Dispatches for September 2004: Click on a date (below) to read expedition reports.
September 1, 2004: Lake Tanganyika
|1. September 1, 2004
2. September 5, 2004
3. September 8, 2004
4. September 9, 2004
5. September 10, 2004
|6. September 11, 2004
7. September 12, 2004
8. September 13, 2004
9. September 20, 2004
10. September 21, 2004
|11. September 24, 2004|
12. September 28, 2004
13. September 29, 2004
14. September 30, 2004
We entered a whole new world, one with a gorgeous expanse of turquoise water, white beaches, sand dunes, and a rocky, forested shoreline. This was one of those places where I could see myself living forever. The airstrip was long and paved, but the reception building was derelict. An older English gentleman by the name of Viv greeted us. We quickly loaded into his Land Rover and headed for what looked like a four-star hotel on the beach. There, we were greeted by Barbara, Viv's wife. She looked quite a bit younger than him and projected an air of being in charge. A boat came back to port, which no longer had water at the level of the jetty that had been put in. Viv said that the water level of the lake had gone down more than a meter in the past four years. Viv asked me if I knew about the earthquake they had a few years ago. People say it cracked a hole in this lake which is the second deepest on earth, 1,436 meters (4,711 feet) deep. The men had a large stringer of fish that I certainly didn't recognize. They looked like big, colorful yellow perch. They call them yellow bellies here. They weighed about a kilo apiece, and the men had about 40 of them after a morning's fishing.
I thought about where we were, just about as far as you can get from anywhere. We were nestled way up in the lost corner of Zambia on the border with very out-of-the-way parts of the Democratic Republic of Congo, Tanzania, and Malawi. We sat down for lunch in a grandiose dining room with wood-carved panels on the walls and about 15 tables. The dining room had that stench of fruit bat guano that you often get in old colonial buildings with a metal roof and a ceiling. All over Africa, it's a sure sign of an underused building. The food was presented buffet style with written-out labels, roast chicken, pickled fish, rice, and a fresh salad. We would have some of those yellow bellies for dinner.
Viv and Barbara had been on the lake for eight years and at the Kasaba Bay Lodge for five. Viv had come to Zambia decades ago and had made his life with a construction business in Ndola, the yesteryear boomtown of the copperbelt in northern Zambia. I asked about the lodge history. It had become one of the favorite spots of President Kenneth Kaunda. KK, as they call him, was part of that school of the first charismatic, almost cult-figure, postcolonial presidents for life like Idi Amin, Jean Bédel Bokassa, and Sese Seko Mobutu.
There was all kinds of lore that surrounded KK before he decided to hold democratic elections. Stories of vast tunnel systems in his palaces and too-close ties with revolutionary elements. He played a major role as an ally of the African National Congress during the apartheid era. He probably had the same feeling as I did when he came to Kasaba Bay. He probably felt like he had arrived on some paradisiacal tropical island and just wanted to put on his Bermuda shorts and forget about the treachery of politics. Apparently, one of the first things he did was to nationalize all of the businesses on this part of the lake—lodges and fishing companies mostly. He also declassed a part of the park, which allowed him to hunt and for all intents and purposes call this place his own. He built a house here, completely renovated the camp, put in a huge outdoor meeting room, and paved the runway to accommodate the presidential jet. And, of course, he put in a golf course. Like Arap Moi of Kenya and Paul Biya of Cameroon, he had a penchant for golf.
After lunch, I headed down the lake edge. The first thing that I noticed was a grinding stone. It had a large, worn groove in it that had surely been used to grind corn and sorghum. Then I saw another and another. This place had obviously been attracting people to its seductive shores for hundreds and probably thousands of years. People would have to be hard pressed not to have perfect lives on the banks of this lake. There was a large pod of hippos right near the lodge, about 30 or so, along with a herd of puku mixed with warthogs and bushbuck. Viv was complaining about the warthog because they had destroyed his bowling green that he had spent hundreds of hours building and nurturing.
As we made our way down to the rocky part of the beach, we were able to get right over some spots that were three or four meters (10 or 13 feet) deep. One look reminded me of this lake's claim to fame. We were staring down on at least 50 species of fish, all colors and shapes and sizes. It looked like someone's prize tropical aquarium. I forget the number of cichlids in this lake but it is in the hundreds. Fish collectors from all over the world have camps along the banks of this lake to collect fish. There are also monster crocodiles here, lots of truly giant crocs that could eat you up with just a few chomps, I am sure. There is a big sign right in front of the hotel, No Swimming, Crocodiles. I don't know if I could always abide by that rule; the water is just too inviting.
We headed up into the woods. The trees are about eight meters (30 feet) tall and densely packed. Almost immediately we hit wide elephant trails that followed along the ridges. They seemed to be well used during a certain season, maybe during the wet season. We made our way along the ridge back to the acacia flats along lake's edge. We didn't see any wildlife, but we did spot fresh buffalo spoor. It was dusk, but we decided to see the old crocodile farm. This was one of the nationalized KK enterprises up here run by his son, Francis. They had taken away a croc farm about 20 kilometers (10 miles) up the lake and had brought all the crocs here. We were soon confronted by an immense series of ponds, round ones and long rectangular ones made of pink sandstone and mortar. This was a huge operation that had functioned for maybe five years before it went bust. I couldn't believe the amount of investment. Having a devious mind, I immediately thought that this may have been a front for killing and exporting wild skins from the lake. Call me suspicious. It would be interesting to look into the statistics of this operation. We could see holes broken into the back of the ponds to release the crocodiles into the lake. ZAWA (Zambia Wildlife Authority) had no means to manage the farm, so they just released the crocs into the lake.
We made our way back to camp after dark and sat down to a dinner of fried yellow belly filets and potatoes. We talked about living on the lake. It is treated like an inland sea here, with respect. It can have hellacious storms. People have these very large boats made by local guys out of mokwa wood (Pterocarpus angolensis). The boats are about twelve meters (39 feet) long by five meters (16 feet) wide with a broad rounded hull. Viv said he could carry 18 barrels of fuel and all the rest of their supplies for a month or so. Viv was having his rebuilt at lake edge by the local boat builders. He said they paid around 5 million for a boat like this, incredibly cheap. They run them with Chinese diesel engines they bring in from South Africa. It takes them a whole day to get to Mpulungu and maybe 100 liters (30 gallons) round trip, so it is the cheapest means of transport. The roads out of Kasaba Bay are essentially nonexistent.
The next day, we walked back to the croc farm. I was curious about the croc manager's house; Viv had told me it was KK's son's house. On our way we saw a blue duiker, then another, at least 15 blue duikers scattering all over the place. Maybe the acacias were fruiting or something, but it sure was a joy to see these guys. They looked a bit taller than the ones we have seen in the forests of Congo. The house was in ruin. The roof members had been taken, the flooring ripped out, doors, windows and their frames. Nothing much was left except the beautiful sandstone and mortar walls. Viv had told me that this house had had a massif carved wooden door that he had spied in one of the local villages.
September 5, 2004: Dancing Girls and Red Chilies on the RocksWhen we crossed the border into Mozambique, it didn't feel much different. The size of the villages seemed to go down a bit, but the settlements were about as dense and there were certainly no border posts. First stop was Cabora Bassa. This is the third big dam scheme on the Zambezi River that was built in the 1970s, I believe, by the South Africans. We hit the escarpment about 20 kilometers (10 miles) north of the lake and started a fairly precipitous descent into the Zambezi Valley below. Much of the Zambezi is lined with this escarpment on the north side from Victoria Falls all the way to Cabora Bassa. On this section of the river they call it the Maravia Plateau.
