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Gorongosa NP - September 2019


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Hi Safaritalkers!

 

After much delay, I thought it may be helpful to write a TR on my recce trip to Gorongosa last year for Pictus Safaris. Many of you will know that Gorongosa has been the subject of a stirring conservation effort in recent years, and it is this remarkable turnaround that first drew me to this remarkable national park. It has also long been my ambition to photograph African Wild Dogs in all of their range states, and the recent reintroduction of lycaon to Gorongosa was just another reason to visit! Before long, the draw had grown just too irresistible and I was on my way to Mozambique.

 

I'll start soon with a brief history and overview of Gorongosa, as well as logistics for arranging a visit. It is worth noting that, as a disclaimer, I do own and operate Pictus Safaris, and do offer trips to Gorongosa - however, I plan to write this trip report with as many hints and tips for any potential visitors as possible, regardless of whether you prefer to travel solo or use other operators. Africa should be for everyone after all!

 

For now, I'll whet your appetite with a few shots...

 

Tom

 

 

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A Background

 

In the middle part of the twentieth century, Gorongosa was widely renowned for its excellent game viewing. Centred on Lake Urema in central Mozambique, the national park was often considered a 'must-visit' for the affluent travellers of Southern Africa, many of whom were drawn by the park's impressive population of lion. A particular quirk of Gorongosa was its famous 'Lion House', where an abandoned lodge had been left to ruin, and a pride of lion had become used to sleeping within the building during the day. But besides this, there was much to draw in the safari-goers of the 1950s and 1960s, including vast herds of Buffalo, a booming Elephant population and the occasional sighting of Wild Dog and other predators. Curiously, Gorongosa has always lacked certain species commonly found elsewhere in the region, likely a result of its location to the east of the Zimbabwean Highlands, forming a natural barrier to animal movements. Giraffe and Caracal, for instance, have both never been recorded here.

 

Sadly, the Mozambican Civil War began in 1977, with devastating impacts. Whilst I won't delve into the details of the conflict here (my thesis was on this conflict, as well as the Angolan Civil War), a brief overview may be helpful. Following Mozambique's independence from Portugal, the main revolutionary party (FRELIMO) took power. FRELIMO was deeply Marxist organisation, and undertook a series of economic reforms that were doomed to failure. Dissidence grew and, fuelled by support from Zimbabwe and South Africa, RENAMO became a guerrilla army intent on overthrowing FRELIMO. The next 15 years saw intense fighting, famine, extensive deployment of landmines and a host of atrocities against civilians. Gorongosa was an epicentre for violence throughout the conflict, with its wilderness being ideally-suited to RENAMO's tactics. RENAMO were resident in Gorongosa throughout the Civil War, funding their operations through ivory poaching, and feeding men by undertaking unfettered poaching. Unsurprisingly, wildlife populations crashed and Gorongosa has reduced to a shell of its former self. Visitors to Gorongosa can see evidence of the fighting to this day, with a section of the main lodge wall preserved in the grounds of the Montebelo lodge, with FRELIMO and RENAMO bulletholes still visible.

 

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A sad reminder of the tragic past of Gorongosa

 

What's Changed?

 

Since 2004, the Carr Foundation, based in the US, has been working with the Mozambican government to restore Gorongosa to its former glory. Initially, this activity primarily involved securing the national park and addressing poaching, but in the 2010s, the focus has shifted to restoring wildlife populations in the core area of the park. This has involved translocations of Selous' Zebra from Marromeu, Wildebeest, Buffalo and African Wild Dog. The African Wild Dog translocation has been wildly successful - since the first pack of 14 was re-introduced from South Africa in 2018, the population has exploded to nearly 100 dogs, the majority of which continue to inhabit the core game-viewing area. There is evidence too that other native species are rebounding: leopards have been sighted for the first time in decades here, and increasingly wildlife including Serval, Eland and Cape Porcupine are being seen.

 

Perhaps most vitally, the new management of Gorongosa have managed to couple their work on wildlife populations, with extensive engagement with local communities. An excellent programme has allowed local people to train as guides and rangers to great effect. Local coffee growers are supported by the Gorongosa Coffee Project. And local women are empowered through targeted initiatives led by Mozambican conservationists. It should be said that this blueprint for conservation success has been quite remarkably successful to date - whilst not suitable across the continent (for example, African Parks' modus operandi of militarisation and stabilisation is far more likely to take in less stable areas in Africa), it is surely set to be replicated elsewhere.

 

About the Park

 

Gorongosa itself is one of the most stunning parks I have ever spent time in. My opinion is that much of this beauty stems from its variety. In a single game drive, you are transported from the Mara to the Okavango to the Selous, with a patchwork of open plains, dense gallery forest and arid scrubland dominating the landscape. The park is centred around Lake Urema, the seasonal rains swelling this lake and making much of the reserve inaccessible. Just months prior to my arrival, Cyclone Idai had battered the park, and the nearby cities of Beira and Chimoio. The crucial importance of Gorongosa had been underlined, though, as Urema held much of the floods that would otherwise have devastated Beira, with countless lives lost.

