The second portion of our Tanzanian holiday was a safari through some of the southern parks of Tanzania. These were: Selous, Mikumi, Udzungwas for walking, Ruaha, and then a walk in the Ulugurus hills. (12 nights)
Hippo Tours had a lot to live up to, given that our first safari with Destination Tanzania in the north was so excellently managed and therefore so enjoyable. When our guide from Hippo Tours, picked us up at the hotel in Dar, we thought he seemed a bit young to be "experienced" as promised by our contact with the company. hmmmm. But we were soon on our way, out the s. side of Dar, just inland from the coast (coconuts and greenery) to Kibiti where we had a short break at a restaurant. After this stop the paved road turns to gravel which very, very quickly changes into sand... for the next 4 or 5 hours of driving. The drive is through dry blonde-russet bush that alternates with small villages all the way to Selous park entrance near Mloka. It was dry, dusty and bumpy, but interesting. The truck we were in did not seem as sturdy as the one with Destination Tanzania and while the top could be opened up, it was by panels that were completely removed, leaving us standing/sitting in the sun. lucky we brought our goofy straw hats for the beach portion of this holiday! We did see monkeys and birds along the way to our first stop. Unfortunately the guide did not have any binoculars with him--as promised by the tour company in our initial correspondence. He said they were broken. When we asked about them back at the office in Dar, on our return, they said that, "he had left too early in the morning to pick them up from the office...."
We stayed at the Selous River/Rest Camp outside the park. It sounds like Hippo Tours has changed a few of its accommodation choices in the last 1/2 year (due to credit crunch). Some of the changes are perhaps for the better, and others maybe not. This camp is run by a young couple, who are still getting the hang of logistics involved in running a guest camp.
The day of arrival we went out on a pre-arranged boat trip on the Rufiji river. It was really good as the light for photography lasts longer on the river since any available light reflects off the water. We saw all kinds of birds, reptiles, hippos and some of the local yellow baboons which are dif. from those in the n. parks. I would highly recommend getting out onto the river in this part of the country. We also did a walk, another morning, on land, across the river, (not in the park) with the manager of the Rest camp. This was also really good. We saw some impalas, wart hogs, many spp. of birds, some giant millipedes and the scariest critter of the whole trip--safari ants! 20 m. columns of them walking across the landscape to move house. The whole column is guarded down its length, and they all get very agitated when you lean in for a photo shoot. (I suspect we got a better walking tour with the manager of our camp, then the one offered by the Selous parks--we saw the game ranger who did this tour, and this person walked extremely slowly, or not at all when needed at the park gates...)
The Rest/River Camp can supply elec. for a few hours in the evening to recharge batteries. Which was lucky, as the Hippo Tours truck did not come with any means to get the elec. out of the cigarette lighter. !!? It is just a round, glowing hole for which we did not have any kind of adapter/cable to attach to our battery charger. From our correspondence, we had been under the impression that they would supply this necessary piece of equipment.
Selous park is very beautiful. We stayed 3 nights here, which was enough to see the surrounding landscape. The portion near the Mtemere gate is quite thickly wooded. At this time of the year a lot of the leaves were down, but still it is a lot more difficult to spot game than in the more open parks like the Ng. crater, Serengeti or even Tarangire. However, there is a series of small inter-connected lakes/swamps here that you can drive to and around and around and see lots of dif. animals. The guide did prove his stuff in finding many animals and birds for us. His young eyes were sharp enough to spot monitor lizards in trees. We also saw more giraffes than you would have thought possible. The last 1/2 day in Selous involved driving through the park (on noticeably better roads [gravel] than the surrounding countryside) to the Matambwe gate. It would have been nice to stay at one of the camps in the center of the park in order to see more there, but sadly this was too expensive for us. While at Selous we did not see any big cats, but did see wild dogs. (sleeping under a tree, looking just like dogs sleeping under a tree....)
