Monday, February 27, 2012

The Selous Game Reserve - Full of Variety

So I’ll jump right in and admit that my preconception of an African wilderness certainly skewed my idea of what to expect in the Selous National Park in the south of Tanzania. On arrival however, I am in for a bit of a surprise. Heavily wooded hills that are impenetrable is not what I expected in the Selous.

The early morning rays shimmer across the varied landscape and the soft Equator light gently plays on blades of grass that are dancing tantalisingly inviting a landscape orgy. Resolutely, we move forward, we are here to capture the many animal wonders of the Selous. Each morning we pass the Impala herds as they graze in the cooler part of the day. Their pelts glow bright orange and are smooth and clean.  In the nursery herds the young skip and hop and play while in the peripheral bachelor herds there is a constant interlocking of horns that reminds us that the rutting season is not far off.

Unexpectedly coming out of the forest a small Elephant herd will be wandering along quietly browsing through the trees. The only ones we see are much smaller than the behemoths of the South and their comfort zone is quite large.

Giraffes are plentiful, here we bump into many individuals of the Masai Mara kind, with their star shaped markings and their uncomfortable looking gait. They too are not too comfortable if the vehicles move in close. Industrious Yellow-billed Oxpeckers adorn almost every individual we see.

Out to the West of the Lodge the forests open into plains. Congregating on these plains we find huge herds of ungulates. We slowly approach but the animals are easily spooked. We criss-cross the open savannah and the herds of Zebra, Eland and Wildebeest skittishly run off in all directions. A great opportunity to get the shutter clicking while panning the panicked animals.

We approach a Warthog and he simply stares us down, almost as if he doesn’t want to waste any excess energy. Eye to eye confrontation with tusks being slightly lifted in the air makes easy pickings of this usually skittish animal.

In Lake Tagalala there is action aplenty. On every drive we skirt along the edge of the water and the crocodiles, although small in comparison to the Neolithic Mara Crocs, are lying only metres from the edge of the water.

The Hippos in contrast stay clear of the vehicle. There is action aplenty and for the first time I witness a Hippo mating. I can almost see a look of total satisfaction spread across his face and the only giveaway is the extra set of nostrils just peeking out of the water in front of him.

The carnivores of the Selous have a really hard life. On our very first day driving into the Lodge we come across 4 Lions on the move. A female with 3 subadults. They are thin and hungry. We don’t see them again. Out beyond the grave of Selous, the nefarious hunter after whom the Reserve is named, we find two maneless males taking an afternoon nap in the shade of a tree. It would appear that the males of the Selous are all maneless.  Perhaps they are offspring of the maneless male that was a maneater along the Rufiji River. Another lion sighting is of a single Lioness, a beautiful cat with almost no markings, evidence that she hasn’t had to fight too hard with other lions for her food. She gets into stalking mode with a herd of Impala but she is so thin I feel like shooting an Impala for her! We wait patiently for something to happen but it doesn’t and we move on.

Barking Baboons alert us to the presence of a predator as we start approaching Lake Tagalala. The bets are on for a Leopard but the bush is so thick and inaccessible that we move on only to be called back ten minutes later when a young Leopard is sighted lying in a clearing.

The chief reason for visiting the Selous, however, is to see the Wild Dogs. One of Africa’s most endangered species the African Painted Dog is high on the agenda. The likelihood of seeing Wild Dogs in the Selous is better than in most places as they have a reported 1 500 individuals in the Reserve. Each morning and afternoon we set out with the explicit purpose of finding the dogs. They had been sighted a day prior to our arrival and we scour the paths and roads for signs. Spoor is sighted on many days, but no dogs.

