Bucket Lists and Best Kept Secrets

Eliza from our Africa team spent some time at Selous Game Reserve and Mafia Island recently and came back with some incredible memories of baby elephants and whale sharks. Read on to find out more…

Visiting Tanzania and Zanzibar had been very high on my bucket list for a long time so I was thrilled when I got the opportunity to head there. I was to spend almost 3 weeks visiting the Selous Game Reserve and the little-known Ruaha National Park in the south of the country before visiting the islands of not just Zanzibar but also Mafia and Pemba to the south and north of Zanzibar respectively. Having never heard of places like the Ruaha National Park or Mafia Island until I started working for the Africa team at Scott Dunn I can now say positively that the best-kept secrets really are the ones most worth ferreting out!

Game viewing all over Southern Tanzania is absolutely fantastic, you get the wonderful wildlife without the hordes of tourists that visit the more famous Serengeti in search of the Great Migration. The Selous is particularly great for boating safaris and the incredible bird life you find along the river. The Ruaha however simply blew me away with the sheer beauty of the landscape. It is the largest national park in Tanzania and has the most incredibly varied scenery you could imagine.

My first stop in this amazing park was Jongomero, a Selous Safari Company lodge that must be the ultimate destination for any elephant lovers. The lodge is set on the bank of what was a dry river bed during my stay, but at some points of the year will be flowing rapidly. The Ruaha is in fact noted for its huge population of elephants but nowhere did I see this evidenced more than at Jongomero. Within minutes of arrival, whilst I was exploring the interiors of my beautiful tent, I heard the distinctive noise of crushing vegetation that only these enormous mammals are capable of. Creeping out onto my private deck, camera in hand, I was overjoyed to see a group of these friendly giants appearing along the riverbank, happily immersing themselves in the joyous task of pulling the branches off the trees. Then later, on what was definitely the most elephant-rich game drive I have ever been fortunate enough to enjoy, the sight of huge herds roaming all over the area would have been enough to reduce all the guests to squeals, had we not been so utterly transfixed. The only distraction was our surroundings, which were surprisingly reminiscent of the most beautiful English scenery imaginable. Everything was lushly green and the area we stopped for sundowners in was alongside a series of beautiful trickling streams.

The next day I progressed onwards through the Ruaha only to be amazed by how dramatically the scenery changed as we went along. We went from lush green woodlands and gentle streams, to seemingly endless open savannah, and then onto areas that were jungle-like in the extreme, only to emerge in hilly valleys on the other side. I’ve never seen anything quite like it and was honestly distracted from the wonderful wildlife by the sheer beauty of my surroundings. Fortunately nothing was enough to distract me from the newborn elephant calf we passed, under 24 hours old according to our guide, this statement backed up by his drawing our attention to the circling vultures searching for the placenta. It was quite a sighting!

Then after all of the excitement which comes with spending time in the bush, it was time to hop on board a little Coastal charter flight to the least known island of the Tanzanian Zanzibar Archipelago, Mafia Island. Mafia is in fact, unlike the semi-autonomous region of Zanzibar, governed from the mainland, and consists of one large island and several small ones. I use the term ‘large’ loosely though as the main island is only 394km2. Mafia is, in my opinion, exactly what one would imagine Zanzibar to have been like 20 odd years ago, before tourists descended upon it. There are still only a handful of hotels on Mafia, and the economy depends mainly on fishing rather than tourism. My destination on the island was Butiama Beach, a gloriously rustic lodge on the west coast of the island, with a handful of bungalows leading straight out onto the white sand beach that stretches for miles and miles when the tide is out. Despite the lodge being relatively close to a prawn farm and the fishing village on Kilindoni, there is a sense of peace here that I didn’t manage to find anywhere else on my travels. However, despite this peace and the overwhelming urge to lie on the beach and do nothing, I managed to experience during my short 24 hours here three of the best excursions I’ve ever been on.

Shortly after arriving and being shown to our room we were ushered down to the beach for a sunset dhow trip along the coast. With sparkling wine, nibbles and the sun setting it was a wonderful way to get our first proper look at the island. Then early the next morning it was time for the real highlight of my trip! A recent addition to my bucket list of experiences, was to go swimming with whale sharks, the largest known fish and a regular visitor to Mafia Island between the months of October and March. Whale sharks can measure up to 20m and little is known about them, other than that they are totally harmless. We set out on the boat and came across these incredible creatures within about 15 minutes. The water was somewhat murky but every now and then you would see one of them break the surface before smoothly submerging again . Our guide got us all set up with flippers and snorkelling equipment, and instructed us to sit at the ready on the edge of the boat. His next directions were that upon his word we should drop suddenly into the water, when the whale sharks swam towards us, and then not panic when they swam right at us with their mouths wide open! This statement was met with some consternation by all of us that had our legs dangling over the edge as that definitely sounded like something worth panicking about, but before we could dwell on the matter we were instructed to go and all took the plunge into the water. The first sight of a huge whale shark coming straight towards you with its mouth wide open was certainly nothing short of alarming, but then, as promised, at the seemingly last moment, the mouth closes and they gently sink down to glide peacefully beneath you. After this first time all worry ceases and you drop into the water each time with mounting excitement. The continuous return to the boat is necessary as the whale sharks are deceptively fast swimmers and keeping up with one of them for longer than a minute proves a struggle for most. Swimming alongside the length of one of their humungous bodies is the most surreal experience imaginable and I would say an absolute must do for anyone travelling to this part of the world at the correct time of year. Returning to the lodge after an hour or so of swimming with them, everyone was pretty much silent, just resting in the boat and reflecting on what they had just seen.

Then to round off what had been the most incredible 24 hours possible, we headed out on the boat again to go snorkelling over the reef before settling down on a desert-island sandbank for a delicious Robinson Crusoe style lunch of fresh fish cooked by a bonfire, cold beer in hand, resting under the shade of a sheet slung out between sticks. It really was a paradise spot that I will be heading back to at the earliest opportunity.

For more information on Tanzania and Zanzibar call one of our Africa Consultants on 0203 603 3555 or visit scottdunn.com

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