 

The main game viewing area is small, but there is plenty to explore. A week's visit is certainly sufficient to explore the core area of the park in great detail, and a stay of just a few days would be ideal for a casual safari-goer.

 

Just a stone's throw from Gorongosa, is the eponymous Mt Gorongosa. A complete departure from the savanna, this densely forested mountain is a birder's paradise, promising a number of endemic and near-endemic species, as well as visitors from Madagascar.

 

The Wildlife

 

As I have mentioned, Gorongosa's wildlife was devastated by the Civil War. Wildlife including Zebra, Buffalo, Wildebeest, Cheetah and Leopard were all extirpated. The result has been that Gorongosa is an ecosystem that is out of kilter. The park is dominated by tens of thousands of Waterbuck, where once great herds of Buffalo would have stood, for instance. However, my main target was certainly to spend some quality time with African Wild Dogs, with secondary targets being Lion, Leopard, Serval and Elephant. How successful I was.... well, you'll just have to wait and see!

 

Logistics

 

Gorongosa have made arranging a visit fairly easy, although not inexpensive. In terms of flights, you can arrange a charter flight with the national park from a number of airports - I would not recommend this. The cost is not worth the avoidance of what is a very comfortable morning road transfer from Beira or Chimoio. I chose to fly into Beira, spend the night there, and then transfer by road to the park the next morning. Do note that the cheapest flights into Beira are typically operated through Ethiopian and their Mozambican subsidiary (Ethiopian Mozambique). Be warned that my flights with Ethiopian were cancelled just two weeks prior to my departure, and I then needed to splash out over $1000 on flights with Virgin Atlantic and South African via Johannesburg - my advice would be to transit via Jo'burg if possible (avoid Maputo). However, Ethiopian do offer an Addis-Blantyre-Beira route, which would be ideal if someone wishes to combine Gorongosa with Liwonde/Majete/Niassa.

 

Accommodation in Beira and Chimoio is generally poor to middling. I opted for VIP Inn Beira, which is passable, but only just. The road transfer the next morning was punctual and comfortable - since my visit, it is worth knowing that there have been a spate of car-jackings of the main road leading out of Beira. As a result, most foreign travel advisory bodies advise against all travel here, which will invalidate most insurance policies.

 

It is easy enough to book accommodation, game drives, visits to local projects, walking safaris and boat safaris directly with Gorongosa. It is currently not possible to self-drive in Gorongosa due to the very grumpy Elephants, and you can opt for shared game drives with other guests, or private game drives. The cost for the latter is of course much more expensive, but I would strongly advise going for this option - guest turnover is very high, and you will end up going to the same spots over and over on shared game drives.

 

Currently, there is only one option for accommodation in Gorongosa - Montebelo Lodge. A chain resort lodge, it is relatively large and lacks any wilderness appeal. However, it is very comfortable with all mod-cons provided, food is good (but not haute cuisine) and you are based in the same place as guides and researchers, making for fascinating conversation each evening. Muzimu Tented Camp is deeper into the park, but is more expensive and yet to open. Having seen where Muzimu is being built, I'd be hesitant to book here - it is not located in an area with a wealth of sightings, and I think you're actually closer to the action at Montebelo.

 

 

Hopefully at least some of the above is helpful or informative. I'll wait a day or so for a few to get on board before getting cracking.

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I'm on board @Pictus Safaris! Found your recap really interesting and looking forward to your take on Gorongosa today!

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thank you, @Pictus Safaris  I must have a look where Gorongosa ist ;-) But the lake I see is Mucombeze. Urema is a small town. I had also a look at your offers on your web-site. The itineraries are very good.  But I personally was never convinced about Mozambique...

I am curious about your impressions.

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BRACQUENE

@Pictus Safaris

 

I have always been obsessed with wild places like Gorongosa ( as I am with Gonarezhou ) especially after having seen the series "rebirth of a paradise" and it is certainly in my future projects ( not in the least as wild dogs are present ) but as I have two safaris planned for the next years  it will have to wait  and perhaps by that time even options in accomodation will be better  

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Very useful information and an excellent recap of the park. Thanks and look forward to your pictures. 

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Pictus Safaris
15 hours ago, Caracal said:

I'm on board @Pictus Safaris! Found your recap really interesting and looking forward to your take on Gorongosa today!

 

Great to have you on board @Caracal, I hope you find the rest of the TR an enjoyable read.

 

8 hours ago, ElenaH said:

thank you, @Pictus Safaris  I must have a look where Gorongosa ist ;-) But the lake I see is Mucombeze. Urema is a small town. I had also a look at your offers on your web-site. The itineraries are very good.  But I personally was never convinced about Mozambique...

I am curious about your impressions.

 

Hi @ElenaH- great to have you on board. The Rio Mucombeze is a small river that runs through the north of the park, and feeds Lake Urema, I'm curious as to who has decided to name the lake after the river. Mozambique is hugely under-rated, which is to be expected after such a protracted period of turmoil. The savanna parks in the south (e.g. Zinave, the Sabie GR) are broadly contiguous with the Kruger, and offer a more wild taste of this ecosystem. In fact, Zinave is also going through a re-wilding programme similar to Gorongosa, although at an early stage - spotted hyena were reintroduced here earlier in 2020. Niassa is unmissable, although the unrest in Cabo Delgado means I am not currently recommending travel here. And, lastly, the coastal regions are sensational, if you can get away from the crowds. Bazaruto is probably the finest place in Africa for seeing dugong, and the migrating humpbacks also put on a show here.

