x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

Recapturing the pioneering feel of travel in Mozambique

Minty Clinch goes on safari and takes to the saddle to enjoy two very different experiences in this under-visited southern African country.

Mozambique in south-east Africa offers sandy beaches, diving, big-game fishing and tours that include horse safaris and bush treks, as well as accommodation priced to suit both budget and luxury travellers. Courtesy of wildfrontiers.co.uk
Mozambique in south-east Africa offers sandy beaches, diving, big-game fishing and tours that include horse safaris and bush treks, as well as accommodation priced to suit both budget and luxury travellers. Courtesy of wildfrontiers.co.uk

In mass tourist terms, Mozambique is a miracle waiting to happen. The coastline stretches from the island of Pemba, near the Tanzanian border, to Maputo, the capital, near the South African one. For 2,470 kilometres, the Indian Ocean laps at sandy beaches overlooked by stupendous dunes. Offshore archipelagos offer romantic hideaways, coral dive sites and bases for big-game fishing. Fleets provide fresh catches for dinners under tropical stars. The interior is bush - mountainous in some parts, expansive grasslands in others - great for viewing game and hiking.

The good news is that the government of Mozambique doesn't really care if anyone shows up or not. But why would it, when it can export natural gas to South Africa and coal to Brazil? It's already sold extensive fishing rights to Chinese entrepreneurs and allowed them to import their own workforce. Most rural residents survive precariously on subsistence agriculture. The government certainly has the means to improve the imbalance, but its sense of urgency on this front hovers around zero.

As yet, visitors from abroad are divided between elite tourists who charter private planes to transfer from island lodges to remote game reserves and budget travellers who use crowded buses and take things as they come. They'll find semi-permanent camps with walk-in tents, simple lodges with rondevals (circular huts) and hostels on beaches they never want to leave.

The bonus? Neither group has to share with package tourists, creating a pioneering feeling that is increasingly rare in the world's beauty spots. Falling somewhere between the two categories, I started my voyage of exploration with a road journey from the airport at Beira, an industrial town on the coast, to Gorongosa National Park, the ultimate game reserve in the Portuguese colonial era.

After three hours, I stopped briefly at Chitengo, a lodge with cabanas, camping and a pleasantly airy restaurant at the main entrance. Another 20 minutes brought me to Explore Gorongosa, the only place to stay inside the park. It is owned, furnished and run - to very high standards - by Rob and Jos Janish, a young couple from Zimbabwe who are expecting their first child, who will have a dramatic start to life in the wilderness.

Their luxury camp has six double tents spaced well apart on the banks of a river full of crocodiles. In line with contemporary high-end bush lore, it is unfenced, with outdoor showers and toilets, but the walk-in tents are insect-proof, the beds have mosquito nets and men with torches make sure you reach your door unscathed after dark. Over lunch, I met the only other guests, a British couple on their honeymoon. A brief chat revealed that the bride is a relation of my cousin's fiancé. African bush telegraph? You better believe it.

In the relative cool of the evening, we set out in the Land Cruiser with Andy Smith, our Zimbabwean guide, to check the game. With a greater density of animals than the Serengeti plains, this southernmost extension of the Great Rift Valley was targeted by Hollywood trophy hunters, notably Gregory Peck and John Wayne, during the 1950s and 1960s.

Such frivolities ended abruptly after independence in 1975, when Moscow-backed Frelimo and Renamo political movements, supported by white minorities in Zimbabwe and South Africa, went head-to-head in a bitter civil war that lasted until 1992. Inevitably, a rural population deprived of a livelihood slaughtered animals, both for food and saleable goods, with ivory high on the hit list.

After years of devastation, Gorongosa's rebirth began in 2004 when Greg Carr, a tech billionaire from Idaho, targeted the park for restoration. Using funds from the non-profit foundation he started in 1999, he devised a scheme to give the locals a sustainable lifestyle that doesn't include killing animals. Carr's pledge of US$45 million (Dh165m) over 30 years is already funding anti-poaching forces, infrastructure projects, animal head counts and a permanent biological research centre.

Re-stocking is key, and there is progress on many fronts. There are now 300 elephants (their gene pool enriched by six bulls imported from the Kruger), 400 buffaloes and approximately 4,000 hippos. On an early morning walk, we saw sable, impalas, kudu, herons, pelicans, eagles, giant lizards and crocs, while a night drive revealed the striking spots of civet cats. Zebras are expected shortly.

At one point on the last of our evening drives, we came upon a herd of female elephants with their young. After shooing her juniors out of the way, the matriarch faced up to us with intent to charge, trunk raised and ears expanded to the max. The trumpeting was impressive as she racked up the threat. A Land Cruiser is no match for an angry animal weighing 3,000kg, so Andy backed up fast. The elephant held her ground for a while, then turned as if in resignation as she made her way back to her tribe. But no way had she forgotten the war.

As the sun set over Gorongosa, we scanned the grassland for lions - not that we expected to see any. Mozambique's most celebrated national park is marginally smaller than Dubai, but its restoration programme has resulted in 45 tawny predators, an estimated 10 per cent of the pre-war population. Cold drinks in hand, we assessed these odds. If we were to see lions before we left, the force would need to be with us.

