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Trip Report 22 Days at 4 Camps in Southern Tanzania - Ruaha and Selous

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Here is the promised report on our 40th wedding anniversary trip to Southern Tanzania. It’s a bit long, but reads pretty fast. If, after reading it, you have any questions, please just ask. I’ll try my best to give you an honest answer based on my personal experiences.

We traveled in January 2010. It was the “green season” just prior to the rainy season in Southern Tanzania. Travel is slow. We saw very few vehicles other than those from our own camps. In most camps there were very few other guests. On one evening, we were the only guests at Mwagusi. Although our contract stated “shared vehicles” for game drives, we were only ever 2 couples in a vehicle that could hold 6 guests and most often, we had a car and guide to ourselves. The camp managers seem to be quite good at matchmaking. We enjoyed the company of all of our drive companions.

The itinerary:
Southern Sun Hotel, Dar, 2 nights
Coastal Air flight to Jongomero Camp, Ruaha National Park – 4 nights
Game drive transfer to Mwagusi Camp, Ruaha – 4 nights
Coastal Air flight from Ruaha to Selous Game Reserve – Selous Safari Camp – 4 nights.
Game drive transfer to Sand Rivers, Selous – 4 nights
Coast Air flight from Sand Rivers to Mafia Island (via Dar) for 4 nights at Pole Pole resort.

We departed the US for Amsterdam via NW Airline where we connected to a KLM flight to Dar e’Salaam. We experienced no delays or unusual security restrictions on the flights. We were allowed to check two bags for free (in Business Class) and carry on pretty much whatever we wanted. My husband had the camera backpack full and his SCUBA regulator in carry-on. I had a large carry-on and my purse.

We arrived in Dar just before midnight. Staying in Dar the first two nights turned out to be a very good idea. Arriving at midnight, it was too late to travel on and having one day to get acclimated to both time and temps was excellent. The Southern Sun is a very nice hotel with a great breakfast buffet. There is a garden pool for relaxing, a gift shop, a good restaurant and the staff were delightfully helpful. The rooms are small, but very comfortable with large baths and a great soaking tub that felt wonderful after 20+ hours on a plane.

I chose to acquire our Tanzanian visas ahead of time through their Embassy in Washington DC. Although it may have cost a few dollars more, I was happy to have it done. The plane was full and there were only two attendants to process the visas for the entire plane full of passengers. It was very hot and that section of the airport was not cooled. The line moved very, very slowly. Our bags arrived right away and we were able to depart with a driver sent by Southern Sun almost immediately. At midnight, the traffic is good and the ride took about 20 minutes. During the day, the same drive can take 2 hours.

On our free day in Dar, we rested by the pool to get used to the heat and watched the wonderful weaver birds build nests in the trees by the front entrance. There were hundreds! We had the hotel set us up with a driver for the afternoon and evening. For $55 USD the driver was with us from 3:30 PM until about 10 PM. He took us shopping in the Tinga Tinga alley, to a basket market, the Slipway Center for drinks and sunset views and then on to Addis in Dar restaurant for dinner (an excellent recommendation, BTW). At each stop he waited, gave us a bit of dialogue along the way and was a charming host. He also took us to the airport early the next morning. I had investigated Tinga Tinga art on the Internet before our trip and knew I really wanted to meet some of the artists. I was able to connect with Kambili, the butterfly artist and purchase one of his large works. I also bought a wonderful (large and really, really heavy) carved wooden hippo in the same alley of artists.

The next morning we were off from the small Coastal Airline terminal to our first camp. The whole operation is quite laid back. No tickets -- just your name on a manifest at check-in. The small lounge area has a decent coffee shop and a good book store. I had contacted Coastal before we left home and found that we could leave bags in their lock up while we were on safari. We had dive gear for the trip to Mafia Island. We were able to leave our dive bags and my heavy art souvenirs locked in the storage room with no problem whatsoever. We then carried one duffel each that weighed about 15 kilos. The weight limitations were not strictly enforced, but all our bags were weighed on a large scale. Since we were near to the 14-kilo limit and the planes were not full, no one gave us a hard time.

Our first camp was Jongomero Camp in the southern part of the Ruaha National Park. The flight (a 12 seat, single engine plane) took about 1.5 hours with stops at other camp airstrips along the way. The flights are a hoot – with the pilot reading his newspaper most of the way. I guess we were on autopilot. The planes are very small with no room for taking much along – no large handbags, please. There isn’t much legroom and its really hot until they get well up in the air, so dress to be comfortable. They do give you bottled water.

