Sunday, February 22, 2009

Sea, sand and turtles at Ras Kutani Resort

Ras Kutani is a relaxed, friendly Indian Ocean Lodge, about a 90 minute to 2 hr drive or a very short flight south of Dar Es Salaam. A few days here make for a perfect end to a safari. No 0530A wake-ups, no long bumpy game drives, no getting into and out of safari gear, identifying various new species or jockeying for the best position to take a photograph. None of that. It is easy to have fun at Ras Kutani. It involves a minimum of clothing, lots of sand and sea, great food, exotic cocktails for those so inclined, and great glorious sleep, with a real live ocean and actual wave sounds to take you away. Did I mention a beautiful, big white beach? Ras Kutani is the place to indulge in today's greatest luxury which is to do nothing. Just sit on your comfortable veranda gazing out over the Indian Ocean, take a nap, read a book, have another meal with some of the freshest ingredient you can imagine, or if you have to, catch up on your safari notes and photographs. The rooms are huge and have fantastic views over the lagoon and ocean, and great big comfortable beds where you'd be tempted to spend a lot of time.

The bed in our room at Ras Kutani - it looks straight out over the ocean

The view from our room

Part of the lounge at Ras Kutani

The view from the dining area at Ras Kutani

The bar at Ras Kutani

Another view of the lagoon with the beach and ocean in the background

The pool at Ras Kutani is almost as tempting a spot as the beach itself

The beach is gorgeous though, even when a high tide tosses out some seaweed

Over the course of a 3-day stay there, we enjoyed some excellent meals including fresh seafood (caught by local fishermen and hand-delivered to the lodge), lots of exotic sub-tropical fruit such as granadilla, papaya, pineapple and mango, some wonderfully creative salads and some vegan staples such as herb-flavored couscous and tabouleh.

One morning Kathleen and I strolled over to the remnants of a ship which stranded near Ras Kutani many years ago and snorkelled in and around what remains of the wreck, observing many colorful species of reef fish. I was also able to resume my training for the Boston Marathon. On both full days there, I ran for about an hour along a sandy track to the main road. It was hot and humid, the sandy footing was not ideal and I was running with new shoe inserts. Even so, it was great to be back on my feet again. There are other things to do at Ras Kutani such as horse-back riding, kayak trips on the lagoon, a forest walk and village visits, but that is not why people come here.

Sunrise at Ras Kutani

Early morning at Ras Kutani, from the Family House higher up against the ridge. The views from the various suites are similar

It felt good to be running again, especially against such a backdrop

Every run at Ras Kutani qualifies as a Runners World 'rave run'

Ras Kutani manager Emile sharing his enthusiasm about the release of some turtle hatchlings

A baby turtle hatchling making its way towards the ocean

Guests enjoying the spectacle of turtles being released into the Indian Ocean

On Tuesday Feb 10 we were told to gather at the beach at 1700 (high tide) to witness some young sea turtles being released into the ocean. The local representive of 'Sea Sense' removed the sand from some nesting sites (to which the turtle eggs had been relocated some 55 days previously) and voila, some 40 or so tiny hatchlings started a single-minded scramble to the ocean. The release was timed to occur right at high tide so as to give these vulnerable creatures the best possible chance to make it into deeper water. They need every break they can get: their chance of survival into adulthood is only 1 or 2 in a thousand.

Too soon, our trip came to an end and we had to get back in a car for the bumpy drive back to Dar Es Salaam. Ras Kutani will remain in our memories as a warm and special days to spend a few wonderful, relaxing days. The staff and management were incredibly caring and responsive to our every request - I never needed to ask for soy milk or rooibos tea! Special thanks to Jules for the Dar suggestions - they were all spot on!

