By the time we finally got out of the rainforest, night had firmly fallen. I'd long since stopped caring whether snakes might be coiled around the mossy trees I was grabbing to help me over the boulders blocking what was a virtually indiscernible path. My new boots were squelching with every step and my trousers, plastered with terracotta-coloured mud, clung to my aching legs. Our hike had lasted six hot and sticky hours, yet despite my exhaustion, I felt strangely invincible.
Why? Because earlier that morning we'd given gifts to Canda, the local village community on whose territory Mount Gorongosa, in central Mozambique, lies. Following local custom, these gifts included five litres of Portuguese red wine, a bottle of local gin, two packs of cigarettes, a lighter and some black and white cloth – all essential features of a blessing ceremony asking their ancient ancestors to protect us on our climb.
Most of the houses in Canda are built of mud and thatch. A few dogs slouched outside in the heat and a rather cocksure turkey strutted around bullying some chickens. The villagers gathered around us, brightly dressed yet barefoot women sitting on the ground and men in more Western clothes on wooden chairs. I sat in the middle on a mat. Then the village chief, Regulo Eugenio, wrapped the cloth we'd brought around him and the ceremony began. First came the red wine in a communal tin mug which was passed around everyone, including me, to sip. That was easy enough. However, for a non-smoker, lighting up and passing around a cigarette wasn't quite so simple. I put it to my lips, and didn't inhale. (I think I got away with it.)
After the formalities came the dancing and singing, shrieking and ululating. Language differences meant we couldn't talk to one another. But a smile is a smile in any culture. As one woman tried to teach me the dance steps, another giggled whenever I clapped the wrong beat. Warm eyes all around greeted my pathetic efforts to get the moves right.
There's a serious side to this ceremony. The chief was asking his ancestors not only to protect us, but to protect the mountain too. Right now, Mount Gorongosa needs all the help it can get. The rainforest here is being destroyed as families on the slopes burn charcoal and practise slash-and-burn. They clear plots to plant their crops, only to discover after two years that the soil is exhausted and useless. Then they start the process again on a new tranche of rainforest.
I saw those areas, like gaping wounds, as I climbed that afternoon. Where once there was deep green, humid rainforest, there were now tangled patches of abandoned and withered vegetation, old banana plants, maize and beans wrapped around each other like matted hair, suffocating the earth.
Year-round, the mountain and its scarred yet luscious rainforest feeds the lakes and rivers of the extraordinarily beautiful Gorongosa National Park. This is an area the size of Essex: 4,000 sq km of savannah, woodlands and grasslands that lie at the southern rim of the East African Rift Valley, once home to one of Africa's largest and most diverse wildlife populations. Local observers believe that unless the forest's deterioration is halted within the next five years, the opportunity to save it will be lost forever, and along with it the amazing biodiversity of Gorongosa.
And this is where Idaho-based US multi-millionaire Greg Carr comes in. Having made his fortune selling voicemail systems in the 1990s, he decided to establish a philanthropic organisation: the Carr Foundation. "I was asked by the Mozambican government to pursue a project that would alleviate poverty" he later told me. "In the beginning, it was entirely a human development project but then I started hearing about this forgotten national park, Gorongosa, which was once one of the most popular parks in Africa. So I thought, what if we can restore this park? Then we can achieve biodiversity restoration and human development at the same time."
Restoring Mount Gorongosa is now one of his key priorities, with tree nurseries and replanting already bringing in alternative employment. Newly trained guides and porters are benefiting from tourism, although it's still early days for the trekking industry: during my visit, our group had the mountain to ourselves.
After emerging from the rainforest, a huge full moon illuminated our walk to the camp just below the summit and a tricky scramble in the morning took us to the top. Standing above the clouds, the view was almost mystical. I could see glimpses of green meadows and hills with villages and huts scattered haphazardly below. On the descent, the reward for all our sweaty efforts was a refreshing swim in the dramatic Murombodzi waterfall, where the noise of the spray obliterated my screams at the coldness of the water.
I returned to the park for a night at Chitengo camp, which has a range of accommodation from en-suite cabañas to camping areas with facilities echoing its golden days of the 1960s. Back then it was a favourite haunt for wildlife-loving Rhodesians, the expatriate set and even Hollywood stars such as John Wayne and Gregory Peck. With its smart restaurant, two swimming pools and well stocked bar, life was good at Chitengo and Gorongosa's dramatic landscapes with lakes, miombo forests and vast plains of prolific wildlife completed the picture.
More than 2,000 elephants were recorded here in 1960 when Gorongosa was first designated a National Park, along with up to 14,000 wild buffalo. And "the lion house" became one of its main attractions when a pride of lions turned a disused bar and restaurant into a kind of bush squat after it was abandoned due to a somewhat ill-conceived location on the floodplains. Vintage footage shows lions adeptly climbing the spiral concrete staircase, lounging on the flat roof and choosing their dinner from the prey on the plains.
Even during Mozambique's struggle for independence from Portugal between the mid-1960s and 70s, Gorongosa remained relatively unscathed. That changed when the long, bitter and bloody civil war broke out following independence between the new socialist government Frelimo and the Renamo, the Rhodesia-backed rebel forces.