There had been rain in Ruaha prior to our arrival and everything was lush and green. In fact, there had been torrential rains just the night before and the “dry river” was rushing over its banks washing out crossings and shutting off access to some of the game routes normally taken. For this reason, we did not see the elephants digging for water in the dry riverbed as depicted in the Jongomero brochure. It did not diminish our pleasure at all. We had a wonderful experience here.

Upon arrival we were greeted by the entire camp staff singing a song of welcome. It was delightful and set the tone for all the fun we would have there. The camp managers Noelle Herzog and “Moli” (Andrew Molinaro) are absolutely charming. We really hated to leave them after 4 days. It might be different in high season, but at the max during January, there were only 6 guests. On some nights, only 4. We all bonded and had one heck of a good time together. “Moli” was our guide during the stay and he really knows his stuff. He is a walking encyclopedia of information about Ruaha’s flora and fauna and can spot and identify birds from miles away. He has a wicked sense of humor too.

The tents are large and well spaced for privacy. The beds are huge – although hard. All camp beds seem to be quite firm – being only a mattress on a platform of some sort in every camp. Our tent had a desk and chair, a big leather easy chair, side tables etc. The veranda has a daybed and two lounge chairs for sitting and watching the river roll by. The bath has great storage (a safe for valuables), two sinks, flush loo, a gigantic walk in shower and its all under canvas and enclosed from the elements. There’s plenty of hot water, good drinking water, bath amenities (no need to pack shampoo, etc.) Laundry is done daily for free – but be mindful that it is dried via solar power (the sun). Our first two days, it was too humid to get anything dry. At all camps you will have to hand wash delicates. There is always good washing powder provided. There was always electricity in the tents. You are NOT allowed to use a hair drier though. Flashlights are provided in each tent and you will always be escorted to and from the mess after dark.

In January, it was cool at night and in the mornings. We slept under a comforter every night. There are no fans in the Jongomero tents. We didn’t need them in January. I don’t know if that would be a concern in other seasons. Each night while we were at dinner, the beds are turned down and the tents are sprayed for mosi’s.

The food is very good at Jongomero. It is a set menu that varies each day. Breakfast is a buffet of cereals, fruit, sweet rolls, juice etc and cooked to order eggs and meats are always offered. You will get coffee or tea and biscuits with your morning wake-up in the tent. Lunch is usually served at 1PM at a communal table with all the guests and the camp managers. It would be pastas, salads, breads, etc. Dinner is usually set at individual tables and is more elaborate. It is served at 8PM, preceded by cocktails in the bar. I can’t believe I only gained 5 pounds on this trip!

The days are pretty laid back at Jongomero. After breakfast, the first game drives go out at about 8AM, returning for lunch at 1PM. Then it’s a rest during the heat of the day and out again from 4-7PM with sundowners somewhere picturesque. During the “green season”, this section of Ruaha is VERY lush and VERY thick. We had been warned, it is not easy to spot game. The bush is so dense; that an elephant can be standing only a few feet away and you won’t see it. Having said that, we sure saw a lot. The park is literally thick with giraffe. I’ve never seen so many in one place. It is referred to as “Giraffic Park”. I love giraffe. Where there is giraffe, there are always zebra. On one drive we spotted 20 giraffe on the air runway. Thankfully no plane was arriving just then.

Some things about Jongomero Camp.
The tents are a bit of a hike from the main lounge. If that’s difficult, you might want to request a tent near to the center – maybe tents 1,2,3,4 or 5.
Food service can be slow in the mornings, so account for this when timing your game drive departures.
The game vehicles are very good and are supplied with mosi crème, sunscreen, and a rain poncho.
You really MUST do the full day game drive with a packed lunch. It is spectacular and you will be amazed at how many different terrains you pass through.

We loved Jongomero and hated to leave.

Our next stop was Mwagusi Camp on the opposite side of Ruaha Park. We made the transfer easily by way of a game drive – half way with the Jongomero guide and half with our Mwagusi guide with a packed lunch along the way. It was lovely. We were amazed at how completely different from the Jongomero location, the terrain is at Mwagusi Camp. Like a different world.

