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Nov-Dec 2012 Safari Diary

- by Alan Montgomery

Part 1: Selous Impala

photos by Flo Montgomery

link back to Alan Montgomery Safari Diary

 
Selous Impala tent 6


Sunday 25 November - Impala Camp, Selous Game Reserve

We arrived this morning from rainy England.
After a short plane ride with Coastal Aviation, we land at Mtemere Airstrip in the Selous Game Reserve, where we are met by a guide and driver and taken to Selous Impala Camp. There we are welcomed by the Italian Managers, Barbara and Andrea.

Tent interior  View from tent

We settle in to our comfortable tent, which has a splendid view of the river.

Now we are setting out under tropical skies on our first boat safari on the great Rufiji River. Our boat driver is Saidi Toboke and he seems to know every sandbank and where the safest routes are – as the river is fairly low at this time of year. As we make our way upstream against the fast flowing current we hug the bank closely.

Cassia  Combretum

The steep sides of the river are covered with bushes and trees with thick foliage and bright orange flowers. From the branches hang numerous intricately woven balls of grass, the beautifully constructed homes of the many varieties of weaver bird that nest at this time of year. Ezra Liomo, our guide, can identify them all, and explain what distinguishes one species from another.

Mangrove Kingfisher

Every so often we pause in front of a branch upon which perches a king-fisher, some with brilliant flashes of turquoise plumage not dissimilar to that of king-fishers back home. Others, pied black and white, are considerably larger than any that can be seen in England.

The river is wide, and as we move up it, we can see, every hundred metres or so, large groups of hippopotami, some with only their bulging eyes showing above the swirling current, others half exposed on submerged sandbanks in the middle of the river. Their guttural grunts provide a constant background to the bird-song and the chugging of our outboard motor.

Selous Hippo

From time to time there will be a sudden splashy commotion as one of the bigger hippos sees off a cheeky youngster who has come too close. Such encounters seem little more than demonstrative warnings, but our guide tells us that the ugly scars we see on the sides of some hippos are usually the result of fights between younger males attempting to assert themselves as worthy partners. We have been warned to watch out for hippos foraging on the river bank in the camp at night - or even during the day. Though hippos are not predatory creatures, they are notoriously Ill-tempered and are said to be responsible for most of the fatal accidents involving wildlife which befall African villagers each year.

Selous Hippos 

Selous Croc

Our boat has turned now into one of the several large lakes that open off this section of the river, which displays the archetypal signs of a meandering watercourse, capable of changing its pattern dramatically from one season to another. Here we can see many wading birds - storks, egrets, and herons, as well as ducks, geese and ibis, with whose distinctive sharp cries we are rapidly becoming familiar. On the shores and sandbanks of the lakes we see numerous crocs, mostly immobile as they seek to heat their bodies directly from the tropical sun's rays. But if our boat passes too closely to these sunbathers, they glide rapidly into the water, becoming deceptive logs whose immobility has deceived generations of small creatures and water birds that have inadvertently ventured too close.

Ellies cross Rufiji

We spot elephants crossing the river – just in front of another boat from our camp, to the delight of the occupants.

Elephants cross the Rufiji 

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They cross slowly – the littlest elephants swimming under the water, breathing through their raised trunks. They climb up the far bank.

Selous Lioness

We head back along the river, going downstream towards the camp. Suddenly Ezra spots a lioness on the riverbank – she is sauntering along in the evening light, our first lion sighting of the safari.

The boat pulls in to a bank and there is a surprise sundowner waiting for us!

Rajabu arranges a Sundowner

Some two and a half hours and a sundowner later we are back in camp, showering off and then heading for the camp-fire where over drinks and snacks we shall hear how our fellow explorers have got on. Tonight dinner will be served in the great Makuti-roofed Reception/Dining Lounge. Tomorrow it will be under the stars, weather permitting. Were we really boarding a plane in dripping Heathrow some twenty-four hours ago?

Monday 26 November - Impala Camp, Selous – AM

  1

We are called at six with tea and coffee in order to hit the road as soon as the Reserve rules permit at 06.30. We clamber aboard the land-cruiser and settle back in our seats for our first game drive. Ezra is our guide again, and the driver is Rajabu Makombozi. We are told that this team will be looking after us for the duration of our stay at Impala camp. It is pleasantly warm now and we are eager to see what game is around at this time of year. Almost immediately we notice Impala, some Giraffes and Waterbuck. The groups are not large, but water is plentiful in this part of the Selous and the game can spread out. Not far from camp, we come across a group of browsing elephants – they have been to the river to drink just below the camp. Our friends are in the car ahead, and they pause as the elephants start to cross the road. Soon elephants are crossing ahead and behind them! We all sit very still.

Selous Fish Eagle  Selous Crocodiles

We soon find ourselves skirting around one of the large lakes fed from the Rufiji. There are many skeletons of dead trees around the shoreline, which provide perfect perching places for birds, making spotting and identifying them relatively easy. We quickly notice a huge fish eagle, several egrets, and the occasional stork. Crocodiles bask on islets in the lakes.

Lions and Car  Selous young lion

Then our vehicle halts in front of a rather thick palm clump a little way back from the water. Beneath it are a couple of soporific lions, both young males with short untidy manes. Ezra tells us that they are about six years old, part of a group of six brothers, who were driven from their pride as they approached maturity, and who will continue to live and hunt as a group until one of them establishes a clear ascendancy and eventually breaks away, possibly with a subordinate sibling to take over another pride. Sure enough, about one hundred and fifty metres away we discover the other four young males, together with what remains of the carcass of the buffalo they killed last night. We learn that they are becoming a formidable hunting group, confident of their ability to bring down large game and concentrating upon the buffaloes that will provide a substantial meal for all six of them.