Our last day, we opt for an all day safari. In hindsight, not such a good idea, as the heat is unbearable. We keep the vehicle moving the whole day as the wind, at least, cools us down. Finally, it is time to return to the Lodge and we still have not seen the elusive Wild Dogs. We approach Lake Tagalala for the last time and as we come over the rise the call of “Dogs, Dogs” reverberates through the air causing whiplash reactions. In the perfect place at the perfect time we find six Wild Dogs cooling themselves on the wet sand of the lake. They have just eaten, their bellies completely distended they lie surveying the land. We are able to move in close, drive around them, again and again and the absence of any other vehicles gives us front row seats at a show that beats the hell out of any rock concert. This is one of life’s gooseflesh moments. A short hour in the fading African sunset etched into memory. I hope there will be many more African sunsets with Wild Dogs in my future.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

The Selous Game Reserve's Winged Creatures

Undoubtedly you cannot ignore the sights and sounds of the birds of the Selous in Tanzania. On most safaris the moment you set foot into a reserve you will become aware of the noise that fills the air like a well orchestrated symphony. The Selous is no different in that respect, but what is surprising, is the sheer volume of visible species on show.

We leave the Sand Rivers Lodge on our first game drive and not one kilometre from the lodge we witness a Tawny Eagle demolishing a Buffalo Weaver’s nest. The pieces of grass fly off in every direction while a single Buffalo Weaver tries in vain to bombard the gigantic raptor. The cacophony of calls resounds back and forth as all the nest inhabitants flap to and fro valiantly and futilely defending their home. We leave them to it and head off in the direction of the Beho Beho Hills in search of Black Rhino. All we find however, are many journeys of Giraffe and some Yellow Billed Oxpeckers.

In the following days Lake Tagalala proves to be a goldmine of wings and beaks. January appears to be the season for juvenile Fish Eagles and around this body of water the Fish Eagles do not appear to have clearly demarcated territories even though we hear constant territorial calls. On almost every tree another Fish Eagle is found perching, surveying the lie of the land. On the edges of the lake we find a plethora of other species from the smallest Kingfisher to the larger Pink Back Pelican all participating in some serious fishing.

Further afield in the savannah areas the Northern Carmine Bee Eater forages ceaselessly. The Northern Carmine is an inventive bird that will make use of a vehicle moving through the grass to scare up its prey. An afternoon drive turns into an opportunity for fun when we specifically drive next to the road in order to scare up the insects. At least 50 Northern Carmines take their turns at dive bombing in front of and next to the vehicle while we desperately set our shutters clicking.

The setting sun presents us with an opportunity to back light a Maribou Stork with the cleanest legs I’ve yet seen on one of these rather macabre looking birds and we are able to get close to a Southern Ground Hornbill taking home some tasty grasshoppers.

A late afternoon drive along the banks of the Rafiji River delivers a Bee Eater Photographers feast along with a Grey Headed Kingfisher and some Golden Weavers.

But the personal cherry on the cake must surely be the Palm Nut Vulture. A weird looking creature not found in many places on the Continent.  We are fortunate enough to have three different sightings of this rare bird. It brings me ever-closer to completing my list of Vulture sightings.

Methinks this reserve must be on every birder’s highly desirable list. I don’t think that I managed to photograph even a tenth of the birds on show and had I been a birding photographer I would certainly spend a lot more time just sitting next to Lake Tagalala where the winged creatures of the Selous present a constant display just waiting for a camera’s lens. The remoteness of this wilderness ensures that vehicles are at their minimum and some patience will certainly deliver spectacular one-of-a-kind results.