We had the better part of a day to kill in Dar Es Salaam and ended up paying a cab driver about US$45 for three hours, to drive us to various places around town, including The Oyster Bay Hotel, Sea Cliff Hotel - where we enjoyed lunch with a glorious view - and ending up at the Slipway, where we made a contribution to the local economy. Kathleen tells me that curios are about 50% less expensive there than at the safari camps. We had a day room at the Kempinski Hotel which we would highly recommend to other visitors in the same situation. We made use of the excellent pool, I spent an hour on a treadmill in the well-equipped gym and we enjoyed a superb dinner at the Oriental restaurant, reputed to be the best of its kind in Dar Es Salaam.

The foyer at the Oyster Bay Hotel

Part of the lounge and dining room at the Oyster Bay Hotel in Dar Es Salaam

Interior of a room at Oyster Bay Hotel

Another room at the Oyster Bay Hotel

A water feature at Oyster Bay Hotel

The view from a room at the Oyster Bay Hotel

The view from the Karambezi Cafe at Sea Cliff Hotel

Kathleen studying the menu at Karambezi Cafe at the Sea Cliff Hotel in Dar Es Salaam

Another view from the Sea Cliff Hotel

And then it was time to drive back to the rather dismal DAR Airport, submit to the usual indignities and inconveniences of multiple security checks and eventually take to the air for the lengthy journey back to Houston. We had packed a lot into what was not even quite a two week trip and I would certainly recommend a much more leisurely visit for anyone else. So if you ever find yourself planning a trip to this marvelous and largely unknown part of Tanzania, take it easy and spend more time in fewer places. It is the secret to a great safari.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Overland to Selous Safari Camp

We were up at 0530 on Feb 7 2009 for yet another early breakfast (toast, jam & fruit - alas no soy milk at Sand Rivers Lodge for cereal). With Philip behind the wheel, we set off for what turned out to be a 5.5 hour overland expedition to Selous Safari Camp. Initially, it was very slow-going due to wet and muddy roads. Kathleen and I were both a bit tense but Philip capably guided the heavy Landrover vehicle through or around some nasty spots where it would have been easy to get stuck. As time went by, conditions improved and we started to relax and enjoy the trip. Early on, there were literally hundreds of birds around hawking flying termites from the sky. It was particularly impressive to see many carmine bee-eaters swooping around.

Carmine bee-eaters seen en route between Sand Rivers Selous and Selous Safari Camp

Two more Carmine bee-eaters

And a last pic of these gorgeous birds, who are summer visitors to much of Eastern and Southern Africa

An LBR - Lilacbreasted Roller. These birds are a common sight on safari in much of East and Southern Africa due to their habit of perching very conspicuously, and of making very visible sallies to hawk insects in flight. Of course their brilliant coloration also draws attention

Bonus photograph of the same Lilacbreasted Roller, slightly different posture

As a game drive, the overland trip was very successful with good views of hyena, side-striped jackal, several small herds of wildebeest, some zebra (still skittish), kudu, warthog and loads of giraffe.

The local race of wildebeest is more tawny in coloration than the typical black wildebeest found elsewhere in East Africa

The kudu is truly a majestic antelope with its massive spiraling horns

Everybody's favorite. Warthogs are entertaining animals with their odd feeding behavior (often seen rooting around on their knees), their rather comical appearance and their habit of raising their tails like antennas when fleeing any sign of danger

The most amazing experience of the day was a stop at a small lake which produced as interesting a spectacle as I have ever experienced in Africa. There were literally hundreds of crocodiles in the receding lake, lined up side by side and nose to tail, just their heads and backs visible, lurking in the water while waiting for fish to get close enough. When this happy event (for the crocodile, not the fish) occurred, it resulted in jaws snapping shut, with a simultaneous splashing effect. As we were watching, all we could hear and see was one splash followed by another and then another, sometimes several in rapid succession. It's a tough life out there for a fish in an African lake, when there's literally nowhere to go. Philip told us that there was an estimated 1,000 crocodiles in this small lake. There were at least 300 of them visible from where we were parked, with many others either submerged or out of sight. There was also a massive raft of hippo in the center of the lake - with several egrets using them as convenient perching spots. Just to top it all, we spotted at least 20 different bird species in and around the lake. Too bad we couldn't spend more time here, but we had a long way to drive. Sand Rivers Selous Lodge uses this area for a stop-over point for their all-day game drives. I would recommending spending at least 3 nights at Sand Rivers and including the full day game drive in order to reach this area.

