Written by Neil Harmse
Chapter 11. An Expedition into Mozambique
The 1980s were a busy time for conducting walking trails and I also got involved with game control operations. By way of something different, I was asked by my good friend Loot Schulz, the owner and Director of Pungwe Safari Camp in the Manyeleti Game Reserve, to accompany him on a trip to Mozambique to evaluate a game park called Zinave for possible restocking with game animals and to restore it as a tourist venture as part of the planned trans-frontier park project.
Loot and I had been involved in several conservation and tourism ventures, including the Manyeleti Game Reserve land claim, planning the Ivory Route and the Maluleke community project, to name a few. Loot had been approached by the new Mozambican government on the recommendation of Dave Law, the owner of Barra Lodge in Mozambique, to put an expedition together for this venture. The party would comprise six people, all with a background in tourism and conservation. We would be the first group of South Africans to enter Mozambique since the end of hostilities of the civil war. The plan was for Loot and I to travel in his Land Rover, while Pierre Sutherland and Gustav Wipplinger followed in Pierre’s Land Cruiser. We would meet up at the SAPS border control at Pafuri in the far north of the Kruger Park and, from there, enter Mozambique. Dave Law and Loot’s wife, Cilla, would travel from Barra Lodge on the Mozambique coast and meet us at a small town on the road to Zinave Park.
Loot had tried to obtain visas from the Mozambican embassy in Johannesburg, but by the time of our planned departure, these were not ready. We were told that documents could be obtained at the border control post.
Formalities on the South African side went off smoothly and, being late and tired after our long journey, we were kindly offered accommodation at the SA military base by the colonel in command. Early the following morning, we set off on the next stage of our journey to arrange the entry into Mozambique, then cross the Limpopo River and continue to Mapai, a small town which had been a flash point during the war with Rhodesian forces and Mozambique soldiers.
Our approach to the Mozambique border control was met with military personnel in assorted and varied camouflage dress, with a variety of firearms (mostly AK-47s and a few shotguns) all being pointed or waved in our direction. This was quite daunting and not a welcome sight. We were directed into a rather dilapidated house and shown to sit on what appeared to be a wooden school bench. After about half an hour, one of the men who had been standing in a group talking approached us. We explained that we required documentation to travel to the Zinave reserve. This provoked another unintelligible discussion and our passports were scrutinised. These were then thrown into a desk drawer and a letter was scribbled on a page from a notebook, which was then torn out and given to us. All the conversation was in what seemed to be a mixture of Portuguese and Shangaan or Tsonga, which we could not understand. However, we eventually made out that we had to travel with this piece of paper and would be able to retrieve our passports upon our return to the border control. We could not make out what was written on the paper, except for the word ‘Gaza’, which was the province we had entered. We had to travel out of Gaza into Inhambane province to reach Zinave.
With some trepidation, we started our journey to the Limpopo crossing and Mapai. Travelling along the road, we noticed a few homesteads which at one time must have been the stately residences of Portuguese families who had fled, been expelled (or worse) during the war. The houses all showed signs of conflict, such as bullet holes and fire damage. Initially, the road was in a reasonable condition and we hoped it would remain that way throughout the trip.
The Limpopo River was fairly low, since this was the dry season, and we crossed with no problems. Loot decided to stop in the water to wash the dust and grime off the Land Rover. We then took a short drive into the town of Mapai, where we wanted to stock up with fresh fruit and vegetables, but we had no luck: there was hardly anything worth buying. So on we went again, through to the road heading past the Banhine National Park en route to Inhambane province and the Zinave reserve.
The road to Banhine showed signs of roadworks, with some really bad humps and dips which we had to traverse slowly. Once past Banhine, however, the roads gradually became worse until they were mainly potholes and dongas. Loot hit one unseen donga with a force that rattled the vehicle, causing two jerry cans of fuel to fly off the back. One of them was damaged and half the fuel in it lost. We went past many small villages where people appeared to be poverty-stricken and starving. Pot-bellied children ran alongside our vehicle, begging for food. In some villages, they waved reed- or stick-woven baskets containing rats which they were trying to sell. The only animals we saw were a few mangy dogs, scrawny goats and the odd donkey. It was very sad to see the effects and aftermath of the long, drawn-out war. Almost all the villages had enormous grain baskets standing on stilted platforms to keep them off the ground, but the majority of them were empty. The harvest had been poor.
