Forty years ago, travellers flocked to Mozambique's wildlife-rich parks and tropical islands. After a civil war, it is finally poised to reclaim that status
"Did you hear the lions around camp this morning?" asked Macadona. "They're slowly returning."
Shaded from the sun’s glare by lofty trees and serenaded by birdsong, we were strolling along a narrow path leading back to Chitengo Camp in the heart of Gorongosa National Park. "Perhaps we should walk faster?" I urged, peering into the labyrinthine bush. There were no lions, but through the half-light I could see a deep hole marked by plastic ribbon. I looked at my guide inquiringly.
"That," he said, matter-of-factly, "was made by a landmine." In the 1960s and 70s Mozambique was a prime tourist destination, famed for its endless beaches, piri-piri prawns and the Latin beat of its nightlife. Gorongosa, in central Mozambique, was the jewel in its wildlife crown.
Protected since 1921, Gorongosa is an Eden of grassland, miombo forest, flood plains and waterways. Yellow forests of fever trees stand next to spiked illala and towering borassa palms; Rousseau-esque tangles of greenery twine next to boundless golden savannah. In the outer reaches of the park granite outcrops rise majestically out of the bush; a spectacular limestone gorge marks the southern end of the Great Rift Valley and Mount Gorongosa dominates the horizon.
A home movie made here in 1963 showed tourists arriving by the bus load, drawn by the concentration of wildlife. Prides of lion and herds of wildebeest roamed through the frames in overwhelming numbers. Chitengo Camp looked luxurious back then, the visitors looked affluent and sundowners were served on the packed viewing platform at Hippo House, overlooking the lake. With more predators than Kruger, denser herds of elephant and buffalo than the Serengeti and thousands of plains animals, it even attracted Hollywood stars - Gregory Peck and John Wayne both visited.
Then the onset of what was to be almost two decades of brutal warfare brought it all to a halt.
After gaining independence from Portugal in 1975 a civil war broke out between the ruling party, Frelimo, and the apartheid-sponsored rebels, Renamo. When the peace treaty was finally signed in 1992, over a million Mozambicans had been killed and the country was on its knees.
During the war Gorongosa was a battleground for the two forces. Like the human population, the wildlife was decimated - killed in skirmishes or hunted, both for ivory to fund the war and meat to feed hungry soldiers. Professional hunters took advantage of the post-war chaos to take out the remaining big game, while jobless villagers continued poaching in order to feed their families. When the park reopened in 1995 there were scant resources to support it. Landmines littered the park, Chitengo was in ruins and the visitors long gone.
Salvation came in the form of Greg Carr, an American IT multi-millionaire turned philanthropist. "This is a spectacular park and it could become one of the best in Africa with some assistance," he wrote in the camp guestbook in 2004. Since then, he has given some assistance - around US$15 million to date - to what many believed to be a lost cause.
Now Chitengo's rondavels (traditional round cabins) have been restored and visitors - from less than 1,000 in 2005 to around 8,000 this year - are returning.
When Carr flew over the park for the first time, it was Lake Urema that captivated him. I hitched a ride in his helicopter, which was dropping off game scouts to anti-poaching posts scattered across the park. As we flew low over the silver water, the view was breathtaking. A gregarious pod of hippos wallowed in the shallows and scores of enormous Nile crocodiles, basking in the sun like a row of sardines, slid down the muddy bank into the lake as a multitude of birds took to the air.
Animals are returning naturally and the park is being restocked with buffalo, wildebeest and zebra. But it’s not just about reintroducing wildlife or the conservation of a unique environment. Carr wanted a humanitarian aspect to his project and believes that a restored park will lift the region out of poverty. Communities surrounding the park need to benefit from tourism and, in Vinho village, a subsistence farming community where many of the park workers live, I witnessed this ethos in action.
At 6.30am the morning rush hour was underway on the Pungue River as boats plied back and forth from Vinho. "A fisherman was eaten by a crocodile last week," Macadona suddenly announced. I stared at him incredulously. "He was standing on the river bank, just like we are." I swiftly stepped back and peered into the soupy water.
Safely across the river, we passed villagers queuing up outside the hospital. Before it was built they had to walk for a day to reach a doctor. Children happily swept the dirt floor in front of their new brick schoolhouse then lined up to sing the national anthem. Their previous school was a twig-and-thatch shack; now they have their own computer centre. Carr wants the children and their teachers to have access to knowledge usually reserved for the first world.
The energy and enthusiasm from Carr and his team was palpable, their plans ambitious. The Carr Foundation has recently signed a 20-year agreement to co-manage the park with the Mozambican Government, with the aim of handing it back to the country as a sustainable entity. While many safari destinations have become the preserve of the wealthy, Carr wants the park to remain open to all. A luxury camp is in the offing, but you’ll still be able to pitch your own tent in the campsite.
It's not quite the super-slick safari experience offered by some of its neighbouring countries, but the beauty of Gorongosa lies in its diversity. I headed out on a game drive with a South African family. Momentarily distracted by a formidable black mamba slithering across the track, their young son soon resumed his clamour for elephants. But it wasn't to be. Gorongosa's elephants have neither forgiven nor forgotten, going out of their way to avoid human contact.
But there were other delights on offer. We watched entranced as a male impala struggled to round up his skittish harem. A stately sable antelope paused for a moment before disappearing into the forest, while an oribi, a small, slender antelope, sheltered under a camouflaging palm.