The lake looked like a lot of dam lakes, kind of a milky blue with fresh banks and still a few snags sticking up from the shallows around the lake edge. The vegetation here was a dense dry forest with little grass in the understory. If it were in the United States, it would be a good large-mouthed bass lake. No people live on this part of the lake. In no time we were across the lake and cruising down the south bank. There were a few settlements here and some wildlife tracks, including those of elephants. The banks of the lake were grassy here and people were cultivating the land exposed from what looked like a prolonged drought. As we cruised along, I noticed a huge patch of red on the rocks—looked like red hot chili peppers. Now it felt like a Latin country even from the air. Chilies! Maybe I was going to like Mozambique.
We were about fifteen kilometers (10 miles) from Tete, and we could see the Zambezi again. What looked like Roman ruins on a little butte turned out to be a church. It was an enormous cathedral perched up on a hill, abandoned. The roofs were falling in, and weeds were growing in the cracks. The Catholic Church will, I am sure, recover this piece of real estate soon since the war has quieted down. Tete came into view. I was shocked to see buildings of ten, fifteen stories high. I had not expected a city way up here.
We had no idea what to expect from the local officialdom. I hadn't heard anything particularly bad but I figured country at war for 20-some years must have some pretty desperate people. Nobody came out to meet the plane, and a brand spanking new BP (British Petroleum) truck pulled up to the plane with a big old AVGAS (Aviation Gasoline) emblem on that side. In this mad max world we live in now seeing the green and white of BP is like a gift from heaven. We would pay any price for a fill of 100LL gasoline for our bird. The guys were right on the job, and I went into to see what was up with the customs and immigration.
A lady me to a side entrance. Turns out she was it, customs, immigration, secretary, inspector, and chief all in one, and she was all smiles to boot. No fuss no muss, filled out the forms, she stamped us in, with no visas in our passports, and said $110. That she knew in English. So money would change hands after all. This was the first time we would have to pay to enter a country, so it was a bit of a shock. But we weren't going to argue. I did have my second passport in my pocket, with a visa for Mozambique that the National Geographic had sent me but I thought about the risk of showing her a second passport at this point and the possible gain of $55. Two passports can raise a lot of eyebrows in some places. I thought what the heck and made a feigned exit to get the passport out of my bag and reappeared with my second brand new passport with a visa. I said that it was my "work" passport. This seemed to work. I was speaking pig Portuguese mixing my forgotten Spanish with some French and English. Works a lot better than straight English, that is for sure. She was a bit confused. Did she stamp the second one, or the first one. I poured on the English. She grew flustered, stamped my second passport, and charged us $55 instead of $110. Money is money, right?
Now, how do we get to town? No taxis. I asked the immigration lady, who said minibuses only. I started eying the area around the airport and thought we can camp here, no problem. If we just wait for nightfall and set up the tents and get up early no one will be the wiser. We put the bags back in the plane, went into backpacker mode and headed off to the local bar to try out the local brew. We were on our way down the road and I could see a Federal walking up the road signaling to us to stop, but he was still about 100 yards (90 meters) off. We continued walking and he continued to flag us down, like we were freightliners on the highway. The cloud of evaporating alcohol explained his behavior quickly. Immediately we were befriended by Augusto. He would show us the local taverna and a place to eat. We hit the pavement, and I was amazed to see a perfectly tarred road, white lines, thick bitumen, and a good shoulder. The traffic was fast, and the vehicles looked new. There were Toyota minibuses, 4x4 HiLux pickups, and lots of American semi-trucks. I mean the big king cab, TV toting hitches with names like Kenworth and White. There were flat beds, tankers, and container trucks. This was a major thoroughfare to somewhere but I couldn't quite figure out where. Up into Ligongwe, Malawi, I guess.
We reached the taverna, one of those classic concrete buildings that was never quite finished with a dirt floor, veranda, and a flat façade. We asked if dollars were okay. They said sure, yes. The Euro hasn't quite hit southern Africa yet. Surprisingly, the dollar is still king here. They said it was 22,000 local units to $1. Sounded like a lot to me. The denomination here is called the Metical, the biggest bills these guys had were 50,000 or about $2. A small beer cost 17,500 and a big one 19,000. The local brew is called 2 M, Mahon.
We had become the scene, so there were lots of kids crowded around. Not too often do they got more than a fleeting look at a white man. The music was blaring and the little girls would kind of walk by and start dancing. The bigger girls all had light halter tops and tight jeans over sometimes pretty plump bodies. They mulled around pretending not to be noticed. We were definitely in the Latin world, and I knew I was going to have fun in Mozambique.
We made off to another spot, the "Mira Rio," which I guess means river view. It was another drinking spot right on the Condedzi, a tributary that comes in from the east into the Zambezi. The bar had plastic tables outside and plenty of 2 M. They also had chicken with French fries. It was like a miracle. The bar I think was strategically placed to be right at the spot where the women bathed. It seemed to be quite the show in which everyone participated. Not a bad way to while away the afternoon, drinking beer with Augusto, eating good grilled chicken with hot salsa, and ogling babes by the waterside.
We made it back to the airport and set up the tents. Augusto got his AK-47 and was waving it around, saying he was going to protect us and that he wanted money to do that. I was going to be happy when he was out of range with that gun. We slept like babies. We felt like old hands in Mozambique already.
September 8, 2004: Pink on Blue on White
Last time we were near the Indian Ocean was back in June. Seems like we've been around the world since then. Actually, the distance we've covered is almost twice around the globe. By the time we reach Morocco next year, this voyage will have made me feel either very old or very rejuvenated from living a full life.
I was happy to be pulling out of Maputo after only one night. We were escorted around town last evening by Isabela Rodriquez, our host here in Mozambique. She was born in Maputo, and she described what she has seen over the past 40 years. The changes were apparent on the road out to the restaurant. The old African beach road, lined with catappa and coconut trees, had given way to shops and houses and squalor. Isabela pointed out what looked like a suburban U.S. mall, complete with a 12-screen cinema. She talked about how this fancy shopping center seemed to spring up overnight.
On the way back into town, I was struck by the number of new hotels, many with globally recognized names. These hotels are 10 to 15 stories high, with marble entrances, polished elevators, and uniformed and smiling receptionists. This city is booming, but it's hard to say why. It's not oil, although there is a gas pipeline from Bazaruto to South Africa. It's not agriculture, although a South African company refurbished an enormous sugar farm in the Zambezi delta, and cotton is doing well. It's not port activity, although roads and railroads connect this coast to Zimbabwe, Malawi, and the Democratic Republic of Congo. It's not any one of these things, but probably all of them together. Proximity to South Africa, an expanding peacetime economy following years of warfare, and a gateway situation to the interior combine to make Maputo a vibrant if not especially attractive city.
We drove through a district where Maputo began. I would say it resembles old Havana. The streets were narrow and full of holes. The buildings were several stories high with a rod iron veranda on every floor. They were decorated with ornate columns and beautiful brick work. In the center was a grassy green encircled by massive Portuguese structures—banks, libraries and state buildings. We passed a cathedral, a botanical garden, and a natural history museum. At its core, this is a European city. In its outward growth, it is an African city.
We bid our farewells to the city and flying out we turned our sights toward the Maputo Elephant Reserve. I didn't know much about it other than you could fly there in the Cessna in about fifteen minutes, it's right on the Indian Ocean, and at least at one point had at least one elephant. What awaited us today, I had no idea.
