Tanzania: River, bush and beach

It may play second fiddle to Tanzania's Serengeti and Ngorongoro, but Saadani National Park — East Africa's only coastal national park — is an enticing safari destination of river, bush and beach that's still blissfully off the tourist trail

By Emma Gregg
Published 23 Jul 2014, 11:30 BST

In the late afternoon light, the Wami River looks as smooth as a ribbon. My skipper for the day eases our little launch around one last bend, on full alert for crocodiles and hippos. All clear. Gently, we drift up to the bank and hop ashore.

Finding the perfect spot for a sundowner is quite an art but the best African safari guides make it seem effortless. It must be west-facing, of course, with wraparound views of a softly blazing sky. If there are trees silhouetted against the glow and an untamed, tropical river at your feet, so much the better.

Nice choice, I think, drinking in the scene. At 165ft wide and fringed by mangroves and palms, the twisting Wami is a haven for water-loving birds. As the golden light begins to fade, kingfishers and bee-eaters grab a last meal before fluttering away to roost. Somewhere in the distance, a fish eagle yelps its distinctive, plaintive cry. Meanwhile, behind me, my hosts are unfolding a table, setting out chairs and mixing cocktails. Time to raise a glass to another fabulous day.

Just 30 minutes north of Dar es Salaam by light aircraft, Tanzania's Wami River offers the kind of wild tranquility that's rarely found so close to an African capital. In a few years' time, the character of this region may change forever when a new port is built at Bagamoyo, a small, elegantly dishevelled Swahili town that was once one of the Indian Ocean's wealthiest and most notorious slave and ivory trading posts. But for now, there's virtually nothing but forest, grasslands and sandy tracks in the 20 miles or so between Bagamoyo and the Wami's southern banks.

Beyond the Wami, legendary landscapes unfold. A short hop to the east by charter plane or, more romantically, in a traditional dhow sailing ship, is the alluring island paradise of Zanzibar. To the west are the rainforested Nguru Mountains, where a recent survey of snakes, chameleons and tree frogs revealed 17 species new to science. And immediately north is Saadani, East Africa's only coastal national park. Enticingly, it offers the chance to explore three coastal habitats — river, bush and beach — all in one spot.

The Wami isn't the mightiest of rivers, but its flood-prone lower reaches kept Saadani blissfully isolated for many years. Even now, there's an air of mystery about the place. There was no easy way across the lower river until a couple of years ago, when a narrow bridge was built near Gama, a village around seven miles from the coast. Before that, it was said that if you made it to Saadani's beaches, there was a good chance you'd see elephants strolling along the sand.

The only other bridge is a good 30 miles inland from the park, via rugged tracks. Built on the site of a former ferry crossing in 1960, it cost Tanganyika's (Tanzania's former name) British governors a colossal £50,000 and was considered a triumph, with local reporters declaring it would 'put the whammy on the Wami's crocodile'. Apparently, the crocs had a nasty habit of snapping up anyone rash enough to try swimming from bank to bank to save on the ferry fare.

The resident hippo

Cut off for so long, Saadani's coastal savannah and acacia woodlands remained an unprotected refuge for wildlife — not just elephants, crocodiles, hippos and birds, but also lions, giraffes and rare antelopes. Its beaches were, and still are, among the few places in northern Tanzania where green turtles nest. And when Saadani was declared a national park in 2005, its villagers were, unusually, permitted to stay, so it became a refuge for traditional coastal culture, too. In these parts, most people make a living from fishing. Catching prawns the size of small bananas is their forte. With the Gama bridge in place, fishermen from Saadani village can deliver their haul to the kitchen at Sanctuary Saadani River Lodge, just outside the park, in a (relative) trice.

Fresh seafood is just one of the many light, healthy culinary treats on offer at this, the newest and most luxurious place to stay on the Bagamoyo coast. Set on a sweeping meander of the Wami, barely two miles from the Indian Ocean, as the fish eagle flies, the lodge is a collection of simple but gorgeous timber-and-thatch houses, tucked among the trees. It has a thoroughly jungly and remote quality to it. "It feels even more remote at full or new moon," says manager Garth Edwards, a Zambian safari expert who worked in Zimbabwe and South Africa before moving to Tanzania. "All it takes is a super-high spring tide to make an island out of this piece of land."

