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.