple of days resting up though.
Before we knew it, it was 8pm and time for dinner. Does it sound like we did nothing except eat in DAR? The quality of the cuisine at The Oyster Bay Hotel being what it is, that would not be difficult at all. Tonight it was fresh red snapper, grilled with a butter garlic sauce for Kathleen and a nicely perfumed vegetable curry with chapati, for yours truly. On the side we had a salad of shredded zucchini, broccoli and carrots and avocado with a mango salsa.
PART 2: OFF TO RUAHA NATIONAL PARK
June 1. After an early wake-up call and breakfast, we were off to Ruaha with Coastal Aviation. Pleasant surprise: our ride turned out to be a Pilatus PC12- not the Caravan which we had been expecting. So we winged our way to Ruaha at 26,000 feet ASL in a roomy pressurized cabin. It would take just about 1 hr 20 minutes from DAR to Ruaha (Msembe), and by 1030A we were back on terra firma, keen to proceed with the real purpose of the trip: being on safari.
Kigelia Ruaha Camp
From the airstrip at Msembe it took us about an hour or so to slowly drive to Kigelia Ruaha Camp. It was starting to get warm, but still quite pleasant, along the way. We saw some impala, zebra, elephant and greater kudu en route, although the wildlife was overshadowed by the abundance of baobab trees. There were literally hundreds of them, sometimes in large fairly dense stands – a veritable baobab forest.
We liked the small but tastefully decorated mess (lounge) area, with some comfortable seating under a canvas canopy with rolled up side panels, to allow maximum airflow.
We tried valiantly to take a nap but unfortunately the ventilation in the tent was inadequate, making it uncomfortably hot.
The first game drive out of Kigelia started off slowly and never really produced anything beyond the usual suspects. We did have some nice sightings of elephants, zebra, impala, giraffe and several bird species. The best sighting of the afternoon was a party of three greater kudu which crossed the road in front of us. We were hoping for more exciting things the next day.
Dinner at Kigelia was good and tasty but about as plain as it gets: rice, carrots, broccoli and maharage, a local bean dish. The other meals here were also fine but nothing special. I had some issues with the charging station which did not work most of the time. Manager and guide Mollel went out of his way to help me with internet access, always an issue when traveling in Africa. I had spent some money acquiring a local Tanzania chip which was supposed to work on my Blackberry, but alas it did not. Never could get the BB to pull in my e-mails, other than by using the insanely expensive Verizon charges for ‘roaming’ data. The upshot of all this? Changing from Verizon to T-Mobile and finally getting rid of the Blackberry.
Game Drive - Ruaha National Park
Up at 5:30A, we had a light breakfast before heading out. It was quite cool – you needed a light fleece or sweater to be comfortable. We had all heard some lions calling during the night, and we made a detour to find them but to no avail. The game drive was initially very quiet but we eventually found an impressive maned adult lion, walking along the Great Ruaha River. There were also quite a lot of elephant along the river and I finally made a decent capture of a Lilac-breasted Roller in flight.
Ruaha is rugged and remote and one of its most compelling features is its natural beauty. There are few game sanctuaries that are as markedly and undoubtedly stamped ‘Africa’ with a fantastic mix of baobabs, acacia tortilis, good grass cover and prominent hills. The place is simply alive with the romance of Africa.
The afternoon game drive was rather quiet too. We did see several large groups of elephant along the Ruaha River but for some reason the guide did not stop to look at them. I suppose he was looking for predators but it is a mistake to ignore what is in front of you in favor of something you may or may not find. Perhaps it was a little too early in the season – with the bush still too thick – or we were just unlucky, or both.
June 3. Another early breakfast and then our last game drive out of Kigelia. No predators again this morning but plenty of elephants and one of our best giraffe sightings with about 30 of them in one large tower or journey, with lots of interaction amongst them. We said our goodbyes to Mollel and Eli, and walked into Mwagusi Camp, being welcomed and briefed by care-taker manager Kim.
Starting with the immaculately groomed pathways I was impressed with everything we saw at Mwagusi. Our room #5 could not have been better. High up on the bank of the Mwagusi River it likely has the best view in camp. You simply have to spend some time on the cozy verandah to watch whatever comes along – elephant and kudu while we were there.
