Thursday, 1 January 2015

Selous GR: New Year's in the South

The focus of Selous is the Rufiji River
The decision to visit Selous with the rains in December was made on the way back from the Serengeti as we had only 3 days after Christmas to decide where to go for the New Year's Eve long weekend. Selous is expensive and very difficult in the wet and the game would be off the river this time of the year.  But...

Selous is a beautiful driving park with great river front scenery and home to Africa’s largest African wild dog population. Having not caught up with the dogs on two previous trips it was decided Selous it shall be, provided the weather forecast wasn’t too bad. Checks on the forecast were good enough to take a chance.
Riverside drives are a Selous special
While the rest of the world was partying the New Year in, we were packing the car, roasting chickens and getting ready for an early morning start on the first. We reached Kibiti where the tarmac ends mid morning and turned right towards Selous Game Reserve. The road for a start was graded but deteriorated badly; luckily the mud and water was not a factor. Inquiries at the gate revealed a lion mating pair along the main road and dogs spotted at Lake Nzerakera.
Lioness with small cubs on the first day - perfect start
The first kilometers confirmed the roads were passable provided it didn’t rain for the few days we were there. There was a lot of water around, but the tracks were drying out. The river front as expected was quiet, but we found a male and female lion chilling under a tree at the end of Lake Nzerakera. 

Soon another lioness with cubs was spotted under a bush nearby. The cubs were really small which meant this pride wouldn’t move too far. What’s more they were in our favorite location and best game viewing area of the park. A great set up for the rest of the trip!

Mother and cubs heading to meet the rest of the pride
After a while the mother with the cubs under a bush joined the male and female in the open. This was absolutely perfect in terms of a viewing and shooting. The cubs were full of life tugging at tails and jumping on the adults. It was interesting to see the interaction between the cubs and male who only showed mild interest in the cubs, before ignoring the pride and walking away to lie under a scrubby bush.
Grumpy Dad
Safety with mum
Play time with Mum
We hung around with the pride for a while, then headed back along the river and found a small herd of female Greater kudus. While this is a very common sight in Southern Africa but in East Africa it's pretty uncommon. The river drive always has a few birds and hippos to spend time with before we headed to our campsite at SelousRiver Camp outside the park.

Greater kudu
Selous River Camp is a cool little place closest to the Mtemere gate and set in a thick riverside forest on the banks of the Rufiji River. The campsite is the only place in the area that can cater for rooftent campers, but even that is very tight due to the lodge owned tents in the camp site. 

Selous River Camp Camp site
There are bush babies and monkeys including black and white colobus, in the trees above the campsite. Friends of ours have seen elephant in the campsite thus despite being outside the gate, the camp site is somewhat wild but offers clean modern toilets.

The next morning we decided to do some exploring at the top end of the park which we normally don’t do. The section immediately after the gate is too thick to see anything but there is a lot of driving trails one the road gets past the thick riverside forest. 

River side driving
Two hours later we were reminded why we normally don’t explore this area as there appears to be nothing there! Upon hitting the main road we did find the two mating lions. For once a Selous male had a decent mane. Most Selous males have scraggy looking manes and it was nice to see one with a full mane. While we witnessed them mating they were intent on being behind bushes.

She looks bored!
Decent mane on this Selous male
We made a check on the pride which was still around before we left them and   headed to the Lake Manze area. We couldn’t get across the short cut as the mud was yet to dry so settled for the long way round. The lack of vehicle tracks told us we were missing something as there was traffic between Manze and the gate but it wasn’t using either roads we were aware of. 

Manze was surprising dry and devoid of any game, which was also a surprise. A car coming along the short cut confirmed that it usable and we were back on the Lake Nzerakera side of the park.

An Openbill conference
We wanted to spend some time birding and shooting some of shore birds and follow up on a flock of Northern carmine bee-eaters we saw earlier in the day. The usual shore birds were around but the Carmines were a spectacle. They were gathered in a large flock sand bathing and taking dips in the river. 

We picked out a spot and parked close to what looked like a favorite sand bathing spot for the Carmines and waited quietly for them to get used to the car. After a while of watching us from the trees, they started to come down in numbers to bath in the sand. These are truly spectacular birds and when they forms large flocks they are absolutely amazing.

Northern Carmine Bee-eater
Spectacular flock of Carmines

Sand bathing
Further down the river we found a pod of hippos in a nice bend in the river and spent the rest of the evening with them trying to get yawning shots. Hippos are generally uninteresting unless they actually do something other than sit submerged up to their eyes in water. Yawning is by far the most interesting a hippo can get except for a fighting male. We hung around enough to get a few opportunities to shoot a yawn before making our way out after another day.

