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The Dogs of Danger Mountain: Return to Gorongosa - October 2022


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A rarity; a 2022 Safaritalk TR that (probably) won't feature polar bears!

 

I'm very much looking forward to getting back to Gorongosa, Mozambique, in just a few days and, as I know there are many on the forum with an interest in this superb park, I thought I would once again write up a detailed breakdown on my return. With my previous visit being just a few months before the outbreak of the C-word, I'm certainly interested to see what has changed in the park - most obviously, the park is now home to re-introduced populations of leopard and spotted hyena - and what has remained unchanged. It has been a bit of a manic year, especially with all the nonsense that has gone on here in the UK, so I look forward to contributing a little more to the forum on my return.

 

Our itinerary is simple, and as follows:

 

October 10th - Arrive into Beira and overnight at Hotel Sena.

October 11th - Morning road transfer from Beira to Chitengo. Game drive to Gorongosa Wild Camp.

October 12th - October 17th - Full days in Gorongosa NP, including daily game drives, community visits, exploration of Mt Gorongosa and visit to pangolin rehabilitation project.

October 18th - Road transfer to Beira and homebound flights.

 

As always, I'm aware that Gorongosa is a destination that some forum members would like to visit independently or with other operators, so if you have any burning questions about visiting the park, you are welcome to drop me a message and I can raise your queries with the local team and report back on my return.

 

Here's hoping for more sightings like this one:

 

62.jpg.93438d185ec4875c5374033c05e60091.jpg

 

Edited by Pictus Safaris
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Kitsafari

 

waiting impatiently for your report back here @Pictus Safaris .

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  • 2 weeks later...
Atravelynn

I laughed out loud at:  "A rarity; a 2022 Safaritalk TR that (probably) won't feature polar bears! "

 

Tell us what your experience was at the pangolin rehab please.

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Well, it's fair to say that Gorongosa still has the 'wow' factor. And the 'waterbuck' factor too.

 

Lots to report, almost all good news, and very much looking forward to sharing.

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  • Pictus Safaris changed the title to The Dogs of Danger Mountain: Return to Gorongosa - October 2022
Pictus Safaris

Well, let's get started!

 

I'm sure many forum members know all about Gorongosa, but I will start from the beginning and go from there. In 2005, the Carr Foundation, an NGO led by Greg Carr, a US philanthropist, partnered with the Mozambican government to restore and re-wild Gorongosa after decades of destruction. It is hugely important that any visitor to Gorongosa understands a bit about the history of Mozambique and the integral role that Gorongosa has played in various chapters of this turbulent story. Indeed, the word 'Gorongosa' translates as 'Danger Mountain', as locals used to roll boulders onto outsiders including Portuguese colonial forces from high up on Mt Gorongosa prior to Mozambican independence - so this has long been an area sadly associated with conflict. Despite this, Gorongosa was widely considered to be one of Africa's premier wildlife-viewing, and research, destinations throughout much of the 20th century - some of the most detailed wildlife censuses of the era were taken in the 1920s and 1930s in Gorongosa. Undoubtedly, the heyday of the park was in the 1950s and early 1960s, when thousands of tourists came to Gorongosa to visit the new camp at Chitengo and to view the large prides of lion, as well as herds of buffalo and elephant, for which the park was famous.

 

Devastation came first in the form of attacks on the park by forces from FRELIMO, those fighting against Portuguese rule in Mozambique. This marked an abrupt end to tourism in Gorongosa, and also for any level of sanctity for wildlife in the area, as elephants were poached en masse and the buffalo population entirely eliminated to both finance operations and sustain fighting forces. The fight to remove the metropole was successful, but offered very little respite from the unrest for Gorongosa. Rebel forces, most notably RENAMO, took up residence in the park for much of the duration of the 16-year-long Mozambican Civil War, from 1977 to 1992. It is this conflict with which I think most westerners associate with Mozambique - images of child soldiers in particular seem to be branded into the public consciousness. Almost all of the wildlife was wiped out in Gorongosa, and the surrounding areas were affected dreadfully.

 

Even after the 'end' of the war, Gorongosa remained a difficult place to access. Sporadic outbreaks of violence made the park unsafe to visit, and even in the last few years there have been occasional flare-ups away from the main national park high up on Mt Gorongosa where the last RENAMO stronghold was found. The legacy of this unrest left the provinces of Sofala and Manica extremely poor, and crime rates were high - those travelling up the EN1, the main access road to Gorongosa, required a military escort, and even then it was not uncommon for shots to be fired at passing vehicles.

 

All of this is to say that a visit to Gorongosa without a cognisance of the remarkable transformation for the better the park has seen under the stewardship of the Carr Foundation is a real missed opportunity. Like very few other places on Earth, the wildlife here is truly a footnote - albeit an astonishing and bewildering one in its scale and diversity. The headline has to be the work that the Carr Foundation has done to restore the park and the communities to a state which Mozambique can be rightly proud - from the coffee project high on the slopes of Mt Gorongosa, to the work to empower young women and protect them from underage marriage, this is a model from which many much larger NGOs could learn a great deal.

