The expansive Niassa Reserve in northern Mozambique is not on a well-trodden safari path. Which is why Emma Thomson was so eager to visit.
The canoe slips like an otter through the still waters of the Lugenda River. With soft strokes of our paddles, Nick – my burly South African safari guide – and I nose downstream, scanning the banks for birds and enjoying the afternoon sun on our arms.
A brown bump in the water up ahead catches my attention. I crane my neck higher to get a better look. “Is that a crocodile?” I ask, with rising nervousness. “Nah, it’ll just be a log,” Nick shrugs after a quick glance, but I keep my eye on the ‘log’ that suspiciously seems to be swimming upstream.
A few metres closer and I can definitely make out the obsidian eyes and gnarly snout. “No, look!” I yelp, pointing urgently to our left as we draw level with it. “Bloody hell!” shouts Nick. “That is a croc! He must be at least 13 foot – never seen one that big!” We plunge our paddles deeper, propelling ourselves away just in case we pique his interest. My heart hammers with the thrill of it and Lugenda’s allure becomes clear.
We’d launched from Lugenda Wilderness Camp, a handful of luxury tents accessible only by plane, on the banks of this sandy river that flows through Niassa Reserve, a pristine parcel of bush in northern Mozambique the size of Switzerland. Conservationists have called it one of Africa’s “last wild places”.
Indeed, its sheer size saved Niassa’s wildlife. During the fifteen years of civil war that raged from 1977 to 1992, the army and rebels, desperate for food, all but decimated the game stocks in Mozambique’s other protected areas. Scared into its remotest corners, Niassa’s animals survived.
But searching for wildlife in a Switzerland-sized haystack has its challenges and Nick doesn’t pull any punches: “If it’s your first safari, don’t come here. The wildlife isn’t on tap like the Serengeti or Ngorongoro Crater – and we don’t have cheetah, giraffe or black rhino.” Niassa is better suited to safari pioneers because you have to work a little harder to find the wildlife.
It certainly doesn’t feel that way as we coast downstream. Sacred hammerkops probe the sand for shrimp; a turn in the river bend reveals a matriarch elephant, who raises her curled trunk and trumpets a warning to ‘steer clear’ of her daughters and nearby infant; and, as the sun sets, we spy the rounded pink backside of a hippo hauling itself onto the riverbank.
As we pull into shore, Carlos the camp manager is waiting for us with gins and tonics and the Jeep. After sipping our sundowners, we clamber aboard and start a night drive – with Jamie, our Mozambican scout, sitting up front scanning a bright-white beam over the trees and tall grass.
One by one the stars appear until the Milky Way blazes above. “Look, there’s Orion!” I say, pointing excitedly out the front of the car. “What? A lion? Where?” exclaims Nick, eagerly inspecting the scrub. We don’t get so lucky that night, but we do encounter a herd of Niassa wildebeest and a civet hiding in the grass.
The following day we rise with the birds, and set out again searching for lions. Jamie soon spots some prints in the damp morning mud and we jump out of the Jeep to inspect them. “It’s a female,” concludes Nick. Without a word, Jamie disappears into the bush – eyes to the ground. “Let’s follow him and see if we can find her.” So we pace through the waist-high grass as quietly as possible.
After a few twists and turns, Jamie halts abruptly and ducks his head lower. Hushed Portuguese whispers are exchanged with Nick. “Yes! There! See?” He motions through a thicket of flaxen grass. I stop breathing. Separated from the protective bubble of the Jeep, I feel intensely vulnerable and tingle from head to toe. “Bugger, she’s gone,” Nick observes, and I notice his grip relax on the rifle he carries in his right hand.
On the final morning, there’s time for one last game drive before our plane arrives. The first rays of sunlight are setting the grasses aglow and everywhere flutter white-and-yellow butterflies. After some time, Jamie tenses in his chair. I follow his line of sight and there, sprawled on some flat rocks about 60 metres away, are two lions. I whip the binoculars up to my eyes: it’s a lioness and young male with a scruffy mohawk and first sprouts of a mane. Their bellies are round as barrels – full from a feed the night before.
Quietly, Nick slips from behind the wheel and starts exploring in front of the vehicle. After a few paces, he bends down and holds the glossy brown leg of a sable antelope aloft. “This was supper last night! And I think we just chased off a hyena.”
There are thought to be 40–50 lions in Lugenda’s section of the reserve –1200 in total. And it’s a good place for them to pick: Lugenda is the only camp run as photographic base; the others in the reserve continue to operate as hunting camps because the government still relies heavily on the money to rebuild after the war.
Indeed, the conflict between humans and wildlife remains a pertinent problem: northern Mozambique has one of Africa’s highest occurrences of man-eating lions. “It’s ironic, really,” explains Nick. “Many Mozambicans are Muslim, so when bush pigs raid their villages for scraps, they catch them but they won’t eat them, so the lions are drawn in and someone ends up getting eaten instead.”
In 2003 Zimbabwean conservationist Keith Begg and his wife Colleen set up the Niassa Carnivore Project in an attempt to solve the ongoing conflict and collaborate with the locals to improve their practices. The work is challenging. The lions here have a much larger ‘beat’ compared to other parks because there are fewer animals and they’ll readily swim the rivers too – but they collar the lions to count them and keep tabs on their movements. Encouragingly, Niassa is one of the few reserves where numbers are on the up.
And, as if to prove how good life is here, the lioness lets out a contented yawn and a jet of urine. Nick turns on the ignition and we joggle away leaving her to pee in peace.
Emma Thomson travelled with Found Travel. All accommodation and flights can be booked through its Mozambique Route Planner (www.found.travel).
Getting there Emma Thomson flew from London Heathrow to Maputo via Lisbon with TAP and from Maputo to Pemba with LAM. From Pemba, Lugenda Wilderness Camp can arrange a private 90-minute light-aircraft transfer to the camp.
Visas Visas are required by nationals of all but some African countries; a single-entry visa valid for 30 days costs £40.
When to go Lugenda Wilderness Camp is open during the cooler winter season from May to December and closes for the rainy season. August and September are the best months for game viewing, when the bush is thinned out and a riot of autumnal red.
Accommodation A night at Lugenda Wilderness Camp (www.found.travel) costs from US$560/£335 per person per night and includes accommodation, all meals including alcoholic beverages, safari activities, park fees, and laundry.
Further information www.niassalion.org
Mozambique: The Bradt Travel Guide
Travel Africa, Issue 67, Summer 2014