 

2 hours ago, BRACQUENE said:

@Pictus Safaris

 

I have always been obsessed with wild places like Gorongosa ( as I am with Gonarezhou ) especially after having seen the series "rebirth of a paradise" and it is certainly in my future projects ( not in the least as wild dogs are present ) but as I have two safaris planned for the next years  it will have to wait  and perhaps by that time even options in accomodation will be better  

 

Hi @BRACQUENE- these 'off the beaten track' destinations are truly special, and Gorongosa has the occasional hint of Gonarezhou about it. I'd recommend visiting soon, as larger operators won't stay away for much longer, especially as the capacity of the park grows. The accommodation options will grow, I am sure - I have perhaps been too dismissive of Muzimu in my introductory post. I think many Safaritalkers will adore Muzimu - it will be rustic, well-appointed and relatively exclusive. For me, though, it seemed to be (at best) equidistant from the best game viewing areas as Montebelo, and given the tours I run focus on wildlife over luxury, the increased price point didn't seem worth it. As the wildlife populations fluctuate, though, I could imagine Muzimu ending up being in a prime spot for cats, so who knows what the future holds?

 

1 hour ago, AKR1 said:

Very useful information and an excellent recap of the park. Thanks and look forward to your pictures. 

 

Hi @AKR1- glad you found that useful. If you have any burning questions re: Gorongosa, I'd be happy to answer them as the TR progresses.

 

Tom

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michael-ibk

I´m also looking forward to more very much, thank you for sharing. Had actually planned to go to Gorongosa in Oct 21, itinerary was all set. But had to postpone another trip to that month due to COVID-19. As of now hope to get to Gorongosa in 2022.

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And so it begins...

 

Before diving in, the itinerary for the trip was as below. About as straightforward as these itineraries come!

 

6th September - Depart London with Virgin Atlantic

7th September - Arrive Jo'burg, transfer to SA Airlink flight to Beira. Overnight at VIP Inn Beira.

8th September - Morning transfer to Gorongosa.

9th-13th September - Full days at Montebelo Gorongosa.

14th September - Transfer direct to Beira, depart to London with SA Airlink and Virgin Atlantic.

 

As I mentioned previously, I would recommend all visitors look at using Ethiopian and their Mozambican subsidiary if possible. Despite their cancellation of my flights, that route provides a significant cost saving (or at least did when I booked). For those transferring via Jo'burg, be aware that most foreign airline staff have no idea that Beira exists, so may route your baggage as for domestic transfers rather than international. Luckily I caught this error on arrival at Jo'burg by checking with SAA staff. Avoid Maputo if possible - the customs staff here demand rather extortionate bribes on a regular basis.

 

Whilst I was a bit irritated by my last minute change in flights, it has to be said that the stunning flight from Jo'burg to Beira was probably worth it. As you descend into Beira along the Mozambican coast, a panoramic view of the large conglomerations of flamingo and pelican is remarkable. My visit was just a few months after Cyclone Idai, and it was incredible to see the thousands of acres of flattened vegetation as we came into land. Beira itself had been badly affected by the cyclone, and the airport was still being used as a base by Red Crescent when I arrived. Arrival formalities were straightforward - you can apparently get a visa on arrival at all entry points to Mozambique, but I would always recommend getting your visa from the embassy or high commission closest to you. I doubt Beira airport staff would have been able to issue the visa in a timely manner based on my limited interactions with them.

 

I transferred directly to VIP Inn Beira, which is a lower-end business hotel close to the airport. The accommodation was comfortable, and was broadly in line with what 'adventurous' travellers might expect of a city hotel in this part of the world. The food was not great, which is to be expected. Accommodation options were severely limited during my visit due to damage from the cyclone, and visiting a local restaurant was out of the question. For future visits, I have a few other options in mind. 

 

The following morning, the transfer arranged with Gorongosa went smoothly, taking approximately three hours to get from Beira to the park entrance, and another half hour to Montebelo. As mentioned yesterday, be aware that the road from Beira has recently seen a spate of car-jackings, leading it to be classified as a very high risk area by most foreign travel advisory bodies. My experience tells me that the road is actually fine for travel, but its classification as risky will invalidate most insurance policies should anything happen. The roads are well-tarmacked until the turn-off to Gorongosa, where it becomes a very well-used dirt road. The vehicles used for the transfer are closed, as you would expect, and would be a tight squeeze for more than three clients plus bags. I'm sure larger vehicles could be arranged on request.

 

On arrival into Gorongosa, you will be asked to produce your passport and a few other details, and will be given a brief explanation of park rules. And then, voila, you're in! The road from the entrance to Montebelo is quiet, and feels very much like a buffer-zone, with very low wildlife densities as it is so far from the main game-viewing area. I ticked off my first Impala and Chacma Baboon of the trip, and I'm told that a handful of bull Bush Elephant do traverse the road fairly regularly. Our drive passed without much incident, however, and I was soon checking in at Montebelo. I was amazed to see reception absolutely swamped by visitors, although it was quickly explained that the preceding weekend had been a national holiday, so the resort had been full of local tourists - I would highly recommend ensuring your visit does not coincide with any national holidays in Mozambique.

