Gorongosa roadtrip

It has become a tradition for us to begin the summer vacation by traveling in the region for 10-12 day. Two years ago we drove to Botswana and then on to the epic Victoria Falls. Last year we flew up to the country’s heritage-listed old capital, Ilha de Mozambique. Now, we had agreed it was time again to take the car for a hefty ride along what partly proved to be shockingly bad roads. The goal this time was Gorongosa, the former crown jewel among the national parks of Mozambique. In the sixties, the park was a popular destination for Portuguese colonists and rich Rhodesians. However, during the civil war (76-92) following independence from Portugal, most of the animal populations were eliminated; the elephants were poached for their ivory which could be exchanged for weapons, while other animals were killed to eat. Even after the peace treaty -92, unregulated trophy hunting continued for a few years. It is estimated that 90-95% of the animals had disappeared by then. Since 2004, however, the American philanthropist Greg Carr has invested multimillion dollar amounts through his foundation, for a joint venture with the Mozambican government to restore Gorongosa’s glory and to promote sustainable tourism. Animal populations have steadily increased, and the Portuguese hotel chain Montebelo runs a lodge and safari activities within the park’s boundaries. You are not allowed to self-drive in there since some elephants show aggressive behavior, because they still have traumatic memories of war horrors. An elephant never forgets.

Peculiar Mozambique map/sculpture in the middle if nowhere, en-route to Limpopo NP

The closest route is to drive just about 1000 kilometers up north from Maputo along the EN1 main road, which requires two overnight stays to get decent day trips. We drove that way home, but on our way there we took a detour across South Africa and Zimbabwe to see other magnificent nature areas. By the way, a map of our route is available here. We started by aiming for what is known as the Limpopo National Park, an appendix to South Africa’s Kruger Park but located on Mozambique’s side of the border. It is part of a major initiative to establish a ”transfrontier park”, a huge ecosystem that spans three countries – in addition to Kruger and Limpopo, also Gonarezhou NP in Zimbabwe. But the Limpopo Park can not – yet at least – in any way be compared with the Kruger Park; there are very few animals, very bad infrastructure (read: terribly corrugated gravel roads) and almost nowhere to stay. In addition, there are still communities left within the national park, from where much of the poaching that is plaguing the Kruger Park is organized. The authorities’ ambition has been to resettle the people living there, but it has proven  unsuccessful – very likely because the right people in power positions get their fair share of the money from the poaching.

Machampane Wilderness Camp

Anyway, we spent one night at the Machampane Wilderness Camp, perhaps the only place of reasonable class inside the Limpopo Park. There you stay in permanently pitched tents, very nicely located next to a river. During the drive there we actually saw three giraffes as well as some antelopes and monkeys, which may be considered sensational for being in this national park. At night, some of us also heard the whining of the hyenas. But as said, you don’t really come here see loads of animals, but rather to experience virtually still untouched wilderness, which is fine. The following day we continued to Giriyondo, a border check to South Africa that leads straight into the central part of the Kruger Park. We have been many times in the southern parts of the park, so now we thought it was time to visit the north. It is claimed that there are not as many animals there, which may be true, but at the same time there are significantly fewer visitors as well. In any case, we saw a lot of wildlife, and above all we were amazed at the numbers of elephants up there in the north.

Giriyondo, little used border post between Mozambique and South Africa

The vegetation there also has a different character. The majestic Baobab trees are common, while the forests of almost magically green shimmering  Fever Trees are spreading out. They got their name from early European settlers who noted that they easily contracted fevers where these trees grew. They mistakenly believed that the trees infected them. But the reason was that this family of trees thrives in swampy areas where there is also abundant with mosquitoes, that in their turn carry malaria.

Fever Tree Forest

After northern Kruger we continued to yet another border crossing: the infamous Beitbridge, between South Africa and Zimbabwe. It is the busiest border control in all of southern Africa. Lots of Zimbabweans are migrant laborers in South Africa. When they are traveling they must pass right there, because it is the only border control between the countries. Luckily, it’s open 24 hours a day and buses are compelled to pass at night, but there are many horror stories online about people who are stuck for hours there. Fortunately, for us it went pretty smooth. Out of South Africa was really fast, while it took around an hour to enter Zimbabwe, past a number of different stations: first to immigration, then pay road tax, arrange a third party insurance for the car, go to the customs, get the police clearance, then back to customs. Then we were all set to roll into the country.

