'I hear the boom of hornbills, the bark of baboons'
In the chill of early morning, a light mist hangs above Lake Urema, the water droplets reflecting the first rays. Across the savannah is the glint of impala, burly waterbuck, square-jawed wildebeest, a handsome solitary nyala in the distance, retreating into a copse of sculptural fever trees.
Kicking up the dust, a family of warthog trot past, their tails upright like aerials. I hear the soft boom-boom of ground hornbill, the bisyllabic bark of baboons.
Before the heat rises, as the dew trembles, clinging to the leaves of acacia, there is a rare stillness here. Like the static silhouette of a kingfisher perched on a branch, its colours not yet evident in the brume.
This stillness, this hush is the hallmark of a trip to Gorongosa, where you invariably have the place to yourself. At daybreak, there is no roar of safari vehicles heading into the bush, nor the one-upmanship chatter of who saw what.
Instead there is a quietude, the feeling of remoteness, a wilderness that is increasingly hard to find. Like the good old safari days when you could drive for days and kid yourself that you might be the only person left on the planet. I didn't come across any other tourists until my fifth day.
Gorongosa feels unsung, forgotten.Yet back in the Sixties, this national park was as loved and frequented as the Serengeti or Kruger, the behemoths in neighbouring Tanzania and South Africa respectively.
I leaf through some faded old National Geographic and Sciences et Voyages magazines from that time, documenting "the most marvellous sanctuary of wildlife in the known world", "where the animals are king", articles that noted the biodiversity, the multitude of birdlife, the massive herds roaming these Rift Valley grasslands.
There were so many animals, some said this is where Noah must have left his ark. But after Mozambique won independence from Portugal in 1975, civil war broke out. Hundreds of thousands of people died, millions more were displaced. Much of the fighting centred around Mount Gorongosa, a 6,000ft massif, which became the stronghold of opposition guerrilla fighters.
Wildlife in the park was seriously depleted: elephants were killed for ivory, zebra for pelts, to buy weapons; herbivores became bush meat, lions target practice, or they died of starvation with nothing left to hunt.
More than 90, maybe 95 percent of the park's large mammals were extirpated. For decades there was no longer a reason to come here. But in recent years there has been a push to reverse that.
A public-private initiative - by the government and a non-profit organisation called the Gorongosa Restoration Project - has been working to recover the habitat, the wildlife and to build good relations with the community.
I had come to see how that looked on the ground. As it turns out, the land is being remarkably forgiving. Some species are reaching or even exceeding pre-war estimates, such as crocodile, waterbuck and baboon. The changes are most obvious to locals, those who have been in and out of the park over the course of their lives.
Park Warden Pedro Muagura says of the Nineties: "You could look for a whole day and not see even a baboon. Most days I saw nothing."
One day I went out with two Mozambican wildlife vets, Tonecas and Mercia. We watched a lioness cut a silhouette across the floodplain. She was in fine condition, muscles rippling as she padded through the grass, on the hunt perhaps. Not far away, lying in the shade of a bush, was her son, a strong, three-year-old male. It was late afternoon but still warm and the lion was panting.
Through my binoculars I studied the spots on its face, whiskers twitching away flies, its tail whipping from time to time across its haunches. We had come not only to spectate.
Tonecas was already preparing a rifle with a pressurised dart, while Mercia was measuring the sedative. When ready, Tonecas propped his elbows on the window frame, pointed the gun, waited for the wind to drop, and then took aim. The dart pierced the lion's hind leg and it leapt to its feet; it was a perfect shot.
Tonecas narrated as we watched the animal pace around, surveying the area suspiciously. "He's thinking, 'What happened? What's in that bush?' He's confused. But it's OK, it's normal. Now we wait."
The lion slowed and then flopped under another bush; in less than 10 minutes its head had slumped. Tonecas alighted from our vehicle first, and I followed. But as he started to blindfold the lion with a swatch of cloth, it suddenly rose up. We hastily retreated, tripping over each other. Then as swiftly as the lion had stirred, it collapsed again. Tonecas re-approached and shook the lion's tail. I waited; the animal didn't stir.
