Selous Game Reserve
Covering more than 45,000km2, the Selous (pronounced 'Seloo') is Africa's single largest game reserve, three times larger than the Serengeti, more than twice the size of South Africa's Kruger National Park, and roughly 50% bigger than either Belgium or Swaziland. It is, furthermore, the core sanctuary within the greater Selous-Niassa ecosystem, which extends over 155,000km2 of practically uninhabited wilderness in southern Tanzania and northern Mozambique – the largest chunk of comparably untrammelled bush left in Africa.
The claim that the Selous lies at the core of the greatest surviving African wilderness is supported by the prodigiously large mammal populations protected within the reserve and the greater ecosystem. The elephant herd of 65,000 represents more than half of the Tanzanian population, and 5–10% of the African total. The buffalo, estimated at 120,000–150,000, and the reserve's 40,000 hippo and 4,000 lion are probably the largest such populations on the continent. The Selous also harbours an estimated 100,000 wildebeest, 35,000 zebra, 25,000 impala and significant herds of greater kudu, hartebeest and eland. It is also one of the most important sanctuaries in Africa for the endangered black rhinoceros, African wild dog, and sable and puku antelope.
That the Selous ranks as one of east Africa's most alluring and satisfying safari destinations is not in dispute. However, given that much of the publicity surrounding the Selous bangs on and on about its vast area, prospective visitors should be aware that the extent of the reserve is in practice something of a red herring. The Selous is divided into two disproportionate parts by the Rufiji, Tanzania's largest river, which together with the great ruaha, a major tributary, runs through the reserve from west to east. About 90% of the Selous lies to the south of the river and has been divided into a number of privately leased hunting concessions, all of which are off-limits to casual tourism. A proportion of the northern sector has also been set aside for hunting concessions. The remainder – no more than 5% of the reserve's total area – forms what, to all intents and purposes, is the Selous photographic reserve. The five lodges (and most activities for visitors) are actually concentrated within an area of about 1,000km2 immediately north of the Rufiji.
Fortunately, this photographic part of the Selous is wonderfully atmospheric, a dense tract of wild miombo woodland abutting the meandering Rufiji River, and an associated labyrinth of five pretty lakes connected to each other and the river by numerous narrow streams. Arriving by light aircraft, as most visitors do, it is exhilarating to sweep above the palm-fringed channels teeming with hippos and waterfowl, the swampy islets where immense herds of elephant and giraffe graze alongside each other, and exposed sandbanks where antelope drink and all manner of shorebirds scurry about.
No less exciting are the boat excursions along the Rufiji, which generally culminate with a brilliant red sun setting behind the tall borassus palms and baobabs that line the wide sandy watercourse. Gulp-inducing dentist-eye views of the Selous's trademark gigantic crocs can pretty much be guaranteed from the boat, as can conferences of grunting, harrumphing hippos – and you'd be unlucky not to be entertained by herds of elephant, buffalo or giraffe shuffling down to drink.
The most memorable aspect of the boat trips, however, is the profuse birdlife. Characteristic waterbirds along this stretch of the Rufiji include yellow-billed stork, white-crowned and spur-winged plovers, various small waders, pied and malachite kingfishers, and African skimmer. Pairs of fish eagle and palmnut vulture perch high on the borassus palms, seasonal breeding colonies of carmine and white-throated bee-eater swirl around the mud cliffs that hem in some stretches of the river, and pairs of trumpeter hornbill and purple-crested turaco flap between the riparian trees. Worth looking out for among a catalogue of egrets and herons is the Malagasy squacco heron, a regular winter visitor, while the elusive Pel's fishing owl often emerges at dusk to hawk above the water.
Game drives along the network of rough roads to the north of the Rufiji are reliably rewarding, especially towards the end of the dry season, when large mammals concentrate around the five lakes. More frequently seen ungulates include impala, common waterbuck, bushbuck, white-bearded wildebeest, eland, greater kudu, buffalo and common zebra.
The northern sector of the park has been dubbed 'Giraffic Park', with some justification, as herds exceeding 50 individuals come down to drink in the heat of the afternoon. Giraffes seem exceedingly common here, which is odd as they are entirely absent south of the Rufiji. The river also forms a natural barrier between the ranges of the distinctive white-bearded and Niassa races of wildebeest. The endangered African wild dog is commonly observed, as is the spotted hyena, while leopards are common but elusive, but cheetah have not been recorded in this part of the reserve for about 20 years.
Much in evidence are Selous's lions, with two or three different prides' territories converging on each of the five large lakes. The lions typically have darker coats and less hirsute manes than their counterparts elsewhere in east Africa. During the dry season, the lions of Selous evidently rely on an unusual opportunistic diurnal hunting strategy, rarely straying far from the lakes, where they rest up in the shade to wait for whatever ungulate happens to venture within pouncing distance on its way to drink.
While the marketing line of 'only five small camps in a 50,000km2 wilderness' does rather overstate the exclusivity of the Selous experience, it is true that a mere 5,000 foreigners annually – about 1% of tourist arrivals to Tanzania – ever make it to this excellent reserve. Particularly if you are based at one of the western lodges – Beho Beho, Sand Rivers and Sable Mountain – it is still possible to undertake a game drive in the Selous without coming across another vehicle.
Whereas the national parks of northern Tanzania are dominated by large impersonal hotels that evidently aim to shut out the bush the moment you enter them, the Selous boasts a select handful of low-key, eco-friendly, thatch-and-canvas lodges whose combined bed capacity amounts to little more than 100 visitors. Furthermore, because the Selous is a game reserve and not subject to the regulations that govern Tanzania's national parks, visitors are offered a more primal and integrated bush experience than the usual repetitive regime of one game drive after another. In addition to boat trips, all lodges offer guided game walks, which come with a real likelihood of encountering elephant or buffalo – even lion – on foot. Better still are the overnight fly-camping excursions offered by some of the camps, which entail sleeping beneath a glorified mosquito net in the middle of the bush. It's thrilling stuff!
Note that the roads within the Selous become impassable after heavy rain. Hence camps here close towards the end of the wet season, in April, and re-open in July.
An entrance fee of US$30 per person per day is charged, and payable in hard currency. On most organised trips this will be included in the overall price, but it's worth checking this when booking.
Two useful booklets are Selous Game Reserve:
A Guide to the Northern Section
and the glossier Selous: Africa's Largest & Wildest Game Reserve.
Most lodges stock both and they are similar textually. For details on the man behind the park's name, read The Life of Frederick Courtney Selous
by J G Millais, published by Gallery Publications and available in Zanzibar.
Getting there and away
Many tour operators, both overseas and in Tanzania, offer a variety of trips to the Selous. These usually include flights to/from the reserve, accommodation and activities. Most use frequent daily flights between Dar es Salaam and Selous operated by Coastal Airlines and ZanAir. These generally connect very easily to/from Zanzibar. Some of the Coastal flights continue (daily from 2006) to connect with flights to/from Ruaha. Once inside the parks, these flights will all stop at any of the camp airstrips by prior arrangement.
If you are travelling in mainland Tanzania it's perfectly possible to reach the Selous by road, although that's generally more costly than flying. For full details of these options, Tanzania: The Bradt Travel Guide
by Philip Briggs is, of course, highly recommended.