Mozambique: Return of the wild to the fields of battle

Civil war devastated this African country – its animals as well as its people. Now it is becoming a nature sanctuary once more, says Minty Clinch

As the sun set over Mozambique's Gorongosa National Park, we scanned the savannah for lions. With an estimated 45 tawny predators roaming an area the size of Essex, our chances were not good. Gin and tonics in hand, we stood in the middle of plains stretching towards mountains on distant horizons. Just the seven of us, the only people staying in the park's only camp, and we'd already ticked off a number of big beasts. If we were to see lions on our last evening, we'd need to get very lucky indeed.

As we did. Our targets appeared out of the gloaming, two young males with dark manes and playful natures. Andy Smith, our Zimbabwean guide, said they were about four years old, powerful and agile, but teenagers in lion terms. And that's how they behaved, dodging about and stalking our Landcruiser, then regrouping for the games of push and shove that they never seem to tire of. Caught in the searchlight, they closed in, eager to check out creatures from another planet. Masai Mara lions habitually stretch out in the sun, posing for vehicles crammed with amateur photographers. But not these ones. Their curiosity easily outlasted our need to eat: an hour later we left them staring after us as we drove away.

"Noah's Ark stopped in Gorongosa." Or so it was claimed in Mozambique before the savage civil conflict that divided the country after independence from Portugal in 1975. In the colonial era, Gregory Peck and John Wayne shot to kill in this southern section of the Great Rift Valley without making serious inroads into game more dense than on the Serengeti Plains. Once their trophies were stripped for shipment to Hollywood, the actors watched the sun go down over cocktails from the upper floor of the Lion House. Maybe they thought they'd died and gone to heaven. If not, why not?

This sybaritic lifestyle ended when the Portuguese left. In a fit of pique, the defeated colonisers poisoned water sources nationwide. But it was the hostilities between Frelimo, the Soviet-backed government responsible for independence, and Renamo, the forces financed by white supremacists in South Africa and Zimbabwe, that destroyed the country. By the time the United Nations brokered an uneasy peace in 1992, a million people were dead and most of the country's wild animals had been eaten or killed for ivory, skins and horn.

When Greg Carr visited Mozambique in 2004, he fell in love with the country and decided to set up an eco-project to provide jobs and schools for some of its people. After touring six possible locations, he hit on Gorongosa. "This is magnificent," he said. "Let's restore it." Fortunately, Greg had made billions selling digital voicemail systems to telecom companies; not only was he in a position to pledge money from the non-profit Gregory C Carr Foundation that he'd set up in 1999, but he had the skills and energy to liaise effectively with Frelimo, still in power after two decades of democratic elections.

Mozambique sells natural gas to South Africa and coal to Brazil. Chinese businessmen have been allowed to buy up the fishing rights along the spectacular 1,500 mile coastline and import their own workforce to exploit them. Mining for titanium could increase national prosperity. Yet, as Carr was quick to note, nothing much had been filtering through

the layers of corruption down to the bulk of the people. On the coast, villagers survived narrowly on subsistence agriculture. Around Gorongosa, poaching was an irresistible though inevitably diminishing element in a very precarious equation.

Carr knew that had to change and fast if the devastation was to be reversed. He pledged £30m to a 30-year scheme to restore the park to its former glory and provide the locals with a sustainable lifestyle that didn't include killing animals. The first phase was to set up an effective policing team. Villagers who knew the area well were recruited and appropriately rewarded for success. Poachers turned gamekeepers? Who cared, so long as the job got done.

The game restocking programme began at the same time, with head counts to record progress on many fronts. Gorongosa now has 300 elephants, their gene pool enriched by six bulls imported from South Africa's Kruger National Park – but don't expect to get up close for pictures, as you can in Botswana and Namibia.

Shortly before our lion watch, we came upon a herd of cow elephants with their young. After shooing her juniors out of the way, the war veteran faced up to us with intent to charge, trunk raised and ears spread. Her trumpeting rang out over the bush as she made sure we knew she meant it. A Landcruiser is no match for an angry animal weighing 7,000lbs (3.5 tons), so Andy backed off fast. The matriarch held her ground until she felt her extended family was out of danger, then turned as if to shrug her shoulders as she tramped away. So it's true then, they never forget.

The restoration of the grazing herds so well suited to expansive tropical grasslands is another high priority. Buffalo meat is so delicious that a pre-war population, estimated at 14,000, had zero chance of surviving Gorongosa's killing fields. But the 400 newcomers should multiply rapidly in the absence of serious competition from humans and other animals. We saw plenty, along with wildebeest and black sable, elegant and indigenous, but rare in such large family groups. There are 4,000 hippos and uncounted civet cats, their striking spots revealed in the headlights during night drives. Zebra top the list of essential imports for late 2011.