Then the two vets set to work: collaring the lion, checking that the device functioned, measuring the animal's dimensions. I watched on, almost holding my breath, crouched beside this formidable animal.
These moments became one of my most treasured wildlife experiences: so close to a wild lion, and so intimately involved in the research here.
Gorongosa's fieldwork, the data gathering, the on-site molecular analysis of genetic samples, make for an impressive programme - and it's open to visitors. I toured the laboratories, opening drawers of pinned butterflies and crickets, holding up to the light glass jars crammed with preserved bats, and meeting young Mozambican students studying conservation biology; park authorities told me they offer the world's first masters programme established entirely inside a national park.
I also mixed with the scientists who eat at the same restaurant as the tourists, allowing for fascinating conversation over dinner; they're some of the world's best academics in their field, including dozens from Oxford University, lured here in part because the country is so unstudied.
Piotr Naskrecki, a research associate at Harvard University based here in Gorongosa, tells me he is about to publish a paper about the discovery of a new mammal. A paper on singing insects describes nine new-to-science species in the park; at least two of them are endemic to Gorongosa.
Their work is helping pave the way for some pioneering conservation programmes, such as last year's reintroduction of the endangered wild dog. Since then, the size of the pack has grown from 14 to more than 40. The park may decide to bring back hyenas and rhinos, if conditions are right.
It is hoped other species might return naturally; the first leopard spotted in 10 years was seen in April, perhaps slinking in from the buffer zone. Other translocations are intended to boost numbers of existing animals, such as buffalo, elephants and wildebeest.
Gorongosa now is even able to supply other parks with species flourishing here, such as waterbuck.
As a safari experience, this is more than chalking up the big five, but watching live conservation in action. Alongside the science is the often overlooked outreach. Gorongosa Restoration Project spends half its annual budget on supporting the community - in one of the poorest areas in one of the poorest countries in the world.
The recent win is coffee on Mount Gorongosa, where farmers are giving up maize and the attendant slash-and-burn practices. Coffee needs shade, which means the preservation and replanting of indigenous hardwood trees.
"Coffee beans can actually stop deforestation," says Quentin Haarhoff, who heads up the project. "We've just had our first harvest and the farmers are getting $500 (£388) per hectare; they usually see $150 in a year. There's more money, more trees, more knowledge about protecting the forest."
I spoke with three coffee farmers, all mothers with more than 10 children between them, who told me they used their revenue to buy "clothes for their children and schoolbooks".
Haarhoff tells me, during a recent uprising, the trio had sneaked into the coffee farm's nursery to water the seedlings.
"That's how much they are invested in the programme," he adds.
By chance, on the day I visited, they were quietly celebrating their first ever export of coffee bags to the US. It might sound odd to learn that tourism feels almost like an afterthought. But that may not be so puzzling, given the cycles of history.
Even though the war officially ended nearly 30 years ago, there has been ongoing violence for decades. Additionally, earlier this year, Cyclone Idai blew through, killing more than 1,000 people, devastating the country's infrastructure and smashing up Gorongosa, too.
Mozambique has witnessed how tourism can go up and down, and further down; relying on foreign visitor arrivals is a gamble. But the future may now hold promise.
In August, the two main political parties signed a peace accord; that was followed by elections on October 15. Some say Mozambique is beginning a new chapter; if so, Gorongosa may yet reclaim a position on the safari landscape.
Two new lodgings are opening inside the park: Camp Muzimu, six classic stilted tents on the Mussicadzi River, set to open in July; there will also be the slickly designed 10-tent camp Royal Gorongosa, sister property to The Silo in Cape Town and Royal Malewane in Kruger National Park.
The park hopes to develop a safari circuit with a coffee lodge at Mount Gorongosa and a riverside camp on the Zambezi, which forms the northern border of Mozambique.
Until now, Gorongosa might have been getting on with the job of recovery and restoration understatedly, but moving forward it may be ready to showcase its extraordinary turnaround. --The Sunday Telegraph
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