We flew over the boundary of the reserve and immediately cultivation ceased. In the next half hour, we crossed salt marshes, short grass savannas, and closed canopy coastal forest, all apparently healthy. We saw grass-anchored white sand dunes that ran down to the intense turquoise water of the Indian Ocean. We didn't see any large mammals but did observe some elephant tracks. The last 40 kilometers (30 miles) of the peninsula that lead out to Inhaca Island are not in the reserve. Here slash and burn agriculture holds sway, and there is a new lodge with a new paved runway. Just across Maputo Bay is the city. I would have liked to have spent more time in Maputo Elephant Reserve, but we had half the country to cross today. We were bound for Bazaruto Island, another tropical paradise about 600 kilometers (400 miles) north, and we were taking the long route right up along Kruger National Park and across Banhine National Park.
The Great Limpopo Transfrontier Park (between Limpopo National Park in Mozambique and Kruger National Park in South Africa) is one of those ideas for conservation that if it is pulled off is a great credit to humankind. This is a Peace Park, as the Peace Parks Foundation calls them, which are parks that traverse national borders. They are meant to reflect ecological, not political, boundaries and to bring countries together in peace. This was one of the first of the Peace Parks. Now there are several, such as the Kgalagadi between South Africa and Botswana and the Ais/Richtersveld Transfrontier Park that bridges South Africa with Namibia.
The Limpopo sector of this Peace Park is adding about 2,000,000 hectares (5,000,000 acres) to the overall Kruger National Park ecosystem and will supposedly provide expansion room for elephants and other species. However, the war years saw a huge border fence go up and an enormous road built along the border. The military airstrip on Punda Maria on the north end of Kruger could handle any military aircraft that South Africa had. It was here that millions of Mozambicans tried to flee across the border seeking refuge in South Africa. Patrols were set up to stop the flow, and many refugees did not make it across the vastness of Kruger. Now sections of the fence have been taken down; the idea is that wildlife will find their way into the vast empty stretches of prime habitat on the Mozambique side.
This does not seem to have happened. As we discovered flying over the Limpopo, the large mammals are either not here or well hidden. We saw few tracks and not a single animal in more than 200 kilometers (120 miles), the length of this sector of the Peace Park. Park managers had experimented with reintroducing elephants and translocated a couple of breeding herds to nice spots in Mozambique. Within weeks, the elephants had moved back into Kruger. This is still hostile territory for elephants, and they know it.
Flying up the Shingwedzi River, which bisects this park on the west side, we saw a few tracks but no elephants. Instead, we say quite a few people living on this river. There are also large numbers of people living inside the park on the Limpopo River. I have heard that there is a plan to encourage about 3,000 people to move out of the parks by offering them incentives. Quite an enterprise for this modern era.
I think that once the fence is completely down and the human population is removed, this place will fill up with rhinos, black and white, elephants, giraffe, and buffalo. It will again be repopulated in a natural way. And what an achievement that would be: Humans actually rolling back their imprint on the land, deliberately and peacefully. Such an advance would stand in contrast to a history that has recorded only violent or self-interested acts. Back in the 1960s, for example, a conference was held between South Africa and Portugal to entertain a proposal of creating a transfrontier park, but the king of Portugal decided a hunting concession would be more profitable.
On to Banhine National Park, which is separated from Limpopo National Park by only about 30 (20 miles). We had already heard that this place was devoid of wildlife and knew that its borders were unclear. We traveled kilometer after kilometer—no wildlife, no tracks, no sign of life. We could see on the map a river basin to the east, the Rio Goluza, and thought if there were any wildlife, it would be here. There was life, all right, human life. Settlement after settlement lined the river valley. Maybe the mentality is: Nobody is controlling our presence, let's set up our villages here, eat wildlife, grow crops. It's a perfectly natural thing for humans to do when law and order breaks down.
We could see a big recently burned green patch lower down on the river and investigated. To our surprise, a flock of ostrich emerged from the shimmering sun rays. I thought what in the hell are a bunch of ostrich doing in the middle of Mozambique? Before we were done with Banhine we had seen two groups of ostrich totaling about thirty and a flock of Egyptian geese. That was a lot more than I expected to find
We were about four hours into our flight and well overdue on our flight plan, so we decided to make a beeline for Bazaruto. We thought being three hours late on a direct flight from Maputo to Bazaruto may alarm the Civil Aviation Authority, which we did not want to do. We traversed the last 250 kilometers (160 miles) over some of the most beautiful dry forest I have ever seen. The countryside had people here and there, but for the most part this was yet another large section of Mozambique that was virtually empty of people. This is the impression you get here often, vast territory with a very sparse human footprint.
We could finally see Indian Ocean. We had to do some fast talking with the controller at Bazaruto. We requested a landing in on Benguerra Island, which was approved. As we neared the beach, I was transported to that dreamlike state induced by white sand and crystal-clear water that turns more and more blue as you go out into the depths. This is that carefree world where you just wander aimlessly on the beach dipping into the ocean to cool off once in a while without a worry in the world. Benguerra is about eight kilometers (five miles) off the coast and part of a barrier archipelago that stretches about 16 kilometers (10 miles) along the coast. It is a national park and thank god for that because if it weren't in ten years time it would be wall-to-wall houses, that's for sure. As we cruised over the landward town of Vilanculos, we could see fancy beach houses starting to inch their way north and south of town. I don't think it will ever become an Acapulco, but certainly it has the appeal.
There were lots of dhows fishing with their sails leaning with the wind. The fishermen waved as we flew by low over this beautiful sea. Benguerra is a small island nestled into the middle of the chain. As we rounded a point and were checking out the ocean side we could see a sheet of black and pink gliding like a magic carpet over that clear blue water. It was a flock of flamingos that we had spooked up. We flew over the flamingos, and they veered to the right. I could see hundreds of them come from the underside of the plane flying in perfect unison with their huge long necks. We left these pink marvels alone and landed our plane to a crowd of kids asking for pens. Tomorrow: the Zambezi delta.
September 9, 2004: Zambezi Delta Safaris
As we lifted off from Mungari International Terminal One, a small grass strip in the middle of nowhere west of Zambezi Delta, we were bid farewell by two enormous lily-white bums mooning us.
We had been visiting the base of Mark Haldain's Zambezi Delta Safaris. Mark has several roughneck professional hunters, PHs in common parlance here, working for him, two of whom were our send-off friends. This was the kind of place where big guys with shaved heads wore sleeveless vests that showed off muscled arms—the kind of place where I thought I might get my head shaved, too. These was the kind of place where you met guys you who you'd expect to have Harley-Davidsons, guys who led hard-driving but honest lives. The accents around this camp are definitely Afrikaans.
One of the PHs proudly showed me the bear traps that he confiscates from poachers, explaining how they have organized an antipoaching brigade locally and how they burn a large number of camps and collect lots of these contraptions along with guns and snares. This was about the biggest damned grizzly bear trap you have ever seen, about two feet (one meter) long with enormous fangs along the claws. They were hand-forged from old truck leaf springs and railroad car parts. This trap needed a few hundred pounds of people power to get it set.
There were two Texans, Mike and Steve, here with their wives. Mike and Steve had flown all the way from El Paso to hunt buffalo, sable antelope, Lichtenstein's hartebeest, leopard, baboons, suni, bush pigs, blue duikers, and sundry other large-mammal species to add to their collections. Mike had gotten his leopard and everything else on his list and was ready to hit the wine route in Cape Town. Steve was still working on his leopard and left camp at 11 p.m. to try his luck treeing one with dogs and trackers. These clients generally pay about a $1,000 a day plus trophy fees, license fees, international flights, and tips. A ten-day safari can easily top $20,000. Mike and Steve were on their way out in the morning and old Mike was more than happy to settle up. They had just about a full roster and he said he would be back.