 

The Park:

 

The park itself is split in two. The much larger 'main' section is what most people know as Gorongosa National Park. It is about 3,500 sq. km. in size and is situated in Sofala Province in Central Mozambique. Dominated by Lake Urema and its surrounding floodplains, the park serves a vital role as an intermediary between the main water sources for the region high on Mt Gorongosa and major settlements, most notably Beira, and protects areas downstream from flooding as it absorbs excess rainfall. My last visit, in 2019, came hot on the heels of the devastating Cyclone Idai which levelled much of Central Mozambique, killing scores and causing untold levels of damage to people's homes and livelihoods - unbelievably, I'm told the toll would have been much worse had Gorongosa not formed some barrier between water levels upstream on the Pungwe River and coastal communities. Most visitors will only visit the southern portion of the park, where 99% of the game routes are, and it is commonly observed that the variation in habitats here is unlike anywhere else in Africa. On a single game drive, you can pass through areas akin to the Mara, the Selous, Kruger and the Okavango, and be back in time for brunch at camp. For me, it is this alone that makes Gorongosa truly unique.

 

The park now also encompasses a small part of Mt Gorongosa above an altitude of roughly 1,000 metres. The mountain can be seen from the main park and is about a 3.5 hour drive away, passing through Gorongosa village and some more rural communities. The mountain is largely protected for three reasons - firstly, it is the source for all the water that passes through Gorongosa - protecting Gorongosa is dependent on protecting the mountain. Secondly, the park has implemented some admirable work in setting up the Gorongosa Coffee Project on the mountain - coffee is grown high up the mountain before being processed down in Gorongosa Village. Lastly, the mountain is a famed birding habitat, most notably for green-headed oriole, and the last few hundred metres of the mountain is covered in relatively untouched forest. Any birders planning a visit will need to spend at least a night here to give a good chance of a sighting.

 

Our Tour:

 

Our tour started in Beira, transferring by road the following day to Gorongosa. We had seven nights in the park with our three clients. Overwhelmingly, the clients' interest were with wild dogs - two of the clients were in a similar position to many others we have, in that they had been on six safaris or so without seeing dogs and were now getting a little desperate. To my mind, there is no better destination for dog sightings in Africa today (although I do hope AP's impending takeover of Mana Pools will reverse the declines seen there) other than perhaps the Delta, so recommending a visit to Gorongosa was a no-brainer. Other than the focus on dogs, this was a general interest safari, so no huge effort was put into birding or batting and ratting, but the potential here for these activities is exceptional.

 

During our stay, we would take one full-day trip to the mountain, and one morning visit to the pangolin rehabilitation centre, with the remaining time spent on game drive from our base at Gorongosa Wild Camp. We also generally recommend a community visit, but we didn't go ahead with that on this trip, as the community is only accessible by bicycle and the temperatures didn't allow for this to be done safely.

Accommodation:

 

We spent the entirety of our stay at Gorongosa Wild Camp, a bush camp set within the national park, not far from the floodplains of Lake Urema. Originally intended to be a temporary response to the main lodge at Chitengo (run by Montebelo) being closed during COVID but has proved wildly popular, and will remain open next season. The camp consists of five safari tents, each with two beds, plus an en-suite outdoor bathroom with flush-toilet and bucket shower. There is no power in camp, but power banks are available in each tent and are solar-charged each day for guests. Lighting is also provided by solar power. There is a main fireside dining area, as well as a communal area overlooking the nearby pan - all very well-done and we really couldn't fault the set-up or the service throughout. It is rustic, and if you are the kind of guest that needs your rugs to be Persian and your sheets to be silk, then it probably isn't for you, but it offers an exceptional bush camp experience.

 

To be frank, Gorongosa Wild Camp is now the only accommodation option that I could countenance using in the park. Montebelo at Chitengo was great when I stayed there in 2019, and very affordable, but is now a building site. During our stay at Wild Camp, several guests came through having complained about the conditions at Montebelo and been offered the chance to move. I would expect the lodge here to improve, especially as a reputable operator is said to be taking it over fairly soon in order to offer a circuit with their Benguerra property, but there is plenty of work going on in the park (e.g. road re-building) and Chitengo is a thoroughfare through which all this noisy, dusty traffic has to come through. 

 

There is another property in Gorongosa - Muzimu Tented Camp. This is much higher-end than all other options here, and much more expensive. I cannot see any reason to stay here. It is, of course, lovely and very well-appointed. But it is situated in one of the very few areas of the park with no outlook whatsoever, and is in a less prolific area for game than the Wild Camp. There is plenty of suggestion within the park that its construction is considered a bit of a mistake. 

 

I'm told there are plans in the pipeline for more properties in the park, but I don't have too much information at this stage. There is talk of a very basic bush camp on the mountain for birders, which would I think be welcome.

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Flights & Access:

 

There is no getting around the fact that flying to Mozambique is not cheap. To get to Gorongosa it is easiest to fly to Beira - Chimoio is another option, but is only served by LAM from Maputo, so is trickier to fit into most schedules. Beira is connected most days to Maputo and Johannesburg, and is also served three-times a week by Ethiopian Airlines via Blantyre. My disdain for Ethiopian runs deep, and their model of taking over regional airlines and routes into regional airports and hiking up prices is clearly reaping financial reward for them across the continent. It is difficult to find any fare to Beira from Europe with Ethiopian for a reasonable price. This being said, my route from Heathrow to JNB with Virgin and on to Beira with Airlink was not cheap, but at least the service was better than Ethiopian...until my bag failed to show up in Beira. Having spoken to Airlink staff in Beira, most bags that go missing there are connecting from Virgin, so one to be aware of if planning a similar route. My stuff turned up the next day so no harm, no foul.

 

It is worth noting that it is too tight a turnaround to connect directly to a road transfer to Gorongosa from the daily Airlink flight, so a night will need to be spent in Beira. Hotel Sena is the only usable hotel in the city. If flying early in the morning with LAM, be aware that fog can be a problem in Beira, and in the past flights have been cancelled at short notice or diverted to Nampula.

