Save a mountain, save a park

Words and pictures by Patrick Cruywagen. Words and pictures by Patrick Cruywagen.

During a past visit to the Gorongosa National Park, our erstwhile Bush Editor discovered that the nearby Mount Gorongosa had been officially incorporated into the park. To celebrate this development, he decided to climb it and look for the rare Green-headed oriole.

In our Nov 2010 issue, we featured Mozambique’s Gorongosa National Park; a park once as mighty, if not mightier, than our own Kruger or Tanzania’s Serengeti. The civil war which raged in Mozambique from 1977 to 1992 changed that, as almost all the wild animals were killed to feed the armies; turning Gorongosa into a wildlife wasteland. Just after the turn of the century, this all changed again, when American Greg Carr visited the place and decided to help restore it to its former glory. Millions of dollars later, with the help of a dedicated team and with the support of the local community, he has Gorongosa on the rise again.

One thing that became very clear to me during my stay was that this park’s existence depends largely upon Mount Gorongosa, which provides the park with water – the most precious resource of all.

When the park restoration began in 2005, they quickly became aware of this connection and realised that the mountain was in desperate need of some attention. Interestingly, this connection had been noted much earlier. In the late 1960s, a brilliant young South African ecologist called Ken Tinley was sent to Gorongosa to determine its ecological limits. He spent four years in Gorongosa doing research for his thesis, and one of his most important conclusions was that the mountain should be included in the park. Some 40 years later, this finally became a reality.

Tinley didn’t see the park in isolation; he saw an eco-system that stretched from the peaks of Mount Gorongosa, across the cliffs, lakes and plains of the park, right down to the Zambezi’s Marromeu Delta. The system stretched from the mountains to the mangroves. I’m no birder or mountaineer, but everything I’d been reading and hearing about this innocent-looking mountain made me decide to extend my trip by a day, so that I could explore the mountain myself.

Making the decision to climb the mountain was the easy part; actually organising the climb proved to be a little more difficult. First, there was the preparation. We didn’t have any gear or backpacks with us, but Rob Janisch from Explore Gorongosa – who would be sending his experienced guide, Silverio Avariado, to accompany us – also supplied all the kit we needed. The park has its own mountain guides, but as we were staying at Explore Gorongosa, we had decided to use Silverio. (However, one could just as easily arrange for a guide from the park office, or I’m sure someone from the Nhancuco village would offer their services for a fee.)

As the mountain had only recently been incorporated into the park, we had to leave the park to get there from the main park camp of Chitengo. An early start is essential when attempting anything as physical as this climb, so we left Chitengo, the park’s main camp, at around 05h00, to make our way back to the EN1, Mozambique’s principle north-south tar road. Then we drove on to the village of Gorongosa, where we’d be meeting Silverio, our guide.

The mountain lies north of the village; after a few minutes we exchanged tar for dirt. The Pajero climbed higher and higher; Silverio pointed to where the mountain was, but all we saw were fluffy white clouds. Just before we reached the village of Nhancuco, where we’d begin our hike, Silverio gestured for me to stop the Pajero. There were a couple of men next to the road, busy filling bags with crops. One of them was a community leader who would take receipt of our payment for climbing the mountain. It cost 490 meticas (about R100) and the money would be used for a ceremony during which they asked the ancestors and spirits to protect us climbers.

As we were behind schedule, we couldn’t stop to attend the ceremony. However, I had read an account of the ritual written by Will Whitford in The Independent on Sunday, and it sounded a whole lot more fun than the climb. The money you pay is used to buy five litres of local red wine, a bottle of local gin, two packets of cigarettes, a lighter and some black and white cloth. The chief, Regulo Eugenio, drapes himself in the cloth; and then the red wine is passed around in a communal mug. The same ritual is followed with the cigarettes, but Will made no mention of what happens to the gin.

I asked Silverio what he thought of the ceremony. “In colonial times, there were bad spirits on the mountain; if you don’t have the ceremony they could make you break a leg when climbing. I don’t guide trips on the mountain without the ceremony, as it could be bad for me.” I was glad we had paid our fee. All hikes on the mountain start from the village of Nhancuco, which literally means ‘place of the chicken’. (The word ncuco forms a major part of my limited African vocabulary.) I was told that the long term goal was formal development of the eco–tourism infra-structure on the mountain, which would greatly benefit those who live on the lower slopes. While Silverio hared off for some last-minute shopping, I packed our bags at the lovely shaded campsite, where we would be leaving our vehicle for the night as we headed for the summit. The campsite was grassy and shaded, and effort had gone into making it as comfortable as possible, despite the lack of resources. But, besides the grass and long-drop, you shouldn’t expect much. My bag was pretty bulky and heavy, with pineapples, local wine, and the full-sized sleeping mattress of my girlfriend – now my wife – taking up the bulk of the space.

It was already 09h00, and pretty hot, when we eventually set off. It takes a good hour just to reach the mountain, and to get right to the top takes about five hours of brisk walking; although Silverio had done it before in an hour and a half on his own. The first section is undulating, as you make your way towards the mountain proper. A lady carrying burnt logs on her head passed us. Some kids got a huge fright when they spotted us and scurried off. This was a good sign; it meant they weren’t used to tourists. We joined a cement road which had been built by the Portuguese, but it soon ended near some ruins. Years ago, vehicles would have been able to drive up the road, but now it was broken and overgrown. The smell of burning wood filled the air.

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