Is there a better spot for a room than this one elsewhere in Africa? Not many. Turn around from the view over the river and there is your room – referred to as a banda here – completely covered by a solid thatched structure with a low overhang. There is a large walk-in closet of sorts and an equally spacious en suite bathroom with a shower, flush toilet and lots of space to store your stuff. It turned out that the bathroom area was also home to some bats which were a nuisance because we had to contend with their droppings in the mornings. This is something the property needs to deal with more effectively.
Lunch at Mwagusi was delightful – an array of cold salads, pasta, fresh bread and legumes & more. We were really impressed with the variety of vegetarian/vegan options.
On a fairly short afternoon game drive we encountered lots of giraffe, zebra and kudu, as well as plenty of elephants, dik-dik, and a really close up view of a young adult male lion who couldn’t be bothered to lift his head, in fact he was hard pressed to even open an eye.
By nightfall, we were treated to a bush dinner – starting with drinks – in front of a huge open fire. It was a memorable night on safari. First some jackals, then lions and also baboons were being very local and seemingly close by. Very thrilling! The food lived up to the level of the ‘natural’ entertainment: a peanut soup, bean stew, local ugali (polenta), chickpeas, green beans, sweet potato frites and more -plus a chocolate dessert. Excellent.
On a somewhat jarring note, a person came around at dinner time and presented me with a bar bill to be signed on the spot. It was a classic nickle and dime move, listing every soda water I had consumed. It was really quite annoying and totally unnecessary. If a camp wants to charge extra for soft drinks or ‘local’ drinks (which is dumb anyway), they can handle it discreetly and certainly don’t have to resort to this type of high-handed behavior.
Or better yet – don’t charge extra for soft drinks, beer & wine at dinner. US$3 for a club soda – really?
Game drive at Mwagusi Camp, Ruaha
June 4. An early game drive today, with packed breakfast. Initially again on the quiet side just like some of our previous drives, but over the course of 4 hours or so we saw plenty of giraffe, kudu and two new mammals for the trip, bat-eared fox and eland.
We enjoyed yet another great lunch back at the lodge: a nut loaf, grilled aubergine, small minted potatoes, sweet potato & couscous salad, coleslaw and pineapple. The cooking at Mwagusi is superb!
In the afternoon we inspected nearby Kwihala (Asilia), a comfortable small 6-room tented camp. It is nothing fancy but the tents are large and well-equipped with in-room charging points and local drinks included. Only 6 persons maximum on game drives, and we were told that the guiding would be amongst the best in the area.
On the way to Kwihala and back to Mwagusi, we saw a large pride of lions just a few meters off the road. Unfortunately I did not get even a single useful photograph due to the thick bush and the park’s policy not to allow any off-roading. Under these circumstances, it would make sense to position the vehicle 5 to 10 meters off the road. It is more frustrating seeing the lions as poorly as we did, than not seeing them at all.
This evening, we enjoyed a perfectly splendid romantic dinner, served in the dry river-bed of the Mwagusi River. Several lanterns suspended in the riverbank created a totally enchanting ‘Aladdin’s Cave’ effect. That plus the sounds of a leopard calling in camp, baboons making alarm calls and a massive starry sky – not to mention excellent food – combined for a perfect night on safari.
Mwagusi is organic and a bit quirky. It doesn’t try to be deluxe or very chic but it is certainly first class and does everything well with the focus exactly right: it is all about the total experience of the wildlife, the guiding, the surroundings and the true safari ambience of Ruaha.
PART 3: RETURN TO SELOUS
June 5. Early this morning, we enjoyed a bird walk out of Mwagusi Camp with Joffrey – it was a nice change of pace from the game drives. We looked at some animal footprints, droppings and other ‘signs of the wild’ and reconstructed some of what had happened the previous night. Joffrey was the most enthusiastic of any of the guides on this trip – standing up the entire time and scanning every inch of the bush as we drove along. He didn’t miss a thing!
We enjoyed breakfast in camp – and it was superb as were all the meals at Mwagusi. After a short game drive we were off to the Selous Game Reserve and Sand Rivers Camp.
