I remember my first visit to Tanzania like it was yesterday when, in fact it was over 25 years ago! I felt so lucky to be going even though I was still a poor student. Clutching my precious flight ticket, obtained after what felt like an eternity waiting tables all summer, I jumped aboard a National Express bus bound for Heathrow airport. I couldn’t sleep for days with the excitement, lying in bed recalling safari stories told to me by my boyfriend David, of thrilling game drives and remote foot safaris in the great Selous Game Reserve where David was working as a safari guide. According to David, this vast wilderness was apparently the size of Switzerland and yet, one could be out all day without seeing another human soul. Nothing could be as romantic as what I imagined this place to be and I longed to experience it first-hand. David being by my side, the obvious added bonus!
As my BA flight landed on the tarmac of the Julius Nyerere International airport in Dar es Salaam, I immediately started to soak it all up….the heat, the smells, the noise. It was so different and yet so marvelous all at the same time. After an emotional reunion with David, we jumped into a rather dubious-looking 4x4, which had certainly seen better days, and headed to a nearby hotel to collect a couple of guests who were to join us on the road journey to magnificent Selous.
The guests were both young solicitors at a London law firm and I, being a law student soon headed for the City meant we had plenty to chat about en-route and we all delighted in escaping the rat race for a few weeks not knowing at this point what to expect which only served to compound our excitement. Once out of sprawling Dar es Salaam, the road to Selous was mainly dirt road and rather bumpy. There were very few tarmac roads even in Dar es Salaam in those days so we barely noticed the transition.
I was squashed into the front seat with David as we were also, apart from carrying passengers, were also carrying huge supplies with us from tonic for our G&T’s to salt and pepper to season our foody delights. I was just so happy to be there. Back then, most people drove between parks in rickety cars on dead-ish roads which was part of the adventure.
Entering Selous was like a dream. Already dark when we arrived, the night appeared extra thick with animals calling all around us in the heavy inky blackness. I felt a heady mixture of exhilaration as well as fear of the unknown but the place was magical and more than I could ever have imagined -I literally kept blinking to make sure this wasn’t a dream it felt so surreal. After what I thought was a great meal given that we were completely off the beaten track, we fell into our tents on to comfy beds excited about the days to come.
There are so many wonderful memories about Selous on that first trip. What struck me immediately was how lush the park was. My vision of Africa was of wide red dusty open plains which stretched out to the horizon. Selous had some open areas but also an incredible diversity of woodland, lake and riverine forest. On one particular day as we were heading back to camp disappointed that we had not seen any eles, our eyes closing in the late afternoon sun which hit the side of our faces in the game drive car, we startled a mother with calf in thick bush. With my heart pumping out of my chest, I grabbed my camera only to drop it. I left it where it fell as I didn’t want to miss a moment and record it with my own eyes rather than from behind a lens. The mother looked angry and like she would charge. It was hair-raising! David assured me that this was a mock-charge and if she really wanted to come for us, she would behave quite differently. Nevertheless, we were so close I could almost feel her breath. Tears streamed down my face at the sheer joy of seeing my favourite animal in the wild as nature intended. We arrived back at camp content.
A further memory that sticks in my mind on that first safari was exploring on foot with nothing other than old Mze Namaff and his trusty old gun. Whilst we didn’t see many large animals, this was a super way to see the smaller wildlife, like the hilarious Dung Beetle or the thousands of ants which make their home in the little hollow balls next to huge thorns of the Whistling Acacia Tree seen throughout Selous. One day we found ourselves next to beautiful Lake Mzizimia where we sat in our hideout for hours watching wildlife come down to the lake to drink whilst we sank a few cold beers, not to be left out. I felt much more secure in the hideout than I did standing at lakeside conscious of peering eyes bobbing up and down in the water which appeared to be getting closer.