 

Once in Beira you have two options - either drive or fly to Gorongosa. Many choose to fly, but we don't think the four-hour drive is painful enough to merit the extra expense. The service offered by Safari Air though looks truly excellent and I wouldn't hesitate to use this option if you are short on time or fancy a quicker transfer. We use a private transfer company to drive to and from the park - the roads are in perfect condition until you reach Inchope (about two hours), and thereafter are now extremely poor until you reach the park. I was surprised how much the roads had deteriorated since my last visit - potholes have become craters. Still, it is only two hours of lumps and bumps before you reach the graded road that takes you into the park.

 

COVID & Health:

 

At the time of writing, Mozambique requires proof of vaccination or a negative PCR test to enter the country. This was subject to cursory checks in Jo'burg and Beira. In Mozambique, no COVID restrictions are in place or being followed.

 

Malaria is a problem around Gorongosa and, although the likelihood of contracting anything during the dry season is low, malaria prophylaxis is definitely a good idea. Yellow Fever certificates are not required unless travelling from a high-risk country for Yellow Fever. Outside of that, as always, speak to a medical professional.

 

Security:

 

The security situation around the park is very good. There is no recent unrest reported and the section of the EN1 between Inchope and Gorongosa is now deemed as safe for travel by most foreign travel advisory agencies. We deem this itinerary to be low-risk according to our internal risk assessment.

 

There is serious unrest in the north of Mozambique, but this has not spread to any areas near to Gorongosa.

 

Weather:

 

The weather in October is hot, and the park was extremely dry. Expect daytime temperatures to reach about 35 degrees celsius, so not horrendous, but certainly on the warm side. It was clear towards the end of our stay that the humidity was increasing and that rains were imminent. If concerned about the heat, early September may be a better time to visit.

 

Visas:

 

There is a visa on arrival process in Mozambique, but don't attempt it at Beira or Chimoio. These are small airports and getting a visa here would take a huge amount of effort and time. It is much easier to get a visa on arrival in busier airports such as Vilanculos, although beware the rampant requests for bribes at Maputo Airport. The best thing to do is to get a visa in advance of travel from your nearest embassy or high commission - in the UK, this costs £60. All of our clients had to chase the embassy for several weeks before the visa was granted, although mine came through in four days.

 

Wildlife:

 

Last but not least, the wildlife! I won't go into too much detail, as I will begin my day-to-day report shortly, but at a high level the highlights are:

 

- Wild dog numbers have skyrocketed, with seven packs now present

- Four spotted hyena and five leopard have been reintroduced into the park

- Buffalo and zebra are present in the park but rarely seen

- Lion numbers increase

- Rarities including aardvark, caracal and serval continue to be camera-trapped

- Up to 100,000 waterbuck found in the park

- Oribi, kudu, wildebeest, impala, hartebeest and reedbuck all doing very well

- Elephant and sable seen much less often than in 2019

 

More to follow soon!

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Kitsafari

an excellent introduction and very informative preamble to the safari drives. looking forward to more. 

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Day 1:

 

After all guests arrived safely the previous day - two US clients who had come from a private Matopos-Hwange-Vic Falls-Chobe itinerary the week before, and one client from Denmark - today was the day to finally get on the road. Check-out was laborious but we got going about thirty minutes late in an air-conditioned 4x4 bound for Gorongosa. Hotel Sena is the best option in Beira for short stays, but be aware that it is not going to cut the mustard if expecting a five-star experience. My personal highlight was a gentleman wandering into my room at 2am having had his keycard work perfectly. My Portuguese is just about good enough to have scared him senseless. But, overall, its proximity to the airport and decent restaurant place Sena head and shoulders above its competitors - stay away from Golden Peacock, and Hotel Tivoli is to be used only in an emergency. VIP Inn Beira closed during COVID-19.

 

Beira is not a particularly attractive city, although the shipwreck and lighthouse near the hotel are worth a brief visit. I was, however, delighted to see the city back on its feet - my last visit was hot on the heels of Cyclone Idai in 2019, and back then the city was essentially flattened. Our drive took us beyond the city limits and along a superb tarmac road westwards to the town of Inchope. For very brief stretches, the roadside vendors and tolls give way to marshland, where the rivers that flow from Mt Gorongosa make the land unsuitable for building, and it is here that you might nab a few decent bird species. Whilst in Beira we spotted more typical fare, including yellow-billed kite, African pied wagtail, common house martin and so on, with an African marsh harrier near the airport, but the birding was much improved on this route. Long-crested eagle, little bee-eater, marabou stork and more were welcome sightings. We also spied a deceased greater cane rat for sale on the side of the road, which actually looked more hippo than rat given its size.

 

Once in Inchope, you veer northwards onto the arterial EN1 which forms the backbone of Mozambique's route network. It was in OK condition back in 2019, but this road is now a pain to navigate. Overladen HGVs plying the route between Maputo and Malawi have ripped up the old surface of the road, and it takes the best part of two hours to make it from Inchope to the entrance to Gorongosa. Once on the graded road, which is a welcome relief, it takes about 20 minutes to get to the park entrance, where you go through entry formalities. It was on this stretch of road that we nabbed our first live mammals, a small herd of impala and, at the entrance, a troop of chacma baboon. Whilst these were not the most exhilarating of sightings, it marked a change from my last visit, when this area was essentially devoid of life - as we would go on to learn, Gorongosa's buffer zone is now a much healthier ecosystem than it once was.