From here onwards the change in terrain is noticeable. It changes from riverine bush to open woodland approaching the Beho Beho Camp area, and then morphs into dense woodland in the eastern section of the reserve towards Selous Safari Camp. Just before we reached the designated meeting spot (where a Selous Safari Camp driver would meet us for the last stretch of the drive) we made a stop at Selous' gravesite.

Selous Game Reserve was named after Frederick Courtney Selous, an Englishman whose knowledge of the African bush has entered the stuff of legends. From 1871, and for 40 years hence, Selous developed his intimate knowledge of the wilderness and served as hunting guide for personages as illustrious as (then) former US President Theodore Roosevelt. He died during World War I when he was shot by a German sniper not far from the Rufiji River near Beho Beho on January 4, 1917. Selous was buried near the site where he died.

This simple plaque marks the last resting place of famed hunter, adventurer, explorer and soldier F.C. Selous, a legend in his own time

Bert, Kathleen and Philip near Selous' grave-site in the Beho Beho area

Our accommodations at Selous Safari Camp was one of the best designed tents we had experienced to date, octagonal in lay-out with a large veranda both in front and behind the tent; there is a large separate bathroom area and an outdoor (enclosed) shower.

Kathleen on the front veranda at our tent in Selous Safari Camp. This looks out over the lake; at night hippo move into the camp area to graze.

Interior of the tent at Selous Safari Camp.

Another view of the interior of our room at Selous Safari Camp

A view of the bath room and the outdoor shower. This would cause us a problem as some bees were constantly coming to drink underneath the wooden shower platform. They did not take kindly to competition and I got stung in the back of the neck.

Later that afternoon, we were taken on a pleasant boating outing on Lake Nzerakera, observing many species of birds, some gorgeous natural scenery as well as plenty of hippo and crocodiles. Dinner that night was one of the best on the trip, with delicious stuffed butternut squash as the main course.

The attractive pool area at Selous Safari Camp

On February 8 (another early morning) we enjoyed our first guided walk of the trip, with guides Mpoto and Mashaka. In single file, we walked for what must have been 4 miles or so total, through a variety of habitats including riverine forest and open woodland, making frequent stops when Mpoto would point out animal spoor, droppings, interesting plant species, etc. For example, Mpoto illustrated the symbiotic relationship between ants and a local type of acacia tree. As soon as the tree is disturbed (such as when a browser tries to feed on it), the ants appear in their hundreds and thousands, ready to defend their home against all comers. We also saw quite a bit of game which is unusual on a foot safari: hyena, warthog, giraffe, impala and elephant. At the end of the walk we were treated to a surprise breakfast in the bush, with fresh juice, tea/coffee, toast, egg frittata and oats porridge with soy milk for the vegan. There was also a fresh fruit starter.

Our Selous Safari Camp walking guides Mashaka and Mpoto at work

Guide Mashaka talking about the symbiotic relationship between this tree and the ants which inhabit it.

Surprise bush breakfast at Selous Safari Camp

When we first spotted this hyena at the base of a tree, it took a while before someone on the vehicle spotted the day-old puppy at its feet

As we approached the female hyena became somewhat restless and stood up. We kept our distance and she soon settled down

Looking for mother's milk, the young pup at first overshot the mark

Soon enough the young hyena had found its target and was happily feeding

Our last game drive at Selous Safari Camp was rather quiet; significant amounts of rain had fallen in the area lately and this disperses the wildlife. Even so, we had our best sighting yet of a hyena with a newborn cub. Other visitors who had stayed at this camp just days earlier reported excellent game-viewing. Given the abundance of resident wildlife in the area, one can confidently visit Selous Safari Camp with expectations for good to excellent game-viewing. The dry season from June through September is the best time of the year to visit for game-viewing. As for Jongomero and Sand Rivers Selous I would highly recommend spending a minimum of three nights at this camp. We loved Selous Safari Camp and would definitely want to return there. Camp manager Jenny could not have been nicer and the camp chef went out of his way to accommodate any special diets.

