Words by Patrick Cruywagen Pictures by Patrick Cruywagen and various
IT’S BEEN A PERFECT SUNDAY IN THE BUSH, SO far. We enjoyed a great game drive in the morning, followed by a late brunch on the banks of the Msicadzi River. Rob Janisch (my host and the owner of Explore Gorongosa, the only private concession holder in the park) and I are busy solving Africa’s problems over a fry-up of eggs, sausage and bacon. A red Masai blanket doubles as the table cloth and toast is presented in the jaws of a wire crocodile made from old snares and gin traps which have been removed over the past few years.
Just as I’m about to bite into a sausage I witness the most violent of murders. A Giant Kingfisher hits the water and pulls out a sizable fi sh. It’s still flapping about wildly so the Kingfisher has to smash the fish over and over again against a nearby branch. One gulp and the fish is a swallowed, and the Kingfisher goes off to hunt downstream.
With no Sunday Times in sight, this is the closest I’ll get to crime. There’s also no cellphone reception, so I can’t find out whether the looting and rioting is still going on in Maputo.
Rob’s super-sharp ears are tuned to Bush FM; suddenly he jumps up and bolts off for some unknown reason. A few minutes later he returns, still panting, urging me to grab my camera. He’s found a tree frog that’s being eaten by a spotted bush snake. Breakfast forgotten, I follow. Rob had heard the desperate cry of the frog, hence his initial reaction. I’d heard nothing except the Kingfisher.
I’m barely two metres away from the smallish yellow and green spotted bush snake. It keeps a beady eye on us while trying to swallow the frog. But Kermit isn’t giving up just yet and with one of his rear legs he desperately clings onto a twig. His head is already deep inside the snake’s throat but still he fights on. Eventually Kermit runs out of energy and lets go of his last attachment to this existence. The snake reverses higher up into the tree while swallowing the last leg.
It was like sitting in the lounge on a Sunday night and watching 50/50 – the end of the show when they screened viewers’ amazing wildlife clips. Now I’d seen something incredible myself. It was to be a metaphor for my time in the park, but one that I still can’t fully understand.
In the ’60s and early ’70s, Gorongosa was the place where the rich and famous came on safari. They called it ’the place where Noah left his ark’ or ’the Serengeti of the South’. Charlie Duke, the youngest man to walk the moon, remarked to his Gorongosa guide that the reserve compared favourably to our moon in terms of spectacle.
Back in its heyday, the 3 770 square kilometre reserve was home to more predators than our own 19 000 square kilometre Kruger National Park. It was said to have higher concentrations of buffalo and elephant than the overrated Serengeti. Throw into that mix 18 species of antelope grazing on the floodplains and it was truly an Eden. In 1972, 25 000 people visited the park to see some of the 13 000 buffalo, 6 400 wildebeest, 3 500 hippo, 3 300 zebra, 2 200 impala, 3 500 waterbuck and healthy numbers of lions, cheetah, leopard, hyena and wild dog.
So how did it all go so horribly wrong? Well after the Portuguese pulled out in ’74 a bloody civil war broke out between the Liberation Front of Mozambique (FRELIMO) and the Mozambican National Resistance (RENAMO), who were backed by Rhodesia. The war lasted from ’77 to ’92 with the SA government of the day also getting involved. Gorongosa became a bloody battlefield; landmines were laid along strategic routes and all park facilities were bombed and / or shot to pieces. The wildlife was shot to feed the massive armies.
Even after peace arrived, there was starving. Desperate former soldiers still plundered the park, and the butcheries of Beira did a roaring trade in wildlife meat right up until the turn of the century.
But by 2001 the place had become a wildlife wasteland. Only 15 buffalo remained, the hippo count stood at 44, there were 12 zebra and they could only find one solitary wildebeest. Cheetah, wild dog, hyena, rhino and jackal roamed the floodplains no more. No-one could find a leopard anywhere. The ark was just about empty. The place was in desperate need of a saviour.
