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.