There are a number of national parks in Mozambique, but not with any huge animal populations. Most of it disappeared during the Civil War following independence from Portugal, although it has begun to recover a little bit. The closest one to us, Reserva Especial de Maputo (or Maputo Elephant Reserve) is no more than 60-70 kilometers to the south, though it takes around two hours to drive as the roads are not in very good condition. We had actually passed the gate to the reserve on the way to Ponta do Ouro the weekend before. Now it was another long weekend, the third in a short time, and our teacher friends from the Scandinavian School had planned to go there. We were not hard to persuade when asked to come along, and so did our good friend Thomas with his sons Dante and Leon. So we were a big and merry crowd that left early at dawn on the Saturday, with a total of four cars.
The first step involves crossing the Maputo Bay by ferry to Katembe, at least if you want to take the shortest route. The previous weekend when we went to Ponta do Ouro there was an endless line of cars waiting for the ferry, so then we decided to drive around the bay instead, a detour over Boane that takes an extra 1.5 hours on really rough roads. We preferred to not do that again, so from our previous experience we had decided to go down to the ferry port already at 5:45. This time we only had to queue for half an hour before we rolled on board. The transfer to the other side then took 20 minutes, so it was around nine o’clock when we arrived at the gate to the reserve.
This is where you pay the entrance , which also includes a camping fee. This is also the place to take necessary action with the car. Four wheel drive is really necessary, and in addition to that you must deflate the tyres. This facilitates driving in the deep sand tracks that constitute the roads inside the park. But even so, it does not always help, as it would appear when we came back a couple of days later. However, when we headed on into the reserve, it soon became apparent that Pernilla’s car had too low clearance and the chassi hit the ground so we had to return to the gate and leave her car there. Fortunately we had room for both passengers and luggage in the other cars after a little reshuffling. Once inside the gates you are completely left to your own devices. This is pure wilderness without any facilities whatsoever, and you need to be completely self-sufficient and bring all food, drinks and camping equipment. We brought a couple of small tents, and Per and Clara had some bigger ones that belonged to the school.
During two hours driving from the gate to the Ponta Milibangalala camping site, you will pass incredibly beautiful sceneries that shift between dense forests, vast savannas, rolling green hills and a string of small lakes and ponds. We stopped for a picnic lunch at one of the lakes. There are, as mentioned, animals too, and the reserve has been named after the herd of elephants that amounts to about 200 individuals nowadays. But this is something completely different than the Kruger Park, where elephants are accustomed to cars and barely takes notice. First of all, the elephants here look different as they are almost black, and secondly they are very shy since they are not used to being exposed to cars and humans. It is also said that these elephants are extra aggressive because they still have memories of how they were poached during the war, so it’s recommended not getting too close. Many park visitors don’t even see them, but we were lucky and saw small herds of elephants at proper distance, both on the way in and out of the reserve. In addition we saw zebras, gnues, hippos, different kinds of antelopes, and many marabou storks. Some in the group also saw giraffes, but I missed them. Finally, as we passed the last hill before the camp site, the majestic Indian Ocean spread out in front of our eyes. Almost the first thing we saw was the splashing from some whales a bit out in the sea, an incredibly awesome reception.
The campsite consisted of openings chopped out in the bush vegetation just in front of the beach. Since it was a long weekend there were quite a few other visitors, but if you come a normal weekend chances are that you’ll be almost alone. There was actually a well where you could get water for cleaning and dishes, and also a latrine (though completely without privacy, so we preferred going into the shrub instead). During the Sunday, when we spent the whole day there, we just relaxed… swam in the ocean, played games, read books, played soccer on the beach. In the evenings we fired up the barbecue and grilled our meat and chicken. And Per provided entertainment when he picked up his guitar while sitting around the campfire. It turned out, however, that more animals hid in the bushes: thievish little vervet monkeys. One of them was cheeky enough to come down at an unguarded moment, opening the lid of a plastic box, and ran off with a corn-cob! Then we heard a terrible racket from inside the bush when he didn’t want to share with his friends.
Another more nasty element of wildlife was the bluebottle jellyfish that were featured in abundance in the sea. They have slimy little blueish bodies with long protruding tentacles. Leo and several others in our group were stung by them. Not that it is dangerous, but it hurts for a while and gets swollen.
On the Monday morning we took down the tents and packed all belongings for driving back to civilization. After a while it became apparent why you shouldn’t self-drive under these circumstances. After we had stopped for watching some hippos, Thomas heavily loaded car was stuck in the sandy track, though it was quite easy to tow him out of there with a rope after first digging a bit with a shovel. But if you get stuck on your own, you might have to stay for quite some time. We met 4-5 other cars during the journey into and out of the reserve, and that was unusually many. But besides that mishap, the return trip went smoothly. This time we decided to drive the longer road back to Maputo, as we didn’t want to take the risk of ending up in a long ferry line after the end of the weekend, as is often the case.
By coincidence there was an ”Operation Caco” on the beach on the Sunday (caco = shard of glass in Portuguese). Such actions have taken place in and around Maputo earlier this year. It’s like a community initiative when volunteers go around and pick up garbage from the beach. In this case, in this place, one might argue that much of the rubbish has washed up from the ocean, but as we had seen with our own eyes, previous visitors to the campground were sadly also leaving a lot of rubbish. Our campsite was pretty littered when we arrived, but at least we left it significantly cleaner.