Friday, July 29, 2011

Gorongosa National Park (Mozambique)

After oscillating between the inside of the lab and in front of the computer, I was really looking forward to seeing a bit more of Mozambique than just Chimoio. It was my first time in "real" Africa (everyone agreed Morocco doesn't really count). For my final weekend, I wanted to go on a safari!

In its heyday, Gorongosa National Park was the premiere safari destination in Africa. Civil war and poaching caused devastating losses in the wildlife and left the 5000+ sq km (~ 2000 sq miles) riddled with landmines. In recent years, the Carr Foundation and the government - along with other partners, like USAID also - have been working to rebuild the infrastructure and repopulate the wildlife as Africa's largest restoration project.

The public camp was fully booked for several weeks, but luckily, I squeezed into a spot with Explore Gorongosa, the first private venture. I found out why when I arrived. National Geographic was shooting a follow-up on the park after their first film, Africa's Lost Eden (see the link below for the trailer).

Also, lo and behold! E.O. Wilson - Pulitzer Prize winner, the rockstar of entomology, and god among conservationists - just happened to be visiting this remote corner of Mozambique. He and his entourage were on a biodiversity tour. As I was explaining to my physicist husband, this was a bit like having Stephen Hawking in the next camp over pop in for a cup of tea. [As a side note, our college entomology club once drove 2 hours to hear him give a lecture with the words "E.O. or Bust!" emblazoned on the side of the van.] Alas, the poor man (82 years old and going) was pretty worn out with the travel and paparazzi. His packed schedule got thrown out of whack, so in the end, I did not get to meet him or attend his talk. So close yet so far away...

While I didn't a glimpse of E.O., it was a great consolation to see some equally rare creatures! With the short time frame, our game drives were so lucky that I was seriously starting to doubt the guide's claims that some animals were difficult to find. Elephants there are particularly skittish since their interactions with humans have been through the violence of war or unrestricted hunting. We sat and watched elephants twice... even though the previous guests had gone almost a week looking for just one! Even the night viewing was good. A mother lioness and her three offspring were lounging with their bellies full at Casa dos LeƵes (an abandoned building), a place where they hadn't been seen for 3 years. On a walk, I got props for spotting a hefty Pel's Fishing Owl, apparently quite a feather in the cap for many serious birders. On my final drive, we came across a herd of buffalo, which even the guide hadn't seen since he had started working there.

Gorongosa also has more common creatures, which I still found thrilling. Because of the lack of big predators, the park is abundant with easily viewed smaller animals. Baboons with red bottoms and vervet monkeys scamper in and about the trees. To those fans of The Lion King, the first time one of the numerous warthogs came trotting by, it was really hard not to shout, "Pumbaa!" Gorongosa is absolutely teeming with antelope from the tiny oribi to the almost llama-like waterbuck. There were all the reedbucks, bushbucks, hartebeests, nyalas, and impalas in between.

The diversity of the 10 different biomes within the park make it an attraction for birders as well. I am not one, but I could appreciate the cougals, cranes, vultures, thrushes, and herons, too. My favorite birdy was the lilac-breasted roller. I think this is a misnomer. Ok, yeah, it has a purple chest. But it also has beautiful turquoise bands across its wings that, in flight, flash iridescently like a frickin' morpho butterfly!

After early starts and extended game drives, it was relaxing to come back to the camp. Greeted with refreshing drinks (even Pimm's!), turn-down service in your private tent, and dinner on white tablecloths under a gorgeous view of the stars would make anyone enjoy "camping." The camp was really eco-friendly - including no electricity - without sacrificing luxury. Who would really want to quibble about a bucket shower when one could have afternoon tea and cakes delivered to your hammock?

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