Mwagusi Camp is in a spectacular location on a nearly dry riverbed. The “bandas” fit easily into the surrounding atmosphere. We were upgraded to the honeymoon suite (#4). It is huge. With not only the bedroom, bath and sitting area, but also a large adjacent lounge area with hammock, desk, and sofas built into the rocks. The whole thing has a commanding view of the river. Mwagusi is Chris Fox’s camp and there’s always lots of PR about his guiding ability and how long he and his family have been in the Ruaha bush. Unfortunately, Chris doesn’t spend any time at the camp now. He is building a large home and damning up a river for fishing in another area at the moment. Mwagusi does have an outstanding in-house program to train guides and it really shows. Mwagusi produced our most spectacular game viewing on the entire trip – a pride of 22 lions, a family of charging elephants, cheetah, mating lions, zebra. Our guide, Geoffrey, was wonderful. At Mwagusi you have a guide (scout) and a driver. You will often share vehicles, although we had one all to ourselves because there were so few guests during this season. On our last night, we were the only guests in camp.

Meals are taken at long communal tables in a lovely open air-dining hall overlooking the river. The food is very tasty at Mwagusi – although quite simple. It is served buffet style and everything is cooked over open campfires. There is no formal kitchen at this camp. I was very surprised by what they could turn out under such sparse conditions. The curries are superb and the packed breakfasts for the road are especially wonderful. I highly recommend doing the early morning game drives with breakfast along. Do be mindful here of the salads and some side dishes that are made of raw vegetables with the skins left intake.

There were always elephants roaming through the camp at night or noon. We watched them every day during our afternoon rest as they came to the river to drink. We really liked Mwagusi, although it is a little less lux than other camps – the game drives really make the difference here. The animals are not at all skitterish and it is possible to sit for long periods of time to observe their behavior – and take amazing photos.

What I learned about Mwagusi:
Thank heavens they have a bridge now! No need to traverse the river on a pulley swing to get to the camp.
The beds are queen sized – not giant king sized beds like the other camps.
The pillows are hard.
You need a flashlight for paths and the loo at night.
The vehicles are older and very bouncy – but they seemed to be the best for my back as I could stand up in them to take some of the bumps in my legs.
You have to settle camp extras with cash at Mwagusi. All other camps take credit cards.
We were advised to give our tip directly to our guide rather than putting it into the camp “kitty” here. We heard that they aren’t always evenly dispersed if left in the kitty.

After Mwagusi we traveled on by plane to Selous Game Reserve.

We arrive at Selous Safari Camp just after lunch. In January, Selous is a lot hotter than Ruaha. The tents are wonderful. They are big and open on all sides for breezes from the lake. They have a huge front porch and an even bigger back porch. Both are furnished with sofas, chairs, a desk and even hanging art! At both Selous and Jongomero (owned by the same company) there are safes for valuables in the tents. The baths are big – with double copper sinks, lots of storage, a wonderful flush loo and a big, big starlight shower. The beds are gigantic and have large ceiling fans above. There is electricity at all times – but again NO hair appliances allowed. All the tents are spaced around the lakeshore for wonderful views. There always seemed to be a giraffe or elephant or a herd of impala on the shore in front of our tent – or an elephant peeking over our shower wall! No kidding.

On our first evening, we took the water safari on the lake. It is hot and very sunny at about 4PM when you set out – so take a hat and some long sleeves, but it cools nicely once the sun sets. We saw tons (no pun) of hippos, a swimming elephant, crocs and birds, birds, birds. The waterways were dripping with blooming bottlebrush and the weavers, swifts, and kingfishers were in full force. We were so close at times that I should have been using a macro lens. The boat drifts silently and the birds don’t even notice you’ve arrived. It was magical.

We would absolutely give Selous Safari Camp our #1 rating. Overall, we just loved it. Meals are delicious – served at open-air tables surrounding the beautiful pool. The lounge is large and comfortable and the camp staff is charming. Our guide, Mwita, was excellent. He knew just how to find anything – including those 5-week-old lion cubs. The Masi staff (escorts to your tent at night) entertained us one night with their ethnic singing and dancing around the campfire. The vehicles at Selous are outstanding – the best we had anywhere.

What I learned about Selous Safari Camp:
There are actually two camps – the North and the South. We were in the smaller one – not sure which direction.
Some of the tents are a bit of a hike from the main lounge. We were right next-door and I liked having easy access to the pool and lounge.
They have a wonderful gift shop, but it’s not easy to find. Ask about it – especially about Jenny’s pen and ink drawings. She’s one of the camp managers and a gifted artist.
If you have a special occasion they will really do it up right. We had a wonderful surprise champagne dinner on our own private veranda one night to celebrate our anniversary.

