I almost feel a sense of taboo in admitting that I have one favourite holiday above all others. It seems too simplistic, too degrading, too inadequate for a sentiment so saturated with love, passion and nostalgia. Children describe their favourite colours, teenagers their favourite pop groups but to hastily use this one-word adjective to make a distinction between so many cultures and continents, so many memories, it feels unnatural.
Yet, I find myself able to do it. And with conviction at that.
Photo Credit: Alex Hare Photography
Three years ago, precisely to the hour, I was in the midst of getting ready for the biggest day of my life. The wedding jitters were there, as they had been for many a bride before me but my nerves revolved more around making sure the day would run smoothly. It’s hard enough ensuring one ceremony proceeds swimmingly and we were having two weddings in one day, a civil wedding followed by an Indian wedding (followed by a great big shin dig!)
The run up had been a manic few months, juggling a critically important exam, qualifying after years spent in training for my career, packing for a house move and applying for new jobs – oh and planning that wedding! At such moments, they say you should keep your eyes on the prize. And this trip (still my favourite ever) to Selous in Tanzania was very much encompassed within that prize.
The Selous Game Reserve, Southern Tanzania
I last wrote of this beautiful region in eastern Africa one year ago. I gave an overview of the little touches of romance and luxury that we found at the Selous Luxury Camp, the surprise picnic they threw us and the ten members of staff, who came to sing us a goodbye song as we left, a level of attention unfamiliar to us but one which made us feel so welcome.
I planned to write a second post to allow myself space to share photographs of the wildlife sightings and the lush landscapes but here we are, a year on, and only now have I found a spare moment to do so.
Why we chose Selous Game Reserve
You’ve heard of Kruger National Park, Masai Mara and Serengeti, the last in Tanzania itself so why had we chosen Selous, a game reserve which rings far fewer bells? Tanzania was always the country we had in mind. After hearing of its beauty, I had dreamed of doing my first safari there and for Pumpkin, who was very well travelled in southern Africa, it was one of the few countries he had not yet visited.
Selous is seriously off the beaten track in comparison to its more famed safari siblings and after doing some research, we found this would yield some definite advantages. The game reserve is huger than some European countries and yet the number of visitors relative to other destinations, far fewer with just a small cluster of lodges available for tourism.
This meant that when we were on our game drives, we would see one, perhaps two other trucks on any given day and rarely more. As we drove across potholes, gazing at the unique fauna and quickly learning that the impalas of the world certainly know how to reproduce, we were overcome with a feeling of being completely at one with nature with noone around but each other, our guide Ahmed and the animals and wildlife around us.
This was quite different to the safari experience I subsequently had in Sri Lanka and when we arrived in Zanzibar for the second leg of our honeymoon, we found it was also a stark contrast to the many other honeymooners we met, who told us tales of being in queues of trucks at Serengeti or Masai Mara to spot that elusive black rhino, telling us of the gift shops scattered at lodges here and there.
Selous remains free of such things, conferring a relative authenticity and unspoilt simplicity and it was a sanctuary of calm for us out in the wilderness after the mayhem of a big wedding.
Many tourists do the Serengeti, Lake Manyara and Ngorongoro Crater route, involving a lot of time on the road, whereas in Selous, we were able to stay put for several days in one location. This isn’t to say for one moment that I imagine the other locations to be anything less than magical. We kept changing our mind before we booked and it would be a dream come true to return to Tanzania and visit Lake Manyara, Ngorongoro and Serengeti one day but for a honeymoon specifically, we loved the peace and privacy in Selous.
We arrived in early June, just as dry season had started, which is still a little off peak and with the exception of one couple who left the day we arrived, we essentially had the entire lodge to ourselves!
The Animals on Safari at Selous Game Reserve
I hadn’t really known what to expect in terms of animals on safari at Selous. Looking back on it, I really knew very little about what actually goes on during a safari experience, which in a sense added to the wonderment and discovery. I had never heard of the “Big 5” until we actually reached and giggled childishly when Ahmed, told us of the “Ugly 5”.
We chuckled even more when he asked Pumpkin which of the animals seen on the game drive he liked the most, to which he replied, “warthog”. Ahmed stared at him bemusedly: “So your favourite animal is one of the Ugly 5?” he asked mockingly!”
Selous is not somewhere where you are “guaranteed” to see the Big 5 (not that there is ever a guarantee with nature.) There are fewer trucks to radio call each other at sightings, the area is far more sparse and there are very few black rhino in this area, which we had been warned about that from the outset.
As for the big cats, they had a mind of their own during our trip. At the time of year we went, there were still a lot of watering holes dispersed around from the residue of wet season, meaning that the animals have more choice as to where to drink, making it harder to find them. As dry season progresses, many of these dry up, resulting in more animals congregating at the same watering holes, which the guides are quite familiar with.
We had never come with any animal checklists and loved that sense of anticipation each day wondering what may be round the corner but despite Ahmed’s best attempts, the lions remained in hiding, which seemed to trouble Ahmed a lot more than it did us!
If, however, you are content with the sense of intrigue and adventure that comes with not knowing, Selous will suit you just fine.
We stared in awe when we first spotted an impala and took tens of photos of the first few but a several hundred impalas later, Pumpkin made one of his characteristic dry quips, stating “those impalas certainly don’t seem at any risk of becoming extinct do they?!”
And considering I feel like Pumpkin’s 5’11 stature towers over me, you can only imagine how tiny I felt in the vicinity of these giraffes.
I have had an affinity towards the warmth of elephants since I was a child. Just ask my Mother, who still dusts the elephant collection I have in my childhood home and still makes me tea in an elephant cup but prior to this trip, I had only ever seen Indian elephants, which are brown rather than grey and are usually smaller in size. Ahmed also told us to look closely at the ears of these elephants, which strangely mimics the shape of Africa as a continent.
And then we spotted the menacing buffaloes and wildebeest. There was a striking symmetry on the fur of the zebras, who always seemed to scurry away too quickly for us to catch a close up photo.
On one game drive, we turned a blind corner and came face to face with this:
And far from being the small pink, friendly creatures portrayed in children’s cartoons, my first view of a hippo fully on land soon taught me they are not a force to be reckoned with, particularly when I saw the evidence of combat on its side!
And in an environment of life and death in the wild, it is not surprising that we saw the reality of both.
In England, I must admit, I almost never take an interest in the birds, flying above me or humming tunes through the cluttered London sounds but in the African bush, with the background din of urban life on mute, I found myself enchanted by their colours and postures.
On one of our days, we enjoyed a river safari though and found this crocodile dozing lazily on the rocks.
And we soon learned that a Monitor lizard and a crocodile are quite different creatures.
The guest book at the lodge made a special request that guests make a note of the animals seen during their game drives at Selous and I scribbled away ferociously, like an over-enthused primary school child trying to list all that I could remember and reading the engaging accounts of previous guests.
Of course I am a little biased. It was my honeymoon, it was my first visit to the continent I had wanted to visit more than any other, it was my first safari and it was a dream realised. But even allowing for that, there was a sentiment in the hearts of the local people, a feeling of liberation out in the wild, those sounds of nature that erode stress, that thrill of exploration and that sense of elation when we spotted a new unfamiliar creature in its natural habitat.
Yes, despite all the incredible travels that preceded and follow, seeing these animals on safari at Selous remains my favourite ever trip and as we celebrate three years of married life, I am so grateful to Pumpkin for those cherished moments and memories and for all the love he put into arranging this trip of a lifetime.
Do you have one travel experience that stands out in your memory more than all others?