Tanzanian bush rush
"We had some excitement at dinner last night," is my welcome at Beho Beho, the oldest camp in the Selous Game Reserve. "We heard a terrific fuss near the swimming pool and when we got torches on the noise we saw five lions tucking into an impala they'd pulled down. Then a bunch of elephants picked their way between the bandas [an East African term for permanent shelters] - so we were pretty much trapped at the table until things calmed down."
It's my hunch I'll get no repeat performance. Most trips to Tanzania's titanic game reserve are flying visits; the bush airstrips which service its handful of remote camps are an hour by light aircraft from Dar es Salaam, but mine is also a figurative flying visit. The little Cessna is scheduled to pick me up in 48 hours, and in that time it's my task to get the measure of two of the Selous's finest safari operations, take a trip up the largest waterway in East Africa, and spend a night in the open bush.
Most of all, I'm looking forward to a reunion with an old friend from Zimbabwe. Sean Lues is an award-winning safari guide and wildlife photographer, but like many of his peers he has been forced into "exile" by the collapse of Zimbabwe's safari industry. The game parks of Zambia, Kenya and Tanzania have been the beneficiaries of this diaspora, as Zimbabwe's standards of training and guiding set the benchmark for excellence.
When I last saw Sean he was waving goodbye from the airstrip at Mana Pools National Park, on the banks of the Zambezi. Now, to my delight, I spot him waving hello from the airstrip at Beho Beho, near the bright mirror of Lake Tagalala. There is something about these bush farewells and greetings, the tiny human figures on a landscape of stupendous scale, which never fails to move me. We have six years' worth of news to exchange. "Yes, I get homesick, and I'll go back when Zimbabwe recovers, as it surely will," says Sean. "But the chance to work here is something special. Not only is the wildlife awesome, but the Selous has history."
Africa's largest single game reserve is three times bigger than the Serengeti. Its lifeblood is the Rufiji river system, which sustains huge populations of elephant, buffalo and wildebeest, as well as pretty much the entire tick-list of mammals, including such rarities as black rhinoceros and wild dog. Although its low-impact, high-quality tourism is confined to a fraction of the reserve north of the river, the immensity of the wilderness south of the Rufiji has long held totemic status for bush romantics.
This is the Africa of Frederick Courtney Selous, blood sportsman turned conservationist. A celebrated English elephant hunter, he was Theodore Roosevelt's hunting guide, among other exploits, but changed his spots. He predicted extinction for the herds and their predator dependants if the slaughter continued, but by the time the bulk of the reserve was proclaimed in 1922 and named in his honour, Selous was lying under its sun-baked soil, victim of a skirmish between British and German troops in the East African campaign of the First World War.
"His grave and the German trenches are very near camp," Sean tells me. "We'll have a look at them tomorrow. But first let me show you the perfect place for a sundowner."
I am already dazed by the intimate splendour of Beho Beho, for which "camp" is an inadequate name. Beho Beho means "cooling breezes" and although the Bailey family first raised a simple camp on its elevated site 30 years ago, it was completely rebuilt in 2004. Its eight large stone-and-thatch bandas have the seclusion, comfort and style of private bush homes; an impression reinforced by antique bric-a-brac and family snapshots of the Baileys and friends.
I'm a purist when it comes to bush accommodation. I want no artifice of luxury to come between me and the great, sweet-smelling, bird-calling, grunt-roar-and-whoop-filled spaces outside, even at night. My banda, for all its magnificence, perfectly fulfils this requirement: it is open to a huge veranda overhanging the plains (after sunset the faint-hearted can have its front "wall" sealed with canvas) and I can shower alfresco. It is already breaking my heart that such perfection will be mine for only 12 hours.
Sean's perfect sundowner spot is a natural balcony above the Msine, one of the Rufiji's tributaries. The deep but narrow stream is choked with hippo, and a couple of hefty crocodile lounge on rocks. On the way back to camp we get traffic: three towering bull elephants who won't let us pass. "Hate to do this to you, guys, but we've got to get home before dark," says Sean, revving the engine. The big bulls grumble and flounce, half-turn, kick the dust and throw up their heads with irritable bugle calls. Such confrontations used to frighten me, but not only do I trust Sean with my life, I can now tell the elephants only want to intimidate us. And sure enough, they eventually pull over into the bush.