 

All visitors coming through this entrance should take the opportunity to view the weaver colony a few yards away - we spied village and southern masked weavers amongst the chaos. Entry formalities took just five minutes or so, and anticipation built further when we learnt that the 'Mabecos', or wild dogs, had been seen near the entrance the previous week. It is a further half-hour drive from the park entrance to Chitengo at the epicentre of the park, and this drive is the first sense most visitors will get of just how changeable the park is in its scenery and habitat. Lightly wooded savanna gives way to dense riverine forest, supported by a number of small rivers draining from Mt Gorongosa, and it would not be hard to imagine a chimpanzee or forest elephant bursting onto the road at any moment. By now, though, the heat of the day was building, and our only sightings were of several very large troops of baboon and several waterbuck. These beautiful antelope are, perhaps, Gorongosa's headline act. It is no exaggeration to say that it would be unusual to see fewer than 500 waterbuck on a game drive, and more typically you will see over 1,000 if you are anywhere near the floodplains. The official figures put the population in Gorongosa at between 50,000 and 60,000, but it is widely thought that the true number is between 80,000 and 100,000. Whilst impressive, this is evidence of a damaged ecosystem, with waterbuck having filled the niche left behind by the thousands of buffalo killed during the unrest in the park and the many other grazers poached thereafter. But, despite its sad cause, the sight of thousands of waterbuck in one place around Lake Urema, is for me, as impressive as any sight in Africa today.

 

On arrival at Chitengo, we went through further formalities and form-filling, before waiting for fifteen minutes or so to meet the team at Gorongosa Wild Camp. As we waited, the habituated residents could be spotted, including chacma baboon, vervet monkey and common warthog. Intriguingly, the warthogs here had some very young hoglets with them, an early drop by anyone's standards. Talking to the guides, this is not unusual, and they believe it may be an adaptation to the fact that much of the park is completely flooded when warthogs usually have their young. Whilst meandering around the lodge in Chitengo, be sure to take a look at the section of wall preserved on site that still bears the bulletholes of a FRELIMO assault on Chitengo that marked the end of Gorongosa's heyday as a tourist destination.

 

IMG_9468.jpeg.fc889817a9523c9821a303d222dec022.jpeg

 

We soon met up with Richard, a Zimbabwean guide who has only recently moved across to Gorongosa. Forum members who have travelled with Stretch Ferreira in Mana may know Richard as a former team member in that operation. Richard is based out of Muzimu Tented Camp, but had come across to Gorongosa Wild Camp for the duration of our stay, and would be with us throughout. I would certainly recommend Richard to anyone looking to visit Gorongosa, and visitors should be aware that guiding quality is a bit up and down in the park. The team have put a tremendous amount of resource into upskilling guides, and many guides, including Richard, Maquina, Test and Silva, are world-class. We did, however, observe, some very poor guiding and driving during our stay, particularly at sensitive sightings, so my advice would generally be to request one of the above guides well in advance of any visit.

 

Wild Camp is a new addition to the portfolio in Gorongosa, so is still bedding in, and can and will change location in future seasons. On the occasion of our visit, camp was just 20 minutes or so from Chitengo at one of the few remaining pans in the park. The short drive still allowed for excellent views of nyala and crested guineafowl, before pulling into camp and meeting up with the team there. Camp was being managed by another Richard, with a great team including Agnes, who had guided me on my last visit. The camp is very well-appointed and highly recommended. Time for a late lunch and a brief chance to settle in was swiftly followed by our first drive proper of the trip.

 

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Whilst there was certainly to be a focus on dogs during our stay, we agreed to focus this afternoon on some of the more iconic views offered by Gorongosa. This meant first paying a visit to the 'Lion House', an abandoned lodge and restaurant that was re-colonised by a pride of lions in the 1950s. A quick Google search will bring up a few images of this remarkable sight - unfortunately, lions are now longer able to reach the top level of the house as a spiral staircase has been put in (fun fact: apparently lions cannot wrap their heads around spiral staircases), but they still occasionally take advantage of the shade offered by the lower level. The plains around the Lion House are dominated by waterbuck and an exploding population of impala, and we also spotted the first of many greater kudu of the trip. 

 

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We then trundled across the plains north-westwards - understandably, these roads on the floodplains are more than a bit bumpy - picking up a few hundred waterbuck here and there. The birding on the narrow channels that remained in the middle of the plain was very pleasant, with a good density of African openbill, Senegal lapwing, African pipit, grey-crowned crane and plenty of other species seen. Mammal-wise, we were rewarded as soon as we left the floodplains with sightings of dozens of oribi, southern reedbuck and common warthog in the grasslands. As mentioned, every few minutes in Gorongosa brings you to somewhere else in Africa, and this is very much the Mara component of the park. We were hoping here to pick up sable, but instead we were afforded several sightings of common wildebeest and Lichtenstein's hartebeest, both of which were skittish but well-seen.

 

Pulling into the 'Baobabs' for sundowners, the sunset was deeply accentuated by the smoke that was thick throughout our stay, having drifted down from Malawi. As we sat, it was noted that in the small section of savanna in front of us, we could see seven species of antelope - waterbuck, impala, oribi, southern reedbuck, common wildebeest, Lichtenstein's hartebeest and greater kudu - which certainly goes some way to outline the impressive ungulate diversity in the park.

 

There is little culture of night driving in Gorongosa, with most drives a beeline between sundowners and camp, but we had negotiated a little longer out after dark during our visit. We instantly got a view of our first savanna hare of the trip, and the next 45 minutes or so revealed plenty of common genet and African civet. We also got a distant view of our first galago - technically southern lesser galago are out of range here, being replaced by Mozambique dwarf galago, but most galagos we saw during this trip were the former.

 

On our return to camp, dinner was waiting for us and it was not too long before the team retired to bed after a long, but lovely, first day.

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Fascinating report.

