The main highway from the Tanzanian coast at Dar es Salaam cross country to Zambia passes through the 3230sq km of the Mikumi National Park
and speed limits and bumps and expensive fines for road kill try to limit wildlife casualties among the many animal jaywalkers.
We had ticked off a good few sightings before we had even got to the entrance gates 15km from our lodgings in the nearest village. But once inside and cruising the “drives” with our guide Samuel we were amazed at the richness and quantity of life in the wilds. My phone camera with no real zoom was not the best for intimate animal portraits and we were often too enraptured to put anything between ourselves and the scenes before us but I offer a few pictures as a flavour of the experience.
The park is home to four of the “big five”, elephants,Buffaloes, lions and leopards, leaving only the endangered rhino. The phrase refers to the five most difficult animals to hunt on foot and after I had been reading lately of the devastation caused by poaching I was really heartened by the seemingly healthy populations.
We slowly moved around from one area to another following large herds and family groups. Giraffe, buffalo, Impala, and also zebra and elephant.
At one point we were passing some bushes and saw a young male lion resting in it’s shade. He didn’t bother moving when we parked alongside and we watched him gently slumbering for 15 mins before he rolled over and padded off into deeper shade.
An hour or so later I spotted a flock of vultures circling and we headed over to where we could see something on the ground. We discovered another lion, this time female, with a freshish wildebeest kill, which she left as we approached and sauntered nonchalantly passed our land rover within arms distance. Up close and personal.
Far less threatening and comically endearing were the warthogs. Normally Mum, Dad and a few kids they were quite wary and shot off if we got too near, tails held high and erect like antenna.
There were many beautiful old Baobabs offering shade from the baking sun, one of which we could clamber up into.
After a day off nursing Tanzania Tummy we were back in the park for another drive before flying off to Mafia from the tiny Park airstrip. We continued to cross off the species, studying the antics of hippo, crocodile,baboon,bushbuck and dik dik. There were also all manner of exotic birds which aroused interest in our feathered friends for the first time.
After a long circuit through a much drier and emptier area in the north of the Park it was time to board our little prop plane with no time to visit the facilities offered in the “airstrip lounge” and soon we were enjoying a birds eye view of the park entrance and then the seemingly endless jungle to the east.
Our flight path took us over the Selous game reserve we would be visiting after Christmas and we followed the Rufiji river all the way down to the maze of serpentine branches opening to the Indian Ocean through the mangrove swamps of the delta.
Minutes later we reached the sandy shores of the undeveloped, coconut covered green wedge of land where more family awaited our arrival.
There was one tarmac road on the island and it took us from the only town,Kilindoni, on the west coast to the village of Utende, 15km away by the island dotted Chole bay on the east coast.
Mafia remains well off the map and has suffered none of the mass tourism that has overwhelmed Zanzibar further north. The rich turquoise waters surrounding it have been known for a while to game fishermen and divers. There is a vast variety of underwater life and a Marine Park, covering most of the south and east coasts, has been established to protect it. Of Mafia ‘s 45000 population 15,000 live within the park boundaries and are reliant on its natural resources for their livelihoods so the park authorities, NGO’s and volunteers help the communities todevelop sustainable practices. To help fund this and all the other work and research there is a $20 per day charge for everyone staying in the park which we payed before getting to our little bandas in the sand.
Didimiza bungalows was the only local owned and run simple resort on the island. There were other boho chic barefoot luxury lodges on better beaches but they cost a fortune and we like to support the little guy not some multinational brand. Besides we had 3 of the 4 bandas and we could use any beach we liked as no one could own them. An exploration the next morning revealed the rustic charms of our immediate surroundings.
And so began a week of family games, swimming with whale sharks, watching the fruit bats,snorkelling trips,walking the beaches, decorating for Christmas and feasting on the sand under the full moon with a meteor flashing through the heavens and fireflies flitting about.
It would have been easy to stay put and just chill on the beach but we explored the island (by jeep) and the ocean ( by boat). One day we were taken 2 hours out into the Indian Ocean to a tiny little sand spit where a shelter was erected and fresh fish was grilled over a coconut husk fire while we chased ghost crabs and snorkelled on the coral reef. Very special.
It was a great place to escape the rampant consumerism of Christmas and reflect on the simplicity of life led by millions in the world.
The smiling friendly people around us were some of the poorest in Tanzania, one of the poorest counties in Africa, the poorest continent on the planet. We felt very privileged to have been amongst them and sad to wave goodbye.
We had to wave goodbye to half the family as well while the rest of us travelled to our final destination, a tented camp on Lake Manze, way out in the wilds of the 48,000sq km Selous Game Reserve. That’s an area the size of Switzerland free of the detritus of mankind, where other species are free to roam unimpeeded.
