Published: Saturday Nation magazine

Day three of the road trip into Tanzania that’s about twice the size of Kenya, we’re nearly at the gates of Selous, a World Heritage Site and Africa’s greatest wilderness area, more than twice the size of the two Tsavos in Kenya. I’m beyond excited. I’ve reached my dream destination. Selous the mighty with the largest herds of elephants numbering 150,000 and 2,000 black rhinos with lions so many that they outnumbered those in any park in Africa – l read in the 1980 guide book. My eyes dazzled with the sheer immensity of figures.

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Last stop before entering Selous. Copyright Rupi Mangat

After a thousand-plus kilometres of driving at mostly 50 km/hour because the Tanzanian police take their work seriously, we shot out of the car and to the gate. Selous’ Mtemere gate had Selous Game Reserve painted in enormous black letters on the light green wall.

Lioness in the tree at Selous aka Nyerere National Park Tanzania. Copyright Rupi Mangat (800x800)
Lioness in the tree at Selous aka Nyerere National Park Tanzania. Copyright Rupi Mangat

The rangers welcomed us and checking our passports are suitably impressed that we Kenyans had driven so far out to be at…Nyerere National Park…and possibly the first Kenyans in.

“It’s not Selous?” l asked.

“No,” replied the gate ranger. “Some 30,000 square kilometres is Nyerere National Park and the rest is for Nyerere Hydro Power Project.”

“Oh. Anyway I’ve come to see Stiegler’s Gorge and the cable cart over it,” l announced happily.

It’s a landmark like the Eiffel Tower in Paris, the pyramids in Cairo, the Table Mountains in Cape Town. You just can’t go there and not see them.

The ranger looked at me and said…

“You can’t go to Stiegler’s gorge. It’s closed to the public. It’s for the Nyerere Hydro Power Project”

“What?” I exclaimed. “We’ve driven 1000 kilometres specially to see the gorge.”

“It’s closed to the public,” repeated the ranger.

“But that’s not possible. I have read that in no guide book,” l said with self-righto nous.

I could feel him say, ‘read my lips lady, it’s closed to the public.’

But instead he politely said, “If you really want to see it, you must get permission. From the President.”

That was now a tall order. I don’t think Tanzania’s president would have answered my email in a hundred years.

Still in the eyes of the rangers at the gate, we were important guests from Kenya because not many Kenyans had visited Selous and we possibly were the first Kenyans into Nyerere National Park.

The only solace to this change was that we were charged as per the Tanzania National Parks Authority (TANAPA) entry for East Africans – USD 5 per person for 24 hours and USD 10 for the car. Under Tanzania Wildlife Management Authority (TAWA) which Selous fell under the charges would have been like USD 70 per person per day.

Julius Nyerere Hydropower Project

Nyerere Hydropower Project sign near Nyerere National Park, Tanzania. Copyright Rupi Mangat (800x800)
Mtemere gate into Nyerere National Park with old name Selous, Tanzania. Copyright Rupi Mangat

The hydropower project over Stiegler’s gorge has been in the pipeline since colonial times in 1901 when the German Engineer Stiegler was sent to measure the gorge. An elephant charged him and Stiegler fell into the deep 300-foot ravine never to climb out again. The gorge was named after him.

Plans to build the hydro power dam stalled with many believing that it would never take off especially in recent times with serious concerns about its impact on the environment. The 2,115 megawatt hydroelectric dam and power plant has been carved out of Selous Game Reserve and expected to be completed by 2022. It will be Africa’s largest dam measuring 1,200 square kilometres with 34,000,000,000 cubic metres from the Rufiji River.

At the gate is another relic of the past. It’s a steam engine from the First World War that was fought in the area, a war that had nothing to do with Africa. The rusting metal steam engine was left behind in 1917 by the German forces under General von Lettow-Vorbeck, who with a force of 14,000 soldiers held the German territory from a much larger force of 300,000 soldiers fighting for British East Africa.

Naming Selous

Road approaching Selous from Kibiti Tanzania. Copyright Rupi Mangat (800x800)
Road approaching Selous from Kibiti Tanzania. Copyright Rupi Mangat

On 4 January 1917, Frederick Courteney Selous a British explorer cum hunter turned conservationist  fighting against the Germans on the banks of the Rufiji River was shot by a German sniper and died instantly. He is buried in the park near where he was shot. It was then Mohoro Reserve established in 1896 by the Germans renamed Selous Game Reserve in 1922.

The ranger at Mtemere Gate treats us to an exciting hunt: a snake with a chameleon in its jaws. The chameleon escapes for a slit second but the snake’s too fast. It coils itself around the chameleon and slowly swallows it. It’s captured on his Smartphone.

Fact File

The road trip to Nyerere National Park is long and no point rushing it. You need at least ten days for the 2000 kilometre return trip from Nairobi.

Our route was via Dar es Salaam entering Mtemere gate and driving through the park to exit at Matambwe to continue to Morogoro. Tanzania boasts cheap, clean and comfortable hotels.

Kenyans don’t need a visa to enter Tanzania but you must have your passport stamped at the border and your car log book deposited for collection on return, forcing you to return via the same border.