An African adventure: Tanzanian safari at Selous Serena

I’d planned to do this safari post as soon as we got back last October but put it off when I realised how woeful my photos are compared with Pete’s (turns out a Sony phone is really not the same as a professional camera). But it seems a shame not to write about it at all because it was, well, the best holiday of my life. And you can always check out the really good pictures on Pete’s Instagram in the links…

So! This post has a soundtrack: the Jurassic Park theme, playing to best effect when Sam Neill and Laura Dern first glimpse the dinosaur herds. That was us on our mind-blowing, pinch-me-is-this-real four days in the Tanzanian Selous Game Reserve. Specifically the unforgettable moment when we drove out of the dusty bush into the mirage-like expanse of lush grassland teaming with giraffe, buffalo, leaping impala and baboons. It was a scene simultaneously familiar and completely unreal; pretty much a summary of the whole safari. When you grow up on a diet of books like African Adventure, The Story of an African Farm and The Lion King and Jungle Book videos on repeat (not to mention my all-time favourite film The English Patient), the experience is inevitably going to feel nostalgic, despite the landscape being completely alien from anything I’ve ever seen IRL. From fat Pumbas digging for roots to snoozing Simbas under a picnic table, the trip was every bit the bucket-list holiday I’d hoped for.

After an epic flight to Daar es Salaam, we clocked up a good 12 hours shut-eye before heading out to Selous in what can only be described as a toy plane. Not a trip for anyone with a fear of flying but a lot of fun otherwise! Four of us were dropped at Stigler’s Gorge, where our driver met us in the open-top offroader that would be our ride for the next three days. It was at this point that we properly met Deirdre and Joe, the couple sharing Selous Serena with us (we were two of only three couples at the camp, so it really was an ‘exclusive’ experience). Pete and I were lucky because we hit it off with Dee Dee and Joe right away – I mean, essentially we crashed each other’s honeymoons (sharing the jeep, a boat, dinner spot, lunches in the bush, an intimate hot springs swim and even a romantic sundowner on the beach) so it would’ve been pretty bad if we hadn’t! That said, they were a bit annoying because Dee Dee looked like some kind of Amazonian goddess and was genuinely lovely to boot, and as for Joe – 6,4, blond and super charming. Bastards.

So, Selous Serena. After spotting our first impala (we were sooo excited, yet by the end of the trip, totally over them) we were welcomed at the camp by our Tanzanian hosts, brandishing cold lemon-scented flannels on a silver platter. The service at Serena was unbelievable; super friendly, the guys ready to source anything we needed (and we weren’t physically allowed to carry our own bags at any point). Our rooms would be turned down and secured against night visitors – lizards, mozzies, hippos? – while we ate fabulous four-course dinners, specially tailored to accommodate Pete’s dairy allergy. The restaurant overlooked a pool where the resident hippo and crocodile would hang out every morning and night (great dinner chat). One evening we were treated to a special Swahili meal which was out of this world. Seriously strong G&Ts too. Our ‘luxury tent’ was more like a small villa, housed in polished redwood with a gorgeous open waterfall shower and bath. Another unexpected bonus was that we didn’t get eaten by mozzies at all and nor did the infamous biting Tsetse flies give us too much trouble (and we smelt alluringly of Deet the whole time).

We did a short safari the afternoon we arrived and almost immediately sighted our first zebra; cue our driver Ahmed’s favourite ‘zebra crossing!’ joke – animal puns quickly became A Thing. Stripy horses were followed by giraffes, my absolute favourites; they’d peer out from behind the trees and line up equidistant in threes, staring unblinking at the jeep. Or if we were lucky, they’d race alongside the car with a funny slow-motion gait. No matter how many times or how close-up we saw them, it never really felt real; they’re so cartoon-like and extraordinary. We also saw our first pair of warthogs that afternoon, trotting proudly around the jeep searching for dinner. Disney got it spot on for Pumba. On our last morning we did a walking safari and these boys were the highlight (along with Ahmed playing with zebra poop and some very cool paw prints).

For the first proper day of safari, we got up early for a breakfast of fresh papaya, mango and watermelon and drove out at 8am for a full day’s adventuring. We headed right out to the river and lakes where the landscape is greener and home to an embarrassment of riches when it comes to wildlife, from hippos and giraffe to the more elusive elephants and lions (cue Jurassic Park music). On the first day we spotted a pride of the latter lazing around a picnic table and were literally two metres away. And on the final day, we took a boat out and moored up near another group gnawing on a buffalo thigh… it was insane. And that’s before I tell you about the elephant that threatened to charge our jeep! Anyway, here’s where I let my woefully inadequate pictures speak for themselves…

Not all of the sights were straight out of Disney: this gruesome hippo corpse was hidden by a mass of feeding vultures which scattered as soon as one of us stepped off the jeep. Unfortunately the stench of ripe meat didn’t… charcuterie board anyone? We also saw a lot of skeletons and random animal bones on our travels.
This dip in the hot springs was a real highlight of the trip. Ahmed led us through the undergrowth to a clearing reminiscent of a Herbal Essences advert, where we followed the stream upwards to its source. As we got closer, the water temperature changed from warm bath to scalding hot, too much even for my asbestos skin. We then stripped off to swimmers and bathed in the lower pool, where our toes were nibbled by tiny fish. Actually, they weren’t that tiny and the toes were just foreplay: the little buggers properly bit all the way up to the thighs! Which some of us could handle better than others (Pete).
Another dream moment: tiptoeing over the edge of a dried-up river to watch herds of elephants using their trunks to dig wells in the bank. The baby ellies were ridiculously cute; a slightly different experience to the herd we drove up to earlier that day, where the mother elephant decided our jeep was a threat and started charging at us! Ahmed revved the engine a few times before she backed down but it was a  ‘do I hide or take a photo?’ moment (guess which option Pete went for…)
On the last full day we swapped the jeep for a tiny motorboat and explored the lakes at close quarters, weaving between groups of hippos and alligators, and keeping our eyes peeled for hyenas stalking the banks. No luck spotting the latter, but we hit the jackpot with a group of lions sharing a kill instead. And to top that off, we then pulled into a tiny private beach where a makeshift gin & tonic bar waited for us – a surprise romantic sundowner wedding-gifted to us by our lovely friends Barry and Anna! Although Dee Dee and Joe were pretty mortified at crashing our ‘special moment’ we were only too happy to share the gin and arrived back at camp filled with the joy of the day’s events/totally wasted.
We left the next morning, exhausted but already missing the wildlife, the people and the beautiful desert landscape. Basically, choosing to spend the first part of our honeymoon at Selous Serena Luxury Camp was the best decision ever. I want to go back and do it all again!
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