Mark has been working in the Zambezi delta since 1992 when he had to negotiate not only with the central government but with the local Renamo (Mozambican National Resistance) rebels for the hunting rights. It was the wild west. He inherited this once-famous Coutada 11 hunting block. In its day it was a prime spot. But when he got it the place was wasted. He estimated that the area was down to a handful of sable and between 5,000 and 10,000 buffalo. I had been told by the now-head-warden of the Niassa Reserve that he led an operation of culling here when they were closing the Cabora Bassa dam in 1975 because authorities thought the population of about 85,000 buffalo at the time was going to crash because the swamps weren't going to flood any more. He said he and his men ran down the buffalo with Land Rovers and shot about 100 a day until they got up to 31,000 killed in three years. Then the war came and the delta became one of several favorite places for military helicopter crews—Russians, Portuguese, South African and Mozambican—to come and shoot buffalo with machine guns. They, along with poachers, probably took out another 40,000 or so during the war years. Mark says that they are now back up to maybe 15,000 buffalo, 500 sable, and populations of just about everything else has shot up. The camp is rudimentary, and the pressure that is put on people here not to poach is far from excessive. Yet this presence is enough to swing things from populations of wildlife decreasing to increasing. Coutada 11 is one of about five hunting concessions around the delta. It is about one of the most beautiful places you can imagine. It has good rainfall and is over 500,000 acres (200,000 hectares) in extent. Add to this the other concessions and the Marromeu Reserve, which is the core protected area, and you have well over a couple million acres of protected area. I say keep the Texans coming if they pay their dues and don't exceed the law and reasonable limits, which surely Mike and Steve didn't.
We fly east to get to the swamps, which took about ten minutes. There were low gray clouds; Peter says the delta here is always socked in. When we broke through the clouds, I spotted the most gigantic patch of green and water I have ever seen. This delta is a few hundred kilometers long and wide—bigger than Florida's Everglades. At the edge of the swamp, we spied a group of sable antelope. A few minutes later we were over a rich, green mixture of papyrus and phragmite reeds. In the distance I spotted a patch of dark black on the horizon against the verdant green—buffalo. We buzzed on over and before we reached the spot a flock of white birds exploded from the patch of black—egrets.
We reached the herd of about 350. They didn't move. They were in mud and weren't about to let a Cessna bother their rumination. What gigantic beasts they were, those massive southern African Syncerus caffer caffer. We flew over five more herds in well under an hour. We may have covered about one hundredth of these swamps and we were easily up to a few thousand buffalo. Back in 1975, someone told me, he was able to count over 9,000 in a single herd. He said the black just went on forever.
Mark's wife flew a Robinson R22, which is a little two-seater helicopter, up from Dundee, South Africa. They are going to do a full aerial count starting on September 28th, so we will get a full count then. My bet is that they top 15,000. I figure with protection, which seems to be more or less in place now, that in two years you could have 25,000 and in a decade you could get that population right back up to where you could see those herds of 9,000 again. No doubt this should be a primary focus of conservation action in the delta.
The mooning at the airport was a real show of affection. We appreciated it. We had become friends with these guys overnight. I wish Mark Haldain and his band of merry men all the best in their mission to rehabilitate Coutada 11.
September 10, 2004: Cliff Hangers and a Mean Mama Elephant
This was meant to be a catch-up day. I wanted to get some writing done and figure out logistics for Madagascar, Tanzania, Kenya, Chad, Niger, Mali and Mauritania, all coming up in the few months. Come 1600, after staring at the inselberg right in front of the house all day, I decided to give it a climb. I went up to one of the faces that looked plenty tame, maybe 2/3s vertical. I love to scramble up rock, and granite is the best. I had my Chacos with 5.10 rubber, and they take you up any rock real fast. I only had my belly pack and was feeling good. I scrambled up like a mad man for about five minutes, and the wall started to get steeper. Suddenly, it dawned on me that it was going to take skill which I didn't really have to go much higher, especially since I didn't even know what was up above. I felt just like a kitten that hauls butt up a tree trunk and then realizes he can't get down.
I must have been about 18 meters (60 feet up). My knee started to quake, and the pressure was building on my palms. I could hardly even look down. Okay, I thought, if I turn around and slide on my butt I probably won't break anything. But then I thought, well, I can try climbing down and then go to slide mode if I need to. I was actually feeling pretty happy with myself because I realized I could have been in the same predicament only much higher up. When I finally got to the savanna below, I thought, Oh man, Fay, you wimp. It was a cakewalk. But I could feel the lactic acid in my legs, and I was happy to be on solid ground.
It was just about dark and I didn't have a torch so made haste back to camp. I reached the camp firebreak and followed it around. Not far out of camp I heard a branch crack in front of me and looked up to see the head of an elephant, lowered and coming on. Damn, I thought, I have an elephant at about 15 meters (50 feet) charging me right now. I wasn't ready for this today. I ran toward the elephant bellowing, "Rhhhaaaaaa." She hesitated for a millisecond, then kept on coming. I gave out a second, louder, "RHHHHAAAAAA," and ran toward her, putting a tree between us.
This confounded the charge, and she raised her head to look up. I could see junior behind her, starting his, "Don't worry, mom, I will help you" charge behind her. I did one more move forward, and she turned. I made a break, jumped over a bunch of fig roots, high-tailed it through a dry sandy creek bed up a steep bank. There was a perfect trumpet right behind me. I cleared the bank and took a second to look back. She was not in hot pursuit.
I told Chande when I got back. He laughed and asked, "Is that why she was trumpeting earlier?" Apparently, this female hangs around camp and doesn't really like people getting to close to her. I thought, that elephant is going to hurt somebody someday, no doubt.
September 11, 2004: Flight Ready
Helped Chande organize his GIS (Geographic Information System) today. It wasn't planned that way, but he was showing me his stuff and I realized that he had lots of data but that he couldn't use his information. He had had various GIS consultants to camp, but he had ArcView 3.1 (software) installed but nobody had ever shown him how to use it. We started with the base map of Mozambique and then began piling layer after layer that he had on top of it: soils, geology, rainfall, vegetation, and political boundaries. Then we put in the small, medium, and big rivers, main roads, secondary roads, and roads in construction, towns, villages, safari camps, scout camps, airstrips, and the boundaries of the reserve and hunting concessions. We took the contour lines and put them in one file and made a graduated color scheme of this. Then we took the wildlife data and depicted the density of elephant and sable and all of the other species on the map. It was as if Chande had discovered a whole new world. He was beside himself with excitement. He is now motivated to become a GIS king and has a million ideas about how to use it.
September 12, 2004: Serra Mecula
Today we are undertaking our first flight for the Sociedade para a Gestão e Desenvolvimento da Reserva do Niassa (Company for the Management and Development of Niassa Reserve). I signed an agreement with Anabela and her project to make a number of flights in Niassa Game Reserve. Today was day one. Should we do hippo and crocodile counts on the Rovuma and Lugenda Rivers? Or maybe a photo mosaic of Serra Mecula (Mecula Mountain), the biggest mountain in the reserve? Or maybe map the western mountains or the wetlands in the reserve? Anabela has given us lots of fun assignments, and I couldn't wait to get flying again. I feel like an African grey parrot in a cage if I don't get my flying time in.
We decided to do the photo mosaic of Serra Mecula. At the base of the mountain is a town of 2,000, which I feared would adversely affect the wildlife on the mountain. The town is well established, with a central square and monument, a big school, satellite hookup, and a big old laterite road leading up to it.
We were about 2,000 feet (600 meters) above the town and managed to get some good stuff, nice and sharp. The mountain itself is high, about 4,700 feet (1,400 meters). I figured at that at about 7,300 feet (2,200 meters), if we took a photo every ten seconds, we would get overlap. This was definitely shoot-from-the-hip transect flying.