 

The lodge itself is fairly large and well-appointed, with a swimming pool, large open-plan restaurant and even a "spa", which I didn't sample. There is a range of accommodation options, including camping. I opted for a "garden room", which I recommend to all my clients. Whilst small, they are clean and comfortable, with en suites. Larger bungalows are also available. The restaurant is a nice, open area, overlooking the swimming pool, making it a good spot to view the Chacma Baboons, Warthog and Vervet Monkeys that frequent the lodge. The food here is of a decent quality, with a menu that has sufficient variety for a week's stay - most importantly, the beers are cold and plentiful. Adjacent to the lodge is the airstrip, and accommodation for guides and researchers. This close proximity to the researchers allows for great conversation each evening, as well as some very helpful tips as to where your target species might be found. Lastly, there is a 'tourist centre' near the restaurant, which is where you can book game drives and other activities, including walking safaris and boat safaris on Lake Urema. You have the option to book shared drives with other guests, or solo drives for an increased price. Note that if you are travelling with children, you will not be allowed on open vehicles. Self-driving is not currently permitted, I believe due to the very grumpy Elephants that do enjoy an insta-charge at any approaching vehicle.

 

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The restaurant at Montebelo (left). The garden rooms are situated behind the playground visible to the right of the restaurant.

 

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A basic map of the main tourist routes in Gorongosa. Today we took route 1 and the first few km of route 4.

 

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A warthog next to the swimming pool as viewed from the restaurant. The bungalows are visible in the background.

 

After settling in and enjoying a buffet lunch, it was time to explore the park. The afternoon game drive was shared with a few other guests, and led by Maquina and Agnes. Gorongosa has done an excellent job of training a number of local guides, who are of a very good standard. Agnes was in training at the time, and it was hugely encouraging to see so many women involved in conservation in the park.

 

Game drives typically follow the same initial route towards Lake Urema's main floodplain, before deviating in different directions depending on your quarry. This afternoon, we quickly stumbled across Waterbuck and our first Lilac-Breasted Roller. Before long, we caught a glimpse of the ever-entertaining Crested Guinea-Fowl alongside the road, which was a treat. The birding was full of promise, as we also flushed flocks of Trumpeter Hornbill and Crowned Hornbill in quick succession. Nyala and Greater Kudu were also easily seen within the first twenty minutes of the drive.

 

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Crested Guinea-Fowl

 

Locating some tracks left by a breeding herd of Bush Elephant, we were soon crashing off into the long grass in pursuit of pachyderms. We were warned in advance that these Elephants were particularly nervous around vehicles, and that charges were likely. We approached with a firm grip on our camera equipment. As we drew closer to the herd, they were certainly anxious, periscoping and ear-flapping abounded. We were fortunate to be able to view them for a few minutes from a distance, before the inevitable charge did come, the matriarch steaming towards us at pace. It wasn't a mock-charge! We motored away in quite a hurry, but I was extremely pleased to have caught up with the Ellies so soon. Their nervousness is, of course, well-placed - many of the individuals in the park today will have been shot at during the Civil War, and will have seen family members poached. Slowly but surely their disposition is changing, thanks to the presence of tourist vehicles and research conducted by people such as Joyce Poole (who many will know from the Mara), and rest assured that not all Elephant sightings are quite as hair-raising as my experience was.

 

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Ellies pre-charge

 

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A calmer moment with the grumpy matriarch

 

Moving on, we soon found ourselves at the 'Lion House' on the edge of Urema's main floodplain. This unremarkable derelict building was once the primary draw at Gorongosa for many tourists, where lions could reliably be found lounging in the abandoned bar. The story goes that a lodge was built here despite seasonal flooding but, after realising that the lodge would need renovation after the rains each year, it was decided to leave the building to nature. Nowadays, it is more of a historical landmark than anything else, but it is near here that Gorongosa's greatest sight is to be found.

 

On the plains around the Lion House, you will find one of the most remarkable concentrations of game you are likely to encounter. As far as the eye can see, thousands and thousands of Waterbuck graze, their population having boomed due to the paucity of predators and other large grazers during the Civil War. The only comparable concentration I can think of would be the Great Migration at its height - in fact, the population of Waterbuck is so high that African Parks have started translocating dozens of them to Liwonde and Majete in Malawi. It is worth the visit to see them alone.

 

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A tiny subsection of the vast numbers of Waterbuck seen here

 

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A closer look at a male Waterbuck

 

Southern Reedbuck, Impala and Black-Bellied Bustard were also spotted as we traversed the deeply rutted plain towards an area eerily devoid of Waterbuck, and it soon became clear why. On the edge of the tall grasses away from the plain lay four sub-adult Lion. I was ecstatic to have found these cats so quickly. The two males and two females were docile but relatively active, batting each other with their paws, then apologetically grooming each other as they waited for their mother to return. They made for some excellent photographic opportunities, although I'm sure I didn't make the most of them.

