June 2011 Safari Diary - by Claire Robertson

Claire Robertson Safari in Selous, Ruaha and Zanzibar

I recently had a wonderful three week safari in Tanzania.
Arriving at Dar es Salaam after an overnight flight from Heathrow, we flew with Coastal Aviation to the Selous Game Reserve.
The BA flight was delayed, but Coastal waited for all the passengers on board and we arrived only a couple of hours late in Selous.

Claire Robertson

Lake Manze Camp – Selous Game Reserve

On arrival at the Siwandu airstrip in Selous Lower, we were met by staff from Lake Manze Camp and climbed aboard a comfortable Landcruiser 4x4. Our drive to the camp was a safari in itself; we saw a male lion sleeping in a sand river, groups of impala, baboons and giraffe.

Lake Manze
Beautiful Lake Manze
Masaai askari  Manze dining
On entering the large bar and dining tent at the camp we were offered delicious cold drinks and given a warm welcome by Sara, the Italian manager. A Maasai askari showed us to our spacious and well-equipped tents before escorting us to the main tent for a Tanzanian lunch of beans, beef and coleslaw. A Swahili menu is served there once or twice a week, to give guests the chance to see what the local food is like. Elephants often wander by the lodge!

Lake Manze tent  Elephant pushes palm trees

While resting before a late afternoon safari, I was disturbed by a crashing noise and looking out saw an elephant hitting its head against a tree ten feet away. I was puzzled by this behaviour but was told that elephants do this in order to dislodge the palm nuts of which they are very fond.

Rashidi  Manze hippos
Later in the afternoon, when it was a bit cooler, our guide Rashidi took us on a boat trip down in the lake where we found ourselves surrounded by groups of hippo bobbing up and down in the water.
Selous Malachite Kingfisher  Manze giraffes
Crocodiles were sunning themselves on the sandy banks and there were many beautiful birds: small exotic malachite kingfishers perching on branches over the water and large numbers of colourful bee-eaters nesting in the sandy banks while herons, egrets and open-billed storks were fishing nearby. We returned for a dinner of soup, barbecued chicken, risotto and coleslaw followed by delicious coffee cake. The next morning we were told there had been hippo, lion and elephant in the camp overnight while we were sleeping in our comfortable beds.

Lake Manze boat safari  Selous Fish Eagle

After breakfast on the way to a morning boat safari, we encountered a family of elephant with babies. Then we motored gently along the lake past a lone buffalo immersed up to his shoulders in the water to Bird Island where birds of every description jostled for space in the bushes: goliath and grey herons, fish eagles, yellow-billed storks, spoonbills and pelicans. It was a lovely relaxing way to view the varied wildlife.

Fly Camp from Selous Impala

Wild Dogs, Selous  Impala Flycamp Team

After lunch we were driven through more of the Selous Reserve to meet a car and guide (Gerard and Makubi) from Selous Impala Camp as we were going to spend a night fly-camping in the bush. On the way we were lucky enough to see a pair of African hunting dogs resting in the shade.

At the camp we were looked after by Gerald our guide, Makubi the driver, Polycarp, the butler, Pascal the chef, Husseini the tent attendant and reassuringly, we were accompanied by an armed Ranger Thomas, from the Reserve.

Impala Flycamp tent  Impala Flycamp tent
Our tents had been pitched near Lake Siwandu. Although these were much smaller than those in the main camp they were equipped with comfortable mattresses and a small bedside table bearing a candle lamp and torches. Separate tents housed a shower and loo.
  Flycamp Dinner
In the evening, we sat beside a campfire sipping drinks as we watched the sun setting across the lake; magical. Then, sitting around a table in a small dining tent, we were served an amazing camp dinner of celery soup followed by grilled chilli calamari with baby potatoes and salad followed by crêpe suzette - all freshly cooked for us. Pascal assured us all was cooked on a simple grill over a bed of charcoal.

Impala Walking Safari 

Impala Flycamp breakfast

Tea was brought to our tent early next morning as we were to leave at 6.30 for a walking safari. It was pleasant walking in the cool, early morning sunshine while Gerald pointed out tracks of leopard, hyena, genet, hippo and impala. He showed us different tree seeds and explained how these were distributed by animals, pointed out where termites had constructed nests up the trunks of tree and how ants made galls on thorn bushes. He gave us seeds to examine and explained the ways in which animals helped in their distribution and germination. We spotted a red squirrel running up a tree, many weaver bird nests and, in the distance, a herd of impala bounding away from some unseen predator.

