Destinations

Where the really wild things are

Two of the greatest wildlife destinations in Africa are opening up in Mozambique’s once war-torn plains. Lucia van der Post responds to the call of a truly authentic safari.

March 26 2010
Lucia van der Post

The modern African safari, I often think, needs the skill of a magician to bring it off. Much depends on smoke and mirrors. The tender first-timer arrives trembling with anticipation laced with a little splodge of fear. He thinks that he’s in a vast, untamed wilderness. He thinks danger lurks round every corner. In fact, the camp has been cannily sited so that the lights of the next camp, often not so very far away, are camouflaged by a handy bit of riverine forest. He thinks he’s had the great good luck to come upon a group of wild and predatory lions when it’s the same pride that has been seen by a million others and is so bored by the sound of a 4 x 4 that not a single one lifts its head. He thinks he’s being awfully adventurous sitting there in his khakis, in the swanky Land Rover, but unless he does something truly stupid he’s safer there than on a London bus.

The art of the ranger, then, is all about illusion. He needs to make his client feel he’s being terribly brave, as if ready to grapple with nature red in tooth and claw, but without ever risking so much as a hair on his head. He’s got to make him just a little bit frightened, so that he’s preternaturally alert with all his senses heightened, but not so much that it spoils the fun or that he cries (yes, cries. I kid you not, I’ve heard women sob themselves to sleep because they were worried about what might slither between the gap in the tent and the groundsheet). Above all, the danger must never, ever be for real.

The wonderful thing about Mozambique, though, is that there’s no need for smoke and mirrors. It’s the real thing. There are no other camps around the corner. There are no plush lodges to insulate the traveller from the wilderness. The wildlife is still really wild, and not too fond of humankind. It’s rough, it’s vast, it’s unpredictable. Best of all, Mozambique has about it that sense of hope, of new beginnings, of freshness.

For some time visitors have been flocking to its beaches, islands and archipelagos, where its tropical climate and warm sea, its eco-lodges and its wonderful seafood have been a big draw. But what is new is that Niassa and Gorongosa, two of the greatest, least-visited wildlife destinations in Africa, are being opened up to visitors. Everywhere there are new starts and nowhere are they more thrilling than in Gorongosa, where American philanthropist Greg Carr has invested some $40m of his own money and promised 20 years of his time to help restore it to its former glory.

Gorongosa was once one of Africa’s most magnificent wildlife parks. Its 4,000 square kilometres lie at the end of the Great Rift Valley and in its heyday it was dubbed “the place where Noah parked his ark”. Once it had more predators than South Africa’s Kruger National Park, more plains animals than Serengeti, more elephant and buffalo than Botswana. I still remember the late Dr Enos Mabuza, a distinguished South African conservationist, talking of Gorongosa in the old hunting days when it was so stuffed with game that hunters were able to shut their eyes, shoot three times and be sure of hitting at least two plains game. It was an image so vivid, that conjured up such a Garden of Eden plenitude, that it has remained in my mind ever since.

Today, much of the game has been decimated – shot for the pot or traded during the desperate years of civil war. So Gorongosa isn’t a pristine wilderness. It was badly battered during the war, poaching is still a problem but – and here is why it’s now worth visiting – it’s being brought back to life. Greg Carr and his Mozambican partners have drafted in experts of every sort, and animals of every kind are being translocated to up the numbers and refresh the gene pool (hippo, buffalo, elephant, blue wildebeest). This year’s big effort is to get more grazers (to keep the high grass down) and, in particular, zebra.

After the civil war there was a mere handful left and since the only other country with the sub-species of zebra that once used to roam in Gorongosa is Zimbabwe, it’s been politically difficult to get hold of them. But what makes a visit so uplifting is the sense of hope and optimism, of being there right at the beginning of something rather wonderful. There are, as I write, just two places to stay. The old-fashioned but newly refreshed Chitengo Camp, with its nine solidly built cabanas, outdoor pools and restaurant all left over from the colonial era, is the low-cost option, aimed more at local visitors. The real adventure, however, is to go with Explore Gorongosa, run by Rob and Jos Janisch.

What I love about their venture is that Rob and Jos put their efforts into the things that really matter: they give you comfort where it counts (gorgeous beds, lovely showers, delicious food, proper reading lights) but otherwise they prefer to “focus on what our guests get to feel, see, learn and do, rather than on the labels on our frilly bits”. It’s an old-fashioned (in the best sense of the word) bush camp with just four big, airy tents pitched on the banks of the Msicadzi River. The dining room is under a tree and the seating area an open tent.

It isn’t fancy and can’t compete with the posh lodges that are now to be found in many a game park. But it’s my idea of real luxury in that it offers peace, space, a sense of the wild and guests get Rob’s full attention. He’s a fantastic guide, filled with a sense of derring-do, anxious to take the visitor walking, canoeing in season, fly-camping (ie, sleeping out under the stars), or just riding in the 4 x 4 if that’s what the visitor wants to do. Anybody who has ever spent a fortnight in a minibus gazing at game from behind a window in one of the more restricted parks will know what a treat these freedoms are.

