A visit to the Southern Selous in September 2010
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The chance to visit the Southern Selous was just to good to miss. This almost mythical wilderness area had long held a fascination and after reading Sand Rivers by Peter Matthiessen many years ago I had always wanted to walk the sand rivers he had described in his book. My first visit to the Selous had been in 1986 but that long two week walk had been north of the great Rufiji River. These wilderness zones south of this great river have always been hunting areas so anyone that tries to convert a hunting block into a photographic zone get's my attention and support. But as always I like to see such efforts first hand.
Neil and Liz Baker, my long time birding buddies based in Iringa, had also been invited to visit, so as they were coming from Dar es Salaam, we met up near Chalinze. But to do that and have any time left in the day a 5 am start was needed from Arusha. Thankfully Furaha Mbilinyi , the co-author of the Swahili language bird guide, Kiongozi cha Ndege wa Tanzania, came along with me from Arusha. Being a little late getting to Chalinze to meet our friends, we drove on past Morogoro and on through Mikumi National Park. This took some time so we pushed on as night fall and stayed that first night in a local guest house in Ifakara on the western side of the Selous. That was a long day but we enjoyed new landscapes, mountain roads with forest and the magnificent escarpment of the Udzungwa Mountains.
The whole point of the trip, besides me taking a guide's business view of the photographic camp we were visiting, was to record the birds encountered- of course! These parts of Tanzania are little visited by serious birders so as we pushed south the next morning we were on the lookout for interesting avifauna! For me, having never been on these particular roads before, every mile was driven with expectation. Furaha is such a great birder and his sharp ears and eyes were soon finding new species for me. We call them lifers, birds that we have never seen before and seeing them for the first time is always fascinating. After many years of looking at a particular species in a field guide, and longing to be there and see this endemic life form for oneself is, as you might be able to image, very exciting once you finally find it! So many of these species that I have yet to see in Tanzania are only located in the South and well away from the areas usually visited on safari. Most hunters are totally uninterested in the birds, which is a great pity as many of the more remote hunting blocks remain largely unknown bird wise!
Eventually that second day we entered the Selous and pushed on to camp arriving at 3pm. The owners had sited their beautiful camp overlooking the broad Luwegu River and what a spot to land after two hard days on the road. We lapped up the peace of it all and soon started adding birds to our Southern Selous list. In fact over our three days there we saw over 170 species and added new inland breeding sites for white fronted plover amongst other interesting observations. Bohm's bee-eaters were everywhere, and we were lucky to twice see a few members of a totally new population of wattled cranes that had been recently discovered here. The wildlife was varied and not scared considering this is a non hunting block surrounded by active hunting areas. The exception were the hippos that moved off into the bush from the water instead of the other way round, which is usual. Very sad, they must be getting shot by hunters for lion and leopard bait.
Lukula Camp Southern Selous- a divine place for isolated adventure. www.lukulaselous.com
The camp was stunning and so beautifully appointed. I loved the open air showers, the camp fire chat, sitting on the river bank with a fine wine with moonlight filtering through the fig trees. We explored by foot and by 4WD open toyotas and so enjoyed the freedom of having a whole ex hunting block to ourselves. Many thanks are due to the owners, managers and great staff of this truly isolated place. Twice weekly flights connect with Dar es Salaam for those not wishing the 2 days drive in! And with only 4 tents presently and perhaps only two more in the future this is spoiling ones self for sure.
For me combining such a remote destination with an extremely comfortable camp is special. And these days quite hard to find. So we had had a wonderful time both in and around camp but also debating the merits of converting a long established hunting block into an adventure photographic destination. The challenges are great, the logistics out, of a very dry season, unbelievable.
I look back over those few days with utter respect for this endeavour and can only think that the area around these sand rivers and the camp will benefit greatly in the coming years.
Now we had to get out of there! And there in lies a story and yes you guessed - more birding!