After a full English breakfast at the flycamp, we bade farewell to our staff of six and set off to our next port of call: En route we saw groups of giraffe browsing or sitting beside the track, waterbuck with white circles like targets on their backsides, and were fortunate to see a pair of lions mating.

Selous Impala Lodge  Elephant crossing below tent 7

Selous Impala Camp – Selous Game Reserve

Impala Camp is very impressive, set high above the banks of the wide Rufiji river. On arrival we were greeted by Barbara, the Italian manager, with her assistants Andreas and Lorenzo (both also Italian – all speak wonderful English) and presented with cool drinks which were welcome after our drive. Our tents were set on a wooden platform with a gorgeous view overlooking a bend in the river. My spacious tent had a large comfortable bed, a polished wooden floor and a spacious bathroom. Whilst settling in I heard a crashing noise outside and on investigating saw a large elephant emerging from the bushes below before slowly crossing the river.

Selous Elephant on riverbank  Selous Moon
At four o’clock when it was becoming a little cooler, we chose to embark on a river safari. Our well-informed guide Gerald accompanied us pointing out the wildlife: large and small crocodiles, hippo, a pair of Cape buffalo, an elephant noisily trampling down bushes, giraffes striding along beside the river and 3 large monitor lizards basking on a fallen log as well as the many water birds. On our return trip we landed at the foot of a high bank and, on climbing to the top, found a table set with glasses, a bottle of sparkling wine in an ice-bucket and covered dishes containing samosas and nuts. As we were preparing to sit down to enjoy this unexpected treat we spotted a hyena slinking across the slope above us and a skein of pelicans flying overhead. It was lovely to relax and watch the sun go down behind the borassus palms across the water. As Gerald ferried us back to camp the moon rose overhead; a perfect end to the afternoon. Our delicious dinner of leek soup, tandoori chicken and pumpkin pie was served at an outside table overlooking the river. On our way back to our tents, feeling comfortably tired, we looked up to see a shadow on the moon; the beginning of a lunar eclipse.
Selous Hyena     Selous Lions
The next morning we were woken at 6 o’clock with a cup of tea ready for a game drive. Quite close to the camp we found a hyena beside her extensive den. At this early hour there were many beautiful birds to be seen: Van Decken’s hornbills, a go-away bird (named for its cry), pigmy falcon, snake and marsh eagles and a pearl spotted owlet being chased by a colourful roller. We stopped to observe a pride of about twelve lions sleeping in the shade in a sand river bed close to the road watched by a family of baboons playing in the trees directly above them and a group of mongooses all of whom seemed oblivious to any danger. The pride included several playful cubs which we were told would be about three and seven months old. We stopped for a luxurious safari breakfast of bread, pastries, boiled eggs and fruit while seated facing the emerald green margins of Lake Nzelakela before driving back to camp.
Impala Hippo  Impala Pool

Later, while escorting me to the magnificent Indonesian longhouse style restaurant for lunch, the Masaai askari pointed out the resident hippo, Andrea, calmly munching grass not far from the path, his skin gleaming in the afternoon sun.

After a relaxing afternoon reading or cooling off in the attractive oval swimming pool, we went for an evening game drive, the highlight of which was returning to the lion pride we had viewed early in the day.

Selous young lion on tree  Selous young lion on tree

We saw two males, three lionesses and seven cubs, one of which had decided to climb a tree! Apparently, this is unusual behaviour and we were able to spend a long time watching and photographing the entertaining antics of this cub as he tried to make himself comfortable on a horizontal branch. As we pulled forward onto the bridge above the sand river where the other lions were resting, our driver informed us that he had a puncture. At first we thought he was joking, but soon realised this was for real! He carefully reversed about 75 yards and we dismounted, keeping a careful watch for wildlife, while Gerald and our driver changed the tyre. Returning to camp in the dusk we stopped by the hyena den we had seen that morning; and found the mother feeding her two, unexpectedly attractive cubs.

Impala campfire site  Impala Dining

Back at Impala we enjoyed convivial sundowners seated around the glowing fire pit under a starry sky before our dinner was served to us at a table set on the bank high above the river.