We started our first transect, and I was immediately blown away by Serra Mecula. There were inselbergs on the top. Closed canopy forest covered half the mountain. Two crests ran along the north and south sides and right down the middle of this mountain was a beautiful river, like a hidden kingdom. But the biggest surprise is that the grassy parts of the mountain were covered with a very dense network of wildlife trails—thousands of them, all over the place. In most countries, Serra Mecula would be the national park. In Niassa it is just one geological feature in a reserve that would take you a month to walk across if you didn't dilly-dally. There was a small scout camp near the top, and Chande actually had what looked like a death-defying 4x4 track up the back side. There was also what they called the banana airstrip, because it curved up the hill in the shape of a banana. Because of this presence, the residents of Mecula considered the mountain off limits, making it a paradise for wildlife.
On the north side of the mountain was an even denser network of trails and a salt lick about every kilometer with giant elephant trails leading in and out. On the west side of the mountain, from Mecula heading north, was a human-made trail, large enough to be clearly visible from 5,000 feet (1,500 meters). Chande said that the local people walked this trail to a missionary hospital across the border in Tanzania. Walking days to get treatment! These folks are tough!
We finished about half the mountain. A bush fire raged on the eastern side of the mountain. Back in camp, Chande was blown away by the quality of the images. He was particularly impressed by the way he could just navigate around Mecula like he was in a space shuttle and look at every building and in every backyard. Chande was having fun with this technology. He was probably thinking, too bad we didn't have this stuff during the war.
September 13, 2004: Hippos, Tobacco, and Scorched Earth
We waited for the clouds to clear to see if we could do the rest of Mecula Mountain today. But with the fires and haze, the visibility was so poor that we aborted the mission. Instead, we headed off to do some fun stuff. We decided to conduct the first of several counts of hippos and crocodiles in the Lugenda and Rovuma rivers, which form the north and south boundaries of the reserve. We cruised down the road to the south of Mecula. Along this 40-kilometer (30-mile) road are several villages, home to more than 5,000 people, who are no doubt having a serious impact on the vegetation for about ten kilometers (six miles) on either side of the road. Chande, who was in the back of the vehicle, said that these people had been moved to get them off the Lugenda River, where the environmental impact would have been ever greater. If these folks were living along the rivers, then the conservation prospects for this reserve would be vastly different. Count your blessings, I say.
We crossed the bridge on the Lugenda, which is a massive concrete affair built by the Portuguese military. The war for independence ended in 1974, but the cement structures remain. We turned east and headed downstream. Chande was in the back, sitting on the floor. He is tall enough that he didn't need a seat. He was the data recorder, armed with GPS and pad and pencil. I was the spotter and videographer. We were going to count: people, camps, settlements, canoes, fish traps, hippos and crocodiles. I would call them out, Chande would mark a point and write down the observation.
I couldn't believe all the fish traps. Just about every little eddy or bottleneck had one. We weren't even counting the ones that were already in disrepair. Finally at observation 31, many kilometers downriver, we got "hippos, 8." After about an hour, in total about 190 kilometers (120 miles) along the river, we had counted 110 hippos in 11 groups and 185 fishing traps, camps, or dugouts in 150 different spots. If anything, the fish traps were way undercounted, but I think we were pretty much spot on with the hippos. On the Luangwa River in that distance we would have been up to several thousand hippos and maybe 20 records of fishermen.
The other environmental impact on this river is tobacco cultivation. Chande says it is for local consumption but in the quantities we saw it looked like industrial production to me. Perfect spot to have tobacco and also a perfect spot not to have it. Somebody needs to make that decision here.
We headed back to Mbatamila. As we approached camp we came upon a couple of raging bush fires that hadn't been there in the morning. Probably somebody walking along the footpath to Tanzania decided to set the place ablaze. People are always asking why the Africans burn two-thirds of their continent every year. Is it for hunting or grazing or planting, or what? If you've ever tried walking through dry season savannas with 2.5-meter (8.2-feet) high hyparrhenia grass with awns like barbed darts that bore their way though your t-shirt, pants, and shoes and with itchy hairs that make you scratch until you bleed, you might begin to understand why people torch the grass. It makes living in these savannas much more tolerable, even if several nuclear power plants worth of energy go up in smoke every year. The destruction these fires bring is gigantic.
As the sun got low on the horizon, we could hear the brush fire making its way toward camp. When there is a gust of wind, the fire makes a sound like pelting rain. Chande was pretty intent on our hippo file, but when we could see large orange flames through enormous billows of black smoke about two-thirds of a kilometer south, Chande rose up like a captain at sea who senses a bit storm coming his way. He gave a call to Mike, his right-hand man in charge of the guards. It was all in Portuguese but I understood his message perfectly: "Get your butt down here as fast as you can with every man you can muster."
Chande went out to reconnoiter. As soon as the men arrived, he sent off teams left and right with pangas, beating branches to extinguish fire lines and to light back fires. We all pitched in. There was a firebreak around camp, but it wasn't going to stop this fire. I worked with three guys just south of camp. We lit a back fire and it seemed to be doing well, slowing burning back as we could hear the firestorm roaring toward us. We could see the fire line coming up through the trees. The flames were about 15 feet (five meters) high. The fire was devouring the grass cover. As the fire closed in on the back fire, a wind tunnel was created and suddenly those flames shot up to 30 feet (ten meters) in height, singeing the highest leaves in the trees. Then, like a breaking wave, the fire jumped right across that back fire and suddenly all that fire saw was our backsides. We ran as fast as we could for the camp, every man for himself. That sucker was coming our way, and the last line of defense was the camp clearing itself. We had, maybe, 20 minutes.
I thought computers, hard-drives, cameras. If those hard drives went up, I'd lose six weeks' worth of pictures. I gathered up my belongings and put them in the middle of the road where they would be safest. I went back to the camp to help batten down the hatches. It was chaos. Everybody was doing what they thought might help keep the fire from torching every thatched roof in the camp. In a flash, the fire was plowing through the vegetable garden at the edge of camp, then the dry lawn. I tried to move the garden hose out of the way but it liquefied as I pulled. Then there was a flame on the kitchen roof. The hose was useless. Men got some buckets and doused that fire. Other men were beating the fire as it hit the cut grass at the edge of the camp. I could hear yelling from the east side of camp—that was where my tent was.
The flames were about six meters (20 feet) from my tent. We beat those flames as hard as we could. Behind my tent I heard something fall and there in the middle of camp was branch that was aflame. I looked up and a snag was ablaze. I scanned the roofs of the camp; none was on fire. By now, the smoke was so thick that we could hardly breath. My eyes watered like a faucet. I was nauseous and pretty much done for. The Africans kept on fighting. As the afternoon wore on, the wind died. We used the reprieve to work systematically on every front, extinguishing the flames and killing the fire lines.
We feared that the wind would pick up in the night and that the fire would rip through camp where it had not yet burned. We went to the airport to put the planes as far from fire as we could and to store all the fuel drums on the runway. It was well after dark now. We had to walk about two kilometers (one mile) through the grass without flashlights. Finally, we felt we had things fairly well under control. I fell into bed around 11 p.m. Incredibly, my tent had only a few burn holes in it.
"Senor, senor, fuente, aeroport!" I heard as I swam toward the surface from a deep sleep. A guy was outside my tent with a flashlight, and I could hear a motor running. I broke through to wakefulness as soon as I remembered I was in Mozambique and we were dealing with fire. I whipped on my clothes and ran to the Land Rover. Ragg wasn't there. I woke Peter and he said, "Oh, mien got." As we sped to the airport, we could see that bright undulating orange glow. We thought it wasn't big enough to be an exploding plane. So, things weren't that bad yet.