We moved on to our last camp – Sand Rivers, via another game drive transfer. Because January is the beginning of the rainy season and there’d been a bit of rain, some of the roads were washed out and inaccessible. Consequently, the drive took over 5 hours, instead of the usual 2 ½. Still the terrain we saw was amazing. At least 8 very different microenvironments along this one drive. We were treated to the most spectacular display along the road by Carmine bee-eaters. They would swoop in front of the wheels of our vehicle to catch insects scattered by our tires. It was an unbelievable aerial ballet.

Sand Rivers is a beautiful, luxury resort – they don’t call themselves a camp. It overhangs the river with lots of decks and terraces. It was originally built as a private game-hunting lodge. The guests would slip across the river to shoot. That area, today, is still open to game hunting. The public spaces are beautiful. We did feel that some of the public areas such as the pool, cabana and pathways had a neglected look. They could us a bit of sprucing up. The current camp mangers at Sand Rivers are leaving very soon and when we were there, new managers had not yet been hired. So I suppose things could change in the future.

Food at Sand Rivers is excellent and is taken at individual tables for breakfast and lunch and at a communal gathering at dinner. Cocktails are shared with the game guides to plan the next day’s activities and share today’s findings. Each guest has there own guide and vehicle.

I have to be honest and say that Sand Rivers was our least favorite location. It was the least fruitful of our game experiences. In January, at least, it was unbearably hot. Many of the activities –while sounding wonderful, just didn’t turn out to be that enjoyable. The river cruise to Steigler Gorge, is a very pretty boat ride, through some lovely country – but that’s all. The walking safari turned up only an empty parrot nest. The fishing excursions came back empty handed. Spending an evening with a bottle of wine in the lakeside hide was nice, but we only saw hippos from quite far away. The wildlife in this section of Selous is very shy because of the nearby hunting, so it was nearly impossible to have any lingering observation. All in all, this was just the least satisfying of our game encounters. I will say, however, that if you go to Sand Rivers DO NOT miss swimming in the hot springs. That is an outstanding experience.

Sadly, the bandas at Sand Rivers (while beautiful) are totally open and have been invaded by the resident monkeys to an extent that literally everything must be under lock and key. They have a reputation for going through ones luggage or cosmetics in search of food. Even the morning coffee comes in a locked box - which the monkeys have now figured out how to open. Our orientation was heavy with information on how to avoid having the monkeys rip up your belongings. I don't mind interacting with wildlife, but previous guests have fed the monkeys within the bandas (I’m not sure how it could be stopped) and therefore encouraged them to become aggressive pests. I find this very sad, because the only solution will be to eventually destroy the animals.

At the end of our safari stay, we flew on to Mafia Island to chase the illusive whale sharks. My report on that adventure is in another post on this board. http://www.fodors.com/community/africa-the-middle-east/chasing-whale-sharks-from-mafia-island.cfm

Flying out of DAR was our only minor hassle. We arrived at the International airport about 4:30 PM from Mafia Island. Our KLM flight did not depart until after midnight. There are no airline lounges at this airport, no place that is air conditioned to wait. We were told to go to the Flamingo “hotel” in the airport by the Coastal Airline staff. As it turns out, the Flamingo isn’t a hotel – it’s a restaurant. I think they usually have air con, but this day it was broken (?). They are liberal enough to allow travelers to sit for hours and hours in the restaurant for the price of a few drinks and a sandwich. It quickly became the unofficial KLM departure lounge and appears that this is standard. The kick is --- KLM does have a wonderful, air-conditioned lounge at the DAR airport. You just can’t get to it until after you clear security at the gate – and the gate doesn’t open until 2 hours prior to the flight. This was our only snafu. We could have chosen to go into Dar to a hotel, but we were repeatedly warned of how long the taxi drive could take in both directions - hours. We trusted this information as we had seen the incoming traffic on the day we departed for our first camp. It was virtually at a standstill. So anyhow, just be aware if you’re on that midnight flight to AMS.

The stats:
I did all my own research and then booked everything through Lenny at Africa Travel Resource in the U.K. He was a pleasure to work with and very informed. The cost of the trip was $9000 per person for 22 days in the bush. This included all our Coastal Air flights. We used frequent flier miles for the International Business Class on NW and KLM. I was extremely pleased with the price, for unlike packaged tours that count your flight times as 2 of your package calendar, this was 22 full days on the ground doing something.

