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Tanzania’s golden triangle

Published Aug 1, 2011

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A cheetah hunting at dawn in the caldera of an extinct volcano; a pride of seven exhausted lions lying in the shade of a palm tree after bringing down a buffalo; an Arab dhow sailing on impossibly blue waters into a fiery sunset – come to Tanzania with me and share some incredible experiences.

You’ve almost certainly heard of Ngorogoro Crater, and may even have been to Zanzibar, but Tanzania’s Selous Game Reserve is much less well known – and I was astonished by its splendid desolation, its incredible variety of landscapes and its abundant game and birdlife.

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Together, the three destinations form Tanzania’s Golden Triangle, and should be on any serious traveller’s wish list.

My daughter Tara and I flew to Arusha from Johannesburg with the friendly and efficient Kenya Airways then drove with our guide to the Ngorogoro crater (a long drive of over three hours) along winding, bumpy, potholed roads, past small villages, fields of mielies and cassava. We pass a Masai market (no photographs allowed) where tall handsome men in purple and red robes, carrying long spears, bartered and traded goats and sheep. Their donkeys, the local transport, were parked like so many rows of cars at the edge of the market.

We persuaded our not-so-willing guide to collect us at 5.30am from Ngorogoro Serena Safari Lodge, which perches on the side of the crater and has stunning views.

“People usually go at eight or nine,” he grumbled, but we held firm. Thus, we were the first into the crater when the gate opened at six. It’s an hour’s long drive down to the bottom, but we inched our way down through the thick mist and dripping rain forest along an almost impassable road until suddenly, the crater unfurled before us.

It’s one of only three Unesco World Heritage Sites in Tanzania (with Selous and Serengeti) and is often called the Eighth Wonder of the World. It’s an almost perfect basin, holding an astonishing variety of different scenery – mountains, forests, fresh and salt water lakes, open plains and rivers. All this is in an area only 18km in diameter. You feel as if you are at the bottom of a giant soup bowl.

The game is prolific, and this is predator paradise. I’d never seen such fat complacent lions, hyenas and jackals anywhere. Black rhino nibbled the grass (they’d switched here from being browsers to grazers), and hundreds of buffalo mooched moodily around river and lake sides. The salt lake was bright pink as far as the eye could see – brimming with flamingos.

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But there are drawbacks to this paradise, not in the form of an ambitious snake, but in the numbers of noisy, often ill-behaved tourists who come to this legendary place. Because we were so early, we were alone when we saw a cheetah hunting. Shortly afterwards we found a pride of snoozing lions with full bellies. When we returned to the same spot on our way out of the crater three hours later, there were a 100 vehicles around the pride.

The Tanzanian government is killing the goose that lays the golden egg. The crater entry fee is US$200 a vehicle and there is absolutely no restriction on how many vehicles can go down into the crater. A visit to this spectacular place is a must, but don’t expect exclusivity for your dollars.

We then flew in a comfortable small plane with an engaging young American pilot to one of East Africa’s best-kept secrets – the Selous Game Reserve. The second-largest game reserve in the world after Greenland, it covers more than 55 000km2, and is authentic, untamed African wilderness. The game is also prolific here – we saw 16 lions in one day – but only two other vehicles in three days. Although the accommodation at Mivumo River Lodge matches the best in Sabi Sands or the Okavango Delta, Selous is not for sissies.

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The roads are challenging, the distances huge, and there’s no handy picnic site with all mod cons on standby. But the experience of being alone in Deepest Darkest Africa as it must have been when Courtney Selous hunted here over a hundred years ago makes it one of my best safari experiences anywhere in Africa.

Ironically, Captain Selous, who survived so many dangerous encounters with wild animals, was killed by a bullet from a German sniper when he was scouting the area for the British in World War I. He was buried where he fell. A visit to his grave is strangely poignant.

Selous Game Reserve has a dazzling variety of habitats from palm forests and riverine bush, to open plains, the huge Manzi lake with its abundance of water birds, and the mighty Rufiji River – the park’s lifeline. When you fly from Selous to Dar es Salaam you’ll be astonished by the intricate system of big waterways, channels, lagoons, lakes, sandbanks and swamps – it’s like the Okavango Delta on steroids. The reserve also shelters a unique combination of East and southern African wildlife plus over 440 species of birds.

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To see game from the water is a highlight. We chugged down the Rufuji river in a small boat watched by literally hundreds of hippos and crocs. We picnicked on a small sandbank and evicted a dozing hippo which rushed past us in a panic and exploded into the water. It then eyed us grumpily as we ate our sarmies and downed cold beers.

Then it was off to Zanzibar, place of legend, history and turquoise seascapes that dazzle the eye. It was on this ancient island ruled by powerful sultans that slavers, missionaries, explorers and traders plied their respective occupations, and set off into the almost unknown interior.

The house where Dr David Livingstone stayed still stands, albeit a bit shakily, and it was from Stone Town harbour that Henry Morton Stanley set out to find Dr Livingstone. You’ll find the crucifix carved from the tree under which Livingstone’s heart was buried in the historical 1887 Anglican cathedral whose altar is built over a former slave whipping post.

An evocative reconstruction of a slave pit lies outside the cathedral, and when you go into the underground chambers where slaves were kept prior to sale or shipping off to the New World, the cold dropping stone shelves seem to speak of the unbearable misery that was suffered here.

Zanzibar reeks of history. Explore the winding narrow streets of Stone Town on foot, take note of the beautifully hand-carved doors as you pass by veiled women and tiny shops tucked into old walls, as a muezzin calls from a tall tower. Enjoy the beautiful beaches, the superb dive and snorkelling spots, and don’t miss out on a trip on an Arab dhow, still built in the same way for thousands of years.

We sat on a wooden balcony at the Zanzibar Serena Inn, a former sultan’s palace overlooking the Indian Ocean, as the sun sets. Zanzibar was once known as the Spice Island because of its exports of exotic spices. This evening the heady smell of cloves still drifted fragrantly on the evening air as an Arab dhow drifted slowly by. It’s much more than a Kodak moment – it’s a treasure house of memories.

p Turnkington was hosted by Serena hotels.

See www.serenahotels.com

Kenya Airways – friendly and efficient; local air companies – all excellent; Coastal Air (which also offers “last-minute safaris” out of Dar es Salaam [email protected]); Fly 540; and Precision Air - Weekend Argus

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