Safari South: Nature astride the Tan-Zam highway in central Tanzania

Mikumi Lion guards a buffalo downed earlier in the day by a lioness of the pride

When travel agents with Tanzania in mind speak of “The South” they usually mean to invoke the wildlife attractions of what is known as the Southern Circuit. Nature reserves that lie alongside a one thousand mile artery that delves deep from the ocean, far into the darkness at the heart of Central Africa. This aorta has been named the Tan-Zam highway, more accurately it’s a tanker, truck and bus-way. An unravelled strap of dark modernity, two or three lanes wide, asphalt, blacktop or tarmac, contorted ad nauseam, melted and remoulded daily, potted and pitted by Scania, Firestone and Total  in tandem with their eastern adversaries, under the merciless glare of the tropical Sun God.

Diesel-spill_MikumiNP_2014_Nikki MacArthur
Entrepreneurs gather to collect spilling diesel Mikumi National Park (Nikki MacArthur)

The Tan-Zam highway stretches south west, seemingly ever inwards, into Africa, from the thronged and container-crammed, Indian Ocean port of Dar es Salaam. Sadly in these neo-colonial days this once fair city seems more like a slum than a haven of peace. The road pumps the black-brown-and-amber lifeblood of globalized neo-liberalism  – chiefly refined petroleum products – to the rash of rapidly expanding cities across Africa’s south-central interior. It oils the extraction of the resource-rich underbelly of an updated African ‘darkness’. The commodification of our collective soul, a dystopia only superficially differentiated from the primeval horrors that Joseph Conrad portrayed.

Anyway, predictably I’ve digressed! Beside this great neo-imperial road there lie treasures untold. Natural treasures and innocent pleasures that remain, for the most part, unknown in that ever-accelerating dance, the game of screens, played out beyond Africa’s shores. This alien ignorance stems from the fact that during the Low Season (November through March) it’s rarely possible, and during the High Season it’s sometimes impossible (at least on a safari of just 13 nights) to combine the reticent gems of the Southern Safari Circuit, with the hard-peddled jewels of TripAdvisor’s “Northern Safari Circuit” in Tanzania.

Lapping Lion beside the Hippo Pools in Mikumi NP

Impossible that is, unless you charter a light aircraft to fly you from the Seronera airstrip, at the hub of the Serengeti National Park [founded 1951 : area 14,763 sq km], down to Ruaha [1964 : 20,225 sq km] which happens to be Tanzania’s largest National Park, or to the Selous Game Reserve [1896 : 50,00 sq km], which remains Africa’s largest wildlife reserve. A nature reserve in Africa for nearly 120 years, very sadly the Selous’ fabled Elephants having been “on offer“, spirited away to China, for a few years now. Nevertheless at this point we would do well to acknowledge that the combined extent of Tanzania’s Ruaha and Selous protected wildlife areas extend to an area twice that of the Netherlands! No mean achievement and a sizeable sacrifice for a nation of what were until recently “simple peasant farmers”.

A Charaxes on naturalised Black-Jack at Hondo-Hondo, Udzungwa NP

Over the past three weeks it has been my good fortune to spend some “top quality wildlife time” in two of the smaller wildlife reserves, National Parks, of The South. In total I guided seven different UK school groups, each comprised of between 12 and 15 persons, all of whom were journeying north-east up the Tan-Zam highway from Malawi to the Indian Ocean coast at Bagamoyo or to Unguja (aka Zanzibar). These groups were camping in two areas, firstly along the eastern periphery of the rugged, heavily forested Udzungwa Mountains NP [ 1992 : 1,990 sq km] where they were based at the Hondo-Hondo the Udzungwa Forest Lodge; and secondly in the savannas of Mikumi NP [1964 : 3,320 sq km ], at Camp Site One. Mikumi is a protected area sliced-into-two by the rumbling and roaring of the big trucks on the Tan-Zam highway. The safari days were, I dare to think, the most enjoyable and useful R&R component, for most of the students anyway, during their oft times very challenging six-week journey across Africa. Their expedition journeys were arranged and coordinated by Outlook Expeditions based in the UK and partly outfitted by WildThings Safaris here in Tanzania.

Outlook Expeditions breakfast at Camp Site One Mikumi NP

Guiding safaris, each with over a dozen teen-agers and their minders, steering them into the juicy sweet spots of Wild Nature I frequently found myself, possibly for the first time in my adult birding life, unable to stop and savour the lbjs and other “small and/or brown stuff”, many of whom litter the target lists of my more senior, if not more discerning, clientele!

Udzungwa Red Colobus are frequent visitors to Hondo-Hondo Forest Lodge

Whatever it was  a very interesting and enjoyable experience throughout. I spent longer than usual immersing myself (and the others!) in that part of Nature oft described as being “red in tooth and claw”. This added immeasurably to a renaissance in my appreciation of the marvellous natural wonder that remains with us yet, and only just around the corner, here in Tanzania. What a privilege it is indeed. To live here, just off the highway, near the Safari Heart of Africa.

Male Giraffes ‘necking’ in Mikumi NP

Therefore I make no excuse for repeating here the words of the visionary founder of this remarkable young nation. As a new nation and a poor country it should be admired and applauded for having set-aside an extraordinary percentage (almost one fifth) of its land area, in a startlingly brave attempt to conserve what we currently call biodiversity, that is Nature, for the benefit of all of us. So here are the words of the late Julius Nyerere, first President of Tanzania, spoken at independence in 1961, in what became known as the Arusha Manifesto:

The survival of our wildlife is a matter of grave concern to all of us in Africa. These wild creatures amid the wild places they inhabit are not only important as a source of wonder and inspiration, but are an integral part of our natural resources and our future livelihood and well-being.

Restaurant area viewed from a nature trail at Udzungwa Forest Lodge

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