No need to panic — sturdy stilts keep  the lodge safely above the floodline. But if disaster were to strike, I can think of worse places to be stranded. Each suite is designed to blend in with its own pocket of forest, with views of nothing but foliage and the coffee-brown river. Mine has a dreamy four-poster bed, a wow-factor bathroom and a secluded deck with a glorious open-air shower. This is a place to unwind, indulge in a spa treatment or just listen to the sounds of nature — robin-chats chirruping from the rooftops, Narina trogons hooting mournfully from deep in the bush and hippos honking conversationally from the banks.

As I wander back along the wooden walkway to the main lodge, fiddler crabs skitter between the sun-dappled mangrove roots below me and something invisible calls out a warning to its companions in the branches above. They're blue monkeys. Sweetly, they sound as if they're blowing kisses.

Luxury riverside eco-lodges are rather rare in Africa. It's hardly surprising, when you think about it. Constructing Sanctuary Saadani River Lodge in this remote, watery location was a major undertaking, requiring a team of over 180 people. Great care was taken to design low-impact water-, waste- and wood-treatment systems. Next on the agenda are community-run beehives, a composting facility and vegetable garden, which present their own challenges. "We'll have to guard them against the bush pigs, baboons and wandering hippos," says Garth. And then there are the mosquitoes, an inevitable nuisance that have to be blitzed with eco-friendly repellent.

But even the bugs have an upside. They feed the lodge's endearing resident geckos — each one can munch through six mozzies a minute, apparently — and the Wami's squadrons of birds.

I have an appointment to meet some of these on my first morning. The day starts unpromisingly, with glowering dawn skies and earth-shattering thunder. But after a peaceful night, broken only by the rasping sound of something having a late-night snack under my suite, I'm ready to take everything that nature throws at me. When the first warm, fat drops of rain begin to fall, I pick up my toothbrush, open the screen doors and step out onto my deck to shower au naturel.

River Safari on the Wami River, Saadani National Park, Tanzania. Image: Saadani Sanctuary Retreats.
River Safari on the Wami River, Saadani National Park, Tanzania. Image: Saadani Sanctuary Retreats.

Gratifyingly, the storm lifts just as breakfast draws to a close, and I head straight down to the launch, loaded with binos and bird books. Within minutes of casting off, I'm watching kingfishers: a beak-heavy mangrove kingfisher, a lively, tumbling pair of pied kingfishers and a malachite kingfisher, as tiny and bright as an enamel brooch. Garth, who's guiding us, clearly loves the river's feathered inhabitants and tells me he's recorded plenty of 'lifers' here (twitcher-speak for a personal first-sighting of a species); these include white-throated bee-eaters, brown-breasted barbets and — "most beautiful of all" — the northern carmine bee-eater.

As we glide downstream, we spot some burrows on the bank and approach for a closer look. They belong to bee-eaters: nippy, green-and-orange birds that dash in and out with bugs in their beaks. "Their young have a luminous gape, to guide them," says Garth.

Up in the trees, there's a flash of black and white — colobus monkeys. Closer to eye level, small green Nile crocodiles with blotchy backs strut along sandbanks or stare, as unblinking as waxworks, from resting places on the mud.

The hippos seem to be enjoying the mud too, just as hippos should. Every other bend reveals another pod. One male, nicknamed Babis, is a regular at the lodge, Garth tells us. When Babis was a youngster, he used to hide among the stilts to avoid being bullied by the bigger males. Apparently, he often comes back to graze or simply wander around.

"So now I know who woke me in the night, then," I say. One mystery solved. He's instantly forgiven, of course.

The beach & Big Five spotting

Ready for a different kind of adventure, I hit the beach at River Lodge's sister property, Sanctuary Saadani Safari Lodge, within the national park. The journey is simple: you cross the Wami and skirt the flamingo-dotted salt pans beyond. It's wise to adjust your expectations before you arrive; Saadani's sands are not groomed or shaded with palms in the style that tourist brochures adore; instead, they're a natural space, backed by casuarina trees, strewn with convolvulus (bindweed) and scattered with shells, seed pods and twigs, washed up by the tides. I'm in beachcomber heaven, as I scan the sand for treasure. I don't see any elephant tracks, but there's a faint feeling I might.

As lunchtime approaches, I hop into another boat for a trip further up the coast. Scattered outside the reef are sandbanks with their own mystery, tinged with tragedy. They used to be small islands, bound tightly with trees, but the trees have been lost to timber poachers and the islands have shrunk to a sliver. It's bad news for the turtles, which still feel compelled to lay their eggs in the sand, only to have them washed away. Rescue projects attempt to save them, but there's only so much they can do.