And it was. Our targets appeared in the twilight, two young males with dark manes and playful dispositions. "About four years old," said Andy. In lion terms they were teenagers, and that's how they behaved, moving apart, stalking our vehicle and joining up again for another round of roll and butt, push and shove. Intrigued by the searchlight, they closed in gradually to 50m, but out of curiosity rather than aggression. After an hour, they watched as we drove away. A shame to leave them, but camp dinners prepared by Akim, our Zimbabwean chef, and served under the stars were far too good to miss.

The next morning I headed south to Vilanculos, a large fishing port on the coast between Beira and Maputo. Set around a picturesque bay where traditional dhows gather, it has backpacker cred, with restaurants, hostels and hotels to suit all budgets. Beachfront cafes serve cool drinks at noon and unnamed fishing villages offer freshly caught grouper for lunch. One of the best ways to enjoy all this is on a horse, now available on an hourly, daily or weekly basis with Mozambique Horse Safaris, run by Patrick and Mandy Retzlaff.

As Mugabe tightened his grip on the Zimbabwean countryside after 2000, the Retzlaffs were evicted from six farms over a three-year period. At that point they decided to take their horses - their most easily movable asset - to Mozambique on the grounds that the other neighbouring countries - Tanzania, Botswana and South Africa - already had plenty. When they rounded up their foals and yearlings for the journey, neighbours in similar situations offered more on the grounds they'd be better out than eaten. In 2003, the Retzlaffs arrived in the frontier town of Chimoio with 104 young horses and no obvious place to go.

Like Mozambique's wild animals, horses had become increasingly rare during the civil war so they had plenty of options, but they picked Vilanculos for its airport (non-stop flights to Johannesburg) and its small scale private enterprise tourism. Unlike many riding holidays that get as far away from civilisation as possible, Mandy's guests stay close to town, mingle with locals and every night eat at a different restaurant, where fresh fish and piri piri chicken are at the top of the list.

My Wild Frontiers group trip was based in Blue Water, a group of beachfront rondevals. Brutus, the stocky Basuto pony I was assigned for my adventure riding week, lived nearby in the immaculate Retzlaff yard. Although he's been found guilty of grand larceny and fined $100 (Dh367) by an impromptu court for eating a maize field, reform is not on his mind. Rather, he looks for every chance to offend again. As is his custom, he pranced along on our first expedition, turning his attention to the food chain as soon as track narrowed to trail.

We followed a chequered course behind Lukas, a wiry groom employed to run ahead to clear toddlers and motorcycles from our path. East Africa is famous for long-distance runners born at altitude, but Lukas's performance at sea level, carrying a backpack loaded with welcome chilled water, was impressive. As soon as we left the village belt, we were in virgin bush, the way frequently barred by giant golden orb spiders in intricate webs stretched across the path at eye level. Although arachnophobes might have trouble believing it, they are as harmless as they are beautiful.

At times, we skirted freshwater lakes, where herons and villagers compete for a Mozambique bream dinner. At others, the horses struggled through fiery red sand to carry us to the top of dunes with sweeping views of the Bazaruto Archipelago across the strait. However it was the beach that made Brutus prick up his ears and dance in preparation for his dash for home. With no chance of snacking before he got there, he stretched out eagerly along the shore with an exhilarating surge of power that left his rivals trailing. His enthusiasm for our swimming expedition at evening high tide was less pronounced, but he eventually agreed to descend into the water so I could catch a wave and slither onto his bare back, clinging for a few slippery minutes until we were safely back on dry land.

Mandy and Pat also keep 10 horses on Benguerra, the most developed of several islands in the archipelago. Two very smart lodges, traditional Benguerra and eco-chic Azura compete keenly for the five-star global honeymoon market. The dawn cool is the perfect time to check out the island on horseback, followed by diving as the day heats up.

The island is a notable base for marlin fishing à la Hemingway and Two Mile Reef, between Benguerra and Bazaruto islands, a legend in scuba circles. My snorkelling expedition was rewarded with healthy coral and a generous quota of iridescent fish but I was jealous of my PADI-qualified (Professional Association of Diving Instructors) fellow travellers when they told of close encounters with turtles a metre across, grey reef sharks, moray eels and the poisonous puffer fish, one of the most deadly vertebrates in the world.

However, my activity rage subsided when the divers slept through the dhow trip back to Vilanculos. As the sun flamed and died, Dave, the owner of a small fleet of Arabic trading vessels, popped corn in a pan in the traditional fire pit near the bow. Not a strictly historic accompaniment to a chilled drink, I suppose, but the silence over deserted waters generated a rare sense of time long gone by.


If You Go

The flights Return flights with Etihad Airways (www.etihadairways.com) from Abu Dhabi to Johannesburg cost from US$976 (Dh3,585) in economy class and $3,580 (Dh12,885) in business class. South African Airways (flysaa.com) flies from Johannesburg to Beira for 4,124 South African rand (Dh2,060). All prices include taxes

The info Wild Frontiers (www.wildfrontiers.co.uk; 00 44 207 736 3968) offers eight-day 'horses and wildlife' tailor-made tours (one night in Vilanculos and three nights each at Benguerra Lodge and three nights in Gorongosa), with helicopter transfers, riding and game activities from $4,415 (Dh16,220) per person. International airfare is not included