Saturday 25 March 2017

Tanzania: On the bush tucker trail

Pol with his guide Molly
Pól Ó Conghaile

Pól Ó Conghaile

Pól Ó Conghaile explores the hidden heart of Tanzania with an unforgettable safari

Africa doesn't get much more remote than this. As our tiny plane comes to earth in the scorched wilderness of Ruaha National Park in central Tanzania, impala bounce through the baobab trees below.

The runway is peppered with elephant dung. And those brown lumps in the water? They're bobbing hippos.

Civilisation -- even the ramshackle airport of Dar es Salaam -- seems very far away indeed.

"Welcome to Terminal 1," the driver jokes, transferring our bags into a trailer attached to his open-sided jeep.

Beside us, the tiny plane takes off again, kicking a thick cloud of dust up off the runway. Suddenly, the surrounding trees seem full of threat.

We're not worried, however. Ruaha doesn't get a fraction of the crowds of the Serengeti, but it does offer the last word in bush luxury: Jongomero Camp.

When Brian O'Driscoll and Amy Huberman stayed at the eight-bed oasis on their honeymoon in 2010, Selous Safari Company's management went so far as to google BOD's favourite treats, ensuring a stash of Maltesers and Toberlone was waiting in Africa when he arrived.

Then there is Andrew 'Molly' Molinaro, Jongomero's maverick guide and one of the best bushmen in the business. Within minutes of our first game drive, Molly has us face-to-face with a herd of elephant.

Easing the jeep down an old track to get a closer view, the animals assume a defensive formation, and we soon see why -- at the centre are two young calves.

As we watch, Molly talks about the intelligence of these enormous animals, about their matriarchal social structure, bewitching ability to mourn their dead and the fact that their trunks end in opposable digits "that could pick a peanut off a pane of glass".

It's a wonderful moment.

Ruaha is home to 30,000 elephants, but that's just the start of it. Impala -- "the African fast food" -- hop and leap through the scrub. Baboons cavort in the trees. A mongoose breaks cover.

Two giraffes pluck leaves from an acacia tree. They are surprisingly graceful and elegant; startled when they see us, they gallop away in what looks like slow motion.

"They're also very stupid," Molly says, pointing to a male who is hiding his head from us, ostrich-like, in a tree. "Giraffes are the supermodels of the bush."

Just then, the radio hisses into life. It's another Jongomero guide, bringing news of a pair of lionesses nearby. We start up the engine, snap out of reverie, and search them out.

Their honey-coloured coats are exactly the same colour as the surrounding grass, but we eventually spot them -- two well-fed females, sunning themselves under an acacia.

It's a thrilling moment, albeit a nervous one. The lions watch carefully as we approach, and our open-sided vehicle suddenly feels very open-sided indeed.

Like the elephants, however, the animals gradually relax, dismiss the threat and roll on to their backs like big pussycats.

Back at camp, dinner is served beneath a hulking ebony tree. We're miles from civilisation, but it's luxury all the way at Jongomero.

Tents don't just come with hot water, insect nets and bath products, but eight-foot-wide beds made from salvaged dhows.

From my perch on the veranda, I see mongoose, baboons, elephants and impalas. It's a personal viewing platform.

Just 16 guests can stay at this exclusive resort at one time, and you can't help but feel a little colonial in the "Africa of yesteryear", as the guest directory puts it -- with the trials and tribulations of a developing nation far from sight.

There's a swimming pool, filtered water and afternoon tea, too, and you only have to stick your hand out to have someone fill it with a G&T.

Despite the opulence, however, we're very definitely in the bush. There are no mobile phone signals, no fences.

Lions, elephants, hippos and the occasional leopard walk through the camp under cloak of darkness, and armed chaperones accompany us to our tents.

If we encounter an animal, the advice is to back slowly towards the nearest raised platform. The animals don't associate tents or lobby areas with danger -- though I'm glad to escape testing the theory.

"This is the final frontier," Molly says the following morning, briefing us before a bush walk. I can see why BOD had such craic with him. He's the perfect guide -- a wry and grizzled Kenyan tracker who can handle a rifle, take a joke and is passionate about the wildlife around him.