This is as exciting a Hippo sighting gets

Another Hippo another yawn
Next morning it was decided we would stick to Lake Nzerakera and of course find the pride and generally chill around without bothering with Lake Manze, which looked dead from the previous day. We found tracks of the male Lion heading out of the area but found the two females with the cubs asleep under the same bush as the previous day. 

Annoying Mum
Despite it being early in the morning everyone was asleep and we waited patiently. Another vehicle arrived with the news that a wild dog pack had been spotted at Lake Manze! We shot off immediately following a second vehicle headed for the dogs and given you can drive off road it was important to stick with someone who knew exactly where the dogs were as they would be hard to find if they were off the road.

Male Kudu
Male common Water buck
On route we came across a porcupine walking around in the open. This was a major sighting and this would be only our second sighting ever, and the first in daylight. With two cars upon it the porcupine decided to take shelter at the base of a tree which was nice as we could get a decent view and a few shots. 

Porcupine - rare sighting

Caught in broad daylight
By the time we left, the car we were following had already left and we lost its tracks and now only had vague directions. Strangely the car were following hadn’t taken the short cut but as far as we were concerned the dogs were sighted at Lake Manze and the only way in was on the short cut we were on. At Lake Manze we had absolutely no idea which way we to go and decided to go left but soon turned back as they was no signs of vehicle tracks. Soon we found a car that had seen the dogs and found the pack in a small stream under a bush.

The Dogs of Selous at long last

Comfortable pillow
Resting Dogs
This was perfect! We were right next to a pack of 16 dogs resting with stomachs full after a meal. There was little chance of them leaving and we had coffee with them for the morning and ended up having lunch with them as well. The dogs didn’t do much which was good as if they started moving, would be a mad dash trying to keep up. 

Resting dogs are a lot more interesting to watch than resting lions who just sleep. Dogs on the other had kept going to a small pool of water in the stream to cool off and appeared a lot more restless than cats which meant better opportunities to shoot.

Dogs will be dogs

They all liked the small pool of water
We spent a better part of 6 hours with the Dogs and only left for a toilet break. A few birds added to the package and despite getting a close shot of Starling we were unable to make a call between the Lesser and Greater blue-eared starling. 

Other vehicles and birds came and went and we waited positioning ourselves at different angles in relation to the sun in attempt to get different shots. The water hole was the main focus as the dogs kept getting up and getting in to the pool to cool off. At one stage two dogs got in at the same time and proceeded to bite the one dog's tail!

Two fools!

Dogs always chilled around cars
We finally left, leaving us time to make the gate before dark but got lost and ended up on an even closer short cut which explained why we couldn’t follow the tracks of the vehicle looking for dogs. We ended up with the lion pride who hadn’t moved the whole day and were awake and playful. 

There was a troop of baboons mucking about on the date palm trees next to where the lions were resting and they were unnerving one of the cubs. Suddenly the cub lost its nerve and headed straight towards our vehicle, running away from the baboons who were dropping wild dates from tree tops. 

The little cub moved past our car and crossed the road before the mother got up and called her back and gave us an accusing look. She seemed to be blaming us for the cub running off but they all settled down under the bush before long.
Even with a clear shot cannot make a call on this Starling
Speckled-throated woodpecker
Red-billed Firefinch
As it was out last evening, we left the pride and opted to cruise along river checking out whatever was on offer.  One of the challenges with the Rufiji river in Selous is the sun sets on the opposite bank which means you are shooting in to the sun if the subject is at the waters edge. 

The trick to catch something on the bend of the river in the late evening when the light is soft. We found a few birds in such a position offering some great shooting to bring our last evening to an end.
African fish eagles
African spoonbill
African openbill
The last day we only wanted to check in with the pride and have morning coffee with them and take an easy drive out of the gate by lunch time. We came across an umbrella bird in the morning busy fishing. This is an amazing way to catch fish but he has to keep going at it; we didn't see him catch anything...

Black Egret (Umbrella bird)
African Jacana
Water Thick-knee
After giving up on the pride and having coffee at an empty waterhole in the hope something would rock up, we stumbled across the pride on the way out of Lake Nzerakera. The pride was in the open and cubs were playful as ever and finally managed to convince the mother for a drink before everyone calmed down and a couple of the cubs headed into the bush.  Finally we said goodbye to them and left for the gate. 
Mum's tail is in trouble
We do see a few Lionesses with no tail tuft, now we know why
We did end up in a ditch after not concentrating on the drive back and had to get a passing vehicle to pull us out. The rains stayed away and the all important dogs showed up which was the main reasons we opted for Selous. 

The lions offered us great sightings throughout the few days we were there and the close up sightings of the cubs was really special. We racked up 60+ birds including a few lifers and without the crazy crowds of the Northern parks and dust of the dry season, it was another great trip.  


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