Mozambique, a 2,700 kilometres slither of tropical idyll straddling south east Africa is generally known as a pre- or post- safari relaxation destination. There’s no arguing that this is a sublime country for an African beach escape; its coral-fringed coastline and tropical archipelagos are abundant with world class marine life and colourfully inhabited by a vibrant Afro-Latin culture unique to the region.
But really Mozambique actually has everything you could want from an African exploration, including one of the continent’s most beautiful safari areas – Gorongosa National Park. There really is little need to visit anywhere else!
Over recent years, both the press and those within the African safari industry have done their very best to re-kindle interest in Gorongosa. It is the most enchanting park tucked away in the country’s northern frontier which is undergoing an amazing conservation transformation thanks, in large part, to the Greg Carr Foundation. The New York Times gave it an extremely positive review and it also made National Geographic’s ‘Best Trips of 2019’.
In the 1960s the park attracted Hollywood stars such as Gregory Peck and John Wayne on safari here, eager to see some of the famed wildlife which then included populations of over 6,000 elephants, 14,000 buffalo and more than 500 lions.
Devastatingly, Gorongosa became an unwilling stronghold for a Rhodesian-backed rebel force RENAMO, fighting against the new FRELIMO government following the country’s independence in 1975. What turned into a brutal 16-year civil war crippled the park through uncontrolled hunting and poaching with an estimated 90% of wildlife succumbing to the conflict and claimed the lives of a million people, displacing millions more.
The country remained in the tourist wilderness long after the war as the country tried to find its feet. Years of armed conflict had understandably scared off holidaymakers, and vital infrastructure such as cross-country roads and train lines had been all-but destroyed. This combined with an over complicated and an irregularly enforced visa process led to lack of support from tour operators and a subsequent overall lack in tourism investment into the country.
However, a corner has now been turned and investment has come back to Gorongosa, and indeed Mozambique as a whole. American philanthropist Greg Carr has spearheaded the Gorongosa Restoration Project (GRP) which has financed well over $40 million dollars into the park since 2008.
Initial steps included making the park safe for wildlife with fences and a well-trained security force to curb poaching and illegal encroachment.
Next came a ‘hearts and minds’ campaign to actively involve and improve the lives of the 200,000 people that live on the outskirts of the park and to encourage a sense of pride and responsibility for the ecosystems within it. This has ranged from direct employment in the park’s operations to coffee plantation projects and provision of much needed health and education facilities.
Science has been another key spending arena. In 2011 eminent biologist Edward Osborne Wilson declared it to be “ecologically, the most diverse park in the world”, prompting a profusion of scientific research. A broad estimate is that 35,000-75,000 vertebrate species may exist with new ones being discovered on a regular basis. The GRP’s ambition is to create a total inventory using the state-of-the-art field research centre at the park headquarters.
The last piece of the puzzle is the park’s sustainability plan, of which tourism is to play a key part. Currently there is a Portuguese-owned lodge, Montebelo (open April-December), occupying a prime position in the centre of the park and offering an impressive range of activities.
Aside from the traditional game drives, there are opportunities for walking safaris through the palm forests to the wetlands or through the yellow-hued fever tree forests and waterfalls cascading over the Limestone Cliffs to the chiselled pools of Archway Gorge. This can be combined with some private fly camping for the more adventurous.
In addition, there are half-day canoe safaris on the Pungwe River where you glide past sandy beaches, reed beds and riverine forest and one can also take boat cruises on Lake Urema itself with excellent hippo, crocodile and waterbird sightings. A must for any visitor is a full day trip to Mount Gorongosa. Its highest peak, Gogogo, reaches an elevation of 1,863m but the lower slopes are generally gentle and easy to climb.
Visitors can spend the day exploring this tropical paradise full of gorgeous waterfalls, tracking rare and exotic birds including the green-headed oriole (Oriolus chlorocephalus) found only on Mount Gorongosa, which tops the “most wanted” list of any serious birder. There are also opportunities to see local coffee plantations where farmers are being encouraged to grow beans in the shade of hardwood trees, both to improve economic situation and to restore the forest.
The result of all of the above has seen the gradual restoration of Gorongosa’s ecosystem. The wildlife has grown in confidence, no longer scared, with antelopes, including rare nyala and sable, kudu, bushbuck, reedbuck and the tiny, prancing oribi now easily spotted on game drives.
Elephant populations are increasing, numbering around 500, hippo populations are up to 440 from 100 in the year 2000. The lion population has been slowly recovering, with the Gorongosa Lion Project having already identified over 65 lions in just 20 percent of the park. A pack of 14 wild dogs were reintroduced in August last year and there are increasing sightings of leopard and spotted hyena too.
A visit to Gorongosa is not just a vacation but an active contribution to conservation and enhancing a unique ecosystem to, and beyond, its former glories – protecting the wild inhabitants that live within and supporting the communities surrounding the park to preserve it for future generations.
It is pleasing to hear that the Mozambican government also approve of the efforts being made in Gorongosa, having last June signed an extension of the joint management agreement with the Carr Foundation for another 25 years. The recent news that one of South Africa’s leading 5-star safari outfits are building a luxury lodge in the park, due to open at some point in 2020, shows that the tourism industry is starting to take real notice and is hopefully the beginning of a prosperous and sustainable chapter in Gorongosa’s history.
Gorongosa’s 4067 square kilometres are some of the most biodiverse in Africa, and its beauty immediately evident to all who visit. It is located at the southernmost tip of Africa’s Great Rift Valley, a massive geological formation that, over millions of years, has crafted some wonderfully varied ecozones including alpine forest, montane meadow, woodland savannah, grassland, scrub forest, a touch of true rain forest.
To the east of this rift is soft limestone, carved and moulded by water into caves and gorges and giving rise to riverine forests, replete with endemic bats, crickets, molluscs and millipedes that thrive on the limestone’s calcium bounty. On the western rim is hard granite whose soils nurture an entirely different assemblage of life-forms, like a newly discovered species of lizard that wedges itself deep into rock cracks, beyond a predator’s reach.
In the middle are the nutrient-rich floodplains of Lake Urema, cycling seasonally between verdant green and hazy yellow and a central watering point. Then, as the ever-present backdrop, stands Mount Gorongosa. At 6,000 feet, it is home to many of the park’s 400 bird species as well as the iconic Murombodzi waterfall.
Scheduled flights from either Nelspruit (2hrs) or Johannesburg (1hr20mins) to Beira. From Beira it’s just a short 30min flight in a light aircraft to the Chitengo landing strip inside Gorongosa National Park.
If you would like more information on Gorongosa National Park and the fantastic conservation work being done in the park, please do feel free to contact me.
Images provided courtesy of Gorongosa National Park and copy right to Jean Paul Vermeulen, Bob Poole, Piotr Naskrecki, Clive Dreyer, J da Silva.