Accessible only by plane, the exclusive Azura Selous Retreat is set in a remote, wild part of Tanzania, where no other lodges are found, so your game vehicle will be the only one at a sighting by: Gillian McLaren (www.azura-retreats.com/selous-introduction)
The Cessna Caravan accelerates down the gravel runway and we rise into the air above Azura Selous Retreat in Selous Game Reserve, in the South of Tanzania. Levelling out at an altitude of 500 ft, we follow the curves along the winding Great Ruaha River valley, until it meets the Rufiji River. This aerial view of the scenery is spectacular. Lush woodlands are interspersed with patches of low first-leaf green grass, with vast numbers of pools filled during the nightly rainstorms of the last few weeks. We gain altitude until we reach our cruising level returning us to Dar es Salaam.
With an abundance of water dispersed throughout the bush, animals are spread out during this season, yet during our game drives while at Azura Selous Retreat we spot individuals of many species. The Masai giraffe – Giraffa tippelskirchi, with irregular jagged dark blotches on its coat – is separate sub-species from the giraffe seen in South Africa. Shy Nyassaland Wildebeest gallop away as we approach them, showing their distinctive pale flanks. Another surprise for me is seeing that the local zebra lack the shadow stripe of Burchell’s zebra found elsewhere in Africa. Lions are abundant in the area close to Azura Selous. We find a male with a crisscrossing of scars on his face on our first game drive, then later meet two females from his pride lying curled up and fast asleep on flat rocks.
We find a recently dead Spotted hyaena, with puncture marks on his throat, so assume that our scar-faced lion has killed it, as fierce competition exists between these two species that remain eternal enemies. Soon scores of White-backed vultures, a Hooded vulture, as well as Marabou stork, Tawny eagle and an uncommon Palm-nut vulture descend, to wait near the carcass in an uneasy truce, for their share of the booty. Once the carcass has been torn open it is a free for all, with much scrapping as these scavengers vie for position.
This is birding nirvana. I particularly enjoy seeing Black-chested snake eagle, the vulnerable Southern Ground-hornbill and Violet-tipped courser. The evocative call of the majestic African Fish Eagle echoes over my tent, Villa Twiga –the most spacious, secluded accommodation in Azura Selous Retreat ($870 pppn), the only one with an outdoor rock bath, set at the eastern of Azura Selous Retreat. A string of eleven tented villas ($700pppn), each with a breathtaking panorama, spread out next to the rushing Ruaha River. The iconic African sound of extremely vocal hippopotamus pods rends the air. Fighting males, establishing their territories, clash jaws and emit long livid roaring snorts and grunts. As these 1000-2000 ton beasts leave the river at night – to graze on the sweet grass further inland – we are accompanied by a spear-bearing askari along the path to the dining area. Each morning sizeable four-toed tracks imprinted in the mud attest to this nocturnal hippo movement. One evening the askari points out some fresh spoor of lion. Sobered I draw closer to him, relishing the excitement of being in this unfenced area.
After a pleasant lunch – at individual tables set in a different place in the retreat each day – it is sheer bliss to linger in the private plunge pool in front my Villa Twiga, with its view of verdant vegetation sloping down to the full to bursting river. Right here I spot water birds, gecko, lizard and peacefully grazing impala, as well as an array of butterflies. On my wide veranda, edged with slabs of local stone, a warm breeze fans my face. After an alfresco shower, I retire to the comfortable bed, with its freshly laundered sheets, to gaze at the vista, until I fall asleep.
Refreshed and ready for a river safari, we are driven to a small motorboat close to our retreat. Having heard about the power, territoriality and notorious aggression of the hippos, we are grateful to be in the experienced hands of a guide. Up close and personal is redefined when we motor so close to the hippos that we can observe details of their impressive set of tusk-like canines and incisors! Alighting onto a sandy island in the river, we enjoy tasty savoury snacks as we sip our sundowner and watch the fast-fading light.
Driving back to the retreat, we see twinkling lights – like the eyes of a vast herd of impalas in a spotlight – to discover that it is lanterns hung in trees, under the stars, right in the bushveld, where we are to dine. In out-of-Africa fashion, hot water is poured over our hands, to prepare for a feast. Seated at a table we are served several courses, before we head to the barbecue to choose from a variety of salads, vegetables, meats and some Tanzanian maize porridge, with a traditional sauce. A special vegan meal is presented for one of our group. Delectable white and red South African wines are on offer. Discussing our sightings of the day and entertained by the guide’s tales of past near escapes from the Big Five, we are wide-eyed when lions roar nearby. Driven back to Azura Selous, we linger in the open-sided lounge area that faces down onto an illuminated swimming pool, until ready to walk to our tents, perchance to sleep.
Woken by my housekeeper bearing a pot of Tanzanian tea and some delicious cookies, I savour the dawn light, before dressing for an early game drive. We find leopard tracks from the night before and in low range drive off-road into a partially dry riverbed, to search for her. Our anticipation and hopes are high. We scan the ground and the tall trees, but she has eluded us. Back onto the grassland between the trees that is as low as a manicured lawn, we can clearly see dried buffalo and giraffe bones, then a Hippo skull, all litter from lion kills. Permitted to jump off the Landrover, we enjoy learning about these prey animals and taking photographs on the various killing fields. While off the vehicle we find pretty flowers in the grass, a wasps’ nest in a tree and a flap-necked chameleon. Walking safaris are available here, with an armed guide, when guests are shown more of the micro-life and taught about the trees.
Of special note is the high calibre of guides and staff at Azura Selous Retreat. Each person is kind, professional and unfailingly helpful, making sure that each guest’s preferences are considered. At meals, the waiter unfurls each linen serviette then graciously assists us in choice of beverages and selections from the daily menu. Our game guide is well informed and personable and skillfully handles the 4×4 vehicle through muddy terrain, or pools of water.
Sitting in the co-pilot’s seat of the Cessna Caravan, I have the perfect view: a 180° panorama of pristine wilderness. The higher we fly, the more I realise how vast this UNESCO heritage site actually is. What a privilege to experience such an inaccessible, far-flung biome, from the opulent base of Azura Selous Retreat.