All posts by Ruth

Spotlight on Selous Game Reserve, Tanzania

When you think of Tanzania and safaris most people naturally think about the world famous Serengeti. But did you know that the less well known southern safari circuit in Tanzania also offers world class game viewing and even better,  far fewer people?

The Selous Game Reserve is the largest game reserve in the whole of Africa and covers over 45,000 square kilometres. Most tourists head to the north and the Serengeti and combine this with the other reserves in the north such as Tarangire  and the Ngorongoro Crater . Few tourists head further south to explore the Selous. Although it is further to travel and access is harder it is most definitely worth the effort as it is both remote and beautiful and full of extraordinary wildlife and scenery.

The Selous Game Reserve is one of the largest remaining wilderness areas in Africa, with undisturbed wildlife and habitats. It is very important to the conservation of rare African species as it has a diverse range of wildlife and a great diversity of vegetation types, including rocky acacia-clad hills,  ground water forests, swamps, lagoons and lowland rain forest. The area is so vital that it has been protected as a UNESCO world heritage site.

The landscape and wildlife habitat is mainly savannah and woodland with the Rufiji River running through it creating a large, lush, green area with streams and lakes and great grazing. There are plenty of hippos, crocodiles and waterbirds living in the lagoons and river but it also attracts vast numbers of  zebra, impala, wildebeest, kudu and eland to drink. Selous is also home to large herds of black rhino, elephant and giraffes as well as the famous buffalo which is one of the Big Five. And where there are large groups of herbivores there are large groups of predators. Selous has a thriving population of lion, cheetah and leopard and is also along with Ruaha home to one of the few surviving populations of  the endangered African hunting dog outside southern Africa.

The Rufiji River is the main base for tourism in the area and boat trips are very popular as the electric boats can travel very quietly alongside the animals that live on the riverbanks making for great game viewing. The other means of game viewing is from open four wheel drive vehicles which allow you to get great photos of the animals you see on your game drives. As it is a protected park no human habitation is allowed and only non-permanent structures are allowed in the park so accommodation is very limited – in a good way! It means that you will very rarely come across any other vehicles on your game drives and the remoteness is one of its biggest attractions. Accommodation is kept low key and as environmentally friendly as possible with tented camps offering great facilities and comfort such as private decks and solar powered showers. If you are looking for luxury and style then this is not the place to be but if you are looking for a proper African bush experience in Africa’s largest and most unspoilt game reserve then the Selous is for you.



The Zebra Migration of Botswana

Did you know that there is another annual migration in Africa that is just as awe inspiring as the annual migration in East Africa? The annual zebra migration in Botswana is also fabulously impressive due to its scale and a sight not to be missed.

Every year 25,000 zebra move en masse in search of fresh new grasslands over hundreds of kilometres from the Okavango Delta to the Makgadikgadi Plains. And of course where there are herbivores moving en masse there are also carnivores a plenty. The annual migration in Botswana is not nearly as well known as that of Tanzania and Kenya but although much smaller  it is just as spectacular and the perfect time to go game viewing in Botswana. You are likely to see plenty of lions, hyenas and even some cheetah. If you are really lucky you might even see the endangered wild African hunting dog which has one of its last remaining strongholds in Botswana.

The Kalahari is a fantastic place to view game at any time of the year but the migration means that you have a much better chance of seeing some really exceptional game hunting its prey. The downside of course is that it will also likely be raining! The new seasons rains start falling create new lush grassland in the Makgadikgadi Plains which triggers off the migration and the mass movement of the grazing animals from the river delta. The plains are salt and mineral rich so that when the grass grows it is dense in nutrients and the animals move to graze by instinct in these areas. Unfortunately when the rains will start is very hard to predict but generally it is usually either October or November when the rains begin and the migration occurs.

The zebra migration had not really been appreciated until recently when researchers discovered through radio tracking various zebra that they did in fact cover huge distances when travelling between the Okavango Delta and the Makgadikgadi Plains before travelling back again. Michael Chase who is the founder of Elephants without Borders has been tracking various animals and their movements in order to encourage understanding about the movements of many of Africa’s endangered species. He has been looking at how many cross national and regional borders and move from protected conservation areas into hunting and farming lands and how this creates conflict. Most of the large herbivores such as elephants and many of the antelope, zebra and wildebeest need huge swathes of land protected for their migrations and their very survival. And because the herbivores are on the move so are the predators and they too need the large swathes of land along migration routes protected in order to survive.