 

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I pause here for a moment, as people sometimes wonder why I am so enthused by locating predators, including Wild Dog and Lion, in lesser-known areas of Africa. I think the answer lies in a great respect for the tenacity of these animals to survive in such unlikely areas - given all that has happened in Gorongosa, the near-destruction of the ecosystem, the conflict and the famine, these Lions have no right to still be here. Yet, remarkably, here they are, and that can only be the result of an extraordinary capacity for survival when all the odds are against them. Whilst there is nothing wrong with spending your time admiring the cats of the Serengeti and the Okavango (and indeed I have done this many times myself), it gives me a buzz on an entirely different level to marvel at the wildlife that have survived such unimaginable hardship.

 

After a thoroughly enjoyable half an hour with the cats, we headed out onto the floodplain for sundowners. The sun set with Mt Gorongosa, and a plethora of Great White Pelican and Waterbuck in the foreground. As darkness drew in, we began the drive back to camp, allowing us a brief night drive. Unfortunately, longer night drives are not currently possible in Gorongosa. Nevertheless, we ticked off Rusty-Spotted Genet and African Civet as they crossed the road in front of the vehicle, before we reached the lodge for some well-earned rest after an enjoyable day.

 

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Sunset at Gorongosa

 

 

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offshorebirder
2 hours ago, Pictus Safaris said:

it gives me a buzz on an entirely different level to marvel at the wildlife that have survived such unimaginable hardship.

 

You are not alone in this - I think that was part of why Lady Liuwa was such a big draw in Liuwa Plain.

 

Thanks for this trip report @Pictus Safaris and thanks especially for the detailed travel tips.  

 

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Kitsafari

Thank you for sharing all the useful details and information. Gorongosa has been in my sights ever since I watched Africa's Lost Eden and when Asilia announced a potential camp I was overjoyed, and then deflated when the strife occured in Gorongosa again. thank goodness that strife was short-lived. Carr and his team have done a remarkable job with this alluring park. 

 

I'll be following your report closely - hopefully I'll get to this rekindled wild park very soon one day. 

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I was there some 10 years ago now with @Doug Macdonaldand @Blue Bird..... I wrote a TR some where.

 

The diversity of terrain is what we noticed immediately..... And my 2 companions arranged to climb Mt Gorongosa while I luxuriated at camp with Greg our trainee guide. 

 

So nice to read you report about it @Pictus Safaris. We never did find the lions but did get to lion house. Happy Times, and with increased wildlife numbers now it would be fantastic. 

 

Did you see any hyena while you were there? They were notable for their absence when we were there  and the warthogs did not have their tails up when they ran away. 

 

 

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Pictus Safaris
22 hours ago, michael-ibk said:

I´m also looking forward to more very much, thank you for sharing. Had actually planned to go to Gorongosa in Oct 21, itinerary was all set. But had to postpone another trip to that month due to COVID-19. As of now hope to get to Gorongosa in 2022.

 

Good to hear you have planned a visit @michael-ibk, you won't be disappointed. If you'd like any specific tips that aren't covered here, do drop me a message.

 

17 hours ago, offshorebirder said:

 

You are not alone in this - I think that was part of why Lady Liuwa was such a big draw in Liuwa Plain.

 

Thanks for this trip report @Pictus Safaris and thanks especially for the detailed travel tips.  

 

 

Agreed @offshorebirder, for me a Cheetah in Pendjari or a Wild Dog in Niokolo-Koba are probably the pinnacles of the safari experience in Africa - both haunt my dreams!

 

13 hours ago, Kitsafari said:

Thank you for sharing all the useful details and information. Gorongosa has been in my sights ever since I watched Africa's Lost Eden and when Asilia announced a potential camp I was overjoyed, and then deflated when the strife occured in Gorongosa again. thank goodness that strife was short-lived. Carr and his team have done a remarkable job with this alluring park. 

 

I'll be following your report closely - hopefully I'll get to this rekindled wild park very soon one day. 

 

Hi @Kitsafari- absolutely agree, the Carr Foundation have done great work. I've got a keen eye on the current unrest in Cabo Delgado and dearly hope that it doesn't spread towards Gorongosa. There are occasional pockets of opportunistic crime around Beira and even Mt Gorongosa, but nothing that should really concern a potential visitor at the moment. I'm perhaps a bit selfish in hoping the big boys like Asilia stay away for a bit longer, there's nothing like having a national park to yourself!

 

7 hours ago, wilddog said:

I was there some 10 years ago now with @Doug Macdonaldand @Blue Bird..... I wrote a TR some where.

 

The diversity of terrain is what we noticed immediately..... And my 2 companions arranged to climb Mt Gorongosa while I luxuriated at camp with Greg our trainee guide. 

 

So nice to read you report about it @Pictus Safaris. We never did find the lions but did get to lion house. Happy Times, and with increased wildlife numbers now it would be fantastic. 

 

Did you see any hyena while you were there? They were notable for their absence when we were there  and the warthogs did not have their tails up when they ran away. 