A view over Lake Nzerakera

We spotted this handsome Saddlebilled Stork during our last game drive at Selous Safari Camp

From one bird to another: this Cessna Caravan would take us from Selous Safari Camp back to Dar Es Salaam (30 minutes) from where we would be driven to our last stop, Ras Kutani Lodge on the Indian Ocean

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Sand Rivers Selous

By the time we made it to Nomad's Sand Rivers Selous lodge in the Selous Game Reserve in Southern Tanzania, we had twice flown over the property so we had a notion that this might be a special place. And so it turned out to be. The location is absolutely perfect. Perched on a rocky outcrop overlooking the broad and slow-flowing Rufiji River, the camp is everything any first-class African safari lodge aspires to be. Romantic, authentic, visually striking and very private.

The view over the Rufiji River from the lounge area of Sand Rivers Selous lodge

A portion of the lounge area at Sand Rivers Selous

A view over the pool at Sand Rivers

Another view of the pool with the Rufiji River on the left

The huge wood, brick and stone rooms with high canvas ceilings are totally open in front, with dramatic views over the river. Nights (at least in summer) are sultry but quite comfortable inside a huge mosquito net, a powerful yet quiet fan providing a cool breeze. Sleep comes easily among the rhythmic drone of frogs, the occasional grunts and snorts of hippo, and the pleasantly lulling effect of millions of liters of waters rushing off to the Indian Ocean, just meters away from your room. This is truly a place that dreams are made of.

The view of our room, taken from the railing on the totally open (front) side of the room

Looking out from our room over the Rufiji River

On our first game drive, it quickly became apparent that wildlife is quite abundant in this part of the Selous Game Reserve. In short order I had taken my best photographs yet (at least on this trip) of elephant, one of which twice mock-charged us. Somehow I missed those pics but working with a brand new camera I guess that was to be expected. We also had some superb views of large numbers of Carmine Bee-eaters. Unfortunately our afternoon drive was cut short by 45 minutes or so due to a flat battery. Help came quickly enough for us to get back to camp in time to enjoy a hot shower before dinner at 2000. Compared with the stellar fare at Jongomero, my vegan dinner (beans and couscous with a mixed salad) was nothing special, but nonetheless quite satisfying. The regular main course was grilled snapper with veggies and couscous, dessert being a chocolate pudding. We joined an interesting group table hosted by camp managers Steve and Lynn, an Australian couple. Other than the two of us, all the other guests were British.

As at Ruaha, giraffe was abundant in Selous Game Reserve.

Impala are so common that they are often overlooked as photographic subjects. Yet they can be quite striking - this one would have looked even better with a bit of sunshine

This young elephant couldn't quite decide whether it wanted to challenge us or get away so it ended up trying to do both at the same time...

Giving us the flapping ears and threatening posture treatment but running diagonally to the vehicle

Ending up looking quite comical in the process...

Before it disappeared into the bush

A mother and child on an afternoon game drive at Sand Rivers Selous

There were Carmine bee-eaters all over the place

On February 6 we were up quite early at 0600 for an 0630 departure by boat up the Rufiji River into Stiegler's Gorge. The trip on a flat-bottomed aluminum skiff started out from just below the lodge, where the Rufiji stretches out for nearly a half mile wide, with massive sand banks and dense riverine forest on the edges. We saw literally dozens of hippo during the 2-hour trip into the Gorge, where we enjoyed a light breakfast consisting of sandwiches, fruit and tea/coffee. Despite several attempts, I just could not get a decent photo of a hippo, due to poor light and excessive movement on the boat.

Entering Stiegler's Gorge on the Rufiji River

There's not much traffic in Stiegler's Gorge. In more than 4 hours, we saw only one other vessel, a small craft operated by the lodge in the gorge.

