Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Selous Game Reserve

Tuesday, July 12, 2005

Last Saturday morning our Tanzanian guide with his particularly Caucasian name, Kenneth, met us at the house at 7am for the drive to the game reserve. Kenneth had 10 years of experience doing safaris. At least that's what he said. Looking at him that you'd think that would have made him about 7 years old when he started. In any case, he ended up being damn good at his job.

Neal, my computer nerd colleague, was the third member of the trio. So Neal confesses to be a bit anal when it come to some things. When I saw that he had three alarm clocks in his posession I figured it out. He met me at the front door with three bulging bags, his safari hat on, and was toying with his GPS. He made a bold confession that he wasn't bringing his laptop. I looked at my tiny backpack and Nalgene bottle and I all of the sudden felt inadequate - like I probably should have thought through this packing thing a bit better. Anyway, Kenneth was waiting so off we went.

The trip started out with the drive from hell. The Selous Game Reserve is the largest in all of Africa but it's far from the most frequented. The roads are much worse than those that lead to the national parks (i.e. Serengeti). A lot of people take bush planes to get there though we decided that it'd be more fun to drive. Silly us. We had 2-lane paved highway for an hour and a half, then dirt road, then nasty dirty road. We came to this small town and bought some diesel - our last opportunity. We even had to carry diesel in the supplemental cans to have enough to drive around the park and then get back out. The fuel stop was also necessary to rid myself of coffee and stretch my legs. I was thinking how happy I was to get out of the Land Cruiser after bouncing around in the back like a rubber ball and then Kenneth annouced that the road was going to get bad from there on in. Get bad? My ass said that the road was already bad.

It actually didn't get that much worse. It's just he kept going the same speed which made it feel worse. Six hours after we left Dar, we arrived at Mbega Camp which was located on the Rufiji River. It's a large river that doubles in size during the rainy season. It meanders for hundreds of miles before it finally dumps into the Indian Ocean south of Dar. The camp was just outside the reserve and would be our home for the next two nights.

We had our lunch overlooking the river, the hippos, and crocodiles with very cool-looking Colobus monkeys dropping sticks on our heads (I think they were doing it on purpose). We then settled into our framed tent which had full bathroom facilities though no hot water. As Neal laid out his alarm clocks, I prepared my stuff for the boat safari which started at 4pm sharp. Everything we did with the guides was either exactly on time or even in advance of scheduled time. It's odd because meetings in Dar never happen on time and people are usually late. This trip was extremely organized and timely. And it was all run by Tanzanians. Good thing we had Neal's clocks.

The boat safari was a 2 1/2-hour cruise on the river looking at the various things both in the water and on the shore. Our guide was a great guy named Ramadani and there were a couple of Germans (the more goofy eastern kind) who joined us. We saw colorful birds, hippos, crocodiles, lizards, eagles, etc. It was very cool. Then there was the sunset. At one point we just stopped and stared at it. Kept thinking, damn, I'm in Africa.

We had a nice dinner prepared for us and the other handful of guests, each at our assigned table. Neal's a vegetarian and that's sometimes a problem in this country. When he announced to the staff that he didn't eat meat they sort of tilted their heads giving him a puzzled look. This sort of thing always makes me uncomfortable. I'm glad I was raised to eat pretty much whatever is put in front of me. I would not have survived in my travels otherwise. One of the guys replied to Neal that it was ok because we were going to be having chicken. Then Neal had to respectfully tell him that chicken is in fact considered meat and that he wouldn't be able to eat it. Thinking sitting with the dorky East Germans might be more relaxing at this point, I got up to go find the guy that had the cold beer. When I returned, the international incident had subsided and it was agreed that Neal was going to be eating eggs. We ended up having a nice dinner before heading off to our sleeping quarters.

During the night hippos and elephants roam the camp. The hippos sleep in the shallow water by day and by night they cruise inland munching on a similar diet to that of the elephants. They get their fill before sunrise and are back in the water pretending they were there the whole time. It's a bit disconcerting to have their fat bodies meandering around the tents. They're not really dangerous or anything, it's just the sounds. Having said that, I read that hippos are responsible for more human deaths than any other animal in Africa. There's something behind those beady little eyes sticking out of the water. There was also a hyiena that was excited about something, probably involving food. Sounded like a hysterical laugh/scream thing. I didn't sleep much that first night.

Yellow baboons cruise the camp area as well. We saw them the next morning. In addition to eating fruit from the trees, they rake through the elephant dung looking for food. Seems like a bad way to get breakfast but elephants have bad digestive systems. They only process about 40% of what they eat (which is why they have to eat 18 hours/day). The rest goes straight through. Makes a nice little buffet table for the baboon.

Day two was vehicle safari. Kenneth knows the reserve like the back of his hand. We saw most of what you might want, much of it up close. The top of the Land Cruiser opened up and we could poke through, look around, take photos and so forth. We didn't see any of the big cats though they tend to be more elusive in reserves than national parks. In reserves you can drive wherever you want. In parks you have to stay on the roads. One advantage to the parks is that the animals get used to you staying on the roads and they are a little less spooked by your presence. Lions, leopards and so forth are consequently more bold.

Other than one elephant mother that got a little aggressive, there wasn't anything scary. I also knew that I was a faster runner than Neal so if anything happened, his demise would buy me some time to get away. Anyway, just the landscape was unbelievably beautiful - even if there had been no animals. It was definitely one of my top all-time travel experiences. At one point we pulled up to a lake and all around us were baboons playing grab-ass, a dozen or so giraffes (some humorously drinking from the lake), waterbucks grazing, impalas (the gazelle not the car), storks and so forth. It was like you think a safari should be but you know it never is. Alas it was.

I didn't want to inundate you with a ton of safari photos. Everybody's are probably very similar. But I had to post a few. If you ever come, you will know what I'm talking about. I haven't done the Serengeti yet but I've heard it can be bumper to bumper there. One of the things that was so nice about our trip is that we were mostly alone, a lot of times not talking. Just watching. Very cool.

The next day we had a walking safari before heading home. It is even more quiet since you don't have the sound of the Land Cruiser. You see and hear things that you don't in a vehicle. We had a herd of wildebeests come running in our direction sending chills up my spine. They stopped about 30 yards from us. There was a slight breeze in our direction so they couldn't smell us and identify what we were. They stared, occasionally snorting, until they gave up and decided we might be dangerous and they headed off.

The drive home was long but it wasn't as bad as I thought it would be. I sat in the back studying Swahili and looking out the window relishing in the previous days' experiences. It was a pretty eventful few days but I'll stop there.


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