 

 

 

Yes, @wilddog, I found your TR very helpful and enjoyable! My impression is that wildlife populations have increased since your visit, especially with the translocation of Wild Dogs, Buffalo, Zebra, Wildebeest etc. The beauty of the park hasn't changed, and I'm sure you will see some landscapes you recognise over the course of this TR.

 

You raise an interesting question about Spotted Hyena, so I thought I'd take this opportunity to provide an overview of the status of some key species in the park. I was fortunate to have a chance to chat with some of the park management during my stay, who have access to surveys from as far back as the 1900s, so they have a very clear idea of what wildlife should be present.

 

Wild Dog - One pack was reintroduced from the South Africa metapopulation in 2018. This pack grew rapidly, and the population was bolstered by a further reintroduction in late 2019. The population is now around 90 dogs, all of which traverse the main game-viewing area.

 

Lion - A completely natural population persists here, with no introduced cats present. There are around 150 lions in the entire ecosystem, which is growing all the time. Just last week, a new pride of 17 lions was discovered in the north of the park.

 

Leopard - Considered to be extirpated here until very recently, camera traps started picking up a few individuals in the 2010s. Over the last couple of years, guides have very occasionally seen Leopard on game drive. I suspect extended night drives, were they available, would greatly increase the number of sightings. Visitors should not expect to see Leopard here.

 

Cheetah - Four cheetah were introduced from South Africa in 2011 - this was not successful. One cheetah died in transit, two were poached, and one was killed by a bushbuck. The nearest population now is probably in Tete Province.

 

Spotted Hyena - It is unclear whether hyena were ever present here, and certainly were never present in great numbers. They are not currently present, although a small population has been reintroduced to Zinave this year.

 

Serval - Present in good numbers, and seen fairly regularly.

 

Caracal - Never present in Gorongosa.

 

Elephant - Present in good numbers throughout much of the park.

 

Buffalo - A small population was introduced in 2010 from South Africa, and more individuals were introduced from elsewhere in Mozambique later in the decade. I believe the total population is fewer than 80, which is remarkable given that the densities here were once extremely high.

 

Giraffe - Never present in Gorongosa.

 

Rhino - Watch this space...

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The pursuit of the dogs gets underway...

 

After an enjoyable evening (complete with an extensive sampling of the local beer, and the chance to watch England play at their usual disappointing standard), and a good night's rest, I was looking forward to a morning and evening game drive to explore the park further today. I was aware that the dogs would not be easy to find, but I was hoping against hope that we may strike lucky early on.

 

Our route this morning would take us first on route 1, before taking a right onto route 2 and looping back on route 4 and 11. Routes 2 and 11 would take us away from the main bodies of water and into some of the more arid areas of the park, where we hoped the dogs might be hanging out. The drive started out quietly, although we did nab African Paradise-Flycatcher, White-Headed Vulture, Bushbuck, Nyala and, of course, Waterbuck within the first half an hour. The vulture population intrigued me, with Hooded Vulture and White-Headed Vulture very well represented, with larger species less common. We also got a glimpse of one of my very favourite birds, a Gymnogene, actively hunting. Aside from this the arid areas were largely empty - dog sightings never come easy!

 

As we began to meander up towards Lake Urema, we disturbed a small breeding herd of Elephant in the tall grasses. As expected, this resulted in a very determined chase from a number of the cows - I suspect they were startled by the vehicle, as we approached unseen amongst some high vegetation. This encounter was undoubtedly the most aggressive of my stay, and I've no doubt that a speedy getaway was the only thing that stopped us getting flattened. It rekindled memories of watching a Land Cruiser get flipped by an Elephant in Tuli some years ago, so I was relieved that I and, more importantly my camera equipment, escaped without incident.

 

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One of the very few shots managed of these nervous Ellies

 

As our surrounds began to get better-watered, we pulled into a dry riverbed for our morning coffee - I can highly recommend Gorongosa coffee for an extraordinary rush of energy. I consider myself a fairly seasoned coffee drinker, but for the next 2-3 hours I was bouncing around the vehicle like a man possessed. As we drank and chatted, we were pleased to spy a small herd of Eland come down to drink at a nearby pool. They were extremely skittish, but we got a good view, which is apparently rare in Gorongosa. I marvelled at how quickly the arid savanna and dry woodland had given way to channels and towering palm trees, which to me was hugely reminiscent of the Selous. Accordingly, the birdlife was also good here, with a pair of Saddle-Billed Storks indicating we were approaching the main lake.

 

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A rare glimpse of Eland

 

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A sense of some of the beauty of Gorongosa's landscape

 

As we headed towards Urema, we flushed a pair of Oribi and a particularly large Warthog. Our attention was drawn towards the river we were driving alongside, as there was quite a commotion some way upstream. Maquina explained that this river was normally dry by this time of year but, due to the intense rainfall that had accompanied Cyclone Idai earlier in the year, it was unusually full. This, in turn, had encouraged the presence of a large number of Great White Pelicans, which were a pleasure to observe come and go for over half an hour. Taking a right before the lake, we then looped back towards camp on route 11. This long and winding route takes you into a particularly dry area of the park, and the hope was again that we might find some evidence of the dogs. For those interested in the history of this area, this route was once part of the main road that connected Maputo and Beira to the north of the country, and there is a bridge around halfway along that marks its construction data (I believe the 1950s, but may be even earlier).