Bush walks are a smashing complement to game drives, offering the opportunity to touch, see and smell, to learn about termite mounds and baobab trees, to distinguish between animal tracks and examine yet more poo.

We head off at 6.30am, to avoid the heat, following Molly in single file. Be quiet, watch your step and, above all, resist any urge to run, he warns. "If you run, you will be chased."

On our final game drive in Jongomero, we encounter a pride of lions relaxing by a riverbank. Two males with ginger manes flank three lionesses and a pair of cubs, all panting away in the wake of a good feed.

As we sit there, chatting and taking pictures, one of the males gets up, walks to the water and stoops down to lap a drink. He's so close, I can see the redness of his tongue.

After Jongomero, it's on to Selous, a sister safari camp in the Selous Game Reserve. Like Ruaha, the reserve is under the radar, despite being Africa's largest protected wilderness area.

The camp is set on the banks of Lake Nzerakera, tented suites are raised on wooden platforms, showers set under the stars, and I check in to find a giraffe munching leaves beside my veranda.

The highlights of several game drives and a boat safari here include a pack of rare wild dogs, scurrying warthogs, the sight of zebra and wildebeest sharing a waterhole, and a pride of lions resting under a tree, looking absolutely perfect in the dappled sunlight.

As we're watching, a cub ambles over to his mum and she licks the back of his neck, like a little Simba.

Our final evening at Selous is spent fly-camping in the bush -- or should I say glamping, given the camp beds, evening meal, blazing fire and hot bucket showers provided.

We walk there with an armed guide, stopping off to examine a giraffe skeleton, sparrow weaver nests, whistling thorn acacia trees and copious sprays of hippo poo en route.

Thankfully, the guide's gun remains by his side. Until the following morning, that is, when a rambling elephant stumbles across us during a slap-up breakfast in the bush.

It's a petrifying few seconds. Elephants do not have good eyesight, which means we see the animal before it sees us, no more than 20 yards from the breakfast table. The guide reaches for his gun and slowly stands up. The silence is deafening.

Suddenly, the great beast clocks us, pins its ears forward, kicks the ground and takes a snorting step forward.

It's a mock charge, thanks be to Jaysus, and one that is not followed through. The elephant moves on. We remain, forks frozen in mid-air -- shocked, thrilled and speechless.

After breakfast, we jet out of the bush and back to the coast at Ras Kutani, the last of Selous's three camps, overlooking the Indian Ocean.

Brian and Amy spent several days here too, I'm told, kicking back after the bush, and no doubt enjoying the odd Malteser.

Getting there

Pól stayed as a guest of the Selous Safari Company (selous.com) at its Jongomero, Selous and Ras Kutani resorts in Tanzania.

Africa Odyssey (0044 207 471 8780; africaodyssey.com) has a six-night safari and beach adventure in Tanzania from €3,810pp for selected departures in June 2012.

The price includes flights from Dublin (with Aer Lingus) via Heathrow (with BA), internal transfers, game drives and two nights at each camp, on a full-board basis.

Safari tips

June to October is the best time to safari in Tanzania, with dry and warm weather drawing animals towards dwindling water supplies.

November to March is hotter and greener, which makes animals harder to see, but is good for spotting birds and plants. It can also be rainy.

Bring binoculars and a camera with a good zoom lens. A spare memory card is a good idea, too.

Selous welcomes children aged six and over, but if you're thinking of taking the kids on safari, I'd recommend waiting until they are at least nine or 10.

If you are walking in the bush, wear long trousers and sturdy walking shoes to protect from thorns, insects and snakes.

Drink plenty of water, wear sunscreen and a hat, and take the camp's advice on the best measures to fend off mosquitoes or flies.

Visas & vaccinations

Irish citizens can purchase a visa on arrival into Dar es Salam. Annoyingly, this costs $100pp (€78), despite the fact that UK citizens pay $50pp (€39).

You will need a certificate of vaccination from Yellow Fever to enter Tanzania, and you should check with your GP several months in advance as regards vaccinations -- polio, tetanus, typhoid and hepatitis A are recommended, and hepatitis B, rabies, diphtheria and others may be as well.

Throw in anti-malarials, recommended for all travellers to Tanzania.

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