African parks and reserves invariably tout themselves as being areas of pristine wilderness, but there’s no question that you will experience untouched Africa at its wildest when you visit the Selous Game Reserve – arguably the greatest wilderness remaining in Africa.
Selous Game Reserve is huge – at twice the size of South Africa’s Kruger National Park it’s the largest game reserve in Africa.
Bigger than Switzerland and four times the size of the Serengeti, the 50 000km2 wilderness area is the most alluring safari prospect on the African continent; it’s Africa’s Big Secret, and seen as the next top destination for those in the mood for a bit of an adventure.
It’s a big park full of big game: the reserve – and proclaimed world heritage site – protects phenomenally large mammal populations. These include upward of 100 000 buffalo, 40 000 hippo, 150 000 wildebeest, 5 000 zebra and 50 000 impala. The local giraffe population is so large that Selous has been nicknamed Giraffic Park.
It’s great for birders too: 350 bird species have also been recorded in Selous.
With all this food-on-the-hoof it’s not surprising that predators pack themselves into the reserve. The Selous lions (of which there are 4 000) display unique daytime hunting behaviour.
An estimated 1 300 wild dog (the largest concentration in Africa) live in Selous, competing against large numbers of cheetah, leopard and spotted hyena.
As for the heavies, once home to the biggest concentration of elephant on the continent (over 110 000), the ‘Ivory Wars’ of the late 70’s and early 80’s had a devastating effect on the herds, reducing numbers to an estimated 60 000 today.
The black rhino population was similarly laid waste, and today there are perhaps 150 to 200 left out of a population of 3 000 in the early 70’s.
The Selous is an experience that can be combined with Tanzania’s other wildlife areas too; pay a visit to Gombe Stream or Mahale National Parks and you can tick off chimpanzees and forest birds as well.
Once you’re there a wide range of accommodation options is available, but for a real safari experience opt for one of Selous’ eco-friendly safari lodges.
Guided game walks and nights spent fly-camping (affectionately known as tents on the move) add an extra element of excitement to your safari.
Selous isn’t subject to the restrictions that govern Tanzania’s national parks so you can have a much more integrated safari experience here, tracking lions on foot or camping near waters inhabited by hippos and crocodiles.
While most guests visit the Selous on fly-in fully catered safaris, it is possible to drive in with your own vehicle – but be warned, the roads are appalling and self-catering visitors are not made particularly welcome by the operators of some of the more upmarket lodges.
Amazingly, the reserve only receives about 2 000 visitors a year. And although you will travel to the largest conservation area in Africa on a Selous safari, only the northern section of the park is available to tourists. Much of the reserve is dedicated to private hunting concessions and scientific research.
Despite this, the public portion of Selous is marvellously evocative, featuring a series of five interconnected lakes filled by the Rufiji river, which meanders through the reserve, hemmed in by the dense miombo woodlands on its shores.
The defining feature of the Selous is the great Rufiji River, which naturally splits the ecosystem into two distinct parts. Stiegler’s Gorge, 100m deep and 100m wide, is a magnificent natural feature with a rickety, gut-wrenching cable car that ferries safari vehicles across the river – not for the faint of heart.
Adding to the air of wild remoteness is that there are only six lodges in the reserve. While the bulk of the reserve is miombo woodland, there are sections of magnificent grass plains, wetlands and swamps and areas of dense canopy forest.
Perhaps the most sublime way of exploring the reserve is by boat, meandering through channels and swamps, and exploring hidden lagoons.
Navigating the network of lakes and rivers in a boat offers you an unusual view of game. There are sandbanks crowded with huge crocodiles; exposed mud banks under red clouds of carmine bee-eaters, and swampy islands visited by wandering elephants.
Angling in the river for tiger fish and the giant catfish (vundu), which can reach up to 50kg, can be an exciting way to pass an evening, keeping a wary eye open for crocodiles, hippo and lion.
In the Beho Beho section of the reserve, the hot springs at Maji Moto (said to be the source of the water used in the Maji Maji Rebellion) is a great place to soak away the dust and bruises of overland safari travel. However, immersing yourself in the waters of nearby Lake Tagalala is not allowed thanks to the massive (and hungry) crocodiles that live there.