Landing in Beira, Mozambique, one can’t help but wonder when the civil war really ended (it was 1992). The buildings, some riddled with bullet holes, droop next to the roads. Laundry hangs from the balconies of stained, colonial-era hotels with missing doors and windows. But even in their skeletal form, it’s easy to imagine these ghosts filled with wealthy Portuguese businessmen and tourists during more prosperous times.
Today, Mozambique is one of the poorest nations on earth with little industry, few natural resources, low wages and a shockingly short average life expectancy. And while I couldn’t get out of Beira fast enough, I have fallen in love with this emerging Southern African nation.
Start with friendly people, add thousands of miles of pristine beaches, and mix in scenic, phoenix-like wilderness area, and you have today’s Mozambique, a nation on the rise.
Leaving Beira, we travelled 4.5 hours by road to Gorongosa National Park, heading west along the Pongwe River. The newish road passes through arid countryside, small-scale farms growing sugarcane and rice, and sleepy villages. The drive provides a great snapshot of rural Mozambique, though quick and convenient flights are available for a bit more money. Turning off the main road to the Gorongosa park gate, the vegetation becomes bushier and we soon saw a long electric fence. At Chitende, the park headquarters, we found a small visitors center, park guesthouse, and a swimming pool, looking very inviting since by now it was about 110 degrees.
Here we were met by our guide and host and guide, Rob Janisch. We loaded up the Land Rover and drove through dense bush to Explore Gorongosa, an intimate, eco-friendly bush camp nestled along a tributary of the Pongwe. Upon arrival we were met by our hostess, Jos, who together with husband Rob, own and manage Explore Gorongosa.
Days at Gorongosa are spent on pleasant game drives and invigorating bush walks. Fly camping and walking expeditions to the park’s namesake mountain and its gorges and waterfalls are also available. On game drives, we saw silky sable antelope, reedbuck, nyala, bushbuck, diminutive oribi, baboon, impala, large crocodiles, a lone elephant and a pair of male lions on the cusp of their prime. On night drives we saw civet, genet, and a flight-footed porcupine, amongst others. We saw a number of the hundreds of bird species that inhabit Gorongosa but what we saw in spades were warthogs and waterbuck and they, combined with what we did not see–hyena, leopard, cheetah, wild dog, buffalo, zebra, wildebeest, etc.–tell the story of Gorongosa today.
The former stronghold of RENAMO (Mozambique Resistance Movement) fighters during Mozambique’s 17-year civil war, the area around Gorongosa was heavily mined. Once one of Africa’s premiere game reserves, the park was later virtually poached out, save a few animals. The waterbuck were spared due to their generally bad taste and the warthogs because local customs discourage eating pork. Today, they thrive in numbers I’ve seen nowhere else.
The lack of predators and larger herbivores pose a great problem for a poor country trying to develop its tourism industry with competition from neighbors like Tanzania, South Africa and even Zimbabwe. Enter the US-based Carr Foundation. Greg Carr, the inventor of voice mail, is taking his fortune and spending much of it to rehabilitate Gorongosa in cooperation with the Mozambican government. Rehabilitation means roads, rangers, anti-poaching patrols, and community education and development.
It also means reintroducing animals and Carr is on a shopping spree, buying zebra and buffalo and other species which are kept in the fenced reserve we saw upon arrival. Later they will be released into the park, followed by the predators. The process may take five years, Carr told us, and it could be longer. More info at www.carrfoundation.org and www.gorongosa.net. In the meantime, Gorongosa is a wonderful destination for seasoned safari goers seeking a remote wilderness experience, birders and those interested in being one of the first to visit a place. It’s also great for anyone who wants to see first-hand how Noah might have filled the arc!