The fire was right along the road. We spent the next two hours keeping it from jumping the road. Embers flew across, and people raced to stamp them out. Mostly, though, we stood around in the smoke. I was feeling really sick now. It was about 4:30 a.m. Chande could see that I was going green. The Africans seemed to be in party mood, and I was happy to let them deal. I couldn't believe some of the guys were sitting by a fire warming themselves and others were smoking cigarettes. These dudes were hard core.
September 20, 2004: Granite Domes, Razorbacks, and the Bug-Eyed Monster
This morning began with one of those shocking awakenings, when you jerk awake thinking you're already late. My watch glowed 4:45 a.m., hardly enough time to get into the plane and fly to mountains 100 kilometers (60 miles) to the west. If I could roust Peter and Chande quickly enough, we'd be on our way. In a few, we had our seat belts fastened and were airborne at 5:34 a.m. to finish the last of our missions—to photograph the western mountains of the reserve and count hippos and document human use along the upper Rovuma River.
At 6:05 a.m., we were taking our first photos of the day. In those thirty minutes, we flew back in time to a prehistoric world, a world that contained only 50 million people or so. Humanity consisted of small bands of hunters and gatherers posed between being the predator and the prey. There were no cities, no fossil fuels, no civilizations, and no beginning or end to anyone's territory. This was a world of wilderness. In my silent dream, we slid past billion-year-old granite domes, one after the other. There were little creeks that flowed into open meadows that had a fresh flush of green or were charred black by fire. I thought about living here, spending years wondering amongst these rocks, exploring every little overhand and crack. I dream about living in a world that is wilderness. I have confirmed one thing. I know where I want to do my next walk, finally, and it will include this mountain range.
I snapped out of my trance and checked out my moving map. This place was 50 kilometers (30 miles) from the nearest village. We headed for the Rovuma River. Soon we could see the river that forms the boundary between southern and east Africa, between Mozambique and Tanzania. We reached the river and the first obvious thing that shocks you is the fact that it is brown with silt, like a river in flood, but we are months into the dry season and there is no flood.
Gold miners higher upstream, outside the reserve, are working alluvial deposits up in the headwaters area. There must be a huge number of them to create what looks like chocolate milk 50 kilometers (30 miles) at least from where they are working. We lined ourselves up, like we've done now on all the rivers here, and started a fast count: fish trap, camp, five people, fish trap, boat, one person, fish trap, fish trap, fish trap
and on it went until we were only about 50 nautical miles from Lake Malawi. We had counted 45 fish traps, 42 camps, 18 with fields and 21 dugouts. We saw zero hippos and zero crocodiles. We did see hippo tracks a couple of times on sandbars so there are a few around but they live stealthily up here.
A human trail on the Tanzanian side skirted the river and went from human settlement to settlement. This was an area that was in the process of being populated. This area is showing signs of following that settlement process where a small band of people strikes off in a direction and camps, usually to kill fish and game. They bring their crops with them and start to grow a few things. It usually starts with chili peppers and maybe a few manioc plants for greens. As time goes on and the camp is more used and as more people arrive, fish and game populations diminish. People become more settled and begin to grow crops, already outcamps have been established from this incipient village, and on goes the process.
On the way back we looked for game tracks. Starting out there were none. As we neared the reserve, they began and 25 kilometers (15 miles) from the river all looked wild again. If humans do not set aside and protect land, they will use it, and in the majority of cases they will use it up. A reserve like Niassa protects land from the process of human settlement. Niassa, one of the last frontiers, attests to that.
Took my afternoon walk today around the inselberg in front of my tent. Usually I see a few klipspringer. These agile little antelope whistle at you and walk on those granite cliffs like they are billy goats, except ten times more nimbly. They play on sheer cliffs as if they were flat ground. As I trudged up the hill, I saw a chameleon. He was banded black on tan with a hint of white.
I topped the hill and started down a deep drainage and heard a rustle in the dry creek bed. I stared at the spot for about two minutes and didn't see a thing. Then two animals materialized out of the litter below—bush pig. I could see about ten. These guys were beautiful. It was the first time I'd seen this savanna version of the red river hog. They have a distinct tint of red on the body with the white trim on the back and white tassles on the ears. They were razor thin in this dry season but looked healthy. They had the same alert call as in the forest. They bolted down through the bamboo. The green shoots were now emerging from the brush fires of five days ago. It is amazing how fast those luscious green leaves emerge. I could see life coming quickly back to this place, and I could see myself living here for a good while.
September 21, 2004: Chande
The Sociedade para a Gestao e Desenvolvimento da Reserva do Niassa (Society for the Management and Development of Niassa Reserve) was advertising for someone to head up the management of the Niassa Reserve. Chande, a man just entering his 50s, had worked in just about every protected area in Mozambique, first with the Portuguese, then during the FRELIMO(Mozambican Liberation Front)-RENAMO(Mozambican National Resistance) war. Chande is not one of those guys bound to a desk; he has always been a field man. He started out as a technician in 1978 with José Tello, a Portuguese who left Mozambique almost two decades ago. Tello, along with a couple of old school trainers from Tanzania, came down and trained up a bunch of guys to be wildlife technicians. Chande graduated and went straight to Gorongosa in 1979. That was about the same time RENAMO became a movement, and it just so happened they based themselves in Gorongosa. Chande left there in 1980 for the Maputo Elephant Reserve.
He applied for the job at Niassa and got it. He was hired by Halvor Astrup to essentially run the 10-million acre reserve. It was Astrup who decided to call the government to action in Niassa, a reserve that nobody was paying attention to. Astrop was the son of a man who owned a large conglomerate in Mozambique called MADAL, which was into mineral, fishing, and timber, mostly in the Zambezia Province. Astrup started to negotiate with the government and soon there were new limits drawn, five decreed hunting blocks specified, and a private-public partnership set up in the form of the Sociedad para a Gestao e Desenvolvimento da Reserva do Niassa. The government held 51 percent of the entity, and the private company called Niassa Investments held 49 percent. A certain percentage of revenues would go to local communities in the coming years. After ten years, the government would evaluate the performance of the Society and decisions about going forward would be made then. Astrup was one of the first men to take a risk in a in a country like Mozambique, but the timing was critical for wildlife preservation in Niassa.
September 24, 2004: Serra Mecula—the Mountain
We spent two days flying over this mountain doing a complete mosaic. I wasn't expecting much when we first started because the sizable town of Mecula lies at the southwest base of the mountain and I thought that for sure the mountain itself would be affected by the human presence.
But when we started flying over Serra Mecula, it revealed itself to be a hidden temperate island in a flat sea of harsh tropical savanna. This was a world with closed canopy forests and rivers that flowed gently downhill between two parallel ridges that ran east west along the mountain. At the head of the mountain were three great granite domes that crowned this hidden kingdom. There was no sign of humans other than a guard camp. There had been no burning for agriculture, and the mountaintop was crisscrossed by animal paths
We had finished our flights for the Niassa Reserve, so I decided to take three days that I should have spent doing flight chores to go take a hike. It would be good to see if the old body worked after sitting on my duff for the past hundred days. I had the guys drive me to Macalange, a village on the east side of the mountain. That way we would walk the 30 or so kilometers (20 miles) back to the road on the west side of the mountain.
On the way to Macalange, we drove through Mecula. It had a marketplace where people were selling fabric, sundry medicines, salt, cigarettes, bubble gum—you name it—from open-air stalls. The administrator's house was the biggest in town and situated right by the monuments to the fallen during the war. There was the Serviçao d'Agricultura, Direction d'Education Nationale, and the school. The school was a converted military base, another one built by the Portuguese during the war. For the most part, the buildings in the town looked well kept. There were new electric lines and huge piles of laterite on the road that they were rebuilding. We passed a big tobacco shed made of bamboo. People are everywhere burning soil so that people can burn their lungs. Figure that!
