Selous Game Reserve: A safari above all others

The game reserve in Tanzania is home to stunning wildlife, but it's the giraffes that really stand out – and not just for the obvious reason

Surely the giraffe was out of its mind. Or perhaps it was simply summing up the situation rather too slowly. It had emerged from bush cover to find itself a few yards from a large pride of lions that were lazing in the golden glow of late afternoon sun. Eleven heads turned in unison, suddenly alert. Eleven pairs of amber eyes were instantly fixed on the leggy newcomer.

The giraffe took a step forward and stopped. It reversed the move and stopped, flicking its tail and staring back at the ominous family group. A good 15 seconds passed. The lions were motionless. Then, unbelievably, the giraffe walked towards them again – three, four paces. The tension was palpable. As one of the lions started to stretch a forepaw, the giraffe abruptly came to its senses. Rapidly turning tail it disappeared into the bush in three long bounds.

The lions sank back, soporific once more. They were unperturbed by our 4x4 purring nearby. Presumably the big metal creature was dismissed as neither threat nor potential prey. But the giraffe, our guide remarked, well, it had been theirs for the taking. A giraffe, he added, has a seriously powerful kick that can shatter a lion's skull. But it would be unable to defend itself if attacked by 11 of these big cats. The pride we were watching had evidently been insufficiently hungry to take matters to a bloody conclusion.

We breathed a collective sigh of relief. I had no desire to watch any animal being torn apart, especially a giraffe – for these lofty leaf eaters were the focus of my visit.

At the age of about four I became fascinated by pictures of the bizarrely shaped mammals. With their preposterously long necks and patchwork fur they looked the stuff of legend, as weird and wonderful as unicorns, krakens and other mythical beasts. It was with astonishment that I learnt they were real – and distant relatives of the deer. Zoos satisfied some curiosity, yet how much better to see them moving freely in their own environment. Childish interest developed into a long-held ambition to watch giraffes in quantity in the wild.

But where to see them? These evolution-gone-crazy creatures are impressive survivors and live in relatively healthy numbers in grassland and bush across much of Africa (although they are becoming rare in the West). Leaving aside scientific quibbles over definition, there are nine subspecies. They range from reticulated giraffe – with big red or liver-coloured patches – found in Somalia, Ethiopia and north-east Kenya; to South African giraffe – with rounded and sometimes star-like spots – which inhabit not only South Africa but also Namibia, Botswana and Mozambique.

And for optimum viewing? Chris McIntyre, author of several Bradt guides to African countries as well as boss of the travel companyExpert Africa, had an immediate answer. Head to the Selous Game Reserve in Tanzania, he said. The giraffe population in the northern part of this park has become so large that the area is sometimes known as "Giraffic Park".

The Selous (pronounced "Seloo") is Africa's largest single reserve – at more than 30,000 square miles it is larger than many European countries. It was named after Frederick Courteney Selous, a British explorer, hunter and conservationist who roamed this region in the late 19th century.

That hunting-conservation mix resonates today: about 90 per cent of the huge reserve is leased out as private concessions where rich Russians, Americans and even a few Brits come to shoot big game. The hefty fees that are charged help to finance conservation.

The remaining northern part of the Selous is open to tourists armed only with cameras. Quite apart from giraffe, they come to see elephant, hippo, buffalo and lion as well as zebra, wildebeest, warthog and impala – plus fabulous birdlife too. If they're lucky they may also catch sight of endangered black rhino, leopard and seldom-seen wild dog.

The animals in the Selous don't migrate, so here you won't see the huge herds for which Tanzania's Serengeti Park is celebrated. Nor is the setting quite as dramatic as the country's Ngorongoro Conservation Area. But the reserve offers superb wildlife viewing and, unlike Tanzania's safari hotspots, there are few other visitors. As a reserve rather than a national park, regulations are fairly relaxed, too: you can drive off road and therefore get remarkably close to the animals; you can go on walking safaris; and you can take private "fly-camping" trips – get-away-from it-all safaris on which you camp out in the bush. What's more, the Selous is readily accessible, via a spectacular light-aircraft flight of about 40 minutes from Dar es Salaam.

Just 12 hours after take-off from Heathrow I was in the bush watching my first giraffe. Along with southern Kenya, Tanzania is the haunt of the Maasai giraffe, distinguished by dark-brown spots with jagged edges. That initial giraffe was a handsome male, its markings particularly bold and elaborate – for rather like a human fingerprint, the spots are unique to each individual giraffe.

He had wandered into a clearing where he towered over a herd of zebra that grazed around it at barely thigh height. As our 4x4 approached, the zebra darted away, a blur of dust, black and white stripes and pounding hoofs. The giraffe simply looked down at us as if in mild curiosity. Then he slowly loped off in that strangely awkward giraffe walk with both right legs moving together and then both left legs.

We saw about 20 more giraffes that day – mostly in small groups of three to six – along with quantities of elegant impala, a couple of bands of baboons, hippos both in and out of the water, a pride of lounging lions and several chipper little warthogs. And we were staying among elephants.

