It’s a sound to make the hairs on the back of your neck stand on end … It’s not loud, but it’s unmistakable – and you can’t really tell how far away it is. Or how close … There is nothing quite like the roar of a lion in the dead of night. It commands respect, reminding you that the lion is at the top of the food chain – and making you wonder whether you really do need to get out of the tent to go for a pee … I mean, really need to …
We camped high above the Rufiji River, a wide, slow-moving river with broad flat sandbars beginning to green over with incipient grasses. Below us hippos snuffled and grunted all night, but we were confident they couldn’t climb the steep bank to reach us. Besides, there was no grass to attract them to the camp-site, just bare sandy ground pocked with the lairs of ant-lions (and we’d nothing to fear from them on a night-time sortie …) Along the river’s edge, crocodiles sunned themselves with mouths agape; baboons came down for a drink and further along from our camp-site the mud cliffs were tunnelled with the nesting holes of bee-eaters.
The Selous is no African theme park. There are no crowds of vehicles jockeying for position, clustered round some reluctant ‘star of the show’. There are relatively few visitors and, perhaps because of this, most of the animals are shy … although the fact that large parts in the south of the reserve are zoned as hunting concessions may also have some bearing on their tendency to make themselves scarce.
We drove through a sere landscape of parched grasses, where flat-topped acacias stood out incongruously green, where a seemingly dead dried-out husk of a trunk defiantly flaunted pinkish blossoms, where huge baobabs stood like sentinels. Zebras and wildebeest invariably took flight at our approach; kudus and impala melted away into the scrubby bushes and trees; giraffes weren’t at all bothered by us and carried on sitting or standing where they were, impassively masticating and staring back at us with those incredibly long-lashed eyes. We stopped to watch two of them ‘neck-bashing’ – swinging their heads almost like a demolition ball at the end of a chain, but in slow motion and with balletic grace, thumping their opponent in its side as hard as possible. And judging by the reverberating thuds, it was hard. As fights go, it’s not particularly impressive – but it is strangely fascinating and can go on for quite a while. It can be a duel to the death, although there are also instances of its being a prelude to sexual activity – even between two males. But not this time. This time there was no great drama and eventually one just gave up and moved off. We also saw another very young giraffe sharpening up its moves by practising on Dad – although Dad just humoured him and didn’t respond at all.
Nearer the river, vegetation tended to be more lush. Under borassus palms we came across recumbent lions, muddy from the swamp and with faces bloodied from their recent meal, giving the lie to the notion that cats are clean. They’d obviously eaten their fill, but some other lions we saw were not quite so lucky – two hyenas had made off with the remains of their kill and whereas the lions had given half-hearted chase, the hyenas managed to keep the spoils. Vultures circled overhead and sat in attendance in the trees, waiting for their turn at the pickings.
Over time, the river has spread to form backwaters, pools and lagoons and the now flooded grey skeletons of trees stand in the water. We saw a small dark heron fishing under the umbrella formed by its wings; spoonbills shovelled for tit-bits in the muddy water nearby; open-bill storks feasted on molluscs; pods of hippos wallowed and grazed unhurriedly; Egyptian geese and stilts foraged round the edges of the banks; kingfishers dived and we saw a fish eagle in the top of a tree, delicately stripping bite-sized morsels from its catch.
Leaving the Selous we headed north and westwards, looping round the mountains: final destination Ruaha National Park, via Morogoro and Mikumi National Park. We drove past fire blackened slopes, through small tidy villages of brick or adobe huts, where stalls of produce were laid out neatly and colourfully-dressed villagers went about their business. Their normal mode of transport was by foot – or for the better-off, by bicycle. Each village appeared to have its own church or mosque – occasionally both – and its own brick kiln.
Distances are long in Tanzania – and feel even longer. We were promised game viewing all the way to Ruaha … Ha! Tour operator’s ‘dossier-speak’ … We saw the occasional olive baboon and one small herd of zebra. At Morogoro we joined the A7 – the Tranzam highway, the main artery linking Tanzania to southern Africa – with more road works than the M6 and with an unbroken line of very slow lorries in low gear labouring up hills and around bends – and the occasional stream-lined coach whizzing past at great speed, often on blind corners. But unlike the M6 there was never more than a single carriageway and over large sections even this was reduced to a contraflow, controlled by men waving red and green flags – and with hawkers taking advantage of the stationary traffic to sell bottles of water and snacks. And also unlike the M6, the road-side was lined with buckets neatly piled with tomatoes and onions for sale.
