The guide born in Zimbabwe Test takes us on one of the classic game drive jeeps.
After an introductory journey through the arboreal vegetation of PN Gorongosa, we arrive at an open savannah, filled with almost shallow dry grass, by areas of thick and dense tufts, mid-height.
It was sprinkled with exotic palm trees, some dwarf, others, not really, fans, ilalas or the like.
“Well, they were hanging around here this morning. Let's see if they're still walking…”
The encounter is not immediate. As we comb through the windblown golden labyrinth, Test comes to doubt the quest's success. And getting impatient.
For a short time.
“Oh done! There they are. See them?” Of course we were.
Two young lions had appeared out of nowhere. They panted. They gave us the idea of being bothered by the heat that was still only ten in the morning. “They ate with the rest of the pack during the night. Now, they took time off for them.” adds Test.
In fact, we saw many more herbivores around: impala, bauala, piva and others.
What interested the lions, however, was the more ventilated shade around.
They chased her to and fro in such a way, they appeared and disappeared in the middle of the tufted undergrowth that we seemed to be playing hide and seek.
It was our first lion sighting in Gorongosa.
Several would follow. As easy as that.
Gorongosa's Amazing Rivers and Ecosystems
His search allowed us, at the same time, to begin to appreciate the unique beauty of Gorongosa.
It forms a patchwork of ecosystems spread from the foothills of the homonymous mountain range to the Cheringoma Plateau, traversed by a series of rivers that have irrigated Lake Urema for centuries and sustain the incredible biodiversity of these places:
the Vunduzi that rises on the slopes of the Serra da Gorongosa, the Nhandugue, the namesake Urema, the Muaredzi.
And smaller ones that, as a rule, disappear during the dry season.
Test takes us towards the edge of Urema, the lake. In June, with the rains already a few months past, this edge is a vast area lined with very green and succulent grass.
It appears teeming with herbivores, in particular with countless wildebeests, in an abundance that we have not found anywhere else in the world.
We see for the first time how much the fauna of Gorongosa had recovered from its darkest years.
In conversation with Vasco Galante, the park's Communication Director, he shows us a video of a promotional film from 1961, directed by Miguel Spiguel and narrated by the unmistakable Fernando Pessa.
Vasco tells us that, in his Abrantina youth, that same film, with the imagery of the jungle and safari, had dazzled him and aroused the dream of getting to know the place.
From Hunting Reserve to Lush Colonial National Park
By that time, Gorongosa was glowing. From 1920 to 1959, it was a hunting reserve that the Mozambique Company determined with 1000 km2.
By 1940, it had become famous.
Incautiously, the authorities endowed her with a tourist camp in the alluvial plain next to the Mussicadzi River.
As many feared, in 1942 floods damaged infrastructure. Vasco shows us another movie. In it we see how packs led by lions with huge soot-colored manes took over the buildings.
How they climbed the spiral stairs to reach the terrace where they rested and scrutinized their domains and passed their eyes over the countless specimens that roamed there: wildebeest (3500), wildebeest (5500), impala (2000), zebra (3000), buffalo (14500), elephants (2200), hippos (3500), hundreds of elandes, sables and gondongas, all species later inventoried by South African ecologist Kenneth Tinley.
In 1951, a new administration of the colonial government took into account that Gorongosa was already visited every year by more than 6000 tourists.
It dictated the construction of accommodation infrastructure, a restaurant and a bar, all in Chitengo.
Four years later, Gorongosa was declared a national park. Chitengo received new roads and other infrastructure.
In the late 60s, it also had a post office, a fuel station, an emergency clinic, a craft shop, two swimming pools and even a nightclub.
The Harmless Years of the War of Independence
From 1964 to 1975, the war for independence generated by the Mozambique Liberation Front (FRELIMO) hardly affected the park.
In 1972, a Portuguese Company supported by several members of such a Provincial Volunteer Organization parked in the area to protect it.
In 1976, a new count confirmed several thousand animals and far more than the 200 lions previously verified, the highest number to date.
Its ecosystem proved to be as healthy as ever.
Until, financed and armed by the South Africa and by the “white” government of Southern Rhodesia, the National Resistance of Mozambique (RENAMO), in opposition to FRELIMO, entered the scene.
1981-1992: The Traumatic Destruction of PN Gorongosa
It was 1981. The Civil War took over the country and, for Gorongosa, the worst possible scenario was confirmed: that RENAMO would soon use it as its headquarters.
That same year, RENAMO attacked Chitengo. He kidnapped several of his workers and two foreign scientists.
In 1983, the park was closed. From then onwards, violence and destruction increased. Ground battles and aerial bombardments destroyed the buildings.
Soldiers on both sides of the conflict slaughtered hundreds of elephants to sell ivory and obtain new weapons.