I insured the trip with Campbell Irvine in the U.K. at a cost of $524. The policy covered trip cancellation, medical repatriation, emergency dental, hospitalization, personal liability etc etc in very liberal amounts. It was much less expensive than any policy I found offered through a U.S. agent. We also have a Medjet annual policy at a cost of $315, which covers all of our travel for the entire year.

We took $600 USD in cash along for, art shopping, guide and camp tips, the bar bill at Mwagusi, and some marine park fees we had to pay on Mafia. We used our Capital One Visa card for other incidentals. Our bar bill at each camp was about $100 for two people for a four night stay. This would include soft drinks at lunch or during hot afternoon rests, sundowners of gin and tonic, cocktails before dinner and a glass of wine with dinner. In most camps, any drinks that are along in the coolers during game drives are included in your stay. Sand Rivers includes all drinks in your stay, but I don’t really think it’s a worthwhile investment unless you are a very big drinker.

We took new $20 US bills. Older bills are not acceptable. We never made any kind of money exchange. US cash is accepted for everything. I wished we had taken a few more small bills for incidental tipping. At times DH was a most generous tipper with a $20 because it was all he had. No worries. I’d rather over than under tip.

Packing:
We packed in the large size LL Bean duffel bags. They are cheap, well made, can be monogrammed with your name for ID and weigh practically nothing. Laundry was done for free in every camp. I packed enough clothes for four+ days and had laundry done along the way. Here’s what I took (ladies).
· 2 linen long sleeve safari/camp style shirts (great for sun protection and wind in the open vehicles)
· 2 pair of the zip leg safari style pants. (They wash and dry like a dream – mine came from Lands End)
· 2 pair of very lightweight linen long pants for dinners
· 2 pair of cotton Capri length pants
· 2 skorts from Lands End in the same material as the zip leg pants. (I don’t do shorts)
· 4 very loose sleeveless tops
· 4 camis
· 2 long sleeve very lightweight tee shirts –for mosi protection.
· 1 lightweight fleece (Lands End)
· A lightweight rain parka
· 1 pair of pajamas
· My Chacos-Zongs and my Keen-Newport H2 shoes + one pair of cheap “blingy” flip flops for dressing up.
· A big, wide brimmed hat.
· A swimsuit
· 3 bras
· 4 undies
· 2 pair of socks
· A couple of bandanas

· You will want some really, really good binoculars – one set for each traveler.
· 30 to 60 SPF sunscreen – one big bottle.
· A very good mosi guard. Lots of discussion on this board about which is best.
· Some really good wind protection for your face. The air from driving in open vehicles can do more damage than the sun. I used a 45-sunscreen stick that felt like Vaseline on my face, but did the trick. At times I tied the bandana around my face.
· Very good lip protection.
· Afternoon diversions – like a good book. There are no game drives from 1-4 during the heat of the day.
· I took 3 each of the hotel sized shampoo and conditioners and tossed them along the way. The camps do provide shampoo, soaps, and detergent for washing delicates.
· You cannot use hair appliances at any if these camps. Get a haircut that requires no maintenance.
· You don’t need much make-up. It’s either too hot or too dark (dinners by candles) for anyone to care.
· There are no wash cloths in any of the baths.
· All the paths are sand or rocks – take appropriate shoes. Some times there is ellie poo on the path at night. Watch your step.
· All the showers had those big horizontal rainheads. Its impossible to avoid, so take a shower cap if your hairstyle can’t take the water.
· Azithromiacin is a miracle cure for traveler’s revenge – which most everyone will get a mild case of about 10 days into the trip. Ask your doctor for some to take along. One pill was all it took to save a day.
· You must have a journal. There are just too many wonderful moments to remember.
· Drink, drink, drink.....water is your friend.

We were very happy with our choice to spend 4 days in each camp. It gave us the luxury of time – to get to know the people, to wait patiently to spot or observe the wildlife, to take a morning or afternoon off for lounging at the pool or enjoying camp life. At the end of the day, you will see pretty much the same animals at each stop. I preferred spending more time at fewer places, rather than ceaselessly packing and moving.

My photos are posted at www.tonna.zenfolio.com, with lots from each camp and all the game drives.

Enjoy!

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