In 1982, the National Park was closed and both parties fought for control of the region, at terrible human cost. By the end of the war in 1992, Gorongosa had been witness to violent battles, kidnappings and the murder of women and children; aerial bombings had turned buildings into piles of rubble, demolishing any remnants of its former glamour.
The brutality of war also took its toll on the wildlife. Desperate to fund arms supplies, both sides slaughtered Gorongosa's elephant population for ivory, wiping out an estimated 90 per cent of the population. Other animals – zebra, buffalo, wildebeest and antelope – were killed for food. Lions, starved of their prey, disappeared.
The park emerged from the conflict an empty, almost ghostly shell, with war wounds that seemed irreparable. Then, when peace finally returned, Gorongosa became prey to illegal hunters and poachers. With no one to police them, they scoured the park at will and helped themselves – and the butchers in nearby Beira city – to what little was left of its wildlife. This year marks the 50th anniversary of Gorongosa as a National Park, but there were clearly times when it seemed there would be nothing left to celebrate.
Over recent years, however, a healing process has been going on – not just for wildlife but for local communities too. I stayed at the park's only private concession, Explore Gorongosa. This is a very relaxed, low-impact-yet-luxurious tented camp run by Zimbabweans Rob and Jan Janisch, both of whom are passionate about restoring Gorongosa. It was here that I met Pereira, Explore's chief scout and a former soldier in the Frelimo forces (the Liberation Front of Mozambique, which began as a guerrilla force but has held power since independence from Portugal in 1975).
His guided tour of the park comes complete with explanations of the location of battles, hiding places and prison camps. Yet his roommate these days is fellow guide Rui, once a Renamo (National Resistance, fiercely opposed to Frelimo) fighter, but now his best friend and godfather to his child.
Most of the park's staff come from the village of Vinho, where the Carr Foundation has built a new school and clinic, as it plans to do in all communities in Gorongosa's buffer zone, an area which runs for 10km around the perimeters of the park and is home to some 250,000 inhabitants. (According to Carr, "The park should benefit the entire area, nature and people.") To get there, we crossed the fast-flowing, brown waters of the Pungue river first by motorboat and then by a wobbly dugout canoe so narrow my size 10 rear could barely fit in. "Don't dip your hand in the water," Cass, our guide, warned. "The crocodiles will eat it."
Relieved to reach Vinho, we saw the new clinic, primary school and solar-powered computer room. One of Carr's many passions here is that children should have the same opportunities as children in more developed countries, including access to the internet. Their solid brick structures were a sharp contrast to the disused shack of sticks that was the previous village classroom.
Next morning we went on a walking safari with Rob along the Msicadzi river near their camp. "We often come across lions around here. If you see one, stand deadly still," Rob advised us calmly as we started out. "If you move, you'll react like prey and they might attack." Aside from that nagging concern, it was a gentle walk, stopping to watch what Rob called fire engines (bright red dragonflies) fluttering around the grasses, and golden orb spiders weaving shiny webs so strong they're currently being researched as a possible replacement for Kevlar, used to make bullet-proof vests.
Kingfishers darted across the river, a lilac-crested roller flirted to impress his lady by doing an avian-style triple-salsa, a young bateleur eagle soared overhead and a flock of white-faced ducks flew in relay, whistling as they went. At least Gorongosa's birdlife survived its troubled past; there are some 400 species here, including the rare green-headed oriole, only seen near the summit of Mount Gorongosa.
The rest of the wildlife is also returning. Since Carr's involvement, buffalo, elephants, wildebeest and antelopes have been relocated from South Africa's Kruger National Park. After a spell in Gorongosa's sanctuary, a fenced area used for familiarising animals with their new environment, they are released to the wild to breed naturally.
We came across impala, bushbucks, waterbucks, sable, nyala, bush-pigs, reedbucks, crocodiles, baboons and some huge warthogs. And along muddy, cotton-soil dirt-roads, it was easy to discern the tracks of hippos, elephants, civet cats and lions – possibly the same lions I'd heard at 2am roaring in the dark, staking their territorial claims. From the safety of my tent, I felt glad they were coming back to Gorongosa to breed their prides.
But Gorongosa breeds optimism as well as wildlife: come for a while and you'll leave believing everything is possible. I have no doubt that Carr's dreams will be realised. "In 20 years, I believe the ecosystem will be full of animals again and the water catchment leading to the park can be protected," he told me.
More lodges are being planned for the future too. But now is a good time to visit – Gorongosa may be on the cusp of something truly wonderful. It's like watching a once-traumatised child growing stronger, learning to stand on its own two feet, and blossoming into maturity.
* The writer travelled to Gorongosa with Africa travel specialist Toescapeto (020-7060 6747; toescapeto.com), which can arrange a five-night safari to Gorongosa National Park with two nights at Chitengo Camp and three nights at Explore Gorongosa for £2,200 per person, including all flights and transfers.
* The writer flew with TAP Portugal (0845 601 0932; flytap.com) which flies from Heathrow to Maputo via Lisbon.
Red tape & more information
* British passport-holders require a visa to visit Mozambique. These can be obtained in advance from the High Commission of Mozambique (020-7383 3800; mozambiquehighcommission.org.uk) for £40, but you could save money by buying one on arrival.
* Gorongosa National Park: gorongosa.net
* Mozambique Tourism: mozambiquetourism.co.za