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Dhow boat sailing on the Indian Ocean

A trip of two halves: Tanzania’s Nyerere National Park and Mafia Island

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Falling asleep to the grunts of hippo, exploring laid-back beachside towns and witnessing the first steps of a new-born impala: these are just some of the highlights Geoff Laws and wife Peta experienced on their trip of two halves to Tanzania. The couple paired a safari in the lesser-trodden south of the country with time in the Mafia Archipelago, where their days involved more than just beach relaxation. Here, Geoff reminisces on their time.

Hi Geoff. You’ve traveled with Audley several times before — what made you decide on Tanzania for your most recent trip?

Surprisingly enough, whale sharks. I’d seen them on many documentaries before and my fantasy was that I’d see them in clear, sparkling-blue water with the sun shining down through it. It turned out the best time to see them along Tanzania’s coast was October, so we planned our trip to Mafia Island for then and thought we’d tie it in with a safari.

As it happened, all I saw was a distant fin, so I didn’t fulfil my fantasy this time. But, the safari more than compensated for it.

And your safari was in the Nyerere National Park?

Selous Game Reserve, Tanzania
Yawning hippo that Geoff encountered, photographed by Geoff

Yes, part of the reason we chose Nyerere National Park rather than the parks of northern Tanzania — where most other people go — was because we were keen to see water-based animals like hippo and crocodiles. We’d been on safari before in South Africa, which was great, but we didn’t see that side of things. It ended up being the ideal place for us because we like to visit places where there aren’t many people.

Where did you stay in Nyerere National Park?

A camp called Beho Beho, which was really special. There are only ever a handful of guests at the camp because the owners prefer to keep things intimate. We were the only people there when we arrived, and only three others came after, so it was almost like having the place to ourselves. It also meant there were only ever two vehicles out at any one time, so you didn’t have to wait your turn at wildlife sightings or move on after a few minutes to let others have a look.

Our banda (thatched cottage) was completely open on one side. We were a little wary at first in case any wildlife came in, but the steep slopes of the valley protected us (you do have the option to zip up a canvas wall too). And, because the camp’s set on top of the Beho Beho Hills, you have views right across the plains. Our patio area had a telescope so we could sit out and spot wildlife below.

At night, a Maasai warrior guided us to and from our room in case any animals were about. He was armed with his spear, although his white sandals were slightly incongruous to the rest of his attire!

Everyone ate meals together, including our guides, so it was like a big party every evening. The guides are always attuned to the sounds of the wild, and one evening over dinner a guide at our table suddenly shone his torch in front of the lodge: a pod of hippo were plodding past on their way out to forage.

The camp also has a regular elephant visitor nicknamed The Gardener because he roots around the flowerbeds pulling up weeds.

What other wildlife sightings stand out from your time in Nyerere National Park?

Selous Game Reserve, Tanzania
Lionesses that Geoff encountered, photographed by Geoff

From the camp we could hear hippo all the time, but couldn’t always see them because the waterhole was in the valley below. I asked if we could head down for a closer look, so our guide led us down there on foot. I did feel a little exposed at first because you don’t know what you’re going to come across, but you get used to it and we were in safe hands.

When we got to the waterhole about 15 minutes later, we stood and watched about 40 hippo enjoying the water, snorting, splashing and yawning — I even saw one come out of the bush and wade in.

I personally enjoyed seeing crocodiles while on a boat safari on Lake Tagalala. We could see them basking on the banks, but they slipped into the water as soon as they heard us approach, so it was difficult to get photographs. We also saw lots of birds from the water, including several kingfisher species and a fish eagle.

On game drives we witnessed several animals being territorial, including a couple of male giraffe — we watched for a good 20 minutes as they bashed each other using their necks. There were also a couple of elephant bulls playfighting with their tusks.

We hadn’t seen any lion until one day I saw what looked like a big cat in the shade of a low tree in the distance. As we drove nearer, we were amazed to find 13 lionesses finishing their afternoon nap. We were so close, but they paid no attention to us, lying on their backs with their legs in the air and grooming each other.

One of the best moments was coming across a female impala that had just given birth and was still cleaning her calf. We watched as the calf gradually stood up on its wobbly legs and began to totter around. It’s the kind of thing you’d be very lucky to see if you were only on safari for a couple of days, so we were glad we’d chosen to stay for five days.

How was your time on Mafia Island?

Pole Pole Bungalows, Mafia Archipelago
Pole Pole Bungalows, Mafia Archipelago

I really liked it. We stayed at Pole Pole Lodge, which was also very nice with spacious bungalows. We get bored sitting on a beach and prefer to be out exploring, but having four days on Mafia gave us a chance to go snorkeling and, of course, go in search of whale sharks.

An unexpected highlight for me was visiting nearby Chole Island for an afternoon. The village there felt so laid-back. As we explored with our guide, we could see people going about their day carrying vegetables and working the plantations, and we watched wooden boats being built on the shore.

And, we didn’t leave wildlife viewing behind: each evening at dusk we watched as clouds of fruit bats left their roost in the trees in search of food.

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