The Selous Game Reserve has been aptly described as “hiding in plain sight”. Larger than Switzerland, with globally significant populations of great mammals, yet it is remarkably untouched, undiscovered and remote, making it an extremely exciting destination for the discerning safari-goer. With no permanent village settlement within the reserve, Kishore Rua, Director of World Heritage Centre, UNESCO, credited it as being “one of the last wild places on the planet”, and its highest international significance is indicated by its position on the World Heritage List.
The Selous is characterised by a huge diversity of habitats and Siwandu is located towards the north of the reserve. We visited at the end of the dry season and the short rains had not yet fully transformed the bush from silver grey to lush green. It was an exciting time to visit. A week prior to our trip we heard that a large pack of wild dog - or ‘painted wolf’ - had been regularly viewed close to the camp. The Selous is one of the strongholds for these rare animals and many a visit to Siwandu has been enriched with the most incredible viewing experience of these captivating canines, so we were hopeful; and indeed we were lucky enough to come across the pack languidly resting under some trees as they digested a meal, on an afternoon game drive.
One of our fellow guests that day had another incredible viewing of the dogs heckling with a hyena, and shot some extraordinary footage, which is well worth sharing… (Credit: @laurashotglassart)
Siwandu camp has a natural setting that pre-disposes it to superlatives. Each exquisitely-appointed room is positioned to take full advantage of its enviable position on the shores of Lake Nzerakera. There can be few more peaceful and immersive experiences than sitting at the writing desk on the wooden veranda of one’s room, extending onto the surrounding bushland, soaking up the sights and sounds of the bush. Impala grazing, the odd baboon capering past, the call of the fish-eagle, and the light step of a Masai guide along the path.
Not much more than a stone’s throw beyond, lies the lake – from ground level appearing an expanse of apparent tranquillity, quite belying the activity of the vast number of hippo and crocodile within its waters. At the south end of the camp, the attractively designed and furnished lounge and restaurant are raised high on stilts, offering an exceptional, elevated vantage point from which to more clearly observe the lake and the extent of its diverse, resulting bird and wildlife.
My room at Siwandu was spacious, comfortable and stylish. A substantial octagonal tent is based off a wooden platform and topped with a thatched roof. The structure comprises a large bedroom leading to a bathroom and dressing area. Adjoining this is the private outside shower-room, roofed only by a canopy of sky and stars. This offered the most memorable and enjoyable way to refresh for dinner after an afternoon’s game viewing, with water heated by the sun.
A wake-up coffee, strong and welcome, was brought by my bush Butler, Alfonse, to prepare for what was a new experience for me – an early morning bush walk. We set off in early light, already warm. Thanks to the quality of the guiding, this was a phenomenally educational and enriching experience. I had expected to return from Africa with an even greater passion for big game and interesting animals (which I did), but I had not anticipated re-discovering such intense appreciation for the marvel of ‘Nature’ at large and in its minutiae.
Selous Safari Company’s vision is that “conservation starts with inspiration” and our time at Siwandu really encapsulated that statement. Hearing and seeing first-hand how efficiently and brilliantly animals and plants develop, use resources and (co-)exist in the bush is inspiring, chastening and motivational.
On our bush walk we observed fascinating examples of mutualism at close quarters. One case in point was the story of the Whistling Acacia tree: Imagine, if you will, ‘oh best beloved’, a tree so delicious to elephant and other herbivores that for its very survival the tree developed thorns for protection, with bulbs at their base. These hollow swellings filled with sweet honey-due, appealing to ants, who would feast on the nectar and build their nests in the tree and in the hollows. In return for food and lodging, the biting ants would swarm into the mouth of feeding herbivores, deterring consumption and hence protecting their host.
Our guide, Mpoto and the junior guide, Gracious, offered countless examples, as we walked through the bush, of the ways in which nature and animals work in such a symbiotic way. The chalky spore of hyena who, (especially when food reserves are low), will eat skeleton bones to gain the calcium… Nothing, it is clear, is wasted in the bush. How much we humans could learn.
As the heat of the day started to rise, we rounded a clearing and it was a delightful surprise to come across an elegantly laid table, and members of the Selous team offering a cold flannel and a drink, before we sat down to an enormous and delicious breakfast by the shores of the lake.
On our game drives at Siwandu we were treated to intimate sightings of elephant, lion, giraffe and the host of other animals that make safari so enchanting. We enjoyed a Pontoon cruise – during which ‘lunch on the move’ took on a far more civilised and stylish meaning – and there is no better way to experience the lake, and share space with its resident hippo and crocodile.
Our last evening at Siwandu happened to coincide with the centenary of the First World War’s Armistice. Camp managers, Conrad and Retha, are marvellous and well-informed hosts. As we chatted to them and to our fellow guests, swapping stories of the day’s experiences, we also learned about how the British Army Captain and prominent conservationist, Frederick Selous, who gave his name to the reserve, fell on the Beho-Beho hills, close to where we were sitting. Of course, that was only one important staging post in a chapter of the war which took countless lives, and it felt extraordinary and very moving to imagine that even this quiet and seemingly untouched corner of the world, the First World War once grasped tightly with its cruel fingers. Read more
Nowadays, thankfully, the drama, battles and bloodshed in the Selous are those of the wildlife, as intended by nature, and as played out here since the dawn of time. And it is this, of course, which offers guests at Siwandu such incredible game viewing.
The next day heralded another hearty breakfast and our flight transfer to Jongomero in Ruaha National Park. I was excited to see how it would differ from the Selous. Yet despite working on these destinations for a year I was unprepared for how very different the landscapes would be.