The national park that reversed the destruction of civil war

The national park that reversed the destruction of civil war

safari holidays africa wildlife travel conservation pangolins – Simon Parker

“You just missed the painted dogs,” said our guide, Richard Lusinga, as we signed the campsite’s indemnity forms and checked into our respective “rooms” – a collection of 7ft-high canvas A-frames, complete with mosquito nets, USB power banks, two single beds and wardrobes for hanging khakis – not forgetting the flushing loos and bucket showers. “A few hours ago about half a dozen wandered through camp!”

Many safari operators market themselves as “tented camps”, but this one in Gorongosa National Park, in Mozambique, felt different: more rustic; not just rough, but jungle-like around the edges. In fact, we could still smell the dogs’ notoriously musty aroma, clinging to the red earth walkways that run between the open-air dining room, canvas-covered “lounge” and rudimentary bush kitchen.

Thirty years ago this week, Mozambique’s 15-year-long civil war came to an end. By the time of the ceasefire, Gorongosa’s populations of large mammals had shrunk by around 95 per cent. Antelope species such as impala and waterbuck were killed to feed armies, while hundreds of elephants were slaughtered for their ivory, which was then sold to fund weapons.

A story of success

Three decades on, however, the country’s first national park is seen by many as Africa’s greatest conservation success story. Mutter its four-syllabled name – “Gor-on-go-sa” – to a seasoned safari enthusiast, and they will likely blurt out a spontaneous: “Oh, wow.”

In fact, the magnitude of Gorongosa’s biodiversity is only now being fully understood. “There could be up to 75,000 different species here and so far only 7,000 have been recorded,” said Marc Stalmans, the park’s director of scientific services, as he showed us around a temperature-controlled archive of desiccated snakeskins, meticulously catalogued butterflies and amphibians pickled in formaldehyde.

On morning and evening game drives, it was impossible to ignore the sheer quantity of bushbuck filling the floodplains, or the rotund bulk of the resident warthogs – easily the fattest I had ever seen. “Lots of nutritious food and not many predators,” said Lusinga. That, and the distinct lack of tourists. My friends and I were – at least it seemed – the only holidaymakers in a 1,500-square-mile nature reserve.

The national park that reversed the destruction of civil war

Gorongosa National Park – Getty

Since the pandemic, Gorongosa has softly rebranded its seasonal “fly-camp” as a “wild camp” – and it has now been fully booked for months. Mossy vines and gnarled branches intertwine with the camp’s temporary foundations. In the canopies of the fluted milkwood trees that shaded our tents from the searing afternoon sun, mischievous vervet monkeys snacked on cricket ball-like fruits, then discarded the sticky pith on top of our canvas roofs.

The bedside literature, meanwhile, was enough to set the heart racing: A Complete Guide to the Snakes of Southern Africa.

Scientific assignments

Eventually, we fell asleep to the sound of roaring lions, with just a single armed ranger on guard. Then at dawn, al-fresco showers were enjoyed with just a few leaves for privacy, the water tinged by the smoky embers that had warmed it.

Almost entirely funded by American philanthropist Gregory C Carr’s non-profit Carr Foundation, less than one per cent of Gorongosa’s income is made from tourism. And herein lies the park’s biggest allure: most Land Cruisers are filled with professors and PhD students from Princeton, Harvard and Oxford. Seldom do you pass vehicles filled with people who look just like you.

Excursions are made to see real life scientific assignments. One example is the Paleo-Primate Project, which is studying the links between 10 million-year-old fossils, Africa’s first humanoids, and the baboons that currently call the park home. Another is the Elephant Ecology Project, which uses its data to help mitigate human-wildlife conflict in the flashpoint “buffer zones” on Gorongosa’s perimeter.

Up close with the world’s most trafficked mammal

For most visitors, however, it is the opportunity to get close to pangolins – the world’s most trafficked mammal – that makes a visit to this national park so unique. Gorongosa is home to Mozambique’s first ever pangolin rescue programme, and on my final afternoon I was lucky to shadow one of the park’s resident wildlife vets, Mercia Angela, as she took three of her precious patients for lunch in the field.

“The park is still in a state of regeneration after the war,” she told me, as we watched Janeiro, Chimbota and Joao slurp up hundreds of ants a minute with their 16in-long tongues.

Since the programme began in 2018, Mercia and her team have rescued and rehabilitated more than 65 injured or traumatised pangolins and then released them into the safe haven of Gorongosa. One day, one might even wander through the wild camp, just like the park’s plucky painted dogs.

The national park that reversed the destruction of civil war

Elephants Gorongosa National Park Mozambique wildlife safari holidays – Getty

“We can be an example to the rest of the world,” said Mercia, as the hungry pangolins kicked cocoa-brown soil across our boots. “We can show that it is possible to reverse the destruction of war, and also to give a peaceful and endangered animal a safe place to live.”

Essentials

Simon Parker travelled as a guest of Africa Exclusive (01604 628979; safari.co.uk), which can arrange a four-night stay at Gorongosa Wild Camp from £2,720 per person, including game viewing activities, bush meals, a visit to the pangolin centre, tours of the Eco Lab, a Gorongosa film screening, and private charter flights to and from Beira.

British Airways (ba.com) flies to Johannesburg, where you can connect to Beira with Airlink.

All travellers over 11 must show proof of full vaccination, or a negative PCR test taken within the last 72 hours.

5 of the best campsites in Africa

Lower Zambezi, Zambia

This island camp in the heart of the Lower Zambezi National Park is surrounded by one of the highest densities of wildlife in Africa. This is the birthplace of the canoe safari, and guests can paddle within feet of elephants. Later you can fall asleep to the grunts of your neighbours – hundreds of hippos (00 260 9676 45421: tuskandmane.com).

The national park that reversed the destruction of civil war

hippos safari zambia – Getty

Okavango Delta, Botswana

A team travels ahead of you each day to set up camp beside a watering hole, lagoon or floodplain and prepares hot bucket showers and en-suite bathrooms with pit latrines. Walk-in tents come complete with camp beds and solar-powered lights (00 267 686 1200; captureafrica.com).

Serengeti, Tanzania

Feel the rumble of the Great Migration as millions of wildebeest and zebra head off in search of greener lands. Their route changes each year and, therefore, so does the location of your luxury safari camp. Each canvas “bedroom” comes with an en-suite bathroom (00 255 7875 95908; nomad-tanzania.com).

The national park that reversed the destruction of civil war

luxury safari camps tanzania – Nomad Tanzania

Damaraland, Namibia

Sleep under the fizzing Milky Way, in a country that is four times the size of Britain but has only 2.5 million human inhabitants. From this super-remote camp you can track black rhinos on foot. There is also a good chance of seeing species including brown hyenas, cheetahs, lions and desert-adapted elephants (00 264 6124 8137; ultimatesafaris.na).

Meru National Park, Kenya

Sleep among palm, mahogany and fig trees, then set off on a walking safari with guide Steve Carey. This mobile camp has a crocodile-free riverside location, which makes it perfect for fishing and swimming (00 254 7278 04922; 
laikipia-wilderness.com).

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