From the air, the wide and strongly flowing Rufiji River was unmistakable and on final approach to the Kiba Airstrip we could see the camp tucked away in the thicket on the edge of the river.
We were welcomed by our hosts for the next two days – Cameron and Kate – and a quick look-around confirmed what we had hoped for: nothing much has changed at Sand Rivers since our first visit in 2009. It still has a totally sublime setting on the edge of the Rufiji River. The rooms are still large open structures encapsulating a huge mosquito net and king size bed. There’s a comfortable couch with a fantastic view over the Rufiji. And most importantly, you still fall asleep to the gentle murmur of the Rufiji rushing past your room on its way to the Indian Ocean.
After an enjoyable light lunch (a selection of green and pasta salads and fresh bread), we enjoyed a siesta – well actually we worked out – and then went on a fishing/boating trip on the Rufiji.
It was good to get out of the vehicle for a spell and to get close to some hippo, crocodile and various birds. The fishing was so-so; we caught a couple of smallish fish including one tiger fish, but it was incidental to a fun and entertaining outing. Our fishing guide was clearly new to the job but very enthusiastic and friendly – which is all you need.
Dinner – unfortunately – despite the great outdoor setting and stellar company – was disappointing due to a misconnect about my vegan food preference. Vegan does not mean that a person eats only carrots and potatoes but every now and then a camp chef will panic and forget about proteins (beans, chickpeas, quinoa, brown rice, whole wheat pastas etc.) and just dish up vegetables. There is nothing quite as boring and disappointing and alas predictable as a ‘vegetarian platter’ – which is what I got, with some potatoes on the side. The other guests which ironically included some vegetarians, were served what appeared to be a totally splendid meal with either fish or a stuffed sweet pepper.
For future trips I might temporarily suspend my dietary preferences just to avoid being served the inevitable veggie platter or murdered tofu. A couple of weeks of eating ‘regular’ food certainly won’t kill me.
No elephants at Sand Rivers
June 6. Breakfast this morning at Sand Rivers was a little disorganized and nobody ever took our order for toast or anything else. There was a lot of standing around and no clear understanding of who needed to do what. It was still very early in the season so some staff members were still figuring out their responsibilities, I guess.
Our game drive on this day at Selous Game Reserve could ordinarily have been described as fair to good, highlighted by a very good lion sighting (7 individuals), several of which were seen well. There were also lots of giraffes, impala, zebra and wildebeest around, as well as waterbuck, kudu, eland, bushbuck, banded mongoose, warthog, yellow baboons, hippo and crocodile.
The elephant in the room though was the absence of elephants. Game-viewing conditions were not ideal with thick bush and water everywhere so even if elephants were abundant here, we might have struggled to find them. It is clear though that sustained – and lately increased – poaching in the Selous has resulted in a huge drop in the number of elephants and hence the frequency of sightings. By most estimates, there were more than 100 000 elephants in the Selous by the mid 1970’s. This number has now shrunk to a meagre 13,000 or so. Large parts of the reserve have no elephants as the highest numbers are in small pockets in the northwest, central and southern areas. Over just the last 4 years, Selous Game Reserve has lost more than 60% of its elephants to poaching.
There’s a lot of blame to go around, and clearly something drastic has to be done to stop the carnage. If the elephants disappear totally, so will the tourists, in time. Even now, we won’t make the Selous GR the mainstay of the game-viewing portion of anybody’s safari. We would recommend combining it with Ruaha (plenty of elephants there) or Katavi in western Tanzania or one of the parks in the northern circuit such as the Serengeti or Tarangire.
Sand Rivers is a perfect spot to enjoy some water-focused activities (boating, fishing, a trip up Stiegler’s Gorge) with one night out spent fly-camping. For the full big game experience it needs to be combined with a property which offers more reliable elephant-viewing.
Dinner this evening was just what the doctor ordered: Some rice and beans plus fresh veggies and a nice fruit salad for dessert. Now how difficult was that?
Last word about Sand Rivers: it is still one of my favorite places in Africa. The location is mind-blowing and it is a place where you can and should take the foot off the safari throttle a little bit. Get out of the vehicle, enjoy the main lounge, pool and bar area – have a couple of drinks, spend an afternoon in camp, go up the Rufiji to Stiegler’s Gorge and just absorb what is around you. This is why people come to Africa.