Enter Greg Carr, an American who made many millions from a voicemail company in the late ’80s. After withdrawing from business he became a philanthropist and in 1999 he formed the Carr Centre for Human Rights Policy at Harvard University.
A good friend introduced him to Mozambique’s UN ambassador who in turn asked Carr if he could help the war-ravaged and impoverished country. Two years later, after much research, Carr jumped in a helicopter to visit six potential sites starting in the north at the Niassa Game Reserve. Gorongosa was second on his list and Carr needed to fly no further; this was it. He believed he could contribute to fixing this shambles.
While camping at Chitengo, the park’s main camp, I met two South Africans from Johannesburg – James Beckingham and Dani Capovilla – who were driving an ’84 Range Rover Classic. They had resigned from their jobs and were on the way to Kilimanjaro to climb Africa’s highest peak; that was until they encountered the fuel prices in Zambia and Malawi. Now they were heading south again. This was their second visit to the park; the first visit coincided more or less with Carr’s arrival on the scene in 2004.
“There was nothing here; the place was derelict and what remained of the buildings was riddled with bullet holes. We were the only people here that one night,” explains Dani. “It was an eerie place back then; we arrived in the dark and got a huge fright when we heard lions roaring as we didn’t know if there was a fence around the campsite. We paid some guys a few bob to camp and the next morning we ducked,” adds James.
Much has changed since that first visit by Dani and James. Bombed and burnt-out buildings have been repaired and look just as good as anything you’ll find in our own KNP or Namibia’s Etosha. As is the practice in many other parks, Chitengo is fully fenced because of the wild animals, and gates open at 06h00 and close at 18h00 for public game drives.
We put up our tent under one of the numerous big trees. After having a word with reception, some of the park staff bring us some firewood and even help us light the fi re. What great service. While the wors and chops sizzle away we watch Sky TV – also known as lying back in your chair and looking skywards. This is the 4×4 life.
In 2004 Carr entered into a memorandum of understanding with the Mozambique government and to date has spent about US$20 million on the park. The change he has brought about is significant: not only is Chitengo now a world-class national park, but its local inhabitants also now have jobs, schools and clinics.
With the infrastructure and staff in place he turned his attention to the animals. In 2006 they started bolstering the depleted species of Gorongosa by bringing in animals from parts of Mozambique and South Africa. This included 180 wildebeest, 139 buffalo, six elephant and five hippo. “You give nature half a chance and it’s resilient,” said Carr in an interview with The New Yorker in 2009.
Driving through the park at the end of the dry season one notices the high grass and many warthog, the staple diet of the lion here. Gorongosa needs lots of bulk grazers such as zebra, and according to insiders the sub-species that they need can only be found in Zimbabwe. Several times they have been on the verge of securing zebra, only for the deal to fall through as bureaucrats tried to cash in. Still, in the last five years the place has totally changed, and the animals are making a comeback.
I’ve been on assignment to Mozambique about 10 times. On one of these occasions I took one of the many alternatives routes to get there and found myself driving through the wildlife-rich Kruger National Park before crossing at the Giroyondo border post and heading into the Mozambique side of this Transfrontier Park. As I moved from South Africa into Mozambique it was as if someone had pushed the ’wildlife sightings off’ button – there was no game to be seen, just kilometre upon kilometre of empty bushveld.
Mozambique isn’t a country we normally associate with wildlife. South Africans traditionally come here to go to the beach, eat heaped plates of prawns and drink 2M beer. They fish, tan, relax, drink and sleep. It’s southern Africa’s very own Thailand, minus Patpong, Bangkok’s infamous red-light district.
Due to the increasingly expensive entrance and camping fees in Botswana and Namibia, South Africans have begun to give these traditional wildlife / overlanding destinations a miss. Places like Gorongosa could step into the breach.
Gorongosa National Park lies at the southern end of the Great East African Rift Valley. At the heart of the park lies Lake Urema, which expands to about 123 square kilometres during the rainy season, covering the surrounding floodplains in the process. Water birds arrive to take advantage of this abundance. Herons, ibis, egret, spoonbills and divers make nest in the acacias overlooking the shallow food-filled water.
