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Selous – Sand Rivers

No other operators come here – so not even a footprint disturbs the feeling that you might be the first visitor, or even the first person, to see all this – Adam or Eve, just woken up in the Garden of Eden.

In the winter of 1980, Peter Matthiessen, the celebrated American writer, explorer and naturalist, set off on an extended foot safari into the remote southern regions of the Selous Game Reserve, a massive tract of undeveloped and unpopulated land in southern Tanzania.

Matthiessen and the expedition’s sponsor, British politician Tom Arnold, subscribed to the view, widely held in the late 1970s, that the efforts of governments and individuals to preserve East Africa’s wildlife sanctuaries were doomed to failure in the face of mismanagement, exploding human populations and widespread poaching. Matthiessen, in collaboration with the photographer and filmmaker Hugo Van Lawick, was determined to document what was described as ‘the last safari into the last wilderness’ before it disappeared completely. Together with Van Lawick and Brian Nicholson, a former warden of the Selous, he forded the remote Mbarangandu river and trekked onwards for ten days, following dry sand river beds and old elephant trails through the unmapped savanna and unnamed hills. His book, Sand Rivers, a huge international bestseller, was the result.

Here’s the good news: Matthiessen was wrong. Twenty-two years on, this pristine slice of untouched wilderness is still there, and you can reach it in just under an hour’s flying from Dar es Salaam in Tanzania. Named after Frederick Courteney Selous, an English hunter and naturalist of the nineteenth century, the reserve is 55,000 square kilometres of untamed bush, untouched forests, crocodile-stuffed lakes and emerald green floodplains. That’s slightly larger than Switzerland, four times as big as the Serengeti, and the second biggest protected natural area in the world. Uninhabited since an outbreak of sleeping sickness evacuated the human population back in 1945, the Selous is one of the few places on earth, and certainly in Africa, that you can find utter, perfect solitude of the kind described by Matthiessen in Sand Rivers:

‘Behind the heat and the still trees resounds the ringing that I hear when watched by something I cannot see…The power and the waiting in the air…the stillness of the glittering water, the yellow water lilies and the tawny marsh grass, the circle of still trees that hide this lovely place from the outside world, the resounding silence and expectancy, as though the creatures of the earth’s first morning might come two by two between the trees at any moment…’

Accompanying Matthiessen on the Sand Rivers expedition was a young safari outfitter from Kenya called Richard Bonham. It was the start of a love affair with what Matthiessen had called ‘the last of Old Africa’, and Bonham, one of a quiet, laconic breed more at home in the bush than the drawing room, returned to the Selous later in the 1980s to start a mobile safari operation, taking clients on old-style walking trips from a tented base camp.

Eventually it became apparent that the Selous, originally overlooked in favour of the more accessible northern parks of the Serengeti and Ngorogoro crater, was becoming better known, and that the eyes of a large commercial operation were likely to fall upon it at any moment. Before this could happen, Bonham enlisted the help of two conservationist friends from Dar es Salaam, Lizzy and Bimb Theobald, and in 1984 building commenced on Sand Rivers, a tiny luxury lodge built of stone and ebony on a cliff high above the enormous Heart of Darkness style expanse of the Rufiji river, the main artery of the Selous.

After eighteen years, the site that Bonham chose for Sand Rivers still has the largest and most beautiful concession in the whole of the Selous – a vast paradise of dry river beds, miombo woodland and floodplains that appear suddenly from the dense bush, sparkling emerald green in the aftermath of the rainy season and stretching away to lakes and hills in the far distance. Driving through it, giraffe appear to the left and right, swaying unhurriedly away past groups of wildebeest and skittering impala. Herds of buffalo are seen in the distance and martial eagles wheel on thermals overhead. And best of all, no other operators come here – so not even a footprint disturbs the feeling that you might be the first visitor, or even the first person, to see all this – Adam or Eve, just woken up in the Garden of Eden.

Back at the lodge, the gentle, inexorable rush of the river is the soundtrack to everything that happens at Sand Rivers – the soft Swahili call of ‘hodi’ from outside the door that announces your morning tea, the buzz of insects from the trees in the heat of the afternoon, and the muffled roar of lion along its banks as darkness falls.

The eight cottages that Bonham built are simple, thatched affairs which have the front wall removed to allow you to wake up, push back the mosquito net, and gaze from your bed at a yellow, green and blue expanse of river, bush and sky. If you’re lucky, a passing hippo might harrumph you good morning from a sandbank, or a squirrel scamper out of the trees for your biscuit crumbs.

Get up at dawn, of course – everyone seems to on safari – and spend the first hours of light messing about in a boat, chugging upriver as far as the steep-sided Stiegler’s gorge then floating back down with the current, blinking at the million shades of green of the best-preserved riverine forest in Africa and reflecting on the fate of the original Stiegler, a Swiss explorer who was trampled to death by an elephant at this spot and got the gorge named after him as a reward.

Baboons slope onto tumbled boulders to stare insolently and scratch their bottoms as you pass; hippo ease gently down in the water to watch your progress; fish eagles regard the boat contemplatively from low-hanging boughs. Drifting onwards, it’s hard not to feel the roles are reversed, and that an audience of not terribly interested eyes are actually watching YOU from the cover of the forest as you float exposed in the middle of the river. A leopard, glimpsed for a second lazing on rocks by the water’s edge, flicks her tail irritably and vanishes into the shadows.