Bush Breakfast

We stop for a bush breakfast – Ezra and Rajabu lay it all out with great humour, then finally sit down to eat it with us. There are fruits, juices, cereals, toast and croissants, tea and coffee and even hot bacon, egg and sausages. We enjoy a spectacular view of the lake.

PM

Evening Boat Safari

I have elected to take another boat trip this afternoon. It's cooler on the water and more relaxing, and I'm looking forward to seeing another part of the river. As we head upstream the Rufiji grows wider and wider until at one point it must be nearly 400 metres from bank to bank. There's much less foliage around, so fewer sightings of the smaller nesting birds, but the branches of one huge dead skeleton of a tree are covered with brilliantly toned Carmine Bee-eaters - a stunning sight against the silvery bone-like branches. Most of my bird sightings, however, tend to be of the larger fishers and waders who populate the more open banks upstream. I note several Open-billed Storks, a Yellow-billed Stork, and no fewer than six huge Purple-brown Goliath Herons at different spots along the river, either patiently observing the swirling waters, or on the wing. When I see a flash of dark brown and white perched on a tree on the opposite bank, I think at first that this is another Fish Eagle, but it turns out to be a very similar but significantly smaller bird of prey, the Osprey.

Boat at river bank 

White-fronted Bee-eaters

As we head back downstream after a couple of hours or so, the boat suddenly swings into a steep, sandy bank. As we do so, a fair-sized crocodile slides down the bank and disappears smoothly into the water. We pull in to the shore and our guide nimbly climbs the bank to establish the site of the crocodile's nest - a circular indentation in the sand where it laid its eggs a few weeks ago. They have all hatched now and the guides believe that the mother entered the water to guard her offspring when we approached the bank.
There are many holes in the bank, where White-fronted Bee-eaters are nesting.

Tuesday, 27 November - Impala Camp, Selous - AM

This morning's game drive starts with a surprise, when just as we are about to set out we discover a green vervet monkey in our tent. Pretty as they are these little monkeys can be terribly destructive and we have no compunction about driving him out unceremoniously. We think we have fastened the tent adequately but this ingenious little chap is both persistent and smart. A few minutes after we think we have chased him off we hear the velcro fastenings of the tent being drawn back again and our simian friend is reaching in for the biscuit plate. This time we make really sure that the tent is securely fastened before we set out.

Ezra and Rajabu are really committed to showing us something special this morning and we start cruising around various woodland areas where they tells us that they have experienced unusual sightings in the past. It's slow, patient tracking, with both the guide and the driver scanning ground for spoor and the trees and bushes for the tell-tale signs of hidden creatures. We are beginning to reconcile ourselves to enjoying a pleasant but unspectacular morning, when our driver suddenly points up into the foliage of a tall Milkberry tree some one hundred odd metres away, where he tells us he has seen a leopard!

Leopard in Tree

At first we cannot make out anything special, but as our vehicle edges very cautiously closer we can see that there is the bloodied carcass of an Impala at the base of the tree. Then when we follow the trunk upwards, we can see in a fork some fifty to sixty feet above the ground the sandy head of the leopard.

Selous Leopard

It is stunningly clear, and seemingly unafraid. As we watch, it stands up, moves forward and starts climbing down the tree head first.

Leopard with Impala kill 

Leopard jumps down

On reaching the bottom it disappears behind the trunk, but then reappears on the opposite side of the trunk at the base, peering over its kill.

Leopard Walking

Then, in leisurely fashion, it turns round and coolly strolls off through the low brush, the immaculate black markings on its coat clearly visible against its tawny fur.

Leopard Camouflage

When it finally disappears from view into the brush on the other side of one of the Reserve roadways, we know that we have been lucky enough to see something really special - not a fleeting glance at a shy and barely identifiable creature, but a superb sighting of an exceptionally confident creature, conscious of its mastery of its environment.

PM

We are taking another boat trip on the Rufiji, this time heading down-stream. The Hippos, water birds and crocodile sightings are much the same as those we have seen already, but the topography of the great river is changing.

The Rufiji, downstream from Impala camp

It is growing broader, and the banks are becoming higher and navigation is clearly more difficult. Our boatman Toboke is probing his way forward, accelerating when he can see a clear passage where the current is flowing freely, then having to feel his way between sandbanks, using a pole to gauge the depth. Occasionally our craft sticks on the underlying sand-bank and we have to shift our weight to raise the stern of the boat so that the outboard can cleave the water effectively. There are times when we are able to surge straight forward for one to two hundred metres, though more often than not we have to head diagonally across the river, inscribing broad zigzags which sometimes narrowly skirt the submerged sand-banks where the Hippos are resting. Every so often one of the males starts up irritably and begins splashing ominously towards us, but the boatman simply accelerates, out of their territorial patch.

Selous Colobus

We pass the entrance to the reserve and continuing our journey down-stream, where we note a number of Camps along the river banks. Some are reasonably tastefully constructed, but a few are of a standard which would never be permitted inside the reserve itself. About a mile or more beyond the Reserve boundary we head over toward the bank to observe black and white Colobus and Blue monkeys which inhabit the woodland areas alongside the river. Then we have to turn back in order to reach the mooring at the camp before it gets really dark. The boatman finds the navigation as tricky as on the way down-river, but he is skilled at the task and we eventually complete our journey, having realised our objectives without mishap.

continue to Lake Manze Camp.....


Follow these link to jump to the different sections of the Diary:

Selous Impala - Selous Game Reserve

Lake Manze Camp – Selous Game Reserve

Kwihala Camp - Ruaha National Park

Mdonya Old River Camp - Ruaha National Park

 

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