 

it is great to hear that the number of ungulates has increased to that extent, since my trip many moons ago.

 

As you say the varying terrain is extraordinary. 

 

Re Wild Camp. It really looks lovely. Is this established on a site previously run by another group/owner?

 

And is it possible for you to add a map of the area with current accommodation sites? 

 

Thanks in anticipation 

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Hi @wilddog

 

It certainly felt as though there had been a huge uplift in ungulate numbers even since my last visit in 2019 - particularly noticeable in the populations of impala, greater kudu, oribi and common wildebeest, but also Lichtenstein's hartebeest, nyala and bushbuck. 

 

Wild Camp is new - it was originally brought in as a result of the main lodge at Chitengo being shut during COVID-19, but has proven popular enough to be retained. There was nothing similar on offer previously, and they plan to develop several areas for the wild camp further next season with improved roads and a few upgrades to the camp itself.

 

 I did mean to bring home a copy of the small map provided at Gorongosa but, apologies, it slipped my mind. Here's a road map:

 

gorongosa_map.jpeg.4c074fb5f52e7efaf434454ecad41d2d.jpeg

 

The main lodge is situated in Chitengo in the south of the park, as you will recall from your visit. Wild Camp is situated between routes 3 and 4, just east of route 1 - there are several other proposed sites for the camp in future seasons depending on water levels, including at Sable Pan in the big block between routes 8 and 11. Muzimu is on the banks of the Mussicadzi off of route 5. I hope that helps!

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A fascinating start to your report, really well written 

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Thank you so much @Pictus Safaris

All very informative. 🙂

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@wilddog- you're most welcome. I always enjoy comparing notes with those who have visited these areas previously, and I suspect you would find elements of the park unrecognisable nowadays. The work of the Carr Foundation is admirable, especially given the homogeneity of the approach taken by some NGOs with large park portfolios on the continent.

 

@Biko- glad to hear this TR is of interest, great to have you on board

 

@TonyQ- thank you kindly, fantastic to have you following along

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Day 2:

 

October is a warm month in this neck of the woods, and our days started early accordingly. 5am wake-up calls saw us on the road by 5.30, and today was no exception. The focus was, of course, on the dogs, and we were buoyed by the news that they had been seen in the area we were expecting them to be using the previous night.

 

Looping around to the east, it was no surprise to see from the tracks on the main roads that it had been a busy night, as we had had lion audio from three sides the previous night. Tracks from the two dominant males in the core area passed close by camp, and porcupines and civets had been using the main track from camp as a highway. As we meandered along the roads in the denser east of the park, we flushed a Narina trogon for brief but good views, and swiftly picked up several nyala bulls, as well as impala and the ubiquitous waterbuck. Unusual was the sighting of a young male bushbuck with leucicism, and a great spot of a lone Natal red duiker, a species that has been making real inroads in the park since 2019. By far the highlight of the early morning, though, was as good a lion sighting as one could wish to have. A pride of three lionesses and two cubs sitting on the far side of a small pan covered in luminous-green algae, flanked by marabou storks. Picture perfect.

 

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Alas, the heat of the day was already beginning to build, and we decided to leave the lions to it in favour of seeking out the dogs further afield. It looked like we may be rewarded when we swiftly located tracks from dogs moving at pace during the previous night. We trailed the dogs carefully, with their tracks taking us out of the dense bush and into the palm-dominated fringes of the main floodplains, but as the ground hardened so we lost the trail, emerging onto the plains empty-handed. It is hard to be disappointed in Gorongosa, though, and our consolation prize was a cup of locally-grown coffee on the shores of Lake Urema, looking out at the pods of hippo and dozens of Nile crocodile around us. The birding in the fringes of the lake was diverse, with collared pratincole, black-winged stilt, common sandpiper and a large colony of African skimmer being the highlights.

 

Our drive back through the late morning heat to camp was enjoyable, punctuated by sightings of waterbuck, impala, nyala, oribi, greater kudu and bushbuck. Brunch was followed by several hours rest or birding in camp, depending on your bent, and it must be said that the birding in camp was unusually good in the heat of the day. Large flocks of red-billed quelea, red-billed firefinch and blue waxbill came through regulary, with red-throated twinspot, forest weaver, green malkoha, brown-hooded kingfisher and Narina trogon all being seen well. The pan outside camp was consistently busy, being visited by vervet monkey, chacma baboon, common warthog, waterbuck, impala, greater kudu and a Nile monitor throughout the day, with curlew sandpiper, glossy ibis and, of course, Egyptian goose in residence also.

 

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This afternoon we returned to the area we knew the dogs were using, circling the block as best we could but, by the time darkness fell, it was clear the dogs had not exited the block yet. We hypothesised that they were using a pan deep within the block as their water source and may not leave for several hours and, so, we slowly made our way back to camp at a leisurely pace with only a billion or so waterbuck to show for our efforts. Considering previous time spent in the park, we were beginning to understand some nuances of Gorongosa this week - very little sign of some species, most notably elephant, but a great deal of sign of dogs and a huge number of ungulates. Under spotlight post-sundowners, genet, civet and our first white-tailed mongoose of the tour bookended a great first full day in the park.

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Day 3:

 

Dogs remained our focus this morning, and after a delicious few helpings of flapjack washed down with Gorongosa coffee, we were on our way back to the blocks around routes 2, 6 and 8. As one tends to, we had spent the evening analysing where the dogs were likely to be, and the theory for now was that we should treat the dogs as though they were denning. Of course, any pups would now be mobile, but just as the dogs were tied to the den a months ago, they were now tied to water by the blistering heat. Knowing that the main block we had seen tracks around had a few pans with a little water left, our aim was to intercept the dogs as they left the block to hunt in the early morning. Our evening's analysis had been cut short by a lovely sighting of a juvenile African rocky python behind tent 4, but we'd made a good plan and put it into action this morning.

