Last Great Wilderness

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The Selous Game Reserve is huge.

 

It hunkers low in Tanzania’s belly, its southern boundaries almost touching Mozambique. It’s big and hot and sprawls so that its spread is greater than whole countries; it’s bigger than Switzerland. It’s Africa unwieldy, a vast space of sky and scrub and water and wildlife – at 50,000 square kilometers, it is amongst the last and largest protected areas in Africa.

 

Named after Englishman Sir Frederick Selous, a big game hunter and early conservationist who died here in 1917 during World War I, the Selous, the oldest conservation area in Africa, was first designated a protected area in 1896 by the German Governor Hermann von Wissmann, became a hunting reserve in 1905, and was nominated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1982. Today the northern corner is preserved as a photographic destination; the rest remains a hunting concession.

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How, given 25 years in Tanzania, this huge place had evaded our safaris, I can’t tell you. Perhaps because it offers the best component of a real road trip adventure: inaccessibility.

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It took us fourteen hours to drive there and we sank from high cool hills whose shoulders are draped in green tea and mist to low miombo woodland where mid afternoon temperatures tip 40 degrees when the only sound is the faintest whisper of borassus palms when their papery fronds are nudged by a kilnhot puff of enervated air because even the cicadas, which normally hiss all day long from unseen positions in the bush, are heatexhausted to silencing inertia.

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The 600 klm Rufiji River slips through a slice of the park before hurrying on toward the sea and even now, even in high hot October as we near the end of kindlingdry summer when the savannah is nicotine yellow and the brush desiccated and brittle, as we anticipate the Rains with panting excitement, even now the Rufiji is huge and wide and running fast. So fast that when we’re on it I can hear the rush of water in the upended vegetation, against the bank which is striped with the telltale rise and fall of past rains and scrambling with creepers that bear confetti white blossom, like jasmine and arterial green tosses two fingers to sapping heat for here the trees are rooted deep and damp.

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Everywhere’s waiting for rain. The flowers have been forced into evidence so that by the lakes that have morphed with the endless shifting shape of the river the flats are carpeted with blue. The impala and zebra and warthog all nurse young who will grow fast and fat on soon new grazing. I can see the promise of rain in gathering clouds which dissolve by sunset so that my lens captures the undiluted tangerine light of dusk.

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We’re here to fish. Or the boys are. I’ve come along in capacity of scribe. Photographer. Groupie. Oh well done Darling! The Rufiji swims with myriad species but it’s Tiger we’re after: big sharp teethed tiger that fight with strength and heart so that you can hear the zip and whine of the line as it rips from the reel when the tiger bites. Pale catfish lurk in the depths too and a few of those are plucked; one almost five feet long, pale scaled, like a finger nail, and long whiskered. Some of the catch is tossed back into the café au lait waters; some go to the boatboy who won’t mind the bones and the muddiness of the flesh.

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The air squats hot and the riverside sand is baking, it’d scorch your soles if you inadvisably went barefoot. A lot of water is drunk from cool boxes. Sunblock is slathered but the rays still nip below the shade of the meager awning and pinch our skin pink. You can hear the haunting cry of fish eagles; one glides low to swipe the bait. Hippo snort water and rise and sink as we pass, sometimes you can see their wake as they move beneath the surface, with surprising agility given their cumbersome size. Crocodiles lie jaws agape, as logs or glide in and out of our vision as stealthily as submarines. You couldn’t swim the width of this river if you tried, not without ending up as somebody’s supper. As we head back to camp the breeze rises and is deliciously, vigorously chilled as it collects the cool from the river’s now choppier surface.

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And when we’re not fishing we’re lost in the vast wilderness that forms this place, seeking midday shade to drink a flask of tea as we watch skittish zebra at the lake’s edge, skittish for the dangers that lurk beneath its soupiness. A giraffe arranges it’s long limbs and longer neck into a graceful triangle to drink. A pair of lions lies in the shade, the only movement the odd flinch against the irritation of a fly and the million butterflies that seem to flutter at their throats; even breathing is heavy work in this heat. Pink tongues loll. Could they, would they, I wonder aloud to Ant, get up the speed to pounce if I stepped out of the car. Don’t doubt it, he says.

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But for all the game we see – the big somnolent cats, the buffalo, the elephant, the kudu, the gnu – I know that numbers here have collapsed: the Selous, which once hosted the largest elephant population on the planet, has lost 80% of these intelligent, magnificent creatures to poaching – its why they stumble from sight in a state of distressed agitation at the sound of our vehicle – and there are no rhino left. Mankind exhibits such gluttonous arrogance with his assumption that he can annihilate a species for the sake of trinkets and superstition.

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I think hard about how to pin my few days in this extraordinary wilderness to the page on our long drive home when we eat heavily salted crisps and drink tea. It is always difficult to articulate the affinity one bears to the place you call home. To unpick it and try to explain precisely why a given place fits you. But when Africa swims in your blood and is the dusty grit that stings your eyes to tears, the things that make it my place are its light, the searching, searing, unforgiving light at midday that yields to the long fingered, leanly tapered shadowed and lingering glow at sunset, and the scent of the bush and the heat and the nearness of rain and the absence of it all at the same time, it’s the quick sound of a lizard startled as you step towards the shade with your mug in hand, the ripple of movement, the rustle of parchment dry leaves, it’s the chirps and coughs and sounds of the wildlife on hoof and wing. The sparseness of this place juxtaposed with a contradictory richness.

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It all conspires to create something that is so achingly familiar, fits so easily, so comfortably that it can be hard to describe it with the majesty that it deserves.

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7 Responses to “Last Great Wilderness”

  1. Ellie Says:

    Beautiful. Really beautiful. What a gift to be able to visit such a place. Thank you for sharing it with us ….

  2. little red hen Says:

    That was a lovely description of a vast beautiful wilderness.

  3. Sabine Says:

    Oh but you described it so beautifully. Moving. Thank you.

  4. inthewronggear Says:

    yes, yes, yes…

  5. Addy Says:

    Your way with words is amazing and brings alive a beautiful place to be in. I can se why you love Africa so much.

  6. Jackie Says:

    Told you you would love it and thank you for bringing it back so clearly with your beautiful words. I think the stays with me most from my few days in the Selous is that quality of light, and the almost other worldliness of the river at dusk and the elephants crossing. A very special place, and you have conveyed that feeling. xx

  7. sustainablemum Says:

    Wow, thank you

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