Breakfast is fresh mango and bacon sandwiches, eaten on a shallow sandy beach as the sun gears up for the day’s heat. A giant kingfisher flies by low over the water, and the grunts of hippo come startlingly close from behind a rock. Floating home, the rhino station looms into view, a cluster of houses far up on a cliff where a team of rangers are based, flying a tiny plane over the vast area of the reserve to scout for the last remaining Selous rhino, poached almost to extinction for dagger handles and aphrodisiacs to supply the world’s wealthy and impotent.

Early afternoon is the time for a brisk bump through the bush in an open topped Land Rover to a smooth wooden platform built around a dobea tree. Here the staff will be unrolling mattresses, stocking up the cool box and bumping away again, leaving you to a private heaven of beer, book and binoculars, with elephant plashing along in the swampy valley just below. A radio is provided for you to call for a lift home, but be warned – an hour here turns into two, then three, and suddenly the idea of simply remaining for the rest of one’s life exactly like this becomes entirely irresistible.

Sand Rivers also has the only access to a group of thermal hot springs, tumbling down over huge boulders amongst dense vegetation in a scene so ridiculously romantic you feel you’ve stumbled into a Bounty ad or a studio set for one of Tarzan’s black and white adventures. Ease in up to your neck in the first of the sequence, and when you’ve adjusted, scramble a level higher over the rocks to the next, a few degrees hotter. Carry on until at last you’re dizzy with heat and well-being, soaking gently in the steamy water at the top and keeping an eye on the greenery around for signs of the elephant who sometimes approach the pools silently through the forest to drink.

Despite the transition from simple tented base camp to luxury lodge, walking safaris are still at the heart of a stay at Sand Rivers. And for Boys Own fun, no Land Rover can compete; the guides carry businesslike rifles and talk in knowledgeable voices about the whereabouts of “dogs” and “babs”. When you come up to herds of elephant or wallowing hippos they murmur reassuring things like “If anything happens, just stay behind me…and whatever you do, don’t run”. They pick up handfuls of dry dung and examine it with practiced eyes, murmuring in Swahili as they circle round behind bushes and advance one sure step at a time across swampy hummocks while you stumble gratefully along in the rear.

Walking through the Selous, in the same way as Matthiessen did, is harder work than driving, and doesn’t provide the same number of ‘instant hit’ game sightings. But stick at it and sooner or later you will be rewarded, perhaps, with the electric excitement of creeping towards a young bull elephant browsing in a patch of miombo woodland, closer and closer until you can hear his stentorian breathing and see the little midges that cluster in the corner of his eyes. Brown mud is caked on his skin, the edges of his ears are delicately ragged, and still the distance shortens until the life force of him is right upon you, ears flapping suspiciously, and the camera becomes an imposition, an impossibility, an obstacle that must be laid aside in favour of simply gaping with a foolish grin and pounding heart…

The guides at Sand Rivers are the stars of the show. Their detailed understanding of the environment in which they work goes way beyond simply pointing their clients at the big, obvious game and sitting back satisfied. While driving around, they discuss animatedly between themselves the exact genetic mutation of an acacia ant or the precise markings of a marsh warbler, and their enthusiasm is infectious – soon you too begin to realise that a true study of any wild place must include not just large mammals but grasses, barks, micro-organisms and insects. This level of detail is what makes Sand Rivers so popular with repeat safari visitors – people who have ‘done’ the better-known parks, ticked off all the required species, and now want a more thoughtful, in-depth look at the never-ending interaction of life forms that makes an ecosystem like this tick.

After a walk, evening fly camps are another speciality – the orange flare of hurricane lamps and a burgeoning fire in the descending blue twilight, and a neat row of mosquito net squares set against the rolling hills and pink, lowering clouds. A little mirror hangs with a green towel next to your folding canvas washstand, and the shower is a khaki bag bulging with cool water slung over a low hanging tree branch, the Imperial Leather soap wedged conveniently into a hippo skull. A thousand miles of wilderness retreat from beyond the neat little loo seat set at the river’s edge.

But if all of this seems like rather an effort, you could always just prop yourself up on your private veranda for the day instead, with a bird book, a cold drink and your binoculars, and let the river present itself to you in panoramic Technicolor just beyond your toes, as the swifts dart in and out over your head. The Sand Rivers team are young and obliging; just let them know if you fancy a candlelit dinner for two on a sandbank, or a day marooned on an island with a cool box and a radio, and they’ll arrange it without a blink.

Finally, however you’ve chosen to spend your day in the Selous, you’re likely to feel very much as Peter Matthiessen described himself at the end of his trek in Sand Rivers:

‘Gazing out across the sweep of sunset water to the green plain of Africa beyond, I feel tired, warm and easy, and awash with content…’

Twenty-two years later, in the pink flare of your own sunset, you can sink up to your neck in Sand Rivers’ swimming pool, gaze at a hippo doing precisely the same in the river opposite, and reflect gratefully that Matthiessen’s gloomily predicted ‘Last Safari’ turned out to be nothing of the sort.

Gemma Pitcher