I remember falling into a serene sleep with the gentle breeze blowing and the melodic sound of waves…only to have my dream rudely interrupted by relentless, pouring rain. It was a little before 6am, no ocean to be seen, only a thick, endless grey fog that enveloped my hillside suite and the pounding of angry waves. Having the good fortune to luxuriate at Ras Kutani, I drifted off, lulled by the rains that were tapering off, and the more soothing rumbling of waves in between the rain drops from the tree canopy onto my thatched roof. Sweet slumber once again….BAM! I jerked upright – damn those playful monkeys jumping onto the roof. Playful! Ok, time to get up and play another day on the Swahili beach.… this is my work.
Selous Safari Company (SSC) pioneered photographic safaris in the southern part of Tanzania – Selous and Ruaha. With three properties and growing, my mission was to visit each of the properties again and get to know them in a more relaxed way.
I started in Ruaha, Tanzania’s largest national park, where the Jongomero lodge sits in splendid isolation in the southern end. Built next to the Jongomero Sand River (roughly translated from the Hehe tribe as ‘sand river from the jungle’), each of the eight, en-suite tents has a private view facing the river bed. While I’ve never been there during rainy season when water flows, I hear it really does. You can tell the water table is not deep as the trees and shrubs are green along the bank and wildlife digs for water in the river bed. The mission of SSC is to recreate the authentic safari experience of early exploratory safari days. Each tented camp location is selected for its sense of wilderness, beauty, and views. With double vanities in the large bathrooms, huge beds made from old dhows and a canvass-covered verandah with comfortable furniture, the tents have a bush-elegance that is welcoming and inviting but doesn’t distract from the wild outdoors. I asked my tent attendant to leave the river facing curtains open so I could gently wake with the morning dawn.
The open-sided, thatched roof bar and lounge, with thickly cushioned sofas, overlook the sand river bed. The dining room is next door and there are several outdoor dining spots. One of my highlights was the bush dinner in the Jongomero river bed, dotted with lanterns as well as a bonfire for pre-dinner drinks. For those who want to swim in between game drives, there’s a pool.
The Jongomero staff is friendly, attentive with gracious service; guides are well trained and engaging. There’s an impressively stocked bar – important for all safaris! For the braai dinner in the river bed, the Jongomero bartenders set up a gin bar with unusual infusions that the other guests raved about. Sadly, I can not drink gin…hasn’t agreed with me since college days. Food is delicious, creatively prepared and artistically presented. As a vegetarian, I ate well with highlights being homemade herbed crackers with a mustard- bean dip, guacamole, veggie cakes, an incredible spinach tempura and chocolate mousse to die for. Or is the saying to kill for? If you were my table companion and not looking, I would have swapped my empty dish and devoured yours.
Game drives are so different than in the north. One can do entire morning or afternoon drives and not see a Jongomero vehicle, much less another lodge vehicle from up north. It is truly a wilderness experience! Ruaha is beautiful with different terrains that will surprise you as you turn the corner. I saw lions last year and this year was thrilled by two different elephant herds, 31 different bird species, hippos, crocodiles, warthogs, greater kudu, zebra, giraffe, bat-eared foxes, hyena, monkeys and a huge buffalo herd. Several of the couples there had seen a lion kill and wild dogs the two previous days before my arrival. Upon return from evening game drives, you are met with hot towels and either Amarula or sherry. When I mentioned that many lodges meet you with juice, the camp manager laughed and said, “This is bush juice.” Indeed!
Jongomero and all the Selous Safari Camp properties have their own airstrips so we made the 7 minute drive, cleared the airstrip of wildlife, and I was on my way to Selous Game Reserve for my stay at Siwandu.
In addition to being the largest game reserve in all of Africa, the Selous is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Within the reserve it’s possible to do walking and boat safaris along with your game drives. At Siwandu, built on Lake Nzerakera, the ten, en-suite tents face the river as well as the open-sided two-story bar and dining area. The bathrooms with double vanities have outdoor showers, which I love! It was very cool one evening to take a hot shower under the drizzling rain as a very narrow sliver of the bathroom is not under the thatched roof. Again I left my river-facing tent flaps open so I could enjoy the early morning. Siwandu also has a private camp with three or six tents, pool, lounge, dining area and staff that can be opened for private groups. In the Ndengeroke tribe, Siwandu can mean “the one I love most” or “the last born”. Maybe the last child most is always loved most?