 

We combed the routes around the block carefully, picking up plenty of evidence of lion and even tracks from one of the four recently-released spotted hyena that was now prowling the park. As we travelled, it was hard to avoid the plentiful nyala, oribi, impala and waterbuck that still bolt from vehicles given the chance - it is hypothesised that the skittishness of many antelope in the park can be linked to poaching from vehicles that ended more recently than many will care to admit. It did very much feel this morning that there was more nervousness than usual in this corner of the park, and we hoped that it might mean the dogs were lazing just around the next corner...

 

Alas, we had no luck, and made it all the way back to the 'Peninsula' on the shores of Lake Urema without a sighting of note. The possibility remained that the dogs had exited the block to drink at the lake itself and, bingo, it didn't take us long to locate fresh tracks on the road snaking west along the edge of the dense bush adjacent to the floodplains. Tracks of 20+ dogs were from some point during the night and headed off into a myriad of different directions, with some returning back into the block, and some heading towards the lake. We made a real effort to explore the nearby routes for any sign of the dogs, but to no avail. The heat of the day was now building and, as the lions would be 'flat cat' by now, so too would the dogs be 'log dog' and nearly unspottable in the tall grass. The decision was made to retrace our steps and continue back east to the delightful Paradise Pan.

 

Paradise is just about right when looking for a descriptor for this wonderful pan, by now choked by plant growth but providing excellent birding. Black crake was a nice spot, in addition to a few dozen African jacanas, fish-eagles and little egrets. It was more than a little strange that we hadn't seen an elephant by this stage of this tour, as the population here is booming and they are, for many, the central draw to Gorongosa. It seems that many have moved deep into the north of the park, where there are no roads, and several had been translocated elsewhere after interfering with local crops. Nevertheless, we were only about 50 yards beyond the pan, when 'Elephant!' came the cry from the back of the vehicle. Three young bulls, startled by our appearance, bolted behind the thick palms that characterise this part of the park. Gorongosa ellies are notoriously grumpy and skittish, and so we left them to it, only to bump into another group of young bulls just moments later. Rather than pursue these gentle giants as they hurried away, we made a plan to wait quietly back at Paradise Pan and see who popped out for a drink.

 

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We were rewarded with a lovely view of three bulls drinking at a small channel just away from the main pan. Elephant sightings mean a whole lot more in Gorongosa, where the population has undergone such pressure and persecution, than in many other safari destinations and, whilst these bulls were clearly deeply uneasy with our presence, the chance to watch them at all was a real privilege. They left in short order, but on their own terms, and this was a real highlight of the morning.

 

Our day only improved with the news that a lakeside brunch had been arranged just around the corner, not far from where we had had coffee the day before. The birding again was excellent, with three pied avocets being the main highlight feeding just offshore, in addition to collared pratincole, white-headed vulture and a very healthy population of skimmers. Brunch was truly lovely, despite a minor but explosive incident with one of the gas stoves, and it was a struggle to tear ourselves away from the lakeside view for our return to camp.

 

With the heat of the day now set in, the drive back was quiet, although we did enjoy excellent midday views of a family of bushpig enjoying a good old wallow at a rapidly-drying pan. These pigs are notoriously secretive in much of their range, and generally are nocturnal, but in Gorongosa it is common to see them moving around during the day. The usual waterbuck and nyala filled the remainder of our drive and, whilst we did try to locate a lioness that had been called in that morning, she had clearly retreated into the thick stuff with a carcass. One to check at another time.

 

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Camp was again full of life despite the heat, with vervets and baboons easily seen, as well as a squabble between a Gabar goshawk and a Nile monitor. The forest weaver was visible once more, although difficult to photograph, which kept everyone who was awake busy until our evening drive.

 

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Unsurprisingly, we made a beeline this evening for the site of the dog tracks we had found this morning. If they were still in the block, it could be hours until they popped out, so we decided to trawl the edge of the floodplain for shady areas that they may have decided to rest in instead. It paid off almost immediately. As we stopped to scan a particularly inviting looking area, a big old pair of areas popped up from under a tree. Wild dogs!

 

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A pack of 35 lay sprawled out on the edge of the floodplain, and we were just overjoyed to have the chance to sit with the pack as they rested. Before the air had even started to cool, the pups (10 in total) began to stir, and we were enamoured with one particularly striking pup, her coat dominated by white, who took it upon herself to wake almost every member of the pack, be that by nudging, biting or sitting on her pack members. Being irritating is a useful tactic in many regards, and so it proved, as the adults soon got to their feet, and the beautiful chaotically choreographed socialisation began. This is a sight most on the forum will know, and one I've seen dozens of times, but it never does get old, as the dogs chatter and whimper, bouncing off one another in excitement at the chance to stretch their legs in pursuit of an antelope or two. The chorus of snuffling was brought to a fairly abrupt half though, by two warthogs getting closer than they should have and, before we knew it, we had incredible views of four dogs in hot pursuit of the panicked piggies. As dogs tend to, they closed about 50 metres of distance in a matter of seconds, with the Alpha female just a few inches behind the slower warthog.