Next day we took a two-hour Coastal Airways flight to Ruaha National Park. As the clouds cleared and we were able to see the bush spread out below us with giant baobab trees, acacias and blue hills in the distance, I felt Iike Meryl Streep in Out of Africa. Soon we could see the Great Ruaha River gleaming blue ahead of us before we touched down smoothly on a dirt airstrip with zebra grazing beside the runway.

Kwihala Camp – Ruaha National Park

Kwihala Gecko  Kwihala Mess Tent
We were collected by Pietro, the Italian manager of Kwihala camp who is also an exceedingly knowledgeable guide. Kwihala is situated in the bush in the heart of Ruaha National Park and, although not a permanent camp like the others we visited, is exceedingly comfortable and stylish. The large tents are decorated with a signature baobab design which first greets the visitor on an impressive appliquéd wall-hanging in the dining area and this theme is carried through on bedspreads and crockery.
 Kwihala Tent  Kwihala Tent Bathroom
The ensuite tents were spacious, with views over the bush landscape overlooking the Mwagusi basin. After a quiet afternoon we were taken on our first safari drive.
Ruaha Landscape
The beautiful countryside in Ruaha is very different from the Selous, having hills and rocky outcrops. On the drive Pietro pointed out zebra, giraffe, elephant, kudu and waterbuck as well as many birds.
Ruaha lions on kill  Ruaha lion affection
Near the camp a pride of lions had recently killed a giraffe and each time we drove out we stopped to watch the lions feasting, playing and relaxing until on our final morning there were only stripped bones and entrails left for the scavenging hyenas and jackals. After sundowners around a campfire, dinner at the camp was eaten outside under the stars.
Eagle owl  Great Ruaha River

The following morning we rose early for a breakfast drive in the cool early morning light. We passed large bushes of African milkweed covered in attractive pale mauve flowers. Pietro told us that this plant contains dangerous alkaloids but is the chosen food of caterpillars of the orange Monarch butterfly. They absorb the poison and this renders both the caterpillars and adults inedible thus affording them protection from predators.

We stopped for breakfast beside a kopje where we watched hyrax and blue- and yellow-tailed rock lizards chasing in and out of crevices in the rocks. We then drove down beside the Great Ruaha where Saddle-billed stork and Striated herons were feeding by the river and we saw an eagle owl perching on a hammerkop nest. Our gentle meanderings were interrupted by an exciting call on the car’s radio informing our guide that a cheetah had been seen near the entrance to the Park. Our driver quickly took us to a bank where we soon spotted the cheetah chasing a group of impala on the opposite side of the wide river. However, he was unsuccessful on this occasion so gave up the chase and sauntered slowly off to rest under the shade of a large acacia tree.

Ruaha zebra  Ruaha landscape
Elephants in Mwagusi sand river
After an unusual and delicious lunch of avocado and raisin salad, followed by tandoori chicken and aubergine fritters we spent a quiet few hours reading and writing up our safari notes before our evening game drive. On this drive one of our party spotted a Greater eagle owl on a branch which was near enough to photograph. We were then driven across a dry sand river where elephants were making holes to get water.
Ruaha Elephants  Ruaha elephants
On the other side we encountered a larger group of elephants with a number of young ones hiding between their legs. One little one, obviously tired, lay down but its mother gently nudged it up again with her trunk so that the herd could keep moving. The elephants seemed puzzled to see a vehicle just where they wanted to cross the track and hesitated before moving on, providing us with a wonderful photo opportunity. In the distance a dozen mongooses could be seen standing on their hind legs trying to see what was going on. When we finally thought it safe to drive on without disturbing them, some of the large elephants stood watching us from the bank above the sand river as if to make sure that we were leaving.
Ruaha Buffalo 
We then encountered a large herd of buffalo moving through the long grass; a beautiful sight in the late afternoon sunshine. On this particular evening there was a magnificent sunset with gold streaks in the sky behind the silhouetted palm trees across the sand river.
Ruaha Lions  Kwihala Dining

As we approached the camp in the dusk, we could see hyenas and jackals had taken the place of the lions at the kill. It was amazing to think that in two days a large giraffe had been reduced to virtually nothing. We finished a wonderful day with drinks around the campfire under amazingly bright stars. Each evening we had a different dining experience and tonight we ate our dinner of lemon and orange chicken followed by mango and apple filo pie at an outside table set up in a new area of the camp. From our tents we heard lion roaring in the early morning as we got ready to bid farewell to Pietro and his team.