On to Beho Beho
June 7. We slept in this morning, had breakfast at the lodge and then hopped on to the car for a road transfer to the Hot Springs where we were met by our guide from Beho Beho.
Beho Beho is one the oldest and most well-established properties in the Selous Game Reserve and it has a sterling reputation for accommodation, food, guiding and all-round hospitality.
It was easy to see why Beho Beho has gained its reputation. First impressions count and our arrival briefing from Manager Walter Jubber was likely the most comprehensive yet interesting one we’ve ever had. Walter is a font of information and in-depth knowledge and is clearly a very accomplished guide as well, with exceptionally good birding skills.
There was not a stone or a blade of grass out of place at Beho Beho. It has the mother of all walkways between rooms, a great lounge and dining area, a cozy bar and nice pool area. Plus a full-sized billiards table. Definitely a spot where one should spend several days. A minimum stay of 4 nights is recommended here as there is much to be seen and done including game drives, Lake Tagalala Experience, walking, a sleep-out in the Treehouse and spending some time in camp as well.
In no time, we had dropped off our stuff and sat down poolside for a delicious meal – some nicely grilled prawns, a lentil bobotie, several salads and freshly baked corn bread.
After a short siesta – we worked out – it was time for a drive to a nearby hippo pool and to take a look at the camp’s tree-house sleep-out facility. We saw a nice herd of elephants along the way which really made the day, considering our disappointment with these animals at Sand Rivers.
The Treehouse is a highly recommended ‘night out’ for anyone spending 4 nights or more at Beho Beho. After enjoying a sundowner on the 3-meter high deck, with a bed which can be rolled outside under the stars (with a mosquito net) we went back to camp for dinner. It was an elaborate affair with a starter (haloumi) and a main course of duck with orange sauce. For the vegan guest, an eggplant stuffed with chickpeas and some very tasty organic potato. It was one of the most memorable evenings of our Africa trip, thanks to Food & Beverage Manager Karin Kruger.
The Tagalala Experience
June 8. We were up and out early this morning – at 0630A – for the Tagalala Experience. This took the form of a slow drive to Lake Tagalala, with superb bird-watching and very good game-viewing en route. Amongst others we saw zebra, several wildebeest herds, giraffe, huge herds of impala and then – as we were going through a dry river-bed – a pride of 7 lions, the so-called Bibi’s pride. They were resting up and grooming themselves in a shady area. We had some nice close-up views – watched them for a while and then continued on to Lake Tagalala.
We spent about an hour cruising Lake Tagalala on an aluminum skiff and enjoyed good views of dozens of crocodiles sliding into the water. The birding was excellent with particularly good views of three species of kingfisher namely Giant, Pied and Malachite Kingfisher. There was an impressive territorial dispute amongst two pairs of African Fish Eagle and we also saw a very rare bird – a Humboldt’s Heron which has been seen here regularly over the last 7 years.
Then it was time for an al fresco breakfast – lakeside. Back in camp later we relaxed for the afternoon enjoying the pool and the camp itself. We took a look at the very imposing Bailey’s Banda, a 2-bedroomed private house. At an additional cost of $250.00 per person per night (pretty much what you would pay for a private vehicle at most camps of this caliber), you can have all the privacy and exclusivity you can possibly desire, with a private vehicle and guide, a dedicated chef and room attendant and a superb view over Selous Game Reserve. This is not a superior Beho Beho experience – just a private one.
The bottom line on this property: Beho Beho is expensive at around $1,000 pppn but I have seen few other lodges in Africa to equal it in almost any respect: location, view, rooms, food/ catering, management, guiding and wildlife: this place does everything right and it becomes clear the moment you first set foot there, that it is going to be a fantastic experience. I told Walter on our departure that Beho Beho can be used as a blueprint for how a safari property should be managed and I meant it.
Early this afternoon we said our goodbyes, clambered back into a Cessna Caravan and took off to DAR, a 45-minute trip. From there it was a quick hop of less than 20 minutes to Zanzibar, the Spice Island. Stone Town, here we come!