Friday, August 7, 2009

Safari to Selous Game Reserve

Part 1: The long drive to Selous (pronounced “Seloo”)

Saturday, August the First! The day I had been waiting for ever since I landed in Tanzania, for this would be my best opportunity to really experiment with my new camera, the Canon SX10IS. My watch read 6.20 am when we started off in a Toyota Prado just as the darkness was lifting off. There wasn't much traffic on the road this early in the day and we were moving pretty fast. Within 15 minutes we went past my brother's school. The road turning left to his campus is completely dirt laden. I remember thinking if it had ever been tarred. However we were on a pretty good stretch of a 4 lane road. Though once out of the outskirts of Dar-es-Salaam the road narrowed to 2 lanes, the road was good and we were covering a lot of distance in little time.

En-route to Mbagala, a nice photo opportunity arose - the rising sun, nice bright red in colour, half hidden behind a cloud rendering the sky around in a nice orange-ish shade. We were moving pretty fast and thus we were pretty late to react to it and couldn't ask the driver to stop. That would be pretty much the only regret I have in the first part of the trip, though the view of an even more beautiful sunset later in the day would more than make up for it. There was also plenty of mist around during the first hour of the ride with the visibility being less than 15 metres. Looking out of the left car window we could see a sea of mist thickly covering a low lying area revealing only the top of coconut trees. The temperature had also dropped to 21oC. It was 25oC back in Dar.

Anyway, we were moving at over 100kmph and the vehicle's suspension seemed to be a little soft. There were also some minor tuning problems with the engine. There was an obvious, though minor reluctance on the engine's part to rev up. Otherwise, it was a really smooth journey thus far. We pulled left into a Panpol petrol bunk at Mbagala. The driver Shabana, who has been in this job for over 14 years now remarked that this would be the cheapest bunk on this route.

We filled up full tank and hadn't gone for over a kilometer when there they were, the policemen! One officer was standing right in the middle of the road and waving frantically. There was no option but to stop or else we would have to run him over. This was one thing we were hoping to avoid. Very naive of us considering it was a Saturday morning. They first asked us for our passports in which everything was all hunky-dory. Still, would you believe it that they asked for 300$ and for no reason what-so-ever? We don't pay, we don't move an inch further, simple as that.

Corruption, rather official extortion is one thing any visitor to Tanzania who plans to embark on a drive must be prepared for. One thing to remember is that they are just shooting into the dark. If you keep looking into their eye, know a bit of Swahili and politely question them back, you could if you are lucky see another side of these officers. The officer in question in our case basically started begging, in whispers though. Based on my mother's and brother's translation he was asking for at least 10000tshs since Sunday was coming up and he needed a little loose change for booze. Would be visitors; keep one more thing in mind. Just because you now think you have the upper hand in argument and thus get away without even paying the 10k, then God Bless You. If you value your time and do not have a photo of you standing next to the Tanzanian President in your car, pay the 10k and leave. (Note: Around 1300tshs would correspond to 1$). As we reached Mkuranga, there was another police roadblock. This time it was Traffic. Traffic officers are comparatively less indulgent in official extortion and so they left us after asking a couple of questions.

Now, the foliage in Tanzania would remind anyone from Kerala of his home state. Beyond the road you could see plenty of plantains, coconut and mango trees. We had to reach Faribu, before the first visible signs of Africa in its Savanna like grasses started to appear. We had burgers at 8, complementary from the travel guys. After a while there were remnants of a dead animal on the road. If we were in the jungle, I would have said it was a hyena. It had the same colour, stripes and size.

By 8 in the morning we had already completed almost 150kms of the total 250km stretch to Selous. We had reached Kibiti by then, where we stopped for tea near a Gapco Petrol Bunk. As we restarted the journey at 8.30, I was sitting in the car and wondering why my father had said this would a 5 hour drive. We had already completed more than half the distance! That was when I was in for a big surprise as we veered right onto a dirt road with a signboard showing 94 kms to Selous. Well, great!!! At least we could start the drive-in-the-jungle experience earlier than expected.

We were leaving a heavy dust trail as we were still moving at around 80kmph though after we almost jumped off the road, the driver decelerated to a more decent 50. First signs of the wild were visible on the sides of the road. Though it were just monkeys that made the bumpy 3 hour ride worth it! We reached Mtemere Gate at 11.30 am where we finished the formalities for entering Selous Game Reserve and then signed in at the Mbega Camp where we would be spending our next 18 hours. A decent journey so far but in no way did I anticipate that the next 24 hours of my life would be one of my best.

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