Our tent was one of 12 set up on the shores of the lake with a big communal lodge to eat and drink and watch the passing elephants from a short distance away.
It was thrilling to be deeply immersed in the natural habitat of so many truly wild animals particularly in the company of our 10 yr old grandson who was rapidly and excitedly ticking of the spotted species in his East Africa wildlife book. Thrilling but also potentialy deadly dangerous and we had to keep our eyes and ears open during the day when moving between tent and lodge and at night be accompanied by a Maasai , always cool and serene and able to deter savage beasts with tapping sticks apparently. Early on our first morning we went for a walking safari with our very knowledgeable guide, another Samuel, and again with the added security of an armed ranger who relied upon an AK47 rather than tapping sticks. We examined a wide selection of poo and from them built up an impressive understanding of the ecosystems at work around us. That set us up for a big breakfast before Samuel and champion driver Kamkumba took us off in the jeep to check off more enthralling creatures.
On the way in from the cleared patch that was the airstrip we had spotted 2 rarely seen animals, wild dogs and hyena , both resting up after a feed, and now we drove to the lakeside and watched young male elephants push each other around, testing their risking skills, and then a pride of lions.
Unlike Mikumi where we stuck to the sandy tracks, in the vastness of the Selous we seemed to be able to go anywhere to find the “game” and our man Kamkumba was certainly skilled at taking a Landrover to the limits of it’s capabilities whilst still providing a comfy ride. He couldn’t prevent a puncture though which gave us another chance to wander about under the Arcacia’s.
Later we headed out onto the lake on a boat safari. It was a brilliant way to get close to the shy and retiring hippos and crocodiles and there was a lot of startlingly coloured bird life including kingfishers and fish eagles and the weaver birds with their charmingly constructed nests overhanging the water.
It was a stunningly beautiful landscape with the hills in the distance and tall palms rising from the waters. Slowly cruising across the surface was very peaceful and calming in contrast to the life and death struggle that went on all around us., as crocodiles slid into the muddy depths and giant monitor lizards silently stole up on their prey.
At one point we approached a large male hippo as he clambered ashore which he was not happy about, spinning round roaring and crashing through the bushes towards us sending us cowering into the boat as we quickly reversed.
The following day we had a long drive to the hills, known as the Beho Beho, and the hot springs there. As we were leaving some elephants came through the camp
and by the time we had got to Lake Tagalala some hours later we had seen all we could have hoped for including, briefly, a leopard. We passed the grave of the Great White(British) Hunter/ Explorer whom the reserve is named after, Frederick Courteney Selous. Killed here by a German sniper in WWI on a strange and mostly forgotten front line. It’s perhaps also strange to name a reserve after someone renown for shooting countless hundreds of animals although hunting is still allowed over the bulk of the reserve if you pay enough.
We crossed a lot of rugged country and dry river beds, as the promised rains had yet to materialise,and picnicked on the shores of the lake where crocs had just vacated leaving only their footprints ( and a couple of teeth I now treasure).
It was madness to immerse ourselves in the roasting hot water of the lava surrounded springs in the heat of an African afternoon, but you don’t often get the opportunity so…..
We had our first hot shower in weeks under the sulfurous waterfall spilling into the ponds, raising our core temperature to heights that only a cold beer from the jeep could reduce. On the long drive back to camp we parked up in a shady dry stream bed next to a big pride of lions
and we’re lucky enough to come across a large family group of the rarely seen African wild dog and watch the hungry youngsters hassle the adults into attempting to catch a Impala for dinner. Luckily, (for the impala) some spooked warthogs alerted the herd to danger and they scattered out of reach. Live drama.
Plenty to talk about over our dinner under the stars that night after negotiating the hippos stomping through the camp. The day before we had to leave was spent on Lake Manze where between bird and beast spotting I caught a couple of the catfish that get big on the hippo poo.
We had them for lunch(delicious ), and retired to our tent for the afternoon for what Samuel described as a verandah safari, soaking up the sights and sounds around us and basking in the heat, conscious that it was all coming to an end very soon.
And so it did. The next morning Samuel and Kamkumba took us in the jeep for our last trip through the bush back to the little sandy airstrip and stood waving and jumping as we taxied past and slid into the sky above them and an hour later left the wilderness and flew into suburbia Dar es Salaam style.
Many many hours and later we landed through the thick cloud into a damp and cold Dublin and drove west into a flooded Ireland.
My year of wanderings , started on the 3rd of January in the Canaries and finishing in Tanzania on 31st December was over and adjustments had to be made. It had been a brilliant time, with many journeys of adventure, mostly on foot.
I hadn’t managed to cure my wanderlust however so have luckily been able to arrange work commitments around weeks off frequently enough for the pedestrian explorations to continue.
Watch this space.