The drive between Matambwe gate of Selous park and Morogoro town/city was amazing. The scenery is constantly changing from bush to village fields and active, colourful villages, to forested hills and even some forest that looked quite pristine to me. This road is corrugated red dust, all the way to Morogoro on the way to Mikumi Park. (from Morogoro to and through Mikumi it is paved) It took us 9 hours of driving ( only 20 min stop for box lunch) to get to our next stop which was Vuma Hill Foxes camp at Mikumi park. It would be nice to somehow break up this drive with an over night stop half way, in order to take more photos and perhaps get out and walk somewhere....
Vuma Hill tented camp was very plush after the previous camp. Electricity for batteries is available for a while in the evening. The managers were really friendly and accommodating. Dinner is part served and part buffet, but unfortunately breakfast is served and slow if you are in need of a quick getaway. In the evening there we saw a honey badger who comes within sight of the camp lights due to kitchen waste being put out for it. There was also a bush baby, civet cat and porcupine there in the evening. We spent the next half day driving in a portion of Mikumi park. Unfortunately quite a lot of it had been burned to clear old grass so it was a while before we saw much. In the end we did see various antelopes, elephants, wildebeest, crocs. etc. No lions or other big cats, although we did see the remains of a lion's kill. I am not sure if many (or any) of the trucks for safaris in the south are equipped with 2-way radios. Ours was not, so it was up to the guide to find out from other guides/park rangers where the bigger animals might be located. (maybe not always easy, as he was not allowed to stay on the grounds of most of the places we stayed at. ??) In any case, when we were there, many of these s. parks were so empty of vehicles, that there would have been few other guides for our guide to talk to on a radio, in any case. After a quick lunch at a rest stop with our packed lunches we drove on to the Udzungwas park.
The Udzungwas turned out to be a highlight of the trip. This park is a real little jewel in their park system. It is a newish park centered on the mtns. of the same name. We stayed at the Udzungwas Mountain Hotel which was excellently managed by a local woman named Lilian. (past Sanje towards Mangula on a map) The hotel's restaurant is good and there are big portions for those who are hungry. When we were there they were doing some renovations--meaning the work men turned off the water randomly throughout our stay there. Lilian always managed to get it turned back on. The place is not fancy, but it is clean and comfortable. Electricity for batteries is available.
We had previously arranged with Hippo Tours for 2 days of walking in this park. At the south park gate we picked up our park guide, who again turned out to be really knowledgeable about the critters, creatures, birds and plants here. This was something we really appreciated. We both have an assortment of biology degrees so it was great to talk with someone who understood our interest in the local ecology. During our walks we saw both types of colobus monkeys, baboons, many dif. (weird) insects and heard many but did not see so many birds due to the thick greenery. On the main trail in the park some of the trees are marked with name plates that also state the uses of the sp. eg. timber, medicinal, etc. it is dry land jungle so thick, but no leeches. : ) I also saw a red duiker. One of the other reasons for walking in this park is to see the various water falls that are there. They were quite beautiful, even though it had been a dry year and there was less water than usual. Some people chose to visit this park for days at a time and walk and camp for their stay (with a park ranger). It would be worth looking into if you are keen on this sort of thing.
Also of interest was the other side of the Udzungwas park. When we left the park to drive towards Ruaha park (more amazing scenery along the way) you go past the north side of the Udzungwas park. It is even drier here but apparently there are leopards to be seen. We did not know at the time of making our tour booking, that it is possible to go into the n. side of the Udzungwas, otherwise we would have done this as well. I'd love to read about someone 's experiences on the n. side of the Udzungwas. It takes a whole day to drive from s. Udzungwas to Ruaha park. There is a large river along the way and some accommodation possibilities beside it. The road from Sanje to Iringa on the way to Ruaha is paved. (or paved + under road repairs and therefore down to one lane) After Iringa the road is gravel and/or dust to the park gates. So another long day of traveling as we left just after 8:30 am and did not arrive until well after 4pm with just a minimal lunch stop.