During the dry season the lake shrinks to under seven square kilometres, and things change dramatically. For sunset during one of our game drives, Rob takes us to one of his favourite places in the park, called Miranduro do Songue by the locals. It’s a birding mecca – everywhere you look dozens of birds are busying themselves or feeding. “I once counted 35 different bird species here in a couple of hours. The stalks, pelicans, hamerkops and juvenile fish eagles come here for training,” explains Rob.
Two weeks after my visit the BBC were due to come to the very same spot to try and capture on film a phenomenon known as the barbell run. As the river gets drier and drier the fish will attempt to swim upstream to the lake, causing a bottleneck. It’s such a great spot that we stay for the sunset, before returning to explore Gorongosa’s camp with a night game drive.
We literally have the whole place to ourselves. The night game drive reveals a white-tailed mongoose, civet and porcupine. We also see the endemic bushy-tailed mongoose, a rare sighting I’m told.
Just before we turn into camp, a young male lion walks across the road just in front of the game viewing vehicle. We decide to follow him for a while; he stops every 20 metres or so to mark his territory before letting rip with a spine-tingling roar. Rob switches off the vehicle and we wait. Out of the darkness behind us another male lion appears and strolls past us without making a sound. These two lions are known as the Brando Brothers and now they’re reunited. After watching them lie in the long grass for about 30 minutes, we head back.
My five days at Gorongosa have offered me little glimpses that remind me of other African parks. The almost-dry Msicadzi River is not unlike South Luangwa in Zambia; the massive green fever tree forests are exactly the same as in KZN’s Phinda Nature Reserve; and the dry floodplains remind me of northern Kafue. Yes, the balance of the animals is not quite right – there are way too many warthog and baboon running about – but with time and the efforts of those in charge, this will change and Gorongosa will be restored to its former glory.
While driving here, one thing that bothered me was how often we saw massive bags of charcoal right next to the road. Normally towards the end of the dry season people all over Africa decide that it’s time to burn. Yes, some of it’s good as it’s nature’s way of preparing the land for the rain, but not so in other cases where people slash and burn to clear tracts of land for farming. After a few years and the disappearance of the topsoil they move on and from the air you can see these massive open gaps of nothingness.
While Lake Urema is the heart of the park, the blood (water) comes from the nearby Gorongosa Mountain, which was only made an official part of the park just before our visit. Due to its significance to the park we decided to climb it and see for ourselves what’s going on. More about that climb and the mountain in a future issue – it’s a story in its own right.
While you need the right balance of animals in an area as biodiverse as Gorongosa, you need the people on your side too. They need to learn the significance of conservation and they need to realise that restoring Gorongosa will make their lives better. With this in mind we took a short trip to the Vinio community just south of the park. It involves a small boat ride over the Pungwe River.
Some young girls pass us, each armed with two heads of lettuce and massive smiles. An old lady removes peas from a pod, barely noticing us as we make our way to the clinic and school. It’s a Saturday and the school is understandably deserted. This was the school that Carr built and just across the road was the clinic that Carr built. A few patients sat outside waiting to be attended to.
I am sad when the last evening’s game drive comes around. Once again I decide to end off at Miranduro do Songue. While the park has iconic spots such as the Lion House, the old cocktail bar and hippo pools, I prefer the serenity and setting of Songue. Climbing from the game drive vehicle I almost twist my ankle as I step into a grass-covered hippo footprint, which at the end of the dry season is rock hard and hollow. As I watch the sun sink into the fertile earth I think about the National Geographic Africa’s stunning documentary about Gorongosa (Lost Eden), which I watched the night before in the park restaurant. It contained footage of limestone cliffs, waterfalls, herds of buffalo and elephant, things that I hadn’t managed to see during my five days here – reasons to come back, maybe?
