I t had been almost an entire day of airports and flying, to get from Cape Town to the little runway clearing in the middle of the bush somewhere in the Selous Game Reserve in southern Tanzania. The final part of the trip, having cleared Dar es Salaam’s passport control chaos, involved an exhilarating hour-long trip in a twelve-seater Cessna. The tiny twin-propeller plane had flown close enough to the ground for us to scan the earth for animals as we sailed over hundreds of kilometres of uninhabited, beautiful emptiness. When the zippy little aircraft finally touched down, it was into the heart of a place untamed and utterly wild save for the small welcoming party of staffers from our lodge – Azura Selous – huddled under the tiny thatched shelter that served as a kind of ‘airport’ lounge at the edge of the runway.
As our motley group of five emerged from the plane and stepped into the afternoon heat, I noticed that my own excitement and wonder was echoed in The Boyfriend’s blue eyes. As we clocked the surrounding bush and watched impalas and zebras saunter back onto the runway where they’d been grazing before our plane scared them off, it was as though time had stopped and we could hear each other’s hearts beating in our chests. The lodge, a short drive from the runway, was set on the banks of the Great Ruaha River, just back from a section of rapids that made the fast-flowing water roar like the ocean. The main part of the lodge was centred on a pool surrounded by a tanning deck and lounges furnished with comfy sofas and daybeds. Hippos could constantly be seen wallowing and belly-flopping while their ceaseless grunts and guffaws resounded like some insane and wonderful river disco that was to be the soundtrack of our stay.
It was plush, but not overly ostentatious, done out with lots of chic African artefacts and artworks – beadwork, handwoven fabrics, feathered lampshades and traditional games, that sort of thing. Along with welcome drinks and warm smiles, we were given a briefing to introduce us to a part of the world that’s always been overshadowed by Tanzania’s more famous wildlife destinations, like Ngorongoro and the Serengeti. Selous is a 5,46 million hectare game reserve – larger than Switzerland and three times bigger than Kruger. It’s been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1982, and the area was first set aside for conservation in 1896 when Tanzania was still under German colonial rule, making it the oldest reserve in Africa, and second only to Yellowstone National Park in the world. The nearest human habitation was more than six hours away by road, we were told, which meant that the mere fact of the lodge’s existence was something of a small miracle. There was no such thing as popping out to pick up sugar or salt or bottles of wine. The priority, though, right then, was getting settled into our suites, and so The Boyfriend and I followed as we were led along the pathway that skirted through the bush to the villa farthest from the main lodge.
It was not our honeymoon, nor had we requested the honeymoon villa. But there it was: ‘Twiga’ – the Giraffe suite – extra-large and imbued with special little touches to make our stay that much more magical. It was easily one of the most romantic spaces we’d ever laid eyes on. Our bedroom was a clever combination of canvas and concrete, wood and fly-net, constructed on a stone plinth with a separate entrance hall and a very large and beautiful bathroom designed so that you constantly had an outside view. And beyond the indoor bathroom was another one – outside – with another shower, this one designed like a cascading waterfall, plus a huge bath tub for soaking under the stars.
Beyond the canvas flaps of the bedroom, a large private patio with an oversized plunge pool and tanning area all of which faced directly towards the river and was entirely surrounded by the enfolding bush. Neither too OTT ostentatious, nor rustic, it was deftly designed with lots of grass coir mats and handwoven baskets set against the stone floors, and there were armchairs with footstools, a cooler box in lieu of a minibar and instead of a phone, a two-way radio in case of emergencies. We wondered if we had time enough to christen the shower and the bed with its half-metre thick mattress before dinner and so asked the askari to give us an extra thirty minutes before collecting us for dinner. One thing we’d been repeatedly told – we were not to walk around alone after dark. Beyond our terrace and front door, it was pure, unadulterated bundu.
Our tall, nimble Maasai askari arrived at the appointed time and escorted us back to the main lodge for pre-dinner G&Ts and then we were led to a clearing near the river’s edge where we were served feta and spinach parcels, grilled fish with pineapple relish, and thick slabs of game meat, followed by a dark and rich chocolate torte. All the while, yellow wing bats soared overhead and hippos grunted and chuckled nearby. Given the free-flowing wine and late-night after-dinner chit-chat, it should have been a struggle to climb out of that vast and immensely comfortable bed the following morning. But by the time our pre-dawn coffee was delivered to our door, The Boyfriend and I had already spent time beneath the waterfall shower; it was a space we wanted to savour, so we did. We joined the others on the Land Rover and spent a long and wondrous morning bumping and grinding over makeshift roads that had been carved through the bush. The Boyfriend and I snuggled up under a blanket on the back seat, staring out into the soft dawn light as we cruised through an ever-changing mix of biomes. There were rolling hills and undulating plains, vast patches of wild grass that looked like they’d been freshly mowed, thickets and forests, swamps and ravines and rivers of sand.
