Rufiji River boat safari | Have sundowners next to the water in the Selous Game Reserve.

Cruising The Rufiji River Delta

Instead of a traditional game drive, how about an unforgettable aquatic safari on a Rufiji River boat, one of Tanzania’s best safari experiences? The Selous Game Reserve is a prime wildlife destination and the water dimension adds immeasurably to your adventure, with incredible sightings of hippo, crocodile and a myriad of waterfowl.

Wildlife viewing in Tanzania’s Selous Game Reserve has a uniquely aquatic dimension. Indeed, the thing I loved most about our lodge was the opportunity to spot animals from the water on Rufiji River boat cruise. It really was the cherry on top of an unforgettable safari in a wild and remote corner of Africa.

Our safari camp comprised a series of luxury tents set on the banks of the Rufiji River. From the wooden deck of our lodge, we could sit with a cup of tea at sunrise and watch the bush come to life, or relax with a G&T as the bush honeyed and darkened at sunset. There was a shaded pool and loungers for the perfect armchair safari.

My partner and I were thrilled by our spacious tent, which had mosquito netting over the king-sized bed and was topped with thatch. The design allowed for constant air-flow and enabled us to gaze at the animals coming down to drink without having to leave our bed!

On our first morning, we set off for an aquatic safari. We boarded the Rufiji River boat – a sturdy metal craft with a canopy for shade – and motored upstream. Just being on the river (never mind the game) was a fantastic contrast to the dusty hours we’d spent on game-drive vehicles. The scenery was terrific: banks lined with white sandy beaches, low cliffs and magnificent hardwood trees, some of them simply enormous.

‘This is the largest delta in East Africa,’ said Bakari, our boatman. ‘When the rains have fallen, we start doing these Rufiji River boat cruises, but for the rest of the year, our guests do their boating activities on nearby Lake Nzerakera.’

Bakari switched off the outboard engine and let us drift silently downstream. Gently spiralling on the current, we watched the riverbanks unfold with each bend. It was a most seductive sensation.

Vast flocks of great white pelicans fished in the deeper water. A fish eagle sat regally on the branch of a dead leadwood tree, scanning the water for breakfast. On a high bank, we could make out a pride of lion sleeping off a wildebeest meal. Just then, a herd of elephant emerged from the trees and rushed towards the water. Soon they were drinking and playing in the shallows, the babies rolling about in the mud. There was much trumpeting and splashing in a delightful scene of pachyderm domestic bliss.

We pulled into a bay and the bows kissed the sand. Bakari laid on a fabulous breakfast, right there on the beach. We watched a pair of crowned eagles in tree opposite us, and listened to the shrill cries of hyrax as we savoured our delicious East African coffee.

Over breakfast, Bakari told us more about the Selous. ‘This is the largest game reserve in Africa. It’s wonderfully remote and far less visited than more famous reserves like Serengeti. Selous is one of East Africa’s best kept secrets and is actually a Unesco World Heritage Site.’

‘The hot volcanic springs, lakes and twisting channels of rivers such as the Great Rhuha and Rufiji give the Selous its incredibly diverse landscape. Big herds of elephant are attracted to the mighty Rufiji. But apart from being known for its ellies, buffalo, rhino and hippo, Selous also has a vast range of other fauna, including brindled gnu, Nyasaland gnu, sable antelope, eland, greater kudu, waterbuck, hartebeest, giraffe, spotted hyena, leopard and African wild dog. We really are very lucky here.’

Back on board the boat, we approached a pod of hippo, which dived when we drew closer. They resurfaced in our wake and let out an uproarious honking that echoed off the banks and gave us all a good chuckle.

Much more sinister were the enormous Nile crocodile basking on the banks. If we got too near, there’d be an almighty flick of their tails and they’d splash into the stream. We kept a smart lookout for their eyes, which would pop up like U-boat periscopes.

The riverine birdlife was simply staggering. The sandbanks, lagoons, islands and channels were literally thronging with waterfowl of every kind. It was a like a Heathrow for birds. We counted dozens on our boat trip and Bakari confided that the reserve boasted more than 440 recorded species. I managed to spot spur-winged lapwings, African spoonbills, any number of bee-eater species and, as luck would have it, a magnificent Pel’s fishing owl (a first for me).

Our aquatic safari came to an end as we pulled into an cove where the Land Rover was waiting for us on the bank. It had been a thrilling alternative to the traditional game drive and we’d seen far more animals than we could possibly have hoped for.

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