 

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A decent head of Pelican

 

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Many photographic opportunities to be had here!

 

This route revealed large concentrations of Trumpeter Hornbill, a nice sighting of a Black-Chested Snake Eagle, and a good-sized herd of Lichtenstein's Hartebeest, which is always a treat. Other than that, it was a mix of Bushbuck, Waterbuck and Nyala that took us back to camp.

 

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I have always struggled for Trumpeter Hornbill, but had no such issues in Gorongosa

 

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Lichtenstein's Hartebeest are shy in Gorongosa, but easily seen near the airstrip

 

This afternoon, we headed in quite a different direction, focussing on the western section of the park, which is dominated by grassland. Some say this reminds them of the Mara - I think this is a slightly generous view, and that instead it is more reminiscent of parts of Kruger. The main reason for visiting this part of the park is to try to locate the small populations of Zebra, Wildebeest, Sable and Buffalo in the park. For some reason, it does not seem to be represented on the map shared yesterday, but it is en route to this area that Muzimu is located.

 

Our drive started again with some pleasant birding, with Crowned Hornbill and White-Headed Vulture easily seen. Before crossing the Mussicadzi, we flushed another pair of Oribi in the riverine woodland, before emerging onto the grassy plains. Sable were easily found and very photogenic, particularly with towering baobabs in the background. With a bit more searching, we also found a skittish herd of Wildebeest, as well as Southern Reedbuck and Oribi. Sadly, the Selous' Zebra, an unusual subspecies, were not forthcoming, but any disappointment was soon allayed by the promise of another stunning sunset seen from the Lion House. 

 

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Crowned hornbill are abundant around Montebelo

 

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A rare look at a stationary Oribi

 

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The grasslands west of the Mussicadzi - do you get Mara or Kruger vibes?

 

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Southern Reedbuck are well-seen in this area

 

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Some excellent sable viewing is also likely here

 

The Waterbuck grazing before Mt Gorongosa must be one of the finest sights in all of Africa. Our night drive home was uneventful, with just an African Savanna Hare for our troubles. A quiet and dogless day, but without a doubt a supremely enjoyable one.

 

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Gorongosa at sunset

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Dog days ahead...

 

Another thoroughly enjoyable meal was followed by a just-as-enjoyable sleep, and I woke up entirely ready for an all-out assault on the dogs today. It was becoming clear that the guides were nervous when it came to our prospects of seeing the lycaon - they hadn't been seen for 3-4 weeks prior to my arrival. Part of the reason for this was that they were utilising a fairly large block that wasn't accessible by road (between routes 8 and 11), but it was also true that the dogs had until recently been denning, and attempted visits were limited to prevent disturbance. Particularly excitingly, it seemed three females had had pups this season, which is unusual but not unheard of. One female was attempting to raise her pups away from the main pack, but both the alpha and beta pups had been accepted by the pack. Any sighting was likely to be riddled with pups. However, some researchers had not seen the dogs in several months, so things were far from guaranteed.

 

We started on our usual route heading towards the Lion House. As usual, Nyala, Bushbuck, Greater Kudu, Impala and Waterbuck were all easily seen. I particular enjoyed a sighting of a Hamerkop in a small pool along this road - it was here that the dogs had last been seen, wallowing to their hearts' content. I love the chocolatey effect of a Hamerkop at dawn, and it also gave us the opportunity to view a large swarm of bees that had made their home on the side of a nearby baobab.

 

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Hamerkop at dawn

 

As we approached the Lion House, our attention was naturally drawn to a research vehicle stationed on the edge of the main floodplain - and then our attention switched to the lions lazing around the vehicle, a great start! It was the sub-adults I had seen on my first day, but this time with their mother in attendance. She was heavily pregnant (she gave birth about ten days after I returned home) and a little bit irritable, and she quickly disappeared off into the thick bush. Her youngsters, however, were wonderfully obliging and entertaining. I found these lions to be particularly attractive, but ever so clumsy - attempts to stalk their siblings usually ended in a faceplant. I've been fortunate to see Lion in 14 countries, but these were fast becoming some of my very favourites.

 

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Keeping an eye on the vehicle

 

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Lion under the palm

 

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Mum

 

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A family shot

 

Continuing along route 4, we reached one of the finest areas of Gorongosa in my opinion. Just south of Lake Urema, the landscape gives way from open grassland to open woodland, punctuated by shallow channels and towering palm trees. Within just seconds, you are taken from Ndutu to the Rufiji. Waterbuck abound here, but this also proved an excellent area for Elephant. A lone bull was spied wandering through the trees some way off and, as we pulled off the road to await him, his pace quickened. But this was no repeat of our harem-scarem experiences so far. Like all young bulls do, he just wanted to show off with a bit of ear-flapping and grumbling, but he proceeded to eye us carefully from just a few metres for several minutes. I found this a humbling experience - this bull's mother will easily remember the strife of a few decades ago, but here, within a generation, the Ellies have demonstrated their remarkable propensity to forgive.