Chase has recently discovered another significant zebra migration route this time running from north to south in Botswana, from Chobe and Linyanti down to the Nxai Pan and back again. Conservationist and tourist leaders are hoping that these new discoveries will help create bigger conservation zones and will lead to more tourism in the area which will help the local economies and also protect the conservation efforts in the area. If tourism can prove more lucrative than hunting or farming in the area then the conservation zones can be created and protected in the future.

More about Mombasa

Today I decided to take a closer look at Mombasa in Kenya, or more specifically, the Mombasa coast. This is the area where most people going on safari in Kenya then head to for a week’s rest and relaxation at the beach. But what is the Mombasa coast like and how does it compare to better known beach destinations such as Zanzibar or Mauritius.

Firstly, I would say the Mombasa coast is as good as both Zanzibar and Mauritius. It too offers white sandy beaches lapped by the warm, turquoise waters of the Indian Ocean. It offers fantastic luxury resorts with lots of sporting and spa facilities. It also offer small, intimate boutique hotels perfect for honeymooners or those looking for peace and quiet in sophisticated surroundings. It also has one major advantage over its competitors in the Indian Ocean and that is ease of access. Getting to Mombasa is possible by car and a reasonable drive from the Amboseli and Tsavo National Parks and is just a short plane ride away from others such as the Masai Mara or Nairobi.

Mombasa itself is Kenya’s second largest city and is a thriving port based on an island separated from the mainland by a couple of channels. Mombasa’s Old Town is home to some fascinating buildings  many remaining from the era of slavery and also from the days when Mombasa was one of the main trading stops for the Spice trade. Some of the buildings are so historically significant that they are UNESCO world heritage status such as the Fort Jesus whilst others are fantastic reminders of past days. Mombasa has long been a meeting point and also a melting pot of different cultures from the Arabs to the Portugese, the British and many different African nations. Today it is still very vibrant with lots of nightclubs and restaurants and all that a night-owl could wish for!

The Mombasa coastline is of course famous for its stunning beaches. To the north of the city lie Bamburi, Nyali and Shanzu beaches. To the south lie Shelly, Tiwi and Diani beaches. Nyali is the most popular to the north with an established Old Town, a huge range of entertainments and facilities and easy access from Mombasa. Diani Beach is the most popular to the south and has its own airport for access from Nairobi. It too has an upmarket appeal and is some distance from Mombasa itself giving it much more of a separate beach resort atmosphere. You can choose from lively places to stay with great and varied facilities but you can also find quieter beaches with no facilities at all.

The Mombasa coast is fortunate to have a mild, tropical climate with a couple of short rainy seasons in spring and autumn. It is not only the climate that makes it a perfect beach holiday destination though. The beaches themselves are world class with fine white sand and clear warm water. Also off  the coast lies a significant coral reef making the diving excellent and also offering a home to a wide range of beautiful and not so beautiful marine life such as manta rays, dolphins, sailfish and all sorts of multi-coloured reef fish.  There are dive trips on offer from most hotels and resorts as well as sailing trips on the traditional dhows and also sport fishing expeditions.

Mombasa is also the starting off point for those travelling further up the coast to places such as Malindi and Lamu.


Treehouses in Africa

Have you always fancied spending the night in a treehouse? I have, ever since having a treehouse as a child. Well you can make that dream come true in Africa by staying in one of their famous safari treehouses in either Kenya or Tanzania.

One of  the most famous treehouses of all is Treetops which is where Queen Elizabeth was staying when she learned of her father’s death and when she became Queen. This historic treehouse was built in 1932 in Aberdare National Park in Kenya. This treehouse started life as a platform built up high in the trees for watching game safely whilst still being in close proximity to the wildlife. The wife of the original owner was a fan of treehouses so he built it for her. They added a couple of rooms to the platform to make it more permanent and sheltered from the elements which is pretty much how it was in 1952 when the Princess Elizabeth stayed there. Nowadays it is a 50 roomed hotel built from timber and still based around the original trees close to a popular watering hole. It has been built to blend in with the trees with timber panelling and lifted up on stilts to look even more treelike. It is a popular hotel with excellent facilities, a real sense of history and being on a major elephant migration route it is a wonderful place for game viewing.

