Saturday, August 23, 2014

Our safaris begin – traveling to the Serena Luxury Camp in Selous Game Reserve

We woke up early Thursday morning, because we had an 8 AM flight from Zanzibar’s airport to the Selous Game Reserve.  Our reliable touring service director, Hassan Ali from Jojoba Tours, had told us that we needed to arrive at 7 for an 8 AM flight, because arriving at late as 7:30 could mean not getting on the plane in time.  Given how small the Zanzibar airport is, I found that pretty surprising, but Hassan had the tendency of being right, so we planned to do as we were told.

We arrived shortly before 7 and I could not figure out why in the world we had to arrive early.  Our flight was not departing from the main part of the small terminal but from a separate building for those flying on single-propeller planes; there, we saw no security line, no metal detector. We did have to be “screened” for security, but that just involved having to open the main compartment of each suitcase at the behest of a large woman who patted the top of the contents, asked “clothing?” and, on receiving an affirmative answer, let us close it up; then she ran a wand superficially around us and waved us through despite beeps.  Passengers began checking in for earlier flights, but there wasn’t even a representative present from Zan Air, on which we would be flying that day.  Representatives from other airlines that had departures around the same time were checking in their customers, and the waiting area was filling up.

About 20 minutes later, there was finally a Zan Air representative, who looked at our passports, found our names on his list, and then hand-wrote us in on the flight manifest.  Luggage tags were placed on our bags, then shunted aside, in no discernible order so far as I could tell; after a while, they were gathered by a second staff member and shifted around in the room and then out into the main hallway of the charter building.  The small print on the ticket had said that passengers were responsible for keeping track of their own luggage, so I was a bit nervous about this and followed the bags.  The fellow moving them whispered loudly “tip!  tip!” and I took the hint and handed him a 1000 T shilling bill (roughly 60 cents).  This same fellow, when the rest of our party which had been staying elsewhere arrived later, uttered this classic line in demanding separate payment:  “If you are not cheap, it will be no problem.”  There were two planes going to Selous, and we were assigned to "Selous 1"; but so far as I could tell, all the bags for Selous were being assembled in one place, sitting on a luggage loading cart out of sight in the main hallway.

But the rest of our party was not there at 7:30 and I was getting worried, because the security line was suddenly long, and moving very slowly because our lackadaisical inspector had been replaced by a team of three men who were going through luggage contents with a fine toothed comb, making people take things out of the suitcases, in some cases making people open their eyeglass  cases to make sure there was no forbidden matter.  Finally, I saw my brother Dan in line (it turned out there has been a problem with the water in the private home’s guest house where they had been staying).  They barely made it into the waiting area and got their names onto the boarding manifest before 8 AM; but the plane did not quite leave on time so it turned out not to be a problem.

Finally, it was time to fly, and our names were checked off on the flight manifest as we left thw waiting area.  Then we were directed to the carts full of luggage, out between the two planes that would be taking us; we were instructed to indicate which bags belonged on "Selous 1," and which on "Selous 2."   Our party of ten was divided between the two planes (the later arrivals were on "Selous 2"), and as we flew, I learned why there were two planes.  There were a couple of passengers on our plane who had to be dropped at the Dar es Salaam airport along the way.  Although it turned out that there were three for Dar – the fellow who was sitting in the front seat next to the pilot, who, I had assumed, must have been a co-pilot, was actually another customer who had been taking up the last available seat on the plane! 

After Dar, we flew off toward Selous, and I got another small surprise:  the pilot turned to us and asked who was going to which camps?  Apparently, there were multiple airports in the Selous Game Reserve; I had not memorized the name of the camp where we were staying, but luckily, at the last minute, I had pulled the travel folder out of my suitcase and put it in the pack, so I was able to check and give the pilot the right information about where we were to be dropped.

When our plane arrived at the right location – just a simple landing strip, called Stiegler's, with an open-walled hut for waiting and a small bathroom hut

the rest of our party were already  sitting in one of the three safari vehicles that had arrived to claim us.  We boarded one of the empty vehicles, and a young English couple who had been on our same plane got into the third (we did not see them again until we reached camp late that afternoon).  The English couple were a honeymooning pair; in fact, every one of the other guests at the Serena camp while we were there were honeymooners from England.