 

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Emerging from the palms

 

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A bit of ear-flapping

 

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Young bull at close quarters

 

Within a few minutes, we were enjoying coffee on the banks of Lake Urema. The birding was excellent here, with Goliath Heron, African Fish Eagle, Grey-Crowned Crane, African Jacana, Blacksmith Plover, Grey Heron, White-Faced Whistling Duck and plenty more. In the dry season, it is also your best bet for Hippo and Crocodile in the park, although both can be seen in the remote north of the park too. It's amazing to think that the waters of this lake swamp a huge swathe of the park each year. In the dry season it's a pretty, if slightly unremarkable lake that just adds to the diversity of landscapes in Gorongosa.

 

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Urema view

 

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Urema landscape

 

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One of Urema's residents

 

We again looped back via the drier route 11, in hopes of picking up a painted wolf or two, but there was no sign of any activity. In fact, it was fairly quiet overall, with our only stops being for an impressive Greater Kudu, an African Paradise-Flycatcher and an obliging Narina Trogon. There was a moment of excitement when a group of rangers flagged us down to tell us about a large breeding herd of Elephant just ahead of us but, by the time we arrived, they had melted away into the bush. Oh well, at least there are always a hundred or so waterbuck around to keep us entertained!

 

A very pleasant lunch and afternoon allowed for some photography of the birdlife, Warthogs and Chacma Baboon parading through camp. One young baboon was particularly naughty, using his mother as a stepladder with which to reach the fence surrounding the pool. He also had a brief scrap with an Impala Lily that the flower definitely won.

 

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Cheeky youngster

 

As we headed out on our afternoon drive, the young lions were exactly where we had left them, enjoying a lazy evening. They looked longingly at a few waterbuck, but never quite managed the will to stand up, let alone mount a chase.

 

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Subadult Lioness

 

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A thoroughly unimpressed young male

 

Our drive skirted the north-east of the park once more, and an isolated pool gave up good views of a delightfully young Nyala calf, as well as several Saddle-Billed storks. As we approached the open woodland near Urema, we flushed our first Southern Ground Hornbills of the trip and, shortly thereafter, a large herd of Elephants could be seen marching through the trees. They were certainly wary of us, but seemed keener to avoid us than flatten us. They eventually settled in a clearing some way off the road, providing enjoyable viewing.

 

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Herd of Elephants in one of the most productive areas of Gorongosa

 

As we approached our spot for sundowners, a herd of Kudu provided entertainment, not least as they sported several collars. I've seen grazers wearing collars many times, but it was always brings a smile to my face. They lack some of the swagger that the cats have, so I don't think they can quite pull the look off. Mind you, I'd probably look daft with a radio collar on too.

 

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Greater Kudu with some added accessories

 

The remainder of the drive was quiet. After sundowners, we passed back by the lions. Surprise, surprise, they hadn't moved a muscle. African Civet and Rusty-Spotted Genet were easily spotted, and we got a distant sighting of a White-Tailed Mongoose.

 

The wait for the dogs went on - needless to say, the nerves were growing!

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michael-ibk

Beautiful, really enjoying this report. The birds congregations and the antelope diversity are impressive. Not to mention the great Lion sightings.

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yes, I also enjoy reading, @Pictus Safarisespecially your rich illustrative English (or how you can say it ;) the using of a right word in right place to emphasis a picture. The photos are also very nice. That's true - those lions are handsome. I was also surprised how big the lake is .. does it stretch behind the horizon? it looks like, right? The vegetation is also very mice: the open savanna changes with palm-tree  islands and kind of forest. The place is truly beautiful, diverse and interesting.

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On 11/23/2020 at 6:21 PM, michael-ibk said:

Beautiful, really enjoying this report. The birds congregations and the antelope diversity are impressive. Not to mention the great Lion sightings.

 

Thanks @michael-ibk, glad you're enjoying the TR so far. I'm certainly enjoying sorting through old photos! It's difficult to appreciate the diversity of antelope species whilst in Gorongosa, what with all the waterbuck around, but looking back there was always a nice mix of Sable, Reedbuck, Nyala, Impala, Bushbuck and Kudu around.

 

On 11/23/2020 at 8:12 PM, ElenaH said:

yes, I also enjoy reading, @Pictus Safarisespecially your rich illustrative English (or how you can say it ;) the using of a right word in right place to emphasis a picture. The photos are also very nice. That's true - those lions are handsome. I was also surprised how big the lake is .. does it stretch behind the horizon? it looks like, right? The vegetation is also very mice: the open savanna changes with palm-tree  islands and kind of forest. The place is truly beautiful, diverse and interesting.

 

Thanks @ElenaHYes, Lake Urema is large, and stretches probably 3-4 km across at that point, but shrinks in drier years. It's truly massive after cyclones hit, I'm told! Directly across from our morning coffee spot was the distant sight of Mt Gorongosa, so it was a nice outlook. The diversity of the vegetation is hugely impressive, and certainly keeps you entertained even when sightings are slow. By this stage of the trip I would normally be throwing everything into seeing the Wild Dogs, but in Gorongosa it was simply a privilege to be able to traverse the park each day.

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