 

 

 

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They nearly had them, but just as the dogs were literally nipping at the warthogs dew claws, the hogs piled into the roots of a tree at the edge of the Peninsula, never to be seen again. Close, but no cigar, for these particular dogs, and the adults returned to the pups momentarily before trotting away into the open plains. The dogs made sedate process, offering the pups an opportunity to hang back under the supervision of the Alpha male, who was carrying a fresh wound on his lower spine. He wasn't much of a babysitter, and the pups enjoyed the freedom to chew on old scraps of waterbuck fur, devour a truly unsanitary amount of waterbuck dung and bounce around the vehicle as though we were a member of the pack. Photographic opportunities abounded.

 

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We remained a few hundred yards back from the adults as they slowly made their way through the dozens of waterbuck that remained on the plain, waiting until the last minute to dart towards a calf after a nearby bull had fled in the other direction. The calf was swiftly penned in to a narrow channel where it froze. The dogs hesitated for quite some time, with only one or two brave enough to leap across the channel for fear of the crocodiles that do reside in the lake. A stand-off ensued for a few minutes, before one of the braver dogs finally took the plunge and crashed into the water, forcing the young waterbuck just an inch too close to the dogs on the other side of the channel. Within seconds, the waterbuck was being dragged up the bank. Dog kills are tough things to watch when all is said and done, so I will spare much of the detail here. But needless to say, the waterbuck calf didn't make it, and the adults, and then the pups, delighted in feeding next to the vehicle as the sun set behind them. Retiring for sundowners a short distance away, we were able to bask in the afterglow of both an incredible sighting, but also a stunningly beautiful evening in this corner of Mozambique.

 

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Our night drive went quickly, with sightings of oribi, waterbuck, galago, civet, genet, impala and bushpig to report. A lovely dinner for all was followed by the chance to spotlight the pan for some, with bushpig seen in great numbers, as well as a great view of a spotted-necked otter bouncing around in the shallow far edge of the pan.

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Fascinating report and looking forward to more.  What a dog sighting and such wonderful photos!

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What  a fabulous wildog pack! And I am so glad you found them.

 

Can you remind me when they were first introduced to Gorongosa?

 

When I was there they were trying to reintroduce cheetah, but this was,  I believe unsuccessful.

 

Really enjoying this TR. Thanks for sharing your experiences.

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Hi @wilddog

 

The initial pack of 14 was introduced in 2018, with another 15 introduced in 2019. The population really exploded last year with 53 pups being born with a 0% mortality rate. That will certainly change now that hyenas are back in the park. Total population must be between 150 and 200 by now, with 7 packs in total, the largest consisting of 35 and, I think, 43 dogs. 

 

The cheetah reintroduction did end poorly, due to deaths during translocation, but also poaching and one male being killed by a bushbuck. The guys I spoke to had little interest in trying again, leaving that to the Coutadas. Rhino are in the pipeline again, having been delayed due to COVID, and there are plans for more spotted hyena, leopard and small cats to be brought in.

 

Glad you're enjoying the TR so far!

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On 10/26/2022 at 10:00 PM, Galago said:

Fascinating report and looking forward to more.  What a dog sighting and such wonderful photos!

 

Thanks @Galago, great to have you on board

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Day 4:

 

As one tends to after nabbing your 'top target', discussion had by now turned to what else the group would like to see. The chorus of 'pangolin!', 'aardvark!' and 'aardwolf!' went up - as usual, one is never fully satisfied on safari. Overnight, though, there had been quite clear lion audio from the direction of the Lion House and, given that we had driven away from our only lion sighting so far, we decided to head this way first thing this morning. Beyond that, we knew that the 'Sanctuary' area to the west and south-west of camp, the far side of some expansive grasslands, would be the best for several secondary targets - sable, buffalo and leopard. Five leopard had been successfully introduced to the park in the last eighteen months or so, but none had been seen by visitors to the park. From GPS data, we knew that one leopard had left the park entirely, one young male was in the core of the park, and the remaining three were all in the Sanctuary area. The chances are slim, but we thought we would give it a go nevertheless.

 

Our initial loop to the Lion House was fairly quiet, with the usual crowd present in good numbers. The little water that remained in the Mussicadzi was certainly a hotspot for activity, with plenty of large crocodiles accompanied by abundant birdlife, and we were rewarded for peeking over the lip of the riverbank with great views of a marsh mongoose darting into the roots alongside the channel. There was, however, no sign of lions at all, and we were soon heading west across a vast open grassland. As we drove, we bumped into countless waterbuck and a truly remarkable density of oribi, sometimes in groups of up to a dozen, in additon to impala and greater kudu. This western section of the park appears to have become a real stronghold for Lichtenstein's hartebeest and, in particular, common wildebeest. On my last visit, we spotted perhaps only one herd of wildebeest during my week in the park - but on this drive alone we spotted multiple herds totalling perhaps 60 or 70 animals. This species was especially badly impacted by poaching in the post-war years in Gorongosa, with their tails being particularly highly prized in the local community, so their resurgence is lovely to see.

 

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This area was also alive with birds of prey. The most numerous by far were brown snake eagles, but we were afforded good views of lizard buzzard, bateleur and a juvenile martial eagle too. The flocks of red-billed quelea were growing by the day too, and their acrobatics in the early morning light was a real pleasure to see. Eventually, the open area gave way to woodland, where we had high hopes of encountering sable or buffalo. Alas, this morning we were only able to stir up warthogs and a few Meyer's parrots. It is easy to see why this area has been favoured by leopards though, with numerous deep, impenetrable drainage lines criss-crossing the copses spread throughout the grassland - it is hard to imagine a better place to hide a spotted cat.