Mdonya Old River camp
Mdonya Old River Camp - set in a glade of shady acacias

Mdonya Old River Camp – Ruaha National Park

After a drive through the bush where I was excited to have my first view of tiny dik dik, the smallest of the antelopes, we arrived at Mdonya Old River Camp where we were welcomed by Alex, the manager (Australian) and her assistant Sarah, (Danish) as well as by Micol, (Italian) who is now in charge of both Lake Manze and Mdonya camps, and moves between the two.

Mdonya tent interior  Mdonya Shower
Mdonya camp is beautifully set along the banks of an old sand river, used by game as a corridor. So many animals wander through camp. The tents were comfortable and the showers were "skylight" as at Lake Manze - open to the stars though well protected to the sides.
Mdonya tent view  Mdonya Sundowner
We were given a wonderful lunch of pizza, lentil cakes, roasted vegetable skewers with rice salad, followed by lovely fresh fruit. At five o’clock we left for a sundowner drive alongside the dry Mdonya sand river bed which has a spring at one point where animals come to drink. We parked at the top of a hill and enjoyed cool drinks as the sun went down behind the further hills.
Chombo and the vehicle  Ruaha Lion

The following morning I went for a safari drive with Chombo, a young trainee guide and our driver. There is almost always a team of two – driver and guide – on game drives with Adventure Camps. The country in this part of Ruaha is different from that at Kwihala with thicker bush beside the track and fewer rocky outcrops. As we drove beside the old river bed we waited to watch a large herd of buffalo coming down to drink at a spring. Then our engine noise disturbed a magnificent male lion sleeping under a bush just beside the track so he stood up and slowly made his way to somewhere quieter. This area seemed a popular one for dik dik as we saw several on our travels. We also stopped for a while to watch the spectacle of impala fighting. Chombo identified many of the birds we spotted along our route including Magpie shrike, an Eastern chanting goshawk and a Buff crested bustard. We stopped at a designated picnic area to eat our delicious packed lunch. We were watched by curious giraffe as we ate our spicy chicken and assorted salads followed by cake and bananas before driving back to camp.

Buffalo in the Mdonya riverbed  Mdonya Managers
We went for a late afternoon drive and a short distance from the camp we had to wait while a large herd of buffalo crossed the road in a cloud of dust, very beautiful in the low rays of the sun. This time we drove right across the old river bed to park near a baobab on a high cliff overlooking the dry river bed where we enjoyed sundowners; a lovely end to our last evening.
Micol, Alex and Sara came with us and explained about the interesting invention strapped to the back of the vehicle: two tins containing burning elephant dung, the smoke from which drove discouraged tsetse flies from lodging themselves in the vehicle. A very eco-friendly solution!
Elephants pass the tent

Next morning early, elephants passed by the tent as I was packing my things ready to leave. it was the last day of the safari.
However, this was not the end, for we had an exciting ride to the airstrip the following morning. On our way Chombo received a call from Pietro, the manager and guide at Kwihala Camp, to tell us that a rare Pangolin had been seen. Our driver took us quickly to where it had last been seen and, on foot, we quietly approached to where Pietro was waiting to point out the prehistoric-looking scaly anteater hiding in the long grass. We felt very privileged to see an animal that very few people in Tanzania are ever lucky enough to encounter. What an end to an incredible safari!