Hungry soldiers killed thousands of distinct herbivores and the lions themselves – now protected and monitored with location collars – and other predators were decimated for sheer fun or starved to death for lack of their prey.
The civil war ended in 1992 but the park's fauna continued to be poached. By the end of the atrocities, nearly all large animals had been reduced by 90% or more.
Obviously, in 2017, there was still a lot to be done.
Infrastructure and fauna recovered and how.
Back to the Discovery of Gorongosa BP
The next morning, we left early, in a new game drive mode led by Moutinho, a young native guide. A dense fog envelops Gorongosa.
Along the way, spooky silhouettes of animals appear at intervals on the narrow dirt road that the tropical vegetation struggled to invade: imbabalas, inhacosos and sables – the Mozambican name for Angola's emblematic black sables.
We have a look at lakes bequeathed by the rainy months (January to April), full of birds:
egypt geese, ibises, marabouts, yellow-billed and black-backed storks, pelicans and many others.
The more we traveled through the park, the more we were enchanted by its fifty-odd ecosystems:
the endless tando, the yellow wattle forest and the savannah dotted with exotic palm trees, the grassy and swampy shores of the Urema, the lake itself shared by hippos and crocodiles.
The tropical forest on the slopes of the mountains and many other environments.
In Search of the Park's Elusive Elephants
After intense search, we found a lone elephant male there, later another. It is not by chance that the memory of these pachyderms is as famous as it is.
In Gorongosa, barely detecting jeeps, elephants remember past traumas during and after the Civil War.
They react with immediate suspicion and even chase vehicles. Unlike the lions – which we easily find again on the edge of the Urema – they are elusive.
But with time, everything heals.
This is how the Mozambican government considered that, in 1994, with the support of the African Development Bank and the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, it sought to recover infrastructure, open trails and roads.
Demining the region and fighting poaching with the support of eighty newly hired employees, some former park workers and even ex-combatants.
Greg Carr: From the Mozambican Ambassador's Message to the UN to Action
After the turn of the century, Greg Carr, the American who invented Voicemail and prospered with it, entered the equation.
The Idaho multimillionaire welcomed a suggestion by the Mozambican ambassador to the UN during a meeting promoted by the Kennedy family to support Mozambique's recovery from the war.
Shortly thereafter, he visited Gorongosa. He was surrendered and convinced that the park could function as a strong tourist mobile for the development of central Mozambique.
In 2004, Joaquim Chissano validated a partnership between the Mozambican Ministry of Tourism and the Carr Foundation, which Greg had created in 1999 for a thirty-year tenure of Gorongosa. This partnership foresaw an investment of almost 25 million euros.
In infrastructure, reintroduction of animals – as happened with the 54 elephants he bought from South African neighbor Kruger Park – integration of Gorongosa communities and their benefit from the project's estimated profits.
Vasco Galante: The Right Arm and the Man Always on the Ground by Greg Carr
By this time, Vasco Galante became Carr's right-hand man. Fed up with the business life he led in Portugal, he had already decided to change his life and Mozambique had stayed in his heart.
When he found out that Greg Carr was looking for someone responsible for the Gorongosa team, the delicious film by Miguel Spiguel with voiceover by Fernando Pessa flashed through his mind.
Vasco became an unavoidable part of the park's family. how is it Matthew Mutemba, the administrator we are equally privileged to live with, recently awarded by National Geographic as one of their “Emerging Explorers”From 2017.
American Interest in Gorongosa vs Donald Trump's Isolationist Policy
On the days he welcomes us, Chitengo is in a frenzy.
Dozens of Americans from Idaho, most of them connected to Greg Carr or his family, were visiting.
The presence of these Yankees does not prevent the successive sieges and incursions of baboons into the restaurant's kitchen. Nor the nutritional walks of the warthog bands all over the complex.
We join one of the jeeps they follow. We realized that, in most cases, they were the first safaris in which they participated and how they lived with enthusiasm and redoubled interest all the biological learning of Gorongosa:
a team of ornithologists that captured, weighed and identified vultures for further study;
the amazement of its ever-changing ecosystems and the exuberant sunset, melting towards the sides of the mountain.
When the dark sets in, we help them and the guide Moutinho – Monty as they preferred to call him – with a bright spotlight, to find nocturnal species: horse riders, civets and shrill jagras.
On our way back to Chitengo, we passed one of the fires that the authorities used to keep vegetation under control during the dry season.
At the farewell barbecue that followed, one of the representatives of the American group thanked the park for the opportunity.
He took the opportunity to snipe Donald Trump's international relations policies, which cut back on support from USAID and other US programs. USA to the countries most in need.
"We save on the programs that we make friends in the world, we will see ourselves spending on weapons to fight new enemies."
PN Gorongosa is about to receive a land extension to the banks of the Zambezi River.
These days, it is just as crucial for Gorongosa that foreign aid is for Mozambique to remain at peace.