Along the road were electric fences, provided by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to keep elephants out of farmers' fields. In all meetings between the villagers and the Reserve (i.e., Chande), the first thing the people want is a way to reduce the problems with elephants. Of course, they are thinking of the .458 solution. Conservationists usually make a peace offering in the form of electric fencing. This is a good way to buy time when you don't want to shoot elephants but when you need to keep villagers working with you.
We stopped at the third one to start walking because there was a nice cleared fence line right up to the base of the mountain. The fence looked in good nick. Two strands of two millimeter galvanized wire, the top one indicated by the insulators on every tree, was the hot one. We were careful not to touch it; I didn't want to experience what shock to an elephant felt like.
At one point down the line there was a tree over the fence. Elephants are smart. They realize that there is good food on the other side of the fence line and the only thing keeping them from reaching the food is the thing that zaps them every time they touch it. Elephants have developed a number of ways to get around these fences. If there are trees around, they push a tree over the lines, knocking the line to the ground, and they're in! I've heard of elephants knocking posts down and, most shocking, pushing youngsters into the fence. It's like sending a solider onto barbed wire to let the others pass.
About a hundred meters (300 feet) farther on, there was another tree on the fence. A bit farther on the lower strand was broken. Yet farther on, there was more damage to the electric fence line. But at least now the Reserve management can say to the people, listen we built you a fence, spent all this money and you guys can't even mend the fence. The guilt complex buys you some more time until you figure out what you have to do and maybe by that time people will have left the area because elephants are eating them out of house and home.
The real solution is to maintain balance between man and beast. I love elephants but I also know that they are intelligent beings that say to themselves, these humans don't care. We come in, eat all this great food, nothing happens. If you want to make an impression on an elephant, you've got to hit them hard. One solution is to take one out that is in the middle of a field with a few buddies watching, because when they first come in it is usually young males—cannon fodder in the elephant world. If the young boys on their exploration come back and say, "Hey, there's great food out there and we all came back alive," then the mamas and the babies will come. If you take out one of these young bulls, balance can be maintained effectively.
By the time we reached the base of the mountain, we had already passed through three elephant trails, and there was buffalo and zebra dung right along the fence line. You wouldn't see spoor like this as close to a village in many places in Africa so considering that the managers of this Reserve have 10 million acres (4 million hectares) to control, 22,000 people living in the Reserve, and about 90 guards to patrol the place, I would give them high marks. If the Reserve didn't exist, there would be very little wildlife left throughout this wilderness.
The uphill trudge began. Chande had given me a scout. I was carrying about twice the weight he had, but he had the handicap of vintage World War II infantry rifle. I didn't know his name yet and we didn't speak each other's language so it was pretty quiet at first. We hit sharp granite boulders, tall grass, and bamboo pretty much right off the bat. There was a fairly dense cover of Miombo woodland here but walking was no fun through that grass. I was toting about 45 pounds (20 kilograms) and was surprised that I could even put one step in front of the other after becoming a cockpit potato. I didn't feel bad at all except that it was noon, hotter than hell, and I got real thirsty, real fast. After an hour or two of climbing I went into the Zen mentality, thinking about clear, cool mountain streams, forests, and wildlife.
I reckoned we had only an hour or two more of pain and suffering and then we would reach that Shangri-la that we had spied from the Cessna. The pokes of the bamboo and the itchy all over feeling from the grass was not making me a happy camper. We topped out and the grass just got thicker, more bamboo, more, bigger sharp granite boulders and more heat. We saw the movement of a big snake weave its way through the grass, I think it must have been a huge python by the way it moved that grass and the slow speed. That was about all we saw in the wildlife department. It was starting to get dark and we were making our way down into what I thought was the central valley with that creek.
We reached our creek bed, and it was dry as a bone. We walked about a kilometer upstream in the moonlight, but there was nothing that indicated that we were any closer to water. We made camp right there on the granite. We had about 5 liters (11 pints) of water left. No problem, I thought. Surely, we would find water the next day. I made a nice meal of burned rice with this hideously sweet chicken freeze-dried package that came from New Zealand. The guard hated it.
I heard the word, "Patron," penetrating my dreams. It was the young guard. He had no net, no mat, no flashlight. Just a sheet, uniform, boots, and gun. I could hear elephants rustling around in the grass, about 20 meters (66 feet) from my tent. We didn't have a fire going. The kid was probably scared. I murmured something meant to be reassuring and went right back to a deep sleep.
We woke up early, had a cup of tea, and headed out. We followed the dry river bed for three or four kilometers (2 miles), but I had dry throat syndrome by nine and no prospect of agua. We heard rustling up ahead. A flock of blue guinea fowl, the forest kind, were doing their cackling alarm call but didn't flush. A bit farther on, more rustling. This time it was a group of those Niassa bushpigs that look like a cross between the true forest red river hog and the savanna bushpig. They have a beautiful tawny red color with nice ear tassles and white back ridge mane. They did the freeze-and-bolt act that is characteristic of their species. There was water at this spot—filthy, stagnant water full of pig feces and urine. I would have had to of been real desperate to drink that water, and I was far from that.
Farther on, we saw a steenbok. They are cute little antelope with a red coat and big tail flag, like a white-tailed deer. Then we spied what looked like some huge spotted animals running through this forest vegetation. It almost looked like an optical illusion, but my eyes made out stripes, not spots—mountain zebra. My only previous experience with zebra is on safari drives. They are usually hanging out with the wildebeest and just kind of part of the landscape with no particular character other than black and white. Now, however, I had just seen a group of wild horses running through forest on an isolated mountain top in the middle of this vast wilderness in northern Mozambique. I stood in awe. What beautiful creatures these wild zebra are!
We left the creek bed. There was still no water, and the trails were getting hard to follow. We struck an old road, and I started walking southwest. My companion asked in half sign language and half Portuguese, "Should we be walking this way or the other way on this road if we want to get to the top of the mountain?" I checked my compass again. We were definitely going in the direction we wanted. Ten minutes later, after we went down a serious incline, we got a clear view of the savanna floor. It looked like the north side, and so my guy was right. We did an about face, and soon it looked like we were going to finish this mountain off with a few switch backs. The road was hardly visible; the elephants had taken it over long ago. I though maybe it was an old logging road, although it was hard to imagine anyone building a road up here for some trees. But, then, never underestimate the desire of man to exploit nature.
We got to the top of the mountain and hit a sea of grass. Right to those distant granite peaks was nothing but tall, dense hyparrhenia grass that was well over my head. It was mixed with a species of hibiscus with a furry pubescence that if you grabbed it real hard had hairs that stuck in your skin. We had no choice but to dive right in. We could see those dense gallery forests about two kilometers (one mile) way and that's where there would be water, if any.
There are few vegetation types that I hate walking through more than grass that is well over your head. It's hot and humid and the air does not move around you. All the little awns from that grass stick into every possible anchor on your clothing. You can't see more than a couple of meters in front of you. It is the absolute worst walking environment, in my opinion. Give me the biggest baddest swamp in the world before you send me into a sea of grass. I hate it.
I took a step forward and felt a dry grass stem slice right into my flesh. I looked down and it looked like somebody had just slit the throat of a goat. Bright red oxygenated blood from one of those big arteries right near the surface of your skin was gushing bloods in spurts from my heart. It was kind of cool to watch, it was like I had sprung a big leak in my plumbing, but it was my blood pouring out. I put my thumb hard on the spot and that stopped the bleeding. I asked the scout for a cloth. It smelled like dirty socks, but I wasn't going to argue. The scout wrapped the band around the wound, tying it in a nice little knot.