Another popular treehouse hotel is Mountain Lodge also in Kenya. Based on the lower slopes of  Mount Kenya in pristine forest this timbered tree hotel sweeping views across the tree-canopy and walking tours through the surrounding forest. It is actually quite high being built at 2,134 metres above sea level meaning that the lodge remains cool and tranquil unlike much of Kenya especially in the winter months. The game viewing from here is spectacular with an open-air viewing-deck looking down on to the lodge’s own water hole and salt-lick, which both attract large numbers of elephant. Although called Mountain Lodge due to its location on Mount Kenya this really is a proper treehouse. It is raised on stilts above the forest canopy with a timbered drawbridge leading in from the forest and up on to the wooden ‘decks’ of the lodge. It also feels a bit like a wooden ship as it is panelled throughout and the rooms are styled like log cabins appropriate to its mountain location. Activities include guided walks through the forest, trout fishing in the clear mountain streams, trips to the high moorlands of the mountain, and 5-day luxury climbs of the mountain. Mount Kenya (5,199 m) is Kenya’s highest mountain, and also a UNESCO Natural World Heritage site and although not as famous as Kilimanjaro it is most definitely worth a visit.

Finally our third treehouse is in neighbouring Tanzania and is also called Treetops. This treehouse is in the wonderful Tarangire National Park. Centred about a Main Lodge – which itself encases a thousand year-old baobab tree,  Tarangire Treetops comprises of 20 treehouses all of which are elevated above the ground affording views over the tops of trees. This is a truly atmospheric and unique place to stay whilst in Tanzania.  Each private treehouse boasts large bedrooms and en suite bathrooms. With furnishings that create warmth and demonstrate a commitment to local craftsmanship, the ‘up-in-the-air’ experience is completed by the open-fronted room design affording views across the Tarangire plains from an expansive but private balcony. Tarangire has the greatest concentration of wildlife outside the Serengeti ecosystem and is a fantastic place to stay for world beating game viewing.

Spotlight on the African Hunting Dog

When you think of endangered African animals you probably think of the mountain gorilla, the rhino and the elephant. However it is actually a rangy, scruffy and well, to be truthful, down right ugly mutt that is actually one of  the most threatened of all – the increasingly rare African hunting dog. They may be ugly but to me they are also one of the most fascinating creatures living and hunting in Africa today.

African Hunting Dogs or African Wild Dogs (Lycaon pictus) are a canid that look a bit like a cross between a wolf and a hyena. They are the largest type of wild canine breed in Africa and across the world only the North American Grey wolf is larger.  They are around the size of a large Alsation at around 75 cms to the shoulder and weighing around 20 – 30 kilos on average. They have very distinctive fur which is mainly sandy brown with darker brown and black markings and brighter white patches. Their markings mean that they are also sometimes called the painted wolf, spotted hunting dog or even the ornate wolf.   They also have very distinctive large ears which help them hunt and also socialise.

They live in large family packs  but are quite unusual amongst carnivorous groups in that the males stay within the pack they were born into and do not fight to become alpha male or pack leader. The females have litters of around 10 pups every year or so and look after them until they are a couple of years old before moving on to a new pack. Only the alpha female gets to breed and produce a litter. The group hierarchy is based on submission and they do not fight each other even when feeding. They do have an alpha male and an alpha female but the males and females both hunt and also stay to guard the pups.

They hunt mainly large herbivores such as impala, gazelles and wildebeest and they are very successful with a kill rate of around 80-90% which is three times that of a lion!  They are very co-ordinated with different dogs taking on different roles during the hunt and kill but without being able to communicate verbally they work incredibly well as a team. These skills are truly impressive and it is not sure whether this is learned behaviour or instinctive.

They live in similar areas to other carnivores, in the open scrubland, deciduous woodland or  typical savannah of Africa but they are so rare that is very unusual to spot one whilst on safari. They are most commonly found in Southern and Eastern Africa with a few remaining outposts in west and central Africa. The densest populations can be found in the Selous National Park in Tanzania, northern Botswana and eastern Namibia. They can also be found in the Serengeti and Ruaha areas of Tanzania, Hwange National Park in Zimbabwe and the Kruger National Park in South Africa with a handful in Mozambique, Kenya and Zambia.

Their numbers have diminished over the years like many of the carnivores in Africa due to encroachment from humans. They need large areas to hunt in and human development and farming has reduced their space significantly. They have also been hunted by farmers to protect livestock. They also have to compete with other more powerful predators such as lions and hyenas who can attack them and will force them to move on to new hunting grounds. Nowadays they can only survive in the really large and isolated national parks that can provide enough protected space for them.