Tanzania: Game for a drive in quiet East Africa

Ditch motorcades of safari vehicles for calm and intimate wildlife encounters, says Chris Leadbeater

The noise that comes from the young lioness is comprehensible whatever your species – a low, back-of-the-throat growl that sounds an unmistakable note of maternal frustration.

Her cub has been on his haunches for three minutes, his attention seized by the kudu that has been inching across the middle distance. The slow progress of this potential feast has set the juvenile feline to noises of his own, his gurgling a mix of excitement and naivety.

But it is only when he rises fully to his feet that his mother's patience snaps, her guttural order instantly dousing his fire. He quivers, visibly chastened – then sinks to his belly, not daring to shoot his parent a glance. As he does so, the rest of the pride – there are eight lions under this lone baobab tree, two adult females and six offspring – return to their post-prandial nap.

Yet what is unusual is that, observing this scene from an open-sided vehicle, I realise we are outnumbered. Where often on game drives, a sighting of lions will cause a stampede of 4x4s, here, seven of us – six tourists and one guide – watch in blissful solitude.

And the lioness watches back, one eye half-open. Stomach full, breathing heavy, her "concern" is a matter of routine. There is nothing for anyone – man or beast – to fear here.

Such is the way of things in Tanzania. While those hoping for immediate fur-and-claw fixes can find what they seek in busy, popular safari zones such as Kenya's Maasai Mara or South Africa's Kruger National Park, the biggest country in East Africa does wildlife-spotting on a more undersubscribed and hard-to-come-by basis.

True, Tanzania is scarcely an unknown quantity. Stretching out for 365,000 square miles (slightly larger than Germany), its landscape is blessed with exclamation marks as glorious as the epic bulk of Mount Kilimanjaro, the tapering ribbon of Lake Tanganyika (the world's longest freshwater lake) and the off-shore archipelago of Zanzibar. Then there are the ebbing grasslands of the Serengeti, where, every November, two million herbivores (wildebeest, buffalo and zebra) thunder south from Kenya, chasing the seasonal rains as the Great Migration takes centre stage.

And yet, Tanzania remains, in travel terms, a relatively niche idea – hidden from view by Africa's more fabled hot spots, crowded out by Cape Town, vanquished by Victoria Falls.

There is certainly a whiff of the path less trodden about the Selous Game Reserve, 21,000 square miles of savannah and wetland in the south of the country whose undisturbed nature is protected by Unesco. Here are creature encounters galore. On a warm evening, I sit on the veranda of my tent at Siwandu, a small luxury camp, and listen to the roars of hippopotamuses as they skulk in Lake Nzerakera, some 300ft away. Any reckless thought of closer inspection is curtailed by the knowledge that, in the gloom, an army of crocodiles broods on the shore. Not that there is any need to move in search of the locals. As I look to the horizon, a fish eagle – one of the 350 bird species that haunt the reserve – arches across the sunset.

Sightings of man are less frequent. The camp comprises just 13 tents (if you can call an en-suite retreat with a wide double bed and hard-wood furniture a tent). And over the next two days, humanity is again outstripped by hoof and paw: a pack of wild dogs, beautiful in their raggedness, lazing in long grass; a huge herd of wildebeest refuelling nervously at the lakeside; massed ranks of impala bounding across the plains.

Further bestial moments are noted from the air – elephants trooping in elegant single file – when I fly 200 miles north-west in search of another of Tanzania's safari enclaves.

If possible, the Ruaha National Park, a vast slice of wilderness pinned to the heart of the country, is quieter than the Selous Game Reserve. The ground desiccated and irregularly refreshed by the insubstantial flow of the Great Ruaha River.

Within this, the Jongomero camp also carves a living, eight colossal tents lined up on the Jongomero "river" – a dry off-shoot of the Great Ruaha. However, any silence is filled by Andrew "Molly" Molinaro, the Kenya-born manager, an animal aficionado of such enthusiasm that, somewhere, a wildlife channel is surely missing a khaki-kitted presenter.

His love of his art comes into its own on my second day in camp, when a morning game walk produces little action. But Molinaro's effusiveness is such that four hours are ably filled with tales and trivia: from the complex workings of termite mounds to the constituent parts of elephant dung, and what they say about the health of the pachyderm in question.

One especially sizeable pile of an elephant's wake-up call is as near as we come to seeing the genuine article during our morning – an unexpected occurrence, since the park is home to a 20,000-strong population. But when I return to my tent after lunch, I am treated to a close-up spectacle of tusks and tantrums. On the far bank of the Jongomero, three grey giants are worrying a marula tree, the largest repeatedly ramming her body into the trunk until, with a succession of soft thuds, the fruits tumble down.

Then a row breaks out. A fourth, diminutive elephant appears, and starts consuming the treasure without contributing to the effort. Offence is taken. Ears are waggled. Feet are stamped. And the trumpeting that emanates from the leader must be audible for miles. It is the loudest thing I will hear in my week of remoteness. And presumably, somewhere in the bush, a dozing lioness opens one eye, murmurs in annoyance, and falls back to sleep.

Travel essentials

Getting there

British Airways (0844 493 0787; ba.com) flies non-stop to Dar es Salaam three times a week from Heathrow. Fastjet (00 255 685 680 533; fastjet.com) has a low-cost domestic network in Tanzania. Ethiopian Airlines, Kenya Airways, KLM, Qatar Airways, Swiss and Turkish Airlines all serve both Dar es Salaam and Kilimanjaro from a range of UK airports via their hub cities.

Touring there

Cazenove+loyd (020-7384 2332; cazloyd.com) can organise a nine-night safari-and-beach itinerary that features three nights each at Jongomero, Siwandu Safari Camp and Ras Kutani on the Indian Ocean coast. Prices from £3,652 per person, including BA flights, game drives, transfers and full-board accommodation.

More information

British passport-holders require a visa to visit Tanzania, obtainable at ports of entry for US$50 (£31) or in advance for £38 from the Tanzanian High Commission in London (020-7569 1470; tanzaniahighcommission.co.uk).

Selous.com. Tanzaniaparks.com.

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