While you will find the same gracious, friendly service and great food, Siwandu has its own personality and decor that is different from Jongomero so you will not feel like you were ‘just there’. My favorite dishes here were the homemade tomato-cheese spiral bread with lemon / cumin butter, stuffed squash, veggie skewers with briyani, baked potato crisps and mango mousse. (I’ll be making lemon / cumin butter for my dinner parties.)
It’s a welcome experience to get out of the vehicle and take walking safaris and boat safaris on the lake. We had a sundowner water safari on the covered pontoon with more hippos and crocodiles that I’ve ever seen in one place, and were surprised by an intense rain storm. No worries as our guide immediately whipped out rain ponchos for all! A welcome greeting from our wet evening out was chocolate liqueur, and sherry another evening.
One of the most amazing bush breakfasts ever included an audience of 37 giraffe spread out in a semi-circle along with zebra, wildebeest, maybe 100 impala, and 5 hippos on the other side. All seemed to be as curious about us as we them. (Of course the only time a camera wasn’t around my neck and in the vehicle…I did not want to get up and disturb our four-legged guests so sadly no photos.) The delightful Kim, Siwandu’s head guide who has been with SSC for 19 years, jokingly calls the Siwandu area, ‘Giraffic Park’ as I lost count of the well over 100+ giraffes during my two days there.
On to Ras Kutani, a surprisingly different beach lodge on the Swahili Coast that’s an hour, or hour and a half (in bad traffic) drive from Dar es Salaam. Ras Kutani also has an airstrip if you want to make that 10 minute charter flight from Dar. With no other property in sight in either direction, RK feels delightfully private. The nine beach cottages all have ocean views, some with lagoon views also. Large beds, spacious bathrooms, nice verandahs with two hammocks, and bright beach-y colors make for charming bungalows. In addition to a family house and four hill-side suites with private plunge pools, guests are able to book personalized accommodations. There’s a pool, open-sided lounge, bar and dining areas that of course face the beach for those times when you want to get out of your hammock or leave your private plunge pool. A beach cabana houses kayaks, boogie boards, towels, lounge chairs, etc. along with their beach attendant who takes care of everything while you’re at the beach or want to kayak in the lagoon.
Last year I pretty much stayed in my beach cottage hammock while last month I luxuriated in one of the hillside suites, sunned at my private plunge pool and napped under the covered verandah….working hard to give you all the details for your clients! I did my early morning beach walks, kayaked in the lagoon, swam in the ocean and of course did not miss a delightful meal or sundowner time. The sundowner on the beach was artfully lighted with lanterns and palm fronds planted in the sand – charming! Private beach or pool-side dinners are available. Tasty food here included home made breads, grilled stuffed zucchini, delicious eggplant cooked with peanuts and mango ice cream.
Ras Kutani is a lovely end to your Southern Circuit wilderness safari before driving to Dar for international flights. It works well for your clients who don’t have time to fly to Zanzibar but still want beach time. Minus Stone Town, it’s a much more private and relaxing beach experience and a perfect opportunity to get a delightful massage before the long flight home. I enjoyed two!
One of my favorite examples of the SSC hospitality: I met a British couple at Jongomero who had already been to Siwandu and were on their way to Ras Kutani for six days where we discovered I would meet up with them again. When they were at Siwandu (their 1st stop), the wife asked for skim milk but there was none. The waiter passed along to the manager who called the office and skim milk was on the next flight. The next morning the waiter surprised the wife with skim milk with a caveat. Would they please take the remaining containers as they flew to Jongomero then on to Ras Kutani? The Brits were delightfully surprised at the attentiveness! Catching up with them at the end of my trip, they were completely impressed with each and every property and thrilled with their first ever, bucket-list safari.
Selous Safari Company is all about the rustic wilderness experience. With far fewer lodges and vehicles, your clients will feel like they’re having a private “Out of Africa” safari with expert guides, great sundowners and charming accommodations. SSC is committed to sustainability from behind the scenes recycling and building materials to no plastic bottles as guests are given metal water bottles for game drives, and have filtered water in decanters in their tents. The permanent tented camps and beach cottages are intimate, comfortable and bush-elegant with an emphasis on inhaling the wilderness / outdoors with each and every breath.
Great importance is placed on guiding. Guides who are not yet FGASA certified are already experienced yet working towards that certification. I always appreciate guides who can position the vehicle for the best lighting and angle for their guests who are into photography.
New trade info: rates have been simplified (yeah!) and at Jongomero and Siwandu drinks are now inclusive.