Friday, February 3, 2012

Selous Game Reserve - Heaven or Hell

The plane’s doors open and the oppressive heat is sucked into the plane. Even before I hit the runway I can feel the energy being drained from my body. I am in Dar Es Salam and it is January. Heading for the Selous National Park in the Southernmost part of Tanzania I prepared myself for the heat. Light cotton clothing, hats, sunglasses, sunscreen, open shoes and other paraphernalia meant to keep me cool, but nothing has prepared me for the cloying humidity of being at sea level on the Equator.
The airport building beckons alluringly only to disappoint as many African Airports have the penchant to do. I desperately try to fill in the Arrivals Forms without smudging the print on the card and join the queue. In one of the most bizarre Arrivals areas in an Airport everyone is randomly standing around in a bunch instead of lining up in queues. An officious looking gentleman is weaving his way through the crowd demanding passports. In the one hand I have my passport and the now slightly warped Arrivals card and in my other a US$50 note. He deftly relieves me of the passport and 50 dollar bill in one efficient snatch and disappears back into the crowd. Bewilderment sets in, but I wait, as it would seem the rest of the bunch is waiting. Every few minutes someone’s name is called and a passport is handed back. Soon enough he is calling “Christine, Christine, Christine” and I am handed my passport sans the US$50 but with the obligatory Visa stamp in place. Then it’s straight through to collect bags that are randomly packed out onto the floor. Our group gathers together and it isn’t too long before we are out through the doors and into the enticing seats of an air conditioned vehicle. I sink back in my seat gratefully appreciating the cool interior.
Before too long we are at the Hotel and are quickly swallowed into the air conditioned lobby. This was to be our last night in any relative comfort and it was just as well that I didn’t know this at the time. Early the next morning it’s back to the same Airport, however, this time onto a Cessna Caravan and we head skywards out to the Selous.

As we head South the scenery below us instantly changes and there is no sign of human habitation at all. The wilderness stretches out as far as the eye can see. This is truly the Africa I have wanted to experience. An Africa that is still almost as it has been for millions of years. If the carriers we are flying with had to clean their windows of their plane then there would be an image or two of this endless vista but murky is the word for the images captured from the air. We hardly have time to survey the landscape when the pilot takes a quick turn and one of our group looks anxiously out of the window and exclaims “is this where we are going to land?!?!” Amid guffaws of laughter the plane lands (or one could say bounces) on an apology for an airstrip and as the doors open once again that oppressive heat engulfs us all. We jump onto the open vehicles and the relief of the wind as we drive is deliciously cooling. I feel like an intrepid explorer. We are instantly inamongst the game that we have come to see.  I silently curse the lack of a camera in my hands and make a note to myself to buy a point-and-shoot that will fit into my bag before my next foray into the bush especially as we round a bend and there are four lions making their way towards us.
Photograph by Antoinette Kruger

We bump our way up a rough and ready track towards the Lodge. The palm leaf covered building can hardly be seen through the vegetation as it hugs the slope directly on the River Bank. Step inside and the front of the building opens out onto a stupendous view of the Rafiji River. We are at River Sands Lodge. Wallowing in front of the Lodge are huge numbers of Hippos enjoying the cool water swirling around them. Welcome drinks are certainly welcome this time round and the ice cubes are as precious as diamonds to parched throats. We are whisked off to our rooms through the searing heat and the shower that spews streams of water is a another welcome sight. Our open air room is better than any tent I have stayed in and the most delicious sight is the fan above the bed that can keep running night and day because there is actually power all the time guests are in the Lodge. What forethought!
Photograph by Antoinette Kruger

In the next few days we are to discover that the bush around the Lodge houses all sorts of wildlife from Vervet Monkeys with black as soot faces below a white brow to birds of all sizes and species and then of course a plethora of geckos that at night crowd around the lanterns and fight for their little bit of territory and their dinner that consists of a wide variety of moths and other insects. The public loo has a resident bat that sends some scuttling while a Water Monitor in the pool keeps us all away from the water. I have a run-in with a Blister Beetle (not an experience to be recommended) and a zillion mozzies that fight through the Mosquito sprays, creams and lotions to get their bit of South African blood while I consume gallons of Campari and Tonic (in an effort to ward off the malaria of course) and each evening the sight of ice cubes is enticing enough to set off an orgasm.

At the end of my stay I leave feeling that I have truly been closer to Africa than ever before, that I have suffered for my craft (take note when you see my images) and that I will do it again and again (only next time I think I’m going in the winter). The paradox is that even though I feel as though I have been scorched by the fires of hell I was once again in a piece of Africa’s heaven.