Gorongosa offers adventures with which few places in Africa can compete. There’s the rainforest of Mount Gorongosa to visit (currently outside the park but huge efforts are being made to include it as it’s the park’s main water source), waterfalls to wonder at, caves filled with bats to brave, the relocation and research projects to learn about, villages to explore. But, above all, there is the vast terrain to discover. In just a few days I saw almost everything I could hope to see – elephant, lion, sable, eland, more waterbuck and warthog than ever before, and a vast variety of birds. Still to be reintroduced are hyena, rhino and cheetah. Giraffe, most curiously, were never there. One visitor compared it with South Africa’s Kruger Park and came away convinced that the game-viewing was infinitely superior. In Kruger the roads are crowded and the dense vegetation means that you merely see what wanders near the roads. By contrast, in Gorongosa the vast savannahs give deep horizons so that one sees easily for many miles.

The park is so large that more tourist ventures are being planned (with Rob I saw only a fraction of what was on offer) but for the moment Explore Gorongosa has that whole area to itself, apart from the publicly owned Chitengo Camp, which has mostly self-drive visitors. It doesn’t take long to understand why Greg Carr, after he’d made his millions running Boston Technology, fell in love with the area and why he believed he had to rescue it. “If we lost Gorongosa we would not only lose a beautiful place but the people here would lose their soul.” He found that happiness wasn’t to be had from vast houses, swanky hotels and gilded restaurants, but in “sleeping in a tent, eating baked beans”, surrounded, of course, by the wonders that Africa holds.

While Gorongosa was being brought to life down in the south, in the north of Mozambique one of Africa’s least-visited parks, Niassa Game Reserve, was being quietly preserved through the efforts of an anonymous Norwegian benefactor. Niassa is truly vast; if you include buffer zones and hunting territory (which brings in thousands of dollars a year that can then be invested back into the community and into keeping poachers at bay), there are nearly 42,000 square kilometres of protected land, making it twice the size of Kruger National Park. It is part of the ancient Miombo woodlands that stretch across the continent, from Angola in the west to Tanzania in the east.

When I first visited Niassa eight years ago there was nowhere for the visitor to stay (I came by helicopter from Dar es Salaam and slept in a small army tent in a workmen’s camp), but now there’s Lugenda Wilderness Camp, beautifully placed overlooking the vast Lugenda river with the dramatic granite Inselbergs behind it. It’s rather swankier than Rob and Jos’s camp with tents that are more like villas and fancier food, but here the wilderness is pretty pristine. In fact, spreading their model of sustainable ecotourism under the banner of One Africa, Rob and Jos also now offer mobile safaris along the Lugenda River.

For wildlife enthusiasts looking for a new destination and for a wildness and freshness that is becoming more and more difficult to find, Niassa is hard to beat. It’s part of the old stomping ground of one of Africa’s particular breed of laconic adventurers, PJ Pretorius, author of Jungle Man (which is still well worth a read), who wandered back and forth across the Rovuma river in the early 20th century looking for trophy tuskers as if it were his private domain – pursued from time to time by assorted angry Germans, cannibals, elephant and buffalo.

Niassa has some of the loveliest rivers in Africa – the Rovuma, Lugenda, Luatize and Lussanhando – and a landscape of breathtaking wildness. There is something magical and moving about being in country where few have been before, about looking out from kopjes where it is unlikely that a white man has ever stood, about knowing that as far as the eye can see there is land that is uncontaminated. There is abundant water and although today the game in the reserve could not “hand on heart” be said to be teeming – even in this isolated part of the country poaching and the ravages of war cut the numbers back – it is recovering and multiplying fast.

So, while Niassa is not currently the place for a first-time visitor gagging to see the big five, the gene pool of the magnificent huge tuskers that once used to roam throughout Africa but are now largely gone is still here. The 2002 elephant census recorded about 12,000 but there are also countless sub-species of other animals to be found here, such as the endemic Boehm’s zebra, Johnston’s impala and Niassa wildebeest (distinguished by a white V-marked face), as well as sable, buffalo, wild dog, lion, leopard, masses of antelope and unquantifiable numbers of as yet uncodified invertebrates. The area is so remote (to get there one has to take a small private charter from Pemba which in turn can be reached directly from Johannesburg by SA Airlink) that botanists and zoologists have yet to document everything that is there – all of which lends a certain charge to a visit. The sense of surprise and wonder is never lost.

An added bonus of visiting Niassa is knowing that, by making a trip to one of the least-visited, most inaccessible places in Africa, and paying handsomely for the privilege, you’re helping to bring new life and hope to a country that has had far more woes than seems right. The deal seems fair. As one tour operator put it: “They need the money and we need to have our eyes opened.” And if this appeals to you, Rob and Jos have created a loose association with like-minded places that are small, owner-run and committed to benefiting local communities. There’s Nkwichi Lodge on Lake Niassa, and Ibo Island Lodge and Guludo Beach Lodge in the Quirimbas.

It was Spalding Gray, the American monologuist, who liked to have a “perfect moment” before he left a place that had touched him. “They’re a good way of bringing things to an end,” he said. But he knew that on the whole you can never plan for one. “You never know when they’re coming. It’s sort of like falling in love....” But there are some places where you feel you can stack the odds in your favour, where you are more likely to have a “perfect moment”, and Niassa is one of them. Old PJ Pretorius, who, once he’d written his memoir, couldn’t wait to “go again to the wilds where the big animals roam”, knew the importance of the wild and the undiscovered. “If a man has trodden unknown trails and landed on lost beaches,” he wrote, “when age comes, the domestic hearth is a camp-fire where old dramas are relived...” It’s lovely to think that there are still places in Africa with a few “unknown trails” to be trodden – those with the heart and the energy will find that in Niassa and Gorongosa there are many.

See also

Mozambique