It was sweltering hot in the middle of that sea of grass, and we needed to just keep going. The blood flow was reduced, but now I had to be careful with every step. Last time I don't wear boots in a sea of grass. On we trudged through this hell hole. No animals to be seen. What animal in its right mind would be out in this place in the heat of the day?
About two hours later, we reached a gallery forest. It was like walking into Macy's on a sweltering day in the Big Apple. A gush of cool air hit us as soon as we were in the shade of the trees, and moisture was evaporating from the ground like a swamp cooler. And there was water. I sat down near the creek and started dipping my cup into that almost ice chilled water. Trouble was, I had that thing you get when your mouth has been dry for too many hours. Each time I swallowed a drink of water, it felt like I had a sore throat. I had to take it slowly.
I was tempted to camp right there but we needed to push on. We still had a long way to go, and day three of my vacation was up tomorrow. We got to a second gallery around 17:00, where I decided we would camp. The guard, who's name I still did not know, did not look happy. He wanted to sleep in the savanna. I had learned the word for fire, fogo, and suggested we build a fire. This cheered him up. He tried the water and kept saying agua fria, drinking away smiling. We were trying to communicate. I would try a mix of Spanish and French and embellish it with acting. Most of what he said went right over my head. He made some corn meal, nshima they call it. I took one bite of that stuff and it felt like I was putting red chili pepper on a strep throat.
Next day, we hit the grass again. Five more hours of the same: heat, grass, grass, grass. Slowly but surely we inched our way toward the tallest of the granite domes. We were not going to attempt to climb it, but we were going to attempt descending the mountain right at the base of it. We hit a pretty good elephant trail, which pushed us right along and finally about 13:00 we were ready for the climb down. We could have pushed along the ridge but I had had enough of grass. I pointed to the nearest drainage. "That way," I signaled. The scout looked doubtful.
About 45 minutes later, after difficult drops in the bed of giant boulders, we hit about a 20 meter (650 meters) drop that we were not going to be able to negotiate. Zitou—I had learned his name—had slippery boots. I had my ankle problem. And we were now carrying about 15 liters (32 pints) of agua. In desperation, I negotiated my way across a 45-degree slab by holding on to a couple of thin fig roots on the way. There was another ravine that had vegetation that I thought we could climb down. I gave Zitou the old "hoo," and he was right there with my backpack. He, too, was going to risk his life to not have to crawl for two hours back up to that grass.
We still had a good 1,000 feet (300 meters) to descend, so we went for broke. Zitou starred at that traverse and the drop below, about 50 feet (20 meters), and decided to take those slippery boots off. I got below him and pushed a tree out over the gap as far as I could, but he would still have to do about 15 meters with no option but to fall 50 feet if his feet lost their hold on that granite. Slowly, slowly, like somebody on a tight rope he made his way across. I couldn't watch. He made it. We picked our way down and finally reached the bottom.
Now, where was the road? I headed west, Zitou wanted to go north. My gut feeling was west. He was doubtful, but we trudged on through the burned savanna. There were plenty of signs of elephants, buffalo, and antelope. I just couldn't imagine where they found refuge. We spooked a duiker and saw some fresh human tracks. About an hour and a half later, we came across a pile of laterite piled up for road construction and ten minutes after that we were on the road. Zitou made a radio call and within 20 minutes a Land Rover came to our exact location. I hated that grass but in five years time all that will be left will be the memory of those beautiful wild zebra. I will never forget that.
September 28, 2004: Ghost of Vasco da Gama
We reached the shores of the Indian Ocean yet again, this time coming from Niassa Reserve where we spent almost two weeks amidst inselbergs and vast Miombo woodlands. On the way we crossed the coastal forest zone. This forest has many types of trees. Of particular note are mahogany trees. We aimed for a few of the taller patches of forest and, sure enough, the loggers had just been there. Seems like wherever you go on the planet, the loggers have been there before you.
We passed the port of Mocimboa da Praia, and there beside the 40-foot (10 meter) containers that bring in the world's factory wares were the torsos of trees that are sold in return. From the air, the beach settlements looked simple but very tidy with a distinct Muslim influence. They were built below groves of palms in shady bliss along the blue Quirimba Archipelago, a barrier reef system that stretches for 200 miles (300 kilometers) along the Mozambican coastline. This is a tropical paradise.
Our destination: Ibo Island. We were planning on staying at a lodge there for a few nights. We flew over small islands with tiny settlements marked by simple thatch huts and, in the surrounding waters, canoes with sails. These folks have been living like this for hundreds of years. Then we flew over a new lodge going up. It was being built in the style of most of these lodges, open thatched bungalows and restaurant, a swimming pool with a poolside bar. A big scale and millions of dollars being spent—this is indeed an era that the ancient reefs of the Quirimba Archipelago has never seen in its history.
As we neared Ibo, I could see red tile roofs and substantial buildings. The closer we got, the more obvious it became that this was a town, not a lodge. As we flew overhead, we could see that it was very much a Portuguese town, with a central garden and a very neatly laid out main avenue, wide sidewalks, and whitewashed stones that delimited trees and park benches. There were three formidable fortresses with eight-foot-thick (three-meter-thick) walls built of white coral, complete with cannons, guard turrets, and enormous wooden doors. On the edge of town was a walled graveyard with three mausoleums and wrought-iron fences around the graves. This appeared to be an idyllic little port town.
We landed and were greeted by about 200 hundred kids, all trying to be helpful, but they got very close to the airplane. They asked if we wanted them to carry our bags to town. I told them in my very broken Portuguese that we would be picked up by a car. The kids kept insisting that this car would not come. Finally, Peter and his wife came to greet us—on foot. There are no cars on Ibo Island.
We began the walk to town, leaving the airport building. On the other side of the airport building we found white coral paths leading to—of all things, a lot with parking spaces neatly marked out with whitewashed coral. All this on an island where no cars were allowed!
Continuing our walk into town, we passed the graveyard. The roofs on the mausoleums, which we had seen from the air, were caved in. The walls were broken where doors used to be. We reached the main avenue and now, up close, we could see that many tile roofs were collapsed. Where houses had once stood, now coral rubble was piled up. Buildings that remained somewhat intact proved to be police stations or some other type of government building with pictures of politicians and fading, stenciled lettering on them.
It was as if the Portuguese had vanished in the night, leaving their town abandoned to the winds of time. A few Portuguese remained, to go through the motions of life as they knew it. Old men sat on park benches with their canes close at hand. At the bakery, people bought fresh loaves of bread. Shoppers went in and out of the butcher shop and the fish monger's. Patrons at street cafes called to passers-by. It was a slice of old Portugal on this coral island in the Indian Ocean. It was a town occupied by ghosts.
September 29, 2004: Indian Ocean
Start: Pemba, Mozambique
Stop: Nosy Be, Madagascar
Flight Time: 4 hours, 37 minutes
Flight Distance: 540 nautical miles (1,000 kilometers)
After cruising for three hours out over the Mozambique Channel in the open Indian Ocean, we came abeam Dzaoudzi, the former capital of Mayotte, a small island that is part of France. Some 7,000 feet (2,000 meters) below the plane and clouds was the most beautiful sight you could ever imagine after nothing but black-blue ocean all morning. It was the barrier reef that creates a protected calm for this emerald-green jewel. The sea was running maybe ten knots fast in a sheet of current over a front of at least 50 miles (80 kilometers). It was like the greatest river on earth with enormous white water rapids that slipped water back into the blue depths.
||These dispatches are edited versions of e-mail reports sent from the field. They have not been researched and represent the viewpoints of individual expedition members.