 

Coffees and teas were taken this morning close to Chitengo, and we thereafter headed across to the park HQ to visit the pangolin rehabilitation project. It was fascinating to learn more about the work being done in Gorongosa, where they have already released over 80 rescued pangolins into the park. At the time of our visit, six pangolins were being cared for, with one on duty as an ambassador (the others were nearly ready to be released and were therefore having their contact with humans limited). The young male we got to meet was, by any standards, knee-weakingly adorable and clearly very much attached to his handler, whose shoulders he refused to leave throughout. We were told about the excellent work done by Gorongosa, taking in pangolins from across the Sofala and Manica provinces, with a view to releasing every pangolin they take on. Each day, the team takes out pangolins to feed in the park, encouraging them to eat the ants and termites that abound here. Entertainingly, the 'pangolin team's is quite large - two people for every one pangolin - as any fewer than two pairs of eyes on each pangolin results in the little guys motoring away out of sight never to be found again. We took this opportunity also to speak about the collaring and re-collaring activities in the park (old collars are lined up near to the pangolin centre) and also to discuss the status of pangolins in more detail. For perhaps the first time, all four African species of pangolin can now be seen fairly readily, with giant pangolin projects ongoing in Gabon and Kenya. All in all, a thoroughly worthwhile way to spend part of a morning in Gorongosa.

 

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Our return drive to camp from Chitengo was quiet, and a brief detour to try to pick up suni, Sharpe's grysbok and blue monkey was unsuccessful. Nevertheless, the pan at camp was lively over lunch, with bushbuck, warthog, impala, waterbuck and chacma baboon all in attendance. Today was truly baking hot, with very little wind, but the birding remained productive throughout also.

 

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Our afternoon drive was very much focussed on lions, with the plan to drive all the way along the edge of the floodplains from camp to Lake Urema. We saw an awful lot of waterbuck, probably a few thousand in total, and an extremely healthy population of greater kudu and bushpig, before reaching the banks of the Pungwe river as the light was beginning to fade. We were the only vehicle in the park tonight, a true privilege, and we sat for a while marvelling at the hippos and crocs squabbling for room in the channel below. A five minute drive inland took us to our spot for sundowners overlooking a small pan, and we sat and chatted here until it was almost completely dark. 

 

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As we were beginning to think about moving, I picked up some lion audio from the direction we had just come and one of our clients noted an alarm call from some impala near the pan. Debating our next move, we began to pack away and as I picked up the last chair I glanced up to see a male lion crossing the road in front of us. We hopped into the vehicle with purpose, and were able to enjoy a lovely sighting of a young male under spotlight. He wasn't actively hunting, but was visibly a little unnerved by our presence, so we stuck with him until we made the clear choice to trot away from us, and then left him to it. This particular young male is rarely seen, but known for his unusually vocal presence in the territory of two established males, and it did seem a brave move for him to be vocalising when we knew the two males to be just a short distance away. Hopefully he moves a little further afield eventually.

 

Spotlighting on the way back to camp brought us the, by now, familiar cast of civet, genet, galago and white-tailed mongoose. Interestingly, the fever tree dominated areas were notably quiet each night, with even galagos showing a strong preference for the palms. The upshot of that is that periods of 15-20 minutes go by each night without a single sighting when traversing certain areas.

 

Dinner in camp was once again delicious, with the only interruption coming from the sound of a dozen or so bushpig wading through the pan behind us. The bats above camp were particularly noisy tonight and we made a plan to get out our bat detectors over the next few nights. For now, though, bed was calling after another excellent day in the park.

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So interesting. The photos from the pangolin rehab centre are just lovely. One thing has been puzzling me for a while and perhaps you can enlighten me. As you rightly say, pangolin is on everyone's wish list, but they are very rarely seen.  Now this doesn't square with claims that it is the most trafficked animal on the planet because, if poachers can find it, why can't we? 

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Hi @Galago

 

It's a really interesting question - will try to keep my thoughts brief.

 

I think, firstly, people sometimes forget about tree pangolins. A huge percentage of the pangolin scales that leave Africa will be from white-bellied and, to a lesser extent, black-bellied pangolins. These pangolins are far more numerous than ground pangolins and there are several areas where anyone, be they poacher or ecotourist, can find one fairly easily. Ground pangolin occur at lower densities and spend a lot less time at eye level than their arboreal cousins.

 

Secondly, money is a powerful motivator. Poachers will do more than your average tourist to get their hands on a pangolin, and they will have a network of contacts who alert them to the presence of a pangolin. For instance, most tourists will baulk at having to dig up a pangolin - it's not such an issue if you're less ethically inclined. I would probably have seen more pangolins in my life if I had a shovel and dug up every burrow I found with pangolin tracks nearby.

 

Thirdly, one can't forget about the fact that poachers generally come from local communities, and spend an awful lot more time in the forest/bush than do visitors. The ability to track and trail in the forest is something that cannot really be taught - you need to be raised in the forest, in my experience, to track truly brilliantly. This is underlined by the fact that in some locations, such as Ghana, there are forests where local communities intentionally release pangolins into the path of visitors, who still then sometimes don't see the animal - and the locals simply go and collect the pangolin and try again. 

 

All of this combines to give the impression, quite rightly, that it is easier for pangolins to be found by local poachers than it is by tour groups. Long story short, if you're lucky enough to find one, enjoy it and stay quiet!

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Thank you, that explains a lot. I've only seen one pangolin, the Asian, in Sri Lanka, which was just hunting around the lodge grounds. I was very lucky that my guide was on good terms with the staff who told him about it. Such brilliant creatures, I'd love to visit the rehab centre!

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You're welcome @Galago- if you ever do visit, try to arrange to spend time with them when they're out feeding in the bush, we couldn't quite make the timing work, but I imagine it would add a lot to the experience.

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