Return of the wild things

Nicola Walker witnesses the revival of Gorongosa National Park, once the jewel of Portuguese Africa.

Forty years ago, Mozambique's Gorongosa National Park was the jewel of Portuguese Africa. Here, it was said, Noah parked his ark and let his cargo loose. There were 14,000 buffalo, 400 lions, 2000 elephant, 3000 hippos and 5000 wildebeest. Thousands of waterbuck and impala, too, grazed alongside sable, kudu, hartebeest and eland, and the birdlife was equally outstanding. Kruger National Park in neighbouring South Africa may have been much larger but the floodplain of Gorongosa made it an emerald Eden.

It's the kind of nostalgia-laced story you sometimes hear in Mozambique: how in the colonial era everything worked and was fabulous. When my sister, Stacey, moved here in 1989 to work for a charity, the "glory" days were long gone, subsumed first in the liberation struggle against the Portuguese and then in the violent war fostered by South Africa not long after Mozambique won independence in 1975. The animals of Gorongosa were gunned down for meat or for sport and in 1983 the park closed.

After the peace agreement of 1992, Stacey and I (a frequent visitor) explored Mozambique's abundant historical architecture and beaches but went to Kruger to see animals. Then, in 2007, during the month I spent in Maputo, we began to hear stories about an American called Greg Carr and his eponymous foundation. He apparently wished to donate millions of dollars to the Mozambique Government to rebuild Gorongosa Park. It seemed a sensational act of philanthropy.

Gorongosa has always had a special allure. At 1863 metres, Gorongosa Mountain is the highest in the country and Gogogo, its mist-swaddled peak, is a sacred site. It shelters a precious swathe of rainforest and its rivers flow down the broad slopes to feed Lake Urema, the aorta of the floodplain. It is also home to the moustached grass-warbler, and who could resist that?

The park at the foot of the mountain was created in 1920 as a hunting reserve (and once had black rhino) by the Mozambique Company, which controlled central Mozambique from 1891 to 1940. Such companies were chartered by the Portuguese Government and given carte blanche to operate as feudal landlords of vast sugarcane and cotton estates.

Portugal squandered its headstart in the race for empire. Vasco da Gama dropped anchor off Ilha de Mocambique, a tiny island about 3200 kilometres up the coast from Maputo, in 1498. But it would take another 400 years for the Portuguese State to impose genuine authority. This was partly because the few early Lusitanian adventurers to survive malaria took to African customs and polygamy with gusto. They founded unruly Afro-Portuguese dynasties, built beautiful churches to baptise their mestizo children and paid little heed to the regulations issued from Lisbon. This cultural fusion must underpin the remarkable lack of racial tension in Mozambique and sets it apart from South Africa and Zimbabwe. It's a hoary cliche - I know - but Mozambicans are, on the whole, a cheerful lot.

When I returned to Maputo last year we decided to see the remarkable restoration of Gorongosa for ourselves and flew there by way of Beira, the capital of the province of Sofala and Mozambique's second-largest city. It is sleepier than Maputo, still partly derelict after the war but a sense of the Afro-Portuguese heyday lingers. A lean shoeshine man on a street corner expertly patches and cleans Stacey's decrepit sandals and charges us 10 cents. In the small central mercado, they coo over my four-year-old daughter, Iris, and sell us jars of preserved lemons and searing piri piri. We're picked up early the next morning for the 205-kilometre ride to the park.

One day, there will be a creche to attract parents - children are often prohibited from wildlife parks in southern Africa. In Gorongosa, children are not allowed in the open-air safari truck but can ride in regular four-wheel-drive vehicles. With the help of several lollipops and a jam sandwich, Iris is OK on safari but likes best the free-range, lawn-mowing warthogs in the accommodation complex of Chitengo.

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Carr lives in a tent in the park for up to a month at a time. But he is in America when we visit, so we're charmed instead by the park's public relations director, Vasco Galante, a former chief executive of a European company. He tells us the government cleared the park of landmines but didn't have the resources to do much else, until the Mozambican ambassador to the UN met and wooed Carr. He flew to Gorongosa in 2004 and pledged $US500,000. A year later, Carr was so taken with the place he wanted to donate up to $US40 million.

In January last year the Carr Foundation signed an agreement with the government to co-manage the park for 20 years. The aim is that Gorongosa once again will attract 20,000 visitors a year, reinvigorating the local economy.