At Ruaha park we stayed in the park at a camp that belongs to Authentic Tanzania safari company. They were taking guests from other safari companies due to the slow down in tourism due to the credit crunch. This is a well managed camp with friendly staff. Actually they were really glad to see us I think, after spending 2 weeks by themselves with no guests. The tents are set to face a dry river bed (full of lions chasing camp staff and being chased by camp staff a few weeks before we arrived...) and cliff face. It was amazingly cold there at night. Below +15C! (We're from the desert, think +40C, so we were desperately cold the first night, after that we got more blankets for our camp beds). When you come in from safariing all day there they greet you with an offer of hot water for the bucket showers, which is really nice. Food was great there as well. No electricity for batteries here, but we were carrying spare charged batteries.
Ruaha also offers a wide variety of landscapes from rolling hills of dry brush, great views from the tops of hills, a long escarpment of rocky cliff faces--looked like leopard territory to me, and the winding Great Ruaha River that is green all along its edges. During our days driving here, we usually only saw 10 or less vehicles during the whole day. So you pretty much get the park to yourself. We stayed 3 nights here and did finally see lions in the s. of Tanzania. But we also saw greater and lesser kudu, tree and rock hyrax and all the rest of the usual game animals. The park gate had brochures about the park and its services when we arrived. But too late for us too book a walking tour in this park--which we would have done, had we known in advance... This turned out to be one our our fav. parks, after Serengeti and Tarangire.
From Ruaha we faced another long drive to Morogoro in order to walk in the Uluguru mtns. the next day. It turned out to be a really, really long day of driving. The truck broke down well outside the park. (clogged air filter, eventually cleared with a bicycle pump to get us to Iringa for a new one). I managed a watercolour sketch by the side of the road here (nice to paint in front of non-english speaking critics!), while the husband went for a jog along this road that was free of predators interested in munching on his tough, old haunches. In Iringa we ate our boxed lunch while the guide got the truck repaired, then on to Morogoro, but it was a slow drive due to road construction/repairs. We did not reach Mikumi park until dark, which further slowed us down as the speed limit is considerably lowered through the park at night--and good thing. Lots impala using the road as a hiding place from lions. The tour co. had neglected to give our guide any sort of useful directions for finding the next accommodation--the very, very plush Mbyeni Farm (which equally un-usefully does not have any signs on the road...) We ended up driving for an extra hour in pitch dark, on dirt roads through various plantations looking for the one where we were to stay....
The owner/manager held dinner for our late arrival at 10pm. It was much appreciated and extremely good. The next morning she tried to help us find a guide for the walk in the Uluguru hills, but the phones of her contacts were not working. Maybe due to a bit of rain falling.... We went into Morogoro town, exchanged money and visited various possible tour/walking offices. The community initiative tours seemed too expensive for what was really just to be a walk in agricultural land. (ie. no park fees involved) They needed an office fee, various village and chief fees, a fee for the tour guide, a tax, etc., etc. In the end we said no to that. The gov't parks office had a guide who would go for less but he was not around. No one seemed to know where he was... In the end we hired someone off the street that had been hanging around at the community office. He had our driver take us all part way up the hill and park where the dirt road sort of gave out. From there we walked a brisk hour+ up the hill, occasionally stopping to admire the breath-taking misty scenery. The farms are terraces cut out of the quite vertical hillsides. Crops seem to be a mix of table veg., bananas, etc. Just under the park border at the old German bldg. we stopped for our snack of oranges, cashews and biscuits that we had purchased in the Morogoro market. The guide seemed well informed about the ins and outs of farming in this region so we were able to ask questions and get answers. We were back at Mbyeni farms by 3pm, so actually had time to enjoy the place and anticipate another great dinner. Elec. available for charging batteries.
Next day was the relatively easy drive back to Dar to pick up bus tickets, for the next day, to go to the Usambara mtns. for more walking....
So after 2 safaris what did we learn?
That younger guides can be just as good at finding game as older experienced ones.
That an older, experienced guide will have had more cross-cultural experience and therefore be easier to talk with particularly if you are the same ages. And since he has been working in the field longer he will have accumulated field guides of birds, animals etc. , binoculars, bean bags for cameras, etc.
And no matter what, the landscapes, animals and people are endlessly interesting. I'd go again, any time.