Dinner is delightful, but eventful only for its fine gastronomy and open-air setting. I have a date with Sean at first light so retreat early to my banda, determined to make the most of it. No matter how tired, I never fail to complete the bush day without 30 minutes of solitude, listening to the night noises, soothed by the infinite enormity of the dark beyond the lamplight.
It's a very busy morning. Although Beho Beho is the only Selous camp set away from the Rufiji it has the lakes of Tagalala and Manzi on its doorstep and a spectacular backdrop of hills, plains and woodland. We meet more of the locals - giraffe, zebra, kudu and massive tuskers with the kind of "big ivory" seldom seen these days - on the short drive to the Selous grave, a simple tomb of local stone. "They say the East African campaign was the last gentleman's war," says Sean. "When the German general discovered his men had killed the famous Frederick Courtney Selous he sent a personal apology to the British command."
He points towards a distinctive hill in the middle distance. "Mount Johnston. It was named after a Scots cartographer who died near here in 1879."
It turns out that the premature death of Keith Johnston, at the age of 34, has inspired other expeditions. Mike Shand, a cartographer from the department of geography and geomatics at Glasgow University, has turned the search for his grave into a personal mission - since 2001 he has tried to locate it over four intensive trips. Johnston belonged to an eminent family of Edinburgh cartographers who counted David Livingstone as a friend, and he made his first trip to Africa at the invitation of the Royal Geographic Society. It was a short, fateful visit. Six weeks after arriving on the East African coast he succumbed to a combination of malaria and dysentery.
"His colleague, Joseph Thomson, buried him, and carved his initials and date of death on a nearby tree," Mike tells me when I'm back in Scotland. "The last-known recorded sighting of the grave was in 1897 and I've narrowed the search area to half a square kilometre around the Beho Beho River. I haven't given up yet, although the tree may be gone."
After a bush breakfast by Lake Tagalala, where we rendezvous with other guests who have been boating among one of the largest populations of crocodile in Africa, Sean delivers me into the care of Sand Rivers Selous, another stylish settlement of open-fronted bandas with heart-stirring views of the wide, sinuous Rufiji. All the Selous camps - and there are only seven in the whole reserve - offer guided game walks, but Sand Rivers specialises in extended walking safaris, as well as trips up the river to precipitous Stiegler's Gorge, leopard country.
Every guest is invited to try at least one night's "fly-camping", which is how I find myself watching bush TV - the mesmeric dance of campfire flames - with Ernest Okeyo who, with an armed ranger, has walked me to a heavenly spot on the riverbank in time for sunset. En route we see nothing more threatening than some skittish impala, several fish eagles and a fly-past of pelican, and after drinks and dinner I'm eager to try my tent, a kind of transparent Wendy House made entirely of mosquito net.
This is as close to sleeping under the stars as you get. Despite the squabbling of bush babies and snorting of hippo, I sleep well, surfacing dozily to inspect the march of Orion through my "ceiling". In the early hours I'm jerked awake more abruptly by explosive roars. Across the Rufiji is a lion who knows we are here, and wants us to know he is here, too.
My heart thumps, but I'm happy. If you ever stop being thrilled by the lion's roar you have stopped being thrilled by Africa.
FACT FILE TANZANIA
How to get there
• British Airways has flights from Heathrow to Dar es Salaam. Aardvark Safaris Scotland (ASS) will tailor itineraries to include connections from Scotland. Call Alice Gully on 01578 760 222 or visit www.aardvarksafaris.com
WHERE TO STAY
• ASS offers three nights, on an all-inclusive basis, at Beho Beho and three at Sand Rivers Selous for 3,062 with regional and international flights, light aircraft charters, transfers, full board including drinks and all activities. Possible beach extensions include three nights on Zanzibar at Matemwe Bungalows for 479, full-board, with flights from Dar es Salaam.
AND THERE'S MORE
• The best practical guide to visiting this part of East Africa is the Bradt Travel Guide Tanzania, by Philip Briggs, priced 14.95.