What does Gorongosa have that would make a person give away nearly a quarter of his fortune? Carr's first visit was just after the wet season. We visit in November, at the end of the dry season, when the mozzie count is low and the floodplains are the colour of chaff - and at first I'm unimpressed. It takes a day for the place to work its spell.

The forest of fever trees - their lime-yellow bark glowing spectrally - is certainly surreal enough to provoke delusions, though Dr Livingstone, who gave them this name, was wrong to think them the cause of his sickness.

Gorongosa's secret is the extraordinary diversity of its landscape and the many waterholes, like billabongs, which in the dry still attract flocks of birds, such as marabou storks and spurwing geese. On each of our drives we criss-cross the park's various eco-systems, which are obvious even to my untutored eye.

Waterbuck and impala number thousands again but the bigger antelope are still rare and elusive and there are no zebras. We spend an hour searching for sable on the knobby ridges of the floodplain that is the tail-end of Africa's Rift Valley and we're jolted around like popcorn in a pan. It's bliss to return to Chitengo and down a cold beer in the warm embrace of the night. Iris steals all the chairs to make a bus and is only persuaded to give them up to visit the dessert section of the fresh buffet (a feat given the logistics of transporting produce in rural Mozambique).

The generator cuts out at 10pm, so we scurry down the path to our capacious beds, waving a torch to scare off black mambas and warthogs. Our newly built, two-room rondavel, a round African hut with a conical thatched roof, is simple but comfortable. It's a surprise to find that the staff have made things cosy while we were scoffing. Even an old colonial would have to concede that everything works a treat.

On our final morning we visit Vinho, a village 20 minutes by foot on the other side of the Pungwe River, which forms one of the park borders. Many of the park employees come from here and guests are encouraged to see African peasant life for themselves. Tonga, a young lad with excellent English who is a Carr protege, accompanies us and carries Iris over the river in a princely way.

As we meander along the path between the huts, I see some women pounding sorghum in a huge wooden mortar, then sieving it to make ushwa, a kind of polenta that is a staple here. I have long wanted to see how difficult this is and they cheerfully let me have a try. My arms ache after two minutes holding the small tree trunk that is the pestle, worn shiny with use.

Crocodiles killed four people on the riverbank last year and the conflict between people and wild animals is eternal. The men of Vinho have always hunted meat and now must be persuaded to leave the park animals alone by incentives such as the new health centre and school. Even so, four of Gorongosa's lions have been maimed in traps.

On our last safari, in the butter-soft light of late afternoon, we watch a small herd of elephants, gleaming from their bath in Paradise Pond and scything the bright green grass. The oldest matriarchs are still traumatised by their memories of slaughter and are unusually protective of the group. There are several babies and as always some atavistic pulse starts to race at the glorious sight of animals doing their thing in Africa. With Carr on board and a supportive government, Gorongosa looks set to reclaim its title as the gem of Mozambique.

FAST FACTS

Getting there

Johannesburg is the nearest international gateway to Mozambique from Australia (only TAP, the Portuguese carrier, and Kenya Airways fly directly to Maputo). Singapore Airlines has a fare for $1903, flying to Johannesburg with an aircraft change in Singapore, then with South African Airways (SAA) to Maputo. LAM, the national carrier, has a one-hour flight from Maputo to Beira. SAA has a fare to Beira for $2530 that lands in time for you to reach Gorongosa Park before the gates close at 6pm. (Fares are low-season return from Melbourne and Sydney, excluding tax.) Australians require a visa, available on arrival for $US20 ($30).

Hire a car in Beira if you want to drive around the park yourself. If not, a one-way, three-hour transfer from Beira to Gorongosa Park costs 1820 meticais ($107) a person.

Touring there

Gorongosa Park closes during the rainy season, from December to April. See gorongosa.net for exact dates; tours and accommodation can be booked on this site. The entry fee to Gorongosa National Park is 200mts a person, payable in meticais only. You can self-drive in the park for 500mts a vehicle. A guided three-hour game drive is 780mts a person. A trip to the nearby village of Vinho costs 350mts a person and should not be missed.

Accommodation at Chitengo, a complex in the park, in a double cabana is 2990mts. It is also possible to camp. Meals are reasonably priced. Gorongosa represents good value within the region, if less luxury than many private game lodges.

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