Not much to see along the road in Zimbabwe, but we stopped for sodas at a roadside stall
Chimanimani mountains

The reason that we opted to drive this way was that we wanted to see the Chimanimani Mountains, a range that stretches along the border between Zimbabwe and Mozambique. From Beitbridge to Chimanimani it is about 500 km’s, a fairly long distance with not much to see along the way. We were almost alone on the roads as well, except for the occasional truck or bus. Because of the country’s miserable economy, normal people simply can not afford to drive anymore. Chimanimani, the central village there, used to be a tourist magnet. Loads of people went there to hike in the mountains. There were posh hotels and golf courses. But that’s not anymore. As Zimbabwe is sinking deeper into the mire, tourism has almost completely ceased, and these days only few independent travelers like ourselves end up there. The village is now in a steady decline, the once impressive Chimanimani Hotel is a shadow of its former glory (we had dinner there one evening), the golf club’s restaurant turned out to function as a pool room for idle employees, etc. At least there are still some guesthouses left and we stayed at Heaven Lodge. A cozy place where we had our own cabin, but it was cold as a hell. It was in the middle of winter, on high altitude, and  no heating in the house.  No amount of blankets would save you when you needed to visit the loo at night.

Bridal Veil falls
Tessa´s Pool









But it is still most beautiful with impressive peaks wherever you look. Mozambique’s highest mountain, Monte Binga (2436 meters above sea level), is located there smack on the border, and is accessible via trails from Chimanimani. However, we did not indulge ourselves in any such grueling efforts, but contented ourselves with shorter hikes to a couple of nice waterfalls in the surrounding areas.

In the border zone between Zimbabwe and Mozambique. initially good red dirt roads…
…that subsequently deteriorated. Here is the physical border..Please note the boom gate to the right in the picture. Time has stood still at this place.

When we moved on, it was time to return to Mozambique again. We did not go for either one of the two major border crossings that exist in this part of Zimbabwe, but a small post that previously could only be used by people crossing the border by foot. But we had managed to check beforehand that it was now possible to take a car across there. At the border station on the Zimbabwean side, Cashel, the police that stamped our passports was ecstatic by our arrival. Our presence – a whopping four people – significantly boosted his statistics! Then we had to drive about 10 km’s through no-man’s land on an initially quite okay dirt road, but the closer to Mozambican territory we got, the more the road deteriorated. Eventually, it was more like a rocky cattle track, but after entering the Mozambican side, through the village of Rotanda, we encountered a good gravel road once again.

My guide, Sr José, on the lookout for forest elephants

We were now supposed to stay one night at an eco-lodge in the Mozambican part of Chimanimani National Park, Camp Ndzou. It was founded by a couple we know from Maputo who runs a British NGO, Micaia, whose objective is to empower the people of this particular part of Mozambique, the Manica province, through various kinds of projects. This lodge was, for example, built in cooperation with people from the local community who now own and manage it. In the surrounding forests there are elephants (”ndzou” in the local language) that previously posed a lot of problems for the population, e.g. by destroying plantations. Micaia has tried to find solutions so that people and elephants can live in harmony, instead of hunting the elephants. One way is to create a ”fence” of beehives. The hives are placed at even intervals in the woods, and the sound of the buzzing bees actually scares the elephants. So smart! The following morning I went for a three-hour bush walk with a guide, SeñorJosé, to try to catch a glimpse of the elusive elephants. Unfortunately we did not see them, just their fresh droppings, but it was a memorable experience anyway.

The gate to Gorongosa NP in the setting sun

Then it was time for the final stage of our trip, up to Gorongosa via Manica’s provincial capital, Chimoio, a pleasant little town where Karin and I stayed overnight 16 years ago when we traveled around Mozambique by bus. We were a little uncertain whether or not visitors had started to come back to Gorongosa again after the sporadic armed fighting of recent years in this part of the country. But any such doubts were put to shame, as the lodge there was absolutely full. We went on two game drives, one in the morning and one in the evening.

The Sahlens on safari in Gorongosa
Waterbucks at dusk

The sceneries differ a lot from Kruger due to all the water in Gorongosa. There are several rivers and lakes, and next to them vast floodplains that are often flooded during the rainy season. Of course now it was dry season and awesome to see the enormous amounts of different antelopes and bucks grazing these plains. A couple of new species for us that we hadn’t seen before were bush pig and oribi – a little cute mini antelope. We also saw the lions… although it was a bit of ”cheating” since some of them carry gps collars to allow researchers to track them. As I mentioned in the beginning, Gorongosa is a unique rehabilitation project of its kind. National Geographic has made a documentary about it, Africa’s Lost Eden, and scientists from around the world monitor the progress of the reestablishment of animals. Many of the scientists are there. For example, we befriended an American whose field of research was vultures. He had also brought along his daughter on summer break from school, who was at the same age as Stella. At Gorongosa, we also got more drama than we had bargained for, as we woke up the first night with the ground trembling. The morning after it transpired that it had been a magnitude 5.8 earthquake with epicenter only around 100 km’s from us.

After two nights in Gorongosa it was time to return to Maputo again. We took two overnight stops along the way, in Inhassoro and Inharrime respectively. Then after returning home, we could note that our faithful workhorse of Toyota had taken us another 3000 km’s around southern Africa, without any mishaps whatsoever.