Only about 10 percent of the park is accessible via public roads; most of these main ones are in good condition but the more remote ones on the floodplains are a little bumpy. The other 90 percent of the park remains a mystery to me and most other visitors. If I think back to my time at Gorongosa I see lions in the dark, palm tree forests, fever tree forests, a network of rivers, a receding lake and more warthog and waterbuck than any other park I’ve been to. The best part about it is that often I had all of this to myself – a rare thing these days. The fact that this park has fewer tuskers, buffalo and other big game doesn’t matter for now. The situation is being addressed. Gorongosa is a very special place and so too are the people who live and work around the park. I’m excited about what I’ve seen, and everyone I spoke to was positive about the park and hugely appreciative of the money and effort contributed by Carr. Slowly, the smashed Gorongosa puzzle is being rebuilt.
Gorongosa taught me three things. The first is that Mozambique is more than just prawns and beach – from a wildlife perspective the place is definitely worth a visit, especially for people with a 4×4 and a sense of adventure. The second is that, till now, I have been very opinionated about Americans and the work they do in Africa. Greg Carr has single-handedly changed that opinion. Thirdly, I always joke and say that there is no such thing as an African success story. Well, even though it is still early days, what has happened in the last five years in Gorongosa is most definitely a success story. People have work, clean water, a clinic and a school. And if after 20 years Carr is able to walk away and the place is functioning and flourishing like a business, well then we might just have the blueprint for how to successfully run national parks in Africa.
Gorongosa is right up there with the best of Africa’s parks. Its charm lies in its history, struggle and now, its resurrection. For now, it doesn’t have many visitors. I’d advise you to get there before that changes.
PAJERO 3.2 GLS DI-D SWB
A few years back I drove a LWB Pajero to the source of the Nile River and back again. There were four of us with all our gear in that vehicle. This time it was only a 5 000 km round trip with myself and the girlfriend so I opted for the SWB instead. Since that Nile trip there have been two significant changes to the 2010 model Pajero; the first is to the engine and the second is the addition of Mitsubishi Integrated Communication System (MICS).
We really appreciated the 3.2-litre engine’s 140 kW and 441 Nm when heading east from Joburg towards Maputo. This kind of power is great for when you have to cover long distances. It gives you confidence when driving up a hill or having to overtake a truck. Just put foot and fly past.
Work is still being done on some sections of the main coastal road – the EN1 – and at times you’re forced to drive some dirt sections alongside the roadworks. Here you can shift to 4WD on the fly and once you get back on the tar engage 2WD again without stopping. Gorongosa is a long way north but we were able to cover up to 800 kilometres a day on Mozambique roads thanks to the Pajero’s comfort.
For the first part of the journey we put the second row of seats flat for more packing space. Our fridge ran off the power point in the boot area while the GPS and LED night light ran off the two power points in the front. Nice to have three power points to use.
The MICS is great with the GARMAP software if you are in Maputo or Nelspruit, but once in the bush or off the beaten track it’s less useful. I wish Garmin and Tracks4Africa would kiss and make up so that we can use both mapsets. For now bring along your own GPS with T4A loaded if you’re going to remote places such as Gorongosa.
The rest of MICS is great; we used the GPS to find our hotel in Maputo. We were able to download CDs onto the vehicle’s hard drive so didn’t have to change CDs all the time. What’s more, there’s a cable for your iPod in the cubbyhole so you can drive all the way to Cairo without playing the same song twice.
For the last section of our journey my sister and her husband flew into Maputo to join us. For a SWB, the Pajero has a surprising amount of storage space – there was space for everyone and everything! I have done several very long trips in a Pajero now and I have to admit that I am a fan.
Comfort, convenience and class – the Pajero has all three.
WHERE WE STAYED
Dugong Lodge, Inhassoro
With massive driving days and early starts we chose Dugong Lodge as one of stopovers during the drive home. What a lovely resort with fully-kitted houses right near the beach. For more see www.dugongmozambique.com or email@example.com or +258 824567 170.