It was about a thirty-minute ride from the landing strip over some pretty rough and bumpy roads to our camp.  As we drove, we encountered a number of areas showing signs of burning as well as blue and black flags

We learned that the camp and regularly engaged in controlled burns of grassy areas to limit the tse tse fly (here pronounced “tseh-tseh,” not “tsee-tsee” as I had always assumed).  The flags are doused in insecticide to help kill the lies; and they are designed to attract the flies which are, oddly enough, attracted to those two colors:  disheartening news because I had brought along two very nice shirts, one bought recently at Adams Morgan Day and one just purchased in Stone Town, that featured black backgrounds and blue and green patterns. 

Finally we reached  our accommodations,  the sign at the entrance really said it all:

"Selous Luxury Camp."  Although our accommodations were nominally in the form of tents, it was really like staying in a small mid-level hotel:  the tents had very comfortable beds with many pillows, hot and cold running water, electric lights (including a chandelier!), and there was even a fairly weak wi-fi connection (although for most of us it was only in the common areas – Dan’s tent was close enough to the common area that he got some signal in the tent)

The common areas consisted of a building containing a bar and sitting area on one side and a dining area on the other;

the dining area continued onto a veranda overlooking a sausage-fruit (kigelia africana) tree and a section of a seasonal river which, at this point in the dry season, still contained enough water that, in the evening of our first day, there were a mother and baby hippo hanging around during our dinner.

Here is a view of the lodge and tree from across that little river

We had the rest of the morning off until lunch time.  Meals were multicourse affairs, with appetizer, choice of soups, salad, and three choices each for main courses and desserts.  The hot dishes were brought to the table under these metal domes,

and we were not supposed to remove the domes ourselves – rather, staff members would gather and pull off two domes per staffer, dramatic but perhaps a bit hokey.  The food was consistently well-prepared and tasty.  We generally got beer and bottles of wine while sitting around before dinner, and during dinner as well.  The menu contained a list of prices for each wine bottle, even  though we had been told that all drinks were included except hard liquor; we found this confusing but, in fact, when it was time to go we were not charged for the wine and beer.

After lunch, we headed off in game drive vehicles toward the Rufiji River.  We saw a number of impala as well as these water buck along the way

The river was roughly an hour away from our camp, again over exceptionally bumpy roads.  When we reached the river we boarded a boat for our first game ride – much smoother than the roads, for sure.  We headed right across the river to see a pod of hippos in the water, where they spend most of the day to avoid getting their skin burned by the hot sun.

Throughout our boat ride, we saw hundreds of hippos, mostly submerged in the river with only their heads sticking out, although occasionally we saw them on land.

At one point during the afternoon, we got out of the boat to stretch our legs on a set of rocks and sand at the edge of the river, and spotted this set of hippo tracks

We also saw many Nile crocodiles, often alone but sometimes in small groups, either lying on the sand or rocks by the side of the river or sliding into the river.

Francis, our guide throughout our time in the Selous,

explained the crocodiles obtain their prey by waiting in ambush for an animal to be careless enough to approach close enough, at which point the crocodile pounces quickly, grabs the prey with its teeth, and drags the animal underwater to drown it.  Because the bite is so powerful, it can catch and feed on even a large mammal.  It can move quickly in the water, so that it can catch fish, and even near the water’s edge it can leap quickly enough to grab an animal’s legs to drag it down. 

The crocodile presented a fearsome appearance when heading toward the boat from the edge of the river.

And we boated down the river, we saw another Serena Lodge, the Mivumo River Lodge -- must have been nice to be able to sit on your porch and look right out at the wildlife

Along the side of the river we saw two different kinds of monkeys:  the blue monkey

and the black and white colobus, close kin to the red colobus that we had seen the day before in Zanzibar

We also saw a troop of baboons, the first of many troops that we encountered in Selous and later in Ruaha

Birds we saw near the river included the African kingfisher

this heron,

the little bea eater

the water lapwing

several hamerkops,

and the African fish eagle

here seen flying

and here is its nest in what Francis told us was a chestnut tree

A complete view of this tree is here (checking after I got home I did not find any species of chestnut tree endemic to Africa other than the much smaller flowering cape chestnut; it looks to be the Tall Sterculia tree, or Sterculia appendiculata) :

Francis explained that the roots of this tree can extend many feet though the air to find both support, water and nutrients for the tree

producing some great combinations of roots

We saw a few  baobab trees along the river, but there were much better examples in Ruaha National Park

As the afternoon waned, we boarded our game drive vehicles to return to camp.  Along the way we saw this buff-crested bustard

and several older termite mounds, which Francis explained have to be approached with care because when the mounds get large and relatively soft, they often host the extremely poisonous black mambo snake.

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