Sleep well, Tanzania: Wild at heart

Following the rains, this month sees the great wilderness reserves of Ruaha and the Selous fully accessible once more. Time to plan a safari to two of southern Tanzania’s finest camps, Siwandu and Jongomero

Q Just how ‘off the beaten track’ are we talking?
Lying at the heart of Tanzania’s less-trodden southern safari circuit, Selous Game Reserve covers around 45,000 sq km of plains, forests and hills – that’s a lot of space for immersing yourself in the solitude of African wilderness.

Q How do I get there?
Kenya Airways has daily flights between Nairobi and Dar es Salaam, from where it’s a 45-minute transfer in a single-propeller light aircraft to a rough airstrip right in the Selous.

Q And I’m camping, right?
Hardly. The ‘tents’ at Siwandu are not only seriously spacious (think ‘tent-house suite’ rather than ‘flappy flysheets’), but they also have king-size beds scattered with cushions, ceiling fans, en suite bathrooms, open-air, hot-water showers and decks furnished with sofas and writing desks.

Q Next you’ll be telling me they have butlers…
Actually, yes, they do. After you’ve been met at the airstrip and driven to camp, you’re greeted at Siwandu with a welcome drink and then introduced to your personal butler who takes care of everything from laundry to turning down your bed. A Maasai, meanwhile, is on hand to guide you to and from your tent in the evenings when it’s not safe to walk alone. Siwandu isn’t fenced. Hippo, elephant and other animals are free to come and go as they please.

Q Why would you want to go walkabout at night?
For dinner, of course! The tented suites (13 in all) are widely spaced along a lakeshore, but meals are served at the main camp where you’ll find a lounge area, bar, swimming pool and dining deck. Sometimes tables are set up around a campfire so you can dine under the stars.

Q Meals must be pretty basic in such a remote location?
On the contrary, you can expect fine dining at Siwandu. It’s amazing what the chef rustles up, from freshly baked cakes for afternoon tea to three-course evening meals. Even when you are out on game drives or boat trips, your guide will prepare lavish bush breakfasts or gourmet lunches.

Q Ah, yes, almost forgot, you’re there for the wildlife aren’t you?
It’s not easily forgotten. The Selous supports an incredible range of species. You’ll almost certainly see elephant, buffalo, hippo, giraffe, zebra, impala and lion, while the reserve’s 300+ bird varieties include a dazzling array of bee-eaters, kingfishers, storks, herons and eagles. The Selous is also a stronghold for one of Africa’s last remaining populations of wild dog. In fact, there are few places where you stand a better chance of seeing these highly endangered canines. Another highlight of the Selous is the Rufiji River and its associated lakes. These pulse with wildlife, particularly during the dry, warm months between June and September when animals are increasingly drawn to water. With vegetation sparse, this is also the perfect season for walking safaris. You can even go fly camping, sleeping in simple camps in the bush. Boat trips are a highlight of any visit, but especially rewarding during the hotter, wetter ‘green season’, October to March.

Q The Selous seems to have it all. Why bother combining it with Ruaha?
The Ruaha National Park is a complete contrast to the Selous. For starters, it’s higher. Whereas the Selous is barely 100m above sea level, Ruaha is ten times that altitude, lying in a branch of the Rift Valley. This gives it a completely different look and feel, with wooded escarpments surrounding grassy plains dotted with magnificent baobabs. But what makes Ruaha really special is its sheer size and remoteness.

Q But isn’t Selous big enough and remote enough for you?
Ruaha is not only huge (it could almost swallow Switzerland if you include its neighbouring protected areas), but it’s another 90-minute bush flight west from Selous. That puts it in a very remote part of southern Tanzania. For safari connoisseurs there is probably nowhere that better epitomises ‘wild Africa’.

Q So now we must be seriously roughing it?
No. Siwandu’s sister camp, Jongomero, offers similar levels of pampering in Ruaha National Park. The eight luxurious tents all have en suite bathrooms and private verandahs, while the main camp is a thatched masterpiece with an open-fronted lounge and bar overlooking the riverbed. The food is superb and there’s even a swimming pool where you can take a cooling dip while watching elephants stroll past.

Q Is the wildlife as good as the Selous?
Ruaha’s elephants are legendary. It’s not uncommon to see herds of 100 or more individuals, particularly during the dry season. There could be 20,000 of them in total. The National Park also supports large herds of buffalo, as well as giraffe, zebra, hippo, crocodile, lion, leopard, wild dog and a diverse range of antelope, from the stately sable to the diminutive dik-dik. The birdlife is extraordinary – around 530 species have been recorded, making it one of Africa’s premier birding destinations.

Q Lasting impressions?
In the Selous it has to be tracking wild dog, watching elephants wade across the Rufiji and bee-eaters swarm around their nesting colonies in the riverbanks. In Ruaha, it’s mingling with elephant herds, marveling at mighty baobabs and returning to camp in the early evening having not seen another vehicle all day.