The trip had been orchestrated to offer different safari experiences along with increasing levels of luxury. Lake Manze Camp, my first accommodation, was devised a little over two years ago as a deliberately low-tech, unfussy operation. It is set alongside a well-used elephant trail, and the great grey animals were much in evidence during my stay, lumbering right into camp to eat the fruit of doum palm that was falling in abundance. They moved, unperturbed, within feet of the thatched communal area where we gathered for drinks and meals. And they seemed equally unfazed by the human traffic to the accommodation: 12 bedrooms in separate walk-in tents with open-air bathrooms attached. With no electricity in the tents, there's a hairshirt-yet-romantic atmosphere, with hurricane lamps and candles providing light.

Of course, quite as important as the style of a camp is the standard of tracking and guidance provided. On my second day there, an eagle-eyed young guide showed his guests not only numerous giraffes but also a leopard with cub. To cap it all, as we returned at dusk we found ourselves driving beside a pack of wild dogs. They were setting out for an evening hunt and exuded a tremendous air of excitement.

Such a rare sighting did not dent my enthusiasm for giraffes – even their Swahili name, twiga, struck me as appealing. The next morning I learnt more about twigas on my first safari walk, the aim of the exercise being not so much to see animals as to explore their environment.

The highlight of the hike was an insight into the extraordinary anatomy of a giraffe. Lying beside a thorn tree were the well-picked bones of a giraffe's head and neck. I gawped at the seven cervical vertebrae – the same number of neck bones as most mammals, only these, of course, were huge. The guide explained the amazing mechanics of how a giraffe holds up its heavy head and neck (some as long as six feet), thanks to powerful muscles and a complex network of blood vessels.

Shifting up the scale of both luxury and adventure, I spent that evening fly-camping. To venture way off the beaten track and sleep out in boy-scout tents sounded like rough going. But this set-up, arranged by the upmarket Impala Camp, was a lavish safari-style outing straight out of the 1920s. Facilities included a shower tent complete with a canvas bucket arrangement of hot water, a loo tent, and a wash area with towel rail and canvas basin. My tent was equipped with a mattress and bedside table on which stood a torch, candle and even a batik-covered tissue box.

The really big luxury element, though, was the service provided by the staff of six. Sunset drinks magically appeared by a camp fire and then a three-course dinner was served in a pavilion tent. An armed guard kept vigil that night just in case the leopard and lions we had heard calling decided to pay a visit.

I woke to a hearty dawn chorus and stepped out of my tent to see, as if on cue, a giraffe drinking at the lake that the camp overlooked. With legs splayed out and neck down, the stance looked almost poetically implausible.

Our group had been accompanied by an impressively knowledgeable guide from Impala Camp who emerged beside me and added to the sense of giraffe-wonder by explaining the rudiments of the animal's finely evolved circulatory system. Given the distance that blood needs to be pumped up to the brain, giraffes have extremely high blood pressure – and an intricate system of valves in the neck enables them to bend their heads down so that they can drink without getting brain damage.

Biology talk over, the guide took us on a bush walk in the camp vicinity, showing us the tracks of the many animals – leopard, hyena, hippo – that had been passing near us while we slept.

Onwards and upwards, both geographically and in terms of creature comforts: my final three days were spent at remote Sand Rivers Camp. This is a laid-back haven, stunningly positioned above a curve of the Rufiji River. The accommodation, in eight large stone-and-thatch cottages, is partly opened sided, neatly allowing you to take in the watery views while feeling part of the natural world around.

Hippos gently snorting in the river below my cottage were my morning wake-up call, along with the sound of small monkeys skittering around the trees overhead.

The main building similarly offers wide-open panoramas – along with a dining room serving elegant feasts, and a sitting room area whose cream-toned furnishings present a happy balance of style and comfort.

The guiding, meanwhile, proved near magical, with lion, elephant and giraffe being conjured at will on drives and river trips. One particular track near camp exuded an almost tangible sense of enchantment as iridescent birds flitted through the undergrowth.

It led to a plateau amazingly rich in big game. Here we watched numerous groups of giraffes, some moving away from us at impressive speed (they can run at up to 35mph), while others were unbothered by our presence. These included several giraffe crèches, it being common practice among giraffes for mothers to take turns in presiding over small numbers of youngsters. It was here, too, that we watched the giraffe-lion stand-off, shortly after seeing a mighty herd of buffalo.

My final afternoon was spent on foot. We followed eland tracks, watched fish eagles and walked relatively near (and downwind of) a large herd of elephants.

As the sun started to set we climbed a ridge to find that a cocktail table had been laid out for us in the middle of nowhere, with staff on hand to serve drinks. We sipped sundowners watching the world around becoming tinged with pink and catching sight of a lone giraffe slowly making its way into the bush below.

Travel essentials: Tanzania

Getting there

The writer travelled with Expert Africa (020-8232 9777; expertafrica.com), which arranges safari holidays in Tanzania among other destinations. A seven-night trip to the Selous Game Reserve costs from £2,985 per person (based on two sharing). This includes British Airways flights to Dar es Salaam; internal bush flights; all activities on safari; two nights full-board at Lake Manze Camp; three nights full-board at Sand Rivers Camp; a night fly-camping with Impala Camp; and a final night's B&B at the Southern Sun Hotel, Dar es Salaam.

Red tape

* British passport-holders require a visa to enter Tanzania. These can be obtained from the Tanzanian High Commission, 3 Stratford Place, London W1C 1AS(020-7569 1470; tanzaniahighcommission.co.uk) andcost £38 for single entry.

* Tanzania Tourist Board: tanzaniatouristboard.com

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