Traffic thundered through Mikumi National Park. There are speed restrictions – and these are even lower at night – but collisions and near misses with wildlife are inevitable. We saw more than one articulated lorry on its side down the embankment, with the driver and his mate sprawled next to it, waiting patiently for rescue. It was likely to be a very long wait.
We stopped for supplies at Iringa, a bustling town high on a hill and with impressive views over a brown desiccated landscape splotched with the unexpected mauve of jacarandas. Our route then took us off the main highway, eventually becoming a dust road and we got to the gates of Ruaha National Park with 10 minutes to spare before they closed. We reached our camp-site on the banks of the Great Ruaha River to find a giraffe nonchalantly munching on a bush, and not the slightest bit interested in our arrival. The Great Ruaha River, eh? Well, it might be Great in the wet season – but this was the dry. The river bed was wide – but only a few narrow streams populated it.
We shared the campsite with baboons, who were already settled for the night in a large tree when we arrived. Later, when we sat round the camp-fire, our torches picked out two eyes shining like beacons – a civet, probably visiting in the hopes of easy pickings … And later still, in the dead of night, we heard another lion roar …
Fortunately we didn’t have to share the shower block with the baboons. Early morning and they were down at the water’s edge playing, socialising, washing and grooming, leaping amazingly high over the separate rivulets so they wouldn’t get their feet wet. A foray of mongooses scampered past on their way to breakfast.
Ruaha is home to approximately 10 thousand elephants. That’s what we’d read, anyway … Perhaps it’s an indication of just how big the park is that approximately 9,950 of them successfully managed to hide from us. We knew they were there – the evidence was incriminating … droppings, elephant-ravaged trees – baobabs furrowed, gouged, scarred and holed and with the bark hanging in shreds so the elephants could get at the moisture in the sap. And we did, of course, eventually see some in action – browsing on acacia bushes, having dust baths and digging deep with their trunks to get at the water beneath the sand of a dry river bed.
It’s a very scenic park with rolling hills littered with boulders of all sizes and covered in leafless trees – impossible to tell if they were dead or merely awaiting the rains – rocky outcrops, sand rivers. It’s a muted colour palette punctuated with saddle-bill storks, kudu, impala, blue helmeted guinea fowl and ostriches – and charmingly grotesque baobabs, looking almost as though they’re waiting to have little faces drawn on them and be animated by Disney into an enchanted wood.
We visited Mikumi National Park again on the return leg of our journey – and stopped to watch a group of warthogs. Whenever a safari vehicle draws up, warthogs normally trot off one behind the other, tails in the air raised like little flags. Not this time. Two middling sized ones and five young were all digging together for roots, when a much bigger one arrived on the scene. The big one set about chasing the little ones … Was it a boisterous uncle getting the children over-excited? Or was it a male with designs on the females and wanting to get the step-children out of the way first? Or was it an exercise in building up their strength, speed and agility? We were intrigued.
Answer: none of the above. Closer inspection revealed the presence of teats on the big one. This was the mother.
Against the odds, this mother had managed to raise a litter of five. Wart-hogs have four teats, unlike other members of the pig family with two rows of teats the length of their undercarriage. Usually each hoglet has its ‘own’ teat – so if there are more than four in the litter that creates problems. And here were five … obviously weaned, but still very small. When the female is ready to mate again she drives off the young ones to fend for themselves – although they do sometimes return later … These hoglets looked very small to be driven off into the big wide world on their own – but perhaps Mum had just met Johnny Depp … She’d obviously done with being maternal, whatever the reason. Those little ones were running scared.
We couldn’t hang around to see the outcome, though. We had a plane to catch. So for us it was reluctantly back to the delights of the Tranzam highway: the dust, the traffic fumes, the nose to tail lorries, the wrecks at the side of the road, the pails of tomatoes and onions – and behind us, the jagged outlines of distant mountains softened by the fuzz of far away trees …