Be amazed by Africa’s stunning wilderness

WE set off from London hotly anticipating both the serenity of the Mozambican beach and the rugged landscape and heart-pounding thrill of hunting (seeking not shooting) big game in the Tanzanian bush.

It’s a trip that perfectly encapsulates the word “safari” – “long journey” in Swahili – for it takes in seven flights, five boat crossings and two six-hour car rides, not to mention endless hours whiled away in modest airport structures.

Three flights in, including an hour-long trip deep into the bush on a 14-seater Cessna (Coastal Aviation has been opening up East Africa to holidaymakers since 1987), our first stop is The Retreat.

Built on the most remote corner of Selous Game Reserve, one of the largest fauna reserves in the world and Africa’s largest protected wildlife sanctuary, the resort is a seven-hour drive from the nearest camp.

Our guide, Holle Hollea, a local of Dar es Salaam, the major coastal city we’ve just flown in from and one-time capital of Tanzania, and an armed ranger greet us at the airstrip. We clamber out of the pull-down door of the Cessna and climb into the open-air jeep just in time to watch the plane turn and thunder away.

The seclusion is striking. The Western world’s long fascination with the mysterious “dark continent” is palpable: you could be forgiven for thinking you’ve landed in utterly uncharted territory.

Of course, this is far from virgin soil. This very place is even one of the settings for the 1950 film King Solomon’s Mines, an adaptation of the book of the same name in which the author presents himself as the main protagonist, having spent many years in Africa in the late 19th century as a gentleman hunter-explorer.

The shoot involves a 14,000 mile journey, 53 European filmmakers, 130 Africans and stunts that include a stampede of 6,000 animals across the Serengeti – little wonder that a US newspaper at the time hails it “the most ambitious location trip in Hollywood history”.

Six decades later and two female friends are doing what Holle calls the “jeep jig”. We’re as equally unprepared for what lies ahead as those filmmakers undoubtedly were. Nothing is preparation for a face-off with 5,000 kilograms of African elephant.

Rounding into a thicket on our inaugural game drive to The Retreat, we startle two of the animals. The feeling is mutual. As we gawp, mouths agape, the smaller of the two lumbers back the way it came, while the larger thuds through the vegetation to our side. He (his size says it all) stops feet away from the rear of the vehicle, turns to face us head-on and stares. It’s terrifying, astounding and magnificent at the same time.

This isn’t our only such encounter during our time in Tanzania. We spot a lion beneath a tree beside the Great Ruaha River waiting for his dinner to come to drink; a family of giraffes gliding across the plains with amazing grace; two lionesses, red-mouthed, with a half-eaten impala; a troop of baboons raucously grunting of danger and crashing through the treetops.

Such moments remain rare enough to evoke the same mixture of emotions; the human race seems insignificant in this vast and powerful natural world.

From The Fort, The Retreat’s main house built on the site of a former military observation point from World War I, a dozen starved hippopotamuses can be seen upturned in the Ruaha. Crocodiles circle their carcasses. The locals pray for rain.

Witnessing the laws of nature brings a growing disquiet after dark. Our tented suites – two of 12, each mounted on raised teak platforms with their own private deck, outdoor cast iron bath, plunge pool and chill-out area – sit right on the river bank, with its dozens more honking hippos that plod out to graze on the scant grasses under the cover of darkness.

The night air comes alive with the sounds of the bush, and little sleep is had amid fears that a black mamba, rapacious big cat or curious croc could coming calling.

Upon our return from our last supper at Hippo Point – a private safari camp with its own chef and butler two kilometres from the main lodge – our armed watchman nonchalantly tells of a hyena on the prowl and a flicker of his torch illuminates the glint of an elephant’s tusk as it tears down branches meters from where my head should soon be. My companion and I share her four-poster bed that night, the canvas tent interior (handmade to reflect the stars of the African sky) lit until dawn with every lamp and candle we could find.

During our parting breakfast, the camp workers – at least half of them local boys – express gentle amusement at the trepidation of two British girls.

The camp – its philosophy based on respect for ancient traditions, local communities, natural materials and untouched nature – sits entirely at ease in its landscape, but it nevertheless makes me ponder how the local tribes really feel about its being, and whether western notions of luxury have any place in one of the world’s poorest countries.

MOZAMBIQUE
In Mozambique – an altogether different wilderness of white sandy beaches, rolling scrubland and mangrove swamps – we witness East African village life first-hand. Mud-hutted village Cabaceira Pequena is home to most of the 40 staff at Coral Lodge, which opened in June. A throng of barefoot children dance beside the car, reveling in the sight of their own reflection. We visit the school (a concrete single-room structure with chicken wire for windows and nothing but a blackboard) and the well, where women collect water and children jostle to catch a glimpse of themselves on our digital cameras.

The contrast (between barefoot poverty and barefoot luxury) couldn’t be more striking. Getting to Coral Lodge is arduous (our driver runs out of petrol despite stopping to fill up four times, and the boat crossing from Ilha de Moçambique (Mozambique Island) the former capital of the country and UNESCO World Heritage Site, is somewhat wet), but once we’re there it’s easy to relax.

The ten thatched villas have hardness-adjustable mattresses, Egyptian cotton bed linen, spacious bathrooms with huge stone baths and walk-in showers, and verandas with daybeds, perfect for lazy afternoons or a sundowner.

These are Africa’s newest tourist spots – best explored before the West truly catches on.

NEED TO KNOW
● Suites at The Retreat (www.retreat-africa.com) in Tanzania start from $495 per person per night. The price includes meals, house drinks and two complimentary activities per day (choose from game drives, safari walks, boat excursions, fishing and spa treatments). Activities such as ‘bush walking with meditation’, ‘painting the sound of the bush’ and ‘laughing with the hippos’ are occasionally on offer.

● Villas at Coral Lodge 15.41 (www.corallodge1541.com) in Mozambique start at $295 per person per night. The cost includes meals (the food is five-star), house wines, beer and soft drinks, as well as non-motorized activities, such as fishing, windsurfing, snorkeling and canoeing. You can also go on a sunset dhow cruise or cultural tour of Ilha de Moçambique.

● A ten-day fully inclusive luxury safari and beach holiday, combining four nights at The Retreat, four nights at Coral Lodge and a one-night stop-over in an ocean view villa at Londo Lodge (www.londolodge.com), as well as Kenya Airways international flights from London Heathrow and internal transfers, costs from £4,380 per person with W&O Travel Rainbow Tours (0845 2773330/ www.rainbowtours.co.uk), a saving of £420 per person.

TRAVELLING THERE
The dry season (June to November) in general is the best time to go on safari in Tanzania as the animals congregate at water holes and river banks. Think about visiting Coral Lodge during August and September when whales are spotted migrating.

Visas are required for both Tanzania and Mozambique. British citizens can buy these at the point of entry for $50 and $25 respectively, though Mozambican visas are soon expected to increase to $82 at some immigration points.

Several vaccinations and anti-malarial medication are highly recommended.