So far, so good. But if Carr's dream of providing decently paid work for a significant proportion of the 250,000 people within the 10 kilometre perimeter buffer zone is to be realised, Gorongosa has to be self-supporting in the long term. Although I can't deny that it was a rare pleasure and a privilege to share such magnificent habitat with one British honeymoon couple and four Norwegians, such prosperity demands a lot more accommodation.

Currently, visitors on a budget can stay in cabanas or camp at the simple state-run lodge outside the main entrance at Chitengo, eating in the airy café-restaurant or buying provisions in the shop. Those with more to spend check into Explore Gorongosa, a luxury camp 12 miles down a gravel road. It stands on a low cliff overlooking a river full of crocodiles, so high jinks after dark are not recommended.

Explore is owned and immaculately run by Rob and Jos Janish, a young couple from Zimbabwe. In line with contemporary high-end bush lore, the minimum-impact camp is unfenced with six walk-in semi-permanent tents set far apart to create a feeling of isolation in the wild.

We drank cocktails in the sitting area which is part conversation space, with deep armchairs, and part library, with books about flora and fauna. Our meals, cooked by Akim from Zimbabwe, were far more sophisticated than the British colonial fare I had in the £400-a-night lodges of Botswana and Zambia. Eating under the stars and sharing travellers' tales around a campfire afterwards were added bonuses.

In line with the Janish philosophy that game is best spotted at lion level, we grabbed a quick coffee at dawn and followed Andy along the Msicadzi River. A martial eagle hovered above us and a pair of Goliath herons, the world's largest, stood motionless on the bank, eyes alert for prey. Crocodile heads in the breathing position showed above muddy waters, the sun not yet high enough to tempt them out to bask on the shore. A monitor lizard dived with a flash of thick tail. Wart hogs, waterbuck, oribi and impala skittered and scattered, a comforting indicator that there were no lions nearby. But elephants?

Suddenly, Andy froze and made the universal safari guide's trunk sign, pointing in the direction we should look. And there it was, a single bull, amazingly well camouflaged but briefly glimpsed through the trees.

Aware that accommodation for a dozen guests is nowhere near enough, the government has granted three further private concessions in distant parts of the park. The one for a permanent camp at Dingue, near the park's eastern perimeter, has gone to Pedro and Ana Meireles, Portuguese entrepreneurs who spent a month on the spice island of Pemba in northern Mozambique in 2005. Like Carr, they fell in love, so they returned to Porto to disperse their global fashion empire in preparation for "retirement".

"We were exhausted by the consumer society and Mozambique appealed because of its 500-year link with home," said Pedro over coffee at Chitengo. "When the concessions came up in 2009, Greg backed our proposal because of its sustainability." The initial plan is to set up two groups of 10 tents on the River Urema. In a no-expense-spared project, Allan Schwarz, South Africa's celebrated architect, has designed innovative tents with sail-style roofing instead of canvas to reduce the heat. Rain water and solar-powered energy will be used throughout and the swimming pool, cleaned by plants rather than chlorine, will be a main social focus.

As sophisticated international operators, Pedro and Ana know when to push the boat out, so the first guests will sip champagne as they approach the camp from the river in early 2012. It would be easy to build a bridge, but a raft is much more romantic, an important point when peddling chic consumer dreams in the wilderness. The Meireles will be hands-on hosts in what is very much a family affair. "Ana and I met 38 years ago and we're still deeply in love," said Pedro. "My wife is a great cook and Pico, our 33-year-old son, is a chef, so he will join her in the kitchen. I shall look after the Portuguese wines in my cellar. Very calm, very Zen."

Meanwhile, work is due to begin on the two larger projects towards the mountains that border the park to the north. These will be lodges rather than camps, with activity programmes as well as game viewing. If you want to tackle a sweltering six-hour climb to a 6,000ft peak, this is the way to go. Not quite as calm as the camps, perhaps, but for most of us, getting into Gorongosa before the hordes should be Zen enough.

COMPACT FACTS

How to get there

Minty Clinch travelled with Wild Frontiers Adventure Travel (020-7371 3131; wildfrontiers.co.uk ). Tailor-made packages to Mozambique cost from £2,350 per person, based on two sharing, including four nights at Explore Gorongosa (full board, all game activities), four nights at Nuarro Eco Lodge (full board, dhow cruises, eco trails and kayaking), and a night at Pemba Beach Hotel (B&B), including domestic flights and transfers. South African Airways (0871 722 1111; flysaa.com) has flights from London to Beira and back from Pemba, via Johannesburg, from £950.

Further information

Mozambique High Commission (mozambiquehighcommission.org.uk).

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