Gorongosa National Park, Chitengo Safari Camp
Right up there with anything you might find in our own Kruger National Park except they serve prawns and other seafood in the Chikalango restaurant as the coast isn’t too far off. Several accommodation options are available including camping, which we did for two nights at US$9 pppn. The park entrance fee is US$15 per person and 500 mets (about R100) per vehicle. Unlike other parks, these entrance and vehicle fees are not time dependent – they’re once-off. Ablutions include flush toilets and hot showers, and there are a couple of electricity points. Sites are under massive trees, which provide ample shade, and there are two swimming pools to cool down in. Free wireless internet is available at the restaurant.
For those not wanting to camp there are cabanas (air-conditioned and en suite), family rooms, backpacker rooms and serviced platform tents. Prices vary accordingly with a double cabana priced at US$126 (including breakfast) for a double; a family room at US$60 (including breakfast) and serviced platform tents at US$65 for a double. Single rates are also available. A host of activities are on offer such as game drives, a trip to the Vinho community, sundowners at Bue Maria and a hike to the waterfall. Enquire at reception about rates and availability. Credit card facilities are available or payment can be made in rands, US dollars or Mozambican meticais.
Gates open from 06h00 to 18h00 daily. The park may be closed from mid-December to March depending on the rains. The park has a very comprehensive website which will assist greatly with planning a trip. For more details see www.gorongosa.net or +25 823 535 010.
For now they have an exclusive private operating licence to offer unique tourism experiences in the park, which includes activities such as walking safaris, night game drives and climbing Mount Gorongosa. Run by husband-and-wife team Rob and Jos Janisch and a small but very capable staff, this is a more comfortable way to see Gorongosa. Accommodation is in luxury semi-permanent tents. For more details see www.exploregorongosa.com or call them on +258 82862 4975.
A trip to Gorongosa requires careful planning because unless you’re up to driving for 24 hours non-stop, you’ll have to overnight along the way. Then there’s the debate of whether or not to go through Zimbabwe. We decided not to and took the EN1 through Mozambique. There was a young group of South Africans in the campsite who came through Zimbabwe, but they had to pay around R4 000 in ‘border fees’ at Beit Bridge. So if you’re driving through Zimbabwe, try a quieter entry point like Plumtree border post.
During a previous trip to northern Mozambique the fuel pumps at Inchope had all run dry and you could only get fuel from those old 2-litre Coke bottles. Back then I opted instead to detour to Chamois to refuel as they have a Shoprite there too. Things have changed and between Maputo to Beira you will find enough fuel stations with both diesel and petrol, so you shouldn’t need jerrycans and a long-range fuel tank if visiting the Gorongosa National Park. That said, I still maintain that if there is fuel, then you should fill up – don’t wait until almost empty before you start looking for a fuel station, because according to Murphy’s Law, the one you find will be the one which has run dry.
WHERE TO BUY PROVISIONS
While the park has a lovely well-priced restaurant and a small souvenir shop, you have to bring all other provisions with you. If you come via Zimbabwe then stop off at the Shoprite in Chimoio, or if coming along the EN1 then Inchope is your best bet. You can buy pao (bread rolls) from the restaurant.
Inchope is almost 80 km away so if things do go wrong the park’s main rest camp, Chitengo, is where you’ll be able to get some assistance. Do the normal solo overland preparations and carry basic spares and recovery gear with you. Staff in the park are extremely helpful and will probably be able to help with a tyre repair and minor mechanical issues.
CONVOY OR SOLO
You can definitely do this one solo.
ROAD CONDITIONS We were in the park during the dry season and most of the roads were in good condition bar one or two minor ones which were rather bumpy. As for the EN1 up from Maputo, at the time of writing (late September), about 90 percent of it was in fine nick, but you should expect delays.
MAPS & DIRECTIONS
The park HQ will provide you with a map of the various roads you can drive. Navigation in the park is simple with each road allocated a number. The park has a very good website with loads of useful info including how to get to the park.
Our Pajero easily handled the roads in the park, but if visiting at the end of the rainy season when the park opens again there will still be water about, and one will have to drive accordingly and be prepared for some mud.
The park lies in a malaria area and away from the hustle and bustle of the more touristy southern Mozambique, so the biggest risk factor is probably the lions or a startled warthog.
Article published in SA4x4 November 2010 issue.