The well-wooded cliffs of Stiegler's Gorge

Our breakfast spot in Stiegler's Gorge. As we approached it, a crocodile slid off the sand into the water. This was a good opportunity to study the tracks left by the crocodile as there were no doubts as to the identity of the species.

My hippo pics need work. These lumbering giants were all either under the water or trying to get there...

Stiegler's Gorge was definitely worth the trip. Its raw African setting has been spoiled somewhat by a rather prominently placed new lodge, whose air-conditioned units seem out of place. Once past this lodge, the majestic beauty of the gorge with its very heavily wooded slopes is striking. Along the way we spotted several crocodiles on the sandbanks; apparently the bigger ones had been hunted out (the area abuts a hunting concession).

After breakfast, we slowly drifted downriver, propelled by the strong current of the Rufiji. There were no sounds other than the occasional baby-like wail of a Trumpeter hornbill, the screechy territorial calls of many rock rabbits, and the liquid gurgle when an upwelling of water boiled to the surface of this mighty river, one of the largest in Africa together with the Zambezi, the Nile, the Niger and the Congo. The three of us were mostly quiet too. There is little one can - and should - say when the force of nature is on display all around you.

Drifting peacefully downriver in Stiegler's Gorge

Soon, we were back at the lodge for lunch: your choice of Coronation chicken (I did say many of the guests were British...) or a delicious vegetable curry with couscous, brown rice, a fresh green salad and an excellent fruit salad for dessert. Just as lunch got underway, a massive thunderstorm rolled through camp, sending everybody scampering for cover and the staff dashing around lowering protective canvas around the edge of the dining area. It was a formidable storm with drenching rain, high wind and a few massive thunderclaps.

The storm soon blew over and by 1600 we were ready for tea, followed by a quick inspection trip to nearby Kiba Point, Nomad's adjacent private camp, with just four rooms. Kiba Point appeared to be an ideal option for an extended family group or friends wanting total privacy and exclusivity. In the busy season, another advantage of staying there is that it has priority in terms of activities; the camp shares vehicles and guides with Sand Rivers. The rooms are similar to those at Sand Rivers, with larger bathrooms, a private plunge pool and two showers, one outside in the garden.

Tea at Sand Rivers Selous

Part of the lounge at Kiba Point lodge

After checking out Kiba Point Kathleen and I and our guide Philip tried our hand at fishing off a large sandbank across from camp. It was a fun and relaxing outing, even though we only caught one small catfish. With the river in flood stage, fishing conditions were just not ideal. At other times of the year I believe some very good catches are possible. Philip was a star - so personable, knowledgeable and confident, everything you'd want your safari guide to be. Dinner was quite a convivial affair with our hosts Steve and Lynn. It was tempting to stay up a bit later, but we were scheduled to depart at 0530 the next morning on a long overland trip to Selous Safari Camp on the north-eastern edge of the Reserve.

Very early on February 7 we were having tea and coffee in our room when a bush baby - there are several in and around the lodge that have become semi-habituated - lightly jumped onto the railing in front of our room and then bounced up to the tea box. As I was trying to focus on the animal in the semi-darkness (they are crepuscular, i.e. mostly active in the dawn and dusk hours) it stuck its head into the milk pitcher and when we reacted, it jumped back, spilling milk all over the place. I got off one or two more pics before we ushered our little mammalian visitor out of the room and cleaned up its mess. This adds to the bottom line for staying at Sand Rivers: the rooms are open so if you won't mind a visit from a small furry animal and won't get freaked out by an occasional bat or two, then it is for you. We very pleasantly surprised at just how few insects there were in the room, and this was the season when one would expect more.

The bush baby that paid us a surprise, but welcome visit early one morning. Sand Rivers Selous serves tea & coffee (with sugar, milk and cookies) in a tea box with a lid to prevent these creatures and others such as monkeys, from getting into too much trouble

Our little visitor enjoying an unexpected meal of cow's milk. I hope bush babies are not lactose intolerant...

Of course we were absolutely delighted at the unexpected company. Would have liked to have gotten a better photograph though!

Next: the long drive to Selous Safari Camp.