The enormity of the Selous means that game viewing requires more patience than in the over-touristed parts of Kruger and the Serengeti. But the rewards are real, and there’s an authenticity that you feel right in your gut. As we drifted past endless herds of impala, each moment seemed to include another marvellous bird sighting – sparrow weavers, go-away-birds, and long-tailed paradise whydahs with their impressively long black tails. It was just moments after seeing a banded mongoose scamper into the undergrowth, that we heard the ominous sound of bones crunching. It was a loud, fierce, frantic sound, and as we came around a corner there they were: a pack of African wild dogs polishing off the carcass of the morning kill. We watched them devour every morsel and then drove to a riverside clearing where a table had been set up and our breakfast immaculately laid out. We tucked into homemade granola and fresh fruit and egg muffins while ogling crocodiles and hippos as fish eagles and white-backed vultures circled and swooped overhead. After breakfast, we went in search of the wild dogs once again and this time found them at their den where the exhausted adults rested as their pups – the cutest things you’ve ever laid eyes upon – played like children, chasing one another and tripping over their own paws while we humans watched with delight. After lunch there was time to laze by the pool. The Boyfriend draped himself deliciously over a sun lounger, darkening to an even more beautiful shade of tan while I drifted in and out of sleep while trying to read a book. We had some time to fool around in our villa for a bit before the late afternoon game drive and then we were blundering our way through thick bush, playing hide and seek with a huge herd of buffalo that moved with incredible stealth and seemed capable of disappearing in an instant despite their size and numbers. Every so often, we’d find a few stragglers – startled, the moment they noticed us, they’d skip away like confused cows. These were not animals habituated to humans, and their shyness added to the sense of being in a place that was authentic and real – it was a revelation to know that it was still possible to feel like an explorer, as though we were the first humans these beasts were seeing.
We began each day as we ended the previous one, skinny dipping in our little plunge pool before lengthy lovemaking under that incredible waterfall shower, staring up at the huge chunk of moon surrounded by an ebony canopy punctuated by billions of stars. Each morning’s drive brought new surprises – whether it was a different instrument that was added to the twittering bush orchestra, or a more colourful bird dancing in the air.
We’d drive through soggy river beds, watching baboons in the treetops and spotting giraffes poke their heads through gaps in the thorn trees. Or we’d find ourselves in the midst of a vast plain – an area nicknamed Little Serengeti where, between the huddles of zebras and giraffe, there were confused-looking blue wildebeest bounding along like two-tonne clowns.
Our final drive was dedicated to tracking the lions that had managed to elude us over the previous days. It didn’t take long to find them. There were fresh paw prints in the dust and we followed them to a sand river where we found ‘the brothers,’ a pair of short-mane bachelors who’d recently arrived in the area and had been knocking it about with the local ladies, picking fights with the reigning alpha male. One looked like Scar from The Lion King, and they both looked pissed off to see us. “That’s an ugly lion,” said The Blonde Poppie who’d managed to fall asleep on several game drives. We all turned towards her, surprised that she was awake. The lions had apparently heard her remark, too, and weren’t amused. Scar yawned in our direction, idly stood up, gave us a prolonged dirty look, and sauntered off. His brother, obviously the lazier, slower of the two, finally got to his feet, had a look to see what all the fuss was about, and then followed his sibling, disappearing into bush too dense for us to follow. Aside from wonderful game drives, there was plenty more to do on that trip. There were bush walks accompanied by rifle-carrying rangers, and river cruises when the water level was sufficiently high. Or muscle-tending rub-downs with marula and baobab oil right next to our villa’s plunge pool. And each dinner was served in a different location. One evening was dedicated to a sumptuous ‘Swahili barbeque’ with a full bar and a roaring fire in the middle of the bush. Not far from where we ate, we could see the eyes of hyenas skulking behind the trees while above us millions of stars flickered like diamonds. The biggest surprise of all, though, was a late afternoon fishing excursion, timed so that we’d catch a glimmer of sunset as we cast lines into the river. It was surprising because I’d always fobbed off fishing as boring and dull.
We were on the edge of the Ruaha, not too far from the lodge, and the scene in front of us was stupidly magical – pods of hippos were just thirty metres away from where we stood, their gigantic nostrils and quizzical eyes protruding from the surface of the water. “I really dislike fishing,” I told Vitus, our unutterably patient guide as he baited my hook and handed me the rod despite my protests. “Oh, all right,” I muttered, noting that The Boyfriend was already calmly casting his second line, settling into some kind of bucolic rhythm that made him look even more lovable than usual. I sighed, batted my eyelids, took the rod and cast, impatiently. I watched the weighted hook fly through the air and hit the water, and then felt the line tighten naturally as the bait sank and drifted downstream. And something wonderful happened. I glanced around, saw the world in all its glory, and felt totally at peace. The moment, with the rumble of the river and the sky steadily turning red and orange as the sun began to set, was all-consuming, like a deep and intense meditation. Beyond the tip of my rod, I watched the hippos and they stared back. Farther off, on the far bank, mud-caked crocodiles were minding their own business. And a few metres away, The Boyfriend was landing one fish after the other, and I was totally cool catching nothing whatsoever. In that moment, I felt like I had everything I could ever want.
PARADISE FOUND - By KEITH BAIN