Mbweni Ruins Hotel - Zanzibar

Zanzibar Aerial  Mbweni Aerial
Our plane picked us up from Ruaha and flew us via Dar es Salaam to Zanzibar where we were met at the airport and driven the 4k to Mbweni.
Mbweni bedroom  Mbweni bathroom
After checking in we were shown to our rooms. My room was just above the beach with a veranda with a lovely view over the Indian Ocean. The bed was large and comfortable, the air-conditioned room was furnished in Zanzibari style and I was delighted to find a ceiling fan and tea and coffee making equipment provided.
Mbweni beach  Mbweni poo  l
After a refreshing swim in the hotel’s small but crystal clear pool I wandered up through the attractive garden to the thatched bar area for a delicious glass of Zanzibar punch. Dinner was served in the Raintree Restaurant above the beach and jetty, where we chose to sample the crab claws with aubergine risotto followed by ice cream; an excellent choice.
mbweni sunset
I retired to bed and slept to the sound of the waves plashing on the beach below.
Stone Town 
The following day we took the hotel shuttle to Stone Town. It was pleasant to wander the narrow streets and admire the decaying grandeur of balconied buildings, many with ornate, carved wooden doors. On the ocean side of the town we visited the magnificent House of Wonders (so named as it was the first building in Zanzibar to have electricity) and the beautiful Old Apothecary which has been recently renovated so that its intricately carved balconies are shown to full advantage.
Zanzibar harbour  Zanzibar fish market
Stone Town, with its lovely harbour, is full of life and although the lanes are too narrow for cars, one has to be careful to avoid being run down by one of the many bicycles and motor scooters. There are several good quality souvenir shops selling carved bowls and ornaments, fabrics and jewellery where we bought attractive and inexpensive gifts. In one street we passed a man sitting outside his workshop carving an intricate wooden plaque, and in another we found a shop where a group of women were designing and making appliquéd wall hangings and furnishing covers based on Arabic designs. I couldn’t resist a beautiful cushion cover and it came with a sheet of paper explaining that these women had set up their own co-operative which has enabled them to earn their own income for the first time so as to improve their standard of living and help to educate their children.
We walked through the fish and vegetable markets, which have their own unique atmosphere. Here stallholders displayed unusual and colourful fruits, exotic sweet-smelling spices and curious dried fish while the fresh fish market was an interesting experience provided you held your nose!
Mbweni chaza pickers  Mbweni jetty

We returned to Mbweni in time for a lunch of samosas and salad. In the afternoon it was pleasant to sit at the end of the jetty where one could look down and see shoals of little silvery fish or watch the elegant sails of the fishing dhows making their way back to harbour.
At low tide there are always women digging for "chaza" a kind of baby clam. Later, at high tide, it was possible to bathe in the ocean and it was lovely to swim in the warm, clear water. The sun set to the west as we sipped on sundowners.

In the evening we went into Stone Town to have dinner. We ate at The House of Spices restaurant run by Cesare’s wife Anna. This is situated on the rooftop of what was once an old merchant’s house and which has been beautifully furnished by Anna. We chose to have the speciality pizzas which were handmade and baked in a traditional wood-fired oven; mine was the best I have ever tasted.

Coconut picker  drinking coconut juice
The following day the hotel arranged for a driver to pick us up for a tour of one of the Zanzibar Spice Farms. We drove past lush smallholdings and along a beautiful road lined with huge mango trees while our driver told us a lot of interesting facts about life on Zanzibar. At the farm we were introduced to our guide and then strolled along shady paths where he picked leaves and seeds for us to smell and told us about cultivating the different fruits and spices. Another young man climbed a tall palm tree to cut down unripe coconuts for a refreshing drink.
Palm frond fashion  more palm frond fashion

He also wove palm fronds into hats and water bottle carriers which he presented to us. At the end of the tour there was the opportunity to buy some of the spices we had just seen.

Red colobus monkey  Red Colobus
After eating the picnic lunch which the hotel had provided we drove on to the Jozani Forest where we were taken to see the protected group of Red Colobus Monkeys which are unique to Zanzibar. While walking through the forest we had to be careful to avoid columns of stinging safari ants marching across the path but we saw a lot of monkeys and were able to get good photographs as they don’t appear to be nervous of humans. At the edge of the forest there is mangrove swamp which we explored on a boardwalk and saw land crabs and kingfishers before driving back to Mbweni.
Zanzibar Dhow  Prison Iland gian tortoise
Next day we went by boat to nearby Prison Island, where there are some extraordinary giant tortoises. We snorkelled off the reef which surrounds the island, and swam off the sandy beach.
Mbweni sunset

In the evening after sundowners in the bar, we enjoyed a wonderful dinner of prawn, avocado and coconut salad followed by fillet of beef with mushrooms and rice.

Sadly, we were now at the end of our holiday and the next day we had to bid farewell to Cesare and Anna and fly back to Dar es Salaam to catch the plane for Heathrow. This holiday will stay in my mind for a long time and sorting through the hundreds of photographs I took provided a lovely reminder of this exotic part of the world and all the marvellous things we saw and did.

photos by Claire Robertson


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