Like a twice-daily mirage, the tiny, sparkling sandbank I land on is only revealed for a few hours each low tide. Shoeless, I climb out of the boat into water as warm and blue as a swimming pool, sinking my toes into pristine coral sand. Ghost crabs, the only creatures to get here before me, scurry into their holes. After a spot of snorkelling, I feast on salad and Champagne, then it's back into the boat before the waves swallow our island once more.

Lioness in acacia tree, Saadani National Park, Tanzania. Image: Emma Gregg.
Lioness in acacia tree, Saadani National Park, Tanzania. Image: Emma Gregg.

Back on the mainland, I prepare to go out on a game drive. I'm fully expecting this to be the most relaxing part of my trip. Hunting has long been banned in Saadani, but poaching was rife in the years leading up to the park's creation and in the decade since then recovery has been slow. There are no rhinos left, big cats are hardly ever seen, and most other animals are elusive.

In short, Saadani doesn't begin to compete with Tanzania's safari blockbusters, Ngorongoro and the Serengeti. But this doesn't bother me in the slightest. The serene setting has put me in such a laid-back mood that the last thing I want to do is go out and harass
the Big Five. I'm happy to relax and enjoy whatever shows up.

The sky is clear, except for a skein of lilac cloud. I wonder if a snooze is in order. But as it turns out, my wildlife-watching gets off to a flying start. A family of warthogs appear, close enough for me to see every bristle on their backs. "It's because most people here are Muslim," says Isack Mnyangabe, my guide, "so they've never had much to fear."

I decide to pay attention, and am rewarded with glimpses of waterbucks, Lichtenstein's hartebeests, speedy red duikers and cantering Masai giraffes. We pass enormous baobabs and shaggy, candelabra-style doum palms. And then we see something extraordinary: three young lionesses, lounging in an acacia.

Isack recognises them. They're sisters. "You're very, very lucky," he says. "We don't see these every day. And definitely not in a tree."
It's an even bigger surprise when, the next day, I encounter another pride of lions, feasting on the remains of a buffalo in a muddy water hole. Glad that the mud spares us from too much gruesome detail, I watch in fascination as the cubs, lined up like suckling piglets, guzzle at the carcass.

Perhaps I am, indeed, lucky. Or maybe, just maybe, there's even more to Saadani than its mysteries suggest.


Getting there
Kenya Airways flies from Heathrow to Dar es Salaam and Zanzibar via Nairobi, daily. kenya-airways.com. If flying via Kenya, check the latest Foreign Office advice. gov.uk/fco

Coastal Aviation flies from Dar es Salaam and Zanzibar to the Saadani airstrip, where a vehicle from Sanctuary Saadani River Lodge can pick you up. coastal.co.tz

Alternatively, you can drive from Dar es Salaam in a 4WD (allow up to four hours).

Average flight time: 9h.

When to go

Coastal Tanzania has hot, tropical weather all year round. The best times are from December to March or late June to early October, with temperatures around 25C. April and May are the wettest months.

Need to know
Currency: UK citizens can obtain a Tanzanian visa for $50 (£29) on arrival.
Currency: Tanzanian shilling (TZS). £1 = TZS2,700.
Health: Vaccinations/antimalarials may be needed; precautions against insect bites are advisable. Consult your GP well in advance.
International dial code: 00 255.
Time: GMT +3.

More info
The Rough Guide to Tanzania. RRP: £15.99.
Bradt Travel Guide: Tanzania Safari Guide. RRP: £17.99.

How to do it
Sanctuary Saadani River Lodge. sanctuaryretreats.com

Rainbow Tours can tailor-make a trip with four nights at Sanctuary Saadani River Lodge (full board) and four nights in a luxury ocean villa at The Residence, Zanzibar (half-board) from £3,030 per person, based on two sharing, including activities, transfers and flights from the UK. rainbowtours.co.uk

Abercrombie & Kent offers a Tanzanian safari, including three nights at Siwandu, in the Selous Game Reserve, three nights at Jongomero Camp, in the Ruaha National Park and four nights at Sanctuary Saadani River Lodge, from £5,340 per person sharing, including meals, activities, transfers and flights. abercrombiekent.co.uk

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Published in the Jul/Aug 2014 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)


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