After having the chance to catch up with The Retreat at Selous’ founder, Uma Grob, there were a few things that were clear: she is passionate about her work, she knows the land, and she has created one of the most authentic African experiences Tanzania has to offer.
The Retreat consists of 12 harmoniously constructed suites deep in the bush of the Selous Reserve, and by deep, we mean deep, it’s 5 hours to the nearest village. The UNESCO protected Selous is the largest wildlife sanctuary in Africa, and has, for the most part, remained untouched by humans. Wildlife is abundant with roughly 70,000 elephants and 4,000 lions making their homes in the reserve, not to mention endangered wild dogs, antelope, crocodiles, monkeys, kudu, and leopards. What Grob has created is an escape, a retreat, if you will, where hippos brull from the river in front of your suite, elephants eat outside of your walls, and you can experience a side of Africa usually only seen by natives.
What did you do before working at The Retreat?
I am the creator and founder of The Retreat at Selous, but by training I’m an orthopaedic surgeon. I founded the Muhimibli Orthopaedic Institute in 1995. This was the first orthopaedic and trauma centre in Tanzania. I’ve been working with doctors there for years and I was awarded the honorary status of ‘Guest of Tanzania’. There are only a limited number of people with this status and it allows me to travel in and out of the country freely.
How long have you been there?
I was always happy to escape to the nature of Africa, but it was my work in Tanzania at the Muhimbili Orthopedic Institute and in the health sector of Tanzania that made me fall in love with the Selous over the last 30 years as the only place, despite my knowledge of the entire East and South African region. Selous is so untouched, it is authentic Africa. We officially had a soft opening at The Retreat in 2007, but it took years to find the right location before this. We wanted to be far away from other lodges, because we didn’t want tame animals, as animals often are where there are many humans. In 2008 there was a hurricane in Tanzania, which destroyed much of what we had done. We had to rebuild after that, opening again in late 2008. Since then we’ve enjoyed one full season (from June to March).
Do you ever get comfortable with the proximity of the animals?
I feel like I grew up with it; most important is to respect and maintain nature.
What is your most memorable experience in Africa?
I had one experience years ago, there was a half tamed elephant that chased me around a resort. The elephant didn’t know any better because he was half tamed, but it was quite a dangerous experience. Also memorable is the first time I saw a pack of wild dogs plan a kill. They got an impala, and the way they organized themselves was amazing. There was one dog that stayed below a tree as he was sick. After the kill, the pack leader brought him the best piece before the others to eat, the social behaviour of the animals is incredible.
The Retreat offers a range of activities - what would your perfect day there be?
Selous is beautiful; the best part of our program is that everyone can do as they choose. A perfect day for me might be different from someone else. We can accommodate every need at The Retreat, from adventurers to the people who know Africa and just want to sit back and enjoy the beauty of it. There are game drives and spa treatments, also more adventurous types can sleep in a fly tent in the bush or in our Love Nest. I would really recommend, to any type of traveller, Bush dining. We can set up a complete and private breakfast, lunch or dinner in the bush, this is truly an authentic experience. As we are 8 hours away from another lodge, this is an amazing experience.
What other parts of Tanzania would you recommend?
I think that first time travellers should explore the north of Tanzania, and of course, Zanzibar.
What sort of preservation programs does The Retreat work with?
The Retreat was established to be a part of conservation in the area. We have plans to set up health facilities for the nearest villages, which are 5 hours away, as well as the reserve Game Wardens. My husband is planning a soccer club for the local kids, the goal there is not just a tournament, but also to teach the children about conservation. We’re planning an outpost for an anti-poaching programme, which will have 4 rangers.
When we were building The Retreat we had about 200 boys from local villages helping us. We were able to keep 15 on, who are receiving special training in hospitality at the lodge. Without this opportunity, they would have no chance at an education.
I’ve also been operating on children with deformities, such as clubfeet, for years. Over this time we were able to send a group of the girls to school. They’ve now gone on to form a small soap manufacturer. These are the soaps we use in the lodge and sell at the gift shop. I met these girls when they were babies, 25 years ago, and I’ve watched them grow up, sent them to school, and now I’m using their products.
Do you have any tips on animal watching? Is it just patience?
Well, mornings between 6:30 and 10 and evenings after 4 are the best times. The Selous is fantastic for bird watching; there are over 400 species of birds. I think the best advice is to let your expectations go and be happy with what you see. Many people say, “Today I’m going to see a lion.” and they’re disappointed when they don’t. You see more if you’re not searching for it.
I love that the tented cabins have plenty of space between them, making the guest feel like they are truly in a world of their own – do animals also come right up to the tents?
Yes! They can come right up to the rooms. The animals are everywhere, hippos and elephants are eating right outside the walls of your tented suite. Of course they can’t get in, but we don’t keep them away.
The design of The Retreat Selous is just beautiful. What was the inspiration?
The design is mine, inspired by my travels and the land. I was walking around the site and I found remnants of a World War I observation point. German and British soldiers fought here and we built the main guesthouse on this location. During the period of this historic finding it was also the peak of the East African market, where Dhows transported supplies from Asia, Arabia, other African countries and Europe. Accordingly I took what I liked, therefore there are influences from all over the world. The plan is laid out according to Feng Shui, which is why on the north everything is closed and to the south everything is open. It is also open from east to west. Another example of our use of Feng Shui is the idea that when you hear water, you should see water.
We’ve used the 5 elements for the design of the rooms and the main building. The building is earth and in the rooms the washbasins are made of semi-precious stones. Metal is found in the bath taps and so on. We also use semi-precious stones in the spa, to bring guests closer to the earth.
The idea for the design was mine, but my husband, who is an architect, is the one who made it practical.
A stay at the lodge includes two complimentary activities per day, you can choose from game drives into African bush with local guides, safari walks and hikes, boat excursions on the Ruaha River, fishing and spa treatments among others. It’s not just the days that are special. You can spend the night in the Love Nest – a platform built high in a tree overlooking the river and complete with toilet and shower. If you prefer to stay on the ground equally thrilling is a night in the bush in one of the Fly Tents. Just you, the stars, and the calls of wild animals. It’s not at all sleeping rough, you’ll wake up to the chatter of birds, breakfast, and a warm shower.
The Retreat has a special offer through October, book 4 nights and you’ll pay for only 3. Find out more about The Retreat at their official website.
Category: Selous Game Reserve
Contributing writer: Alicia Reuter