When the park reopened after the war, intrepid birders were the first to return - and it was soon obvious why. A colourful bateleur eagle perched on a low branch, while pelicans balanced in their dizzyingly high nests. As we drove by the river at sunset, grey-crowned cranes, black-headed herons and yellow-billed storks foraged on the exposed riverbed.
Outside the confines of the park, but essential to its ecosystems, Mount Gorongosa is home to Mozambique's only rainforest. It's Carr's number-one priority: "Reintroducing zebras can be this year or next, but once the rainforest is gone, it's gone." The mountain is considered sacred by the locals but has still fallen victim to slash-and-burn agriculture pushing further up its slopes. In response, Carr is implementing a five-pronged attack, including reforestation projects and the creation of alternative sources of income.
At the mountain's base, orchards of pineapples and bananas give way to fields of wheat and cotton. We hiked in the blistering sun to reach an impressive waterfall. Children waved as we passed, then gathered to watch in amusement as we clambered over the high, slippery rocks. As I rested in the shadows I could hear the oriole's sweet song from deep in the tree canopy.
We were heading back when the call came through - a lion had been spotted near camp. Excitement mounted as we followed tracks in the sand to a magnificent male, his mane tinged pink by the fading sunlight, crouching in front of a herd of impala. His ears pricked up at the sound of our engine and he gazed at us, limpid-eyed, flicking his tail like an annoyed house cat. A lone baboon screamed out a warning to the bush, the impala barked nervously but stood their ground - and the lion waited patiently for darkness.
Before leaving Gorongosa, I visited the abandoned Hippo House. As I climbed the dilapidated staircase I could almost hear the chink-chink of ghostly G&Ts and the chatter of long-gone tourists as they scanned the lake for wildlife. Grass grows from the long-deserted bar now, and a dip in the iron balcony marks the weight of a rocket launcher. The glassless windows frame the view of lush grassland and the lake beyond, and only the plaintive cry of an African fish eagle interrupted the tranquillity.
As we drove back to camp through the musky evening air, families of warthogs scurried out of our path while suicidal nightjars flew in front of the jeep. Macadona, whose father worked at the park before the war, believes that in 20 years it will be the finest in Africa once more. The seasoned South African safari-goers agree. So do I but, like Carr, I love it as it is now, with all its wildness and beauty, the solitude and the chance encounters.
While a handful of visitors are rediscovering Mozambique’s bush, many more head for its unsullied beaches. The southern coast has long been a haunt of South Africans in the know, but it’s the Quirimbas Archipelago – a string of remote tropical islands in the far north of the country - that is the newest draw. Over the past few years ever-more luxurious lodges have opened on the exclusive resort islands but, like Gorongosa, there are also grass-roots initiatives taking place.
The four-hour drive from Pemba airport is a kaleidoscopic view of rural life. Women passed by – vivid capulanas (sarongs) wound around their waists, babies strapped to their backs, anything and everything on their heads: unwieldy bushelsof wood, bulging sacks of vegetables, a single pineapple. Other vehicles were rare: rickety old bicycles trundled by carrying two, sometimes three, people; passengers hung precariously off the sides of overloaded chapas (pickups).
Set inside the Quirimbas National Park on a mainland beach between the limitless bush and the startling azure of the Indian Ocean, Guludo Beach Lodge is the brainchild of a young British couple: Amy Carter and Neal Allcock. Like Carr, they are passionate about their venture. Almost everything about the thatched, white bandas - constructed by locals from mud blocks and palm tiles - was locally sourced. The inventive showers, made out of coconut gourds and cane, rely on sun-warmed water, and there's no electricity. When darkness falls, a myriad paraffin lamps light the way.
They, too, have a close relationship with the neighbouring villages. When they sought the consent of the elders to build the lodge, their only question was: "When can you start?" They have started by building a school, among other projects. Driving to Guludo village, women stepped into the sunlit corn to allow the truck to pass. Wearing chalk-white musiro facemasks to soften their skin, they looked like fierce warriors from the pages of a historical journal.
Carter was greeted warmly with two-handed waves. I'd read that this was a post-war "look, no weapons" gesture, but Carter disagreed: "It's just the Mozambican way - open and friendly."
The real lure of the Quirimbas lies in its pristine, virtually uncharted reefs. From Rolas Island, a castaway's spit of sand, I descended into a seemingly infinite array of vibrant coral. Electric-blue starfish lay splayed on the seabed, while shoals of iridescent fish darted and flitted around me.
Guludo is all about interaction. I showered under the Southern Cross, the gentle trade wind provided my air conditioning and the sunrise was my wake-up call. I shared my washbasin with a lounging lizard, my dining chair with a chirruping frog and my bedroom - briefly - with a friendly bat.
Strolling along the beach I met a trio of lean fisherboys who greeted me in the local language, Kimwani. I watched as they strained every muscle to drag ashore their sea-coloured net. They showed me their catch of tiny thrashing fish, before climbing into a wooden dugout and paddling away.
Dinner was an altogether grander catch of the day, a succulent kingfish steak cooked with rich coconut and hot chillis. As I walked slowly back to my banda, translucent ghost crabs scuttled seaward in the beam of my torch. I switched it off and stood in the enveloping darkness, listening to the gentle crash of the waves, the sand cold between my toes.
Nema is a Kimwani word that translates as the end of suffering and the beginning of joy. It summed everything up: Mozambique's renaissance was a joy to behold. On my last morning, I went down to the beach to watch the sun rise and met a fisherman taking to the water in a ramshackle dhow. He turned and gave a two-handed wave, and I returned it.