It had been a long, hard drive and we finally found a campsite in the bush where we could put up a few canvas flysheets to keep the dew off. Soon we had a comforting fire going, with steaks and sausages on the coals. A few beers were opened to slake our thirst and end the day.
Early the next morning, we turned north-east towards Zinave and the road seemed to deteriorate with every kilometre, although the vegetation improved. There were groves of beautiful fever trees in swampy areas, massive baobab trees which had to be hundreds of years old and forests of ironwood trees. At one place we came across a logging operation, with many logs of Chamfuti or mahogany trees which had been felled for export timber. This was the work of a Chinese consortium which was stripping the land of these magnificent trees.
Rusted Russian tank, a relic from the war.
Limpopo crossing with the Jeep.
To our surprise, on the roadside we came across a shot-up and derelict Russian tank – a relic of the past conflict. It gave us a chance to stretch our legs and take photos of us sitting aboard the shell.
A few hours later, we had reached the small town where we were to meet up with Dave and Cilla, who were driving from Barra Lodge on the coast. Here we had also arranged to meet the ranger or manager of Zinave, who would guide us into the reserve.
Dave and Cilla duly arrived and about an hour later, the ranger made his appearance. It was decided that I would travel with him in the lead vehicle and Cilla and Dave would drive with Loot, while Pierre and Gustav would bring up the rear. I was a bit concerned about the Toyota Hilux that the ranger was driving: the exhaust was broken and making a terrible racket, the radiator cap was missing and the radiator stuffed closed with a rag, while the same solution had been applied to the missing petrol cap. Conversation was rather limited because of the noise coming not only from the exhaust, but also from assorted rattles and squeals in various parts of the vehicle which seemed to be held together with wire, tape and diverse fastenings not designed by the factory. We had to stop every few kilometres to replenish the water in the radiator. There were about four 20-litre cans of water in the back, but I soon wondered whether these would be enough!
From our limited conversation, I learnt that the wildlife in Zinave was almost non-existent. There were rumoured to be about 10 or 12 buffalo ‘somewhere’ in the 40 000km² reserve, but Armando, the ranger, had only found tracks and had not seen the animals. During the war, the reserve had served as the military headquarters of the Renamo military faction and had been a point of conflict for years. Renamo soldiers would shoot any animal they came across, mainly for food. When they were away from the reserve or driven out, the Frelimo forces would occupy and shoot indiscriminately. In this way, all wildlife had been decimated almost to extinction. In addition, there were about 4 000 people living within the reserve boundaries, which also took a heavy toll on the wildlife and resources. Not an encouraging situation.
About two hours’ drive brought us to the boundary of Zinave and as we drove in, we were impressed by the number of enormous baobab trees and thickets of fever trees. What immediately came to our attention was the shortage or absence of animals and birds. It was quite eerie to be in an area with no signs of life. Driving through the reserve, we saw only a few scrawny yellow-billed hornbills, a couple of vervet monkeys and one lonely impala running for its life. The day was now drawing to an end and the ranger suggested we drive to an old tourist camp on the banks of the Save River. Here we could make camp and overnight.
Anticipating comfortable rondavel accommodation and camp amenities where we could relax, we were shocked at the state of the camp. All the buildings had been virtually destroyed and featured bullet holes, roofs burned off and mortar damage from past conflicts. We decided to set up camp away from this sad sight and found an area with shady trees about 200m from the camp. Here we made ourselves comfortable and as it was getting late, we soon had a fire going and food on the grill. Being rather tired from the long drive, everyone felt we could do without showers or baths until the next morning. The ranger, Armando, mentioned that we could take an early-morning walk to the banks of the Save, where we could wash up and perform ablutions.
A baobab tree dwarfing the jeep.
Photos of Bvekenya (‘he swaggers when he walks’) Cecil Barnard (Shangaan name) – Ivory Trail.
At dawn, we were up and made our way to the river. It was reputed to have many large crocodiles and pods of hippo, according to stories told by early hunters in the old days. It had been one of the hunting grounds of Cecil ‘Bvekenya’ (‘the one who swaggers’) Barnard, of Tom Bulpin’s Ivory Trail adventures. The river was fairly low, but flowing slowly; the wide, sandy banks were clean and again devoid of animal and bird tracks, with no sign of a crocodile track or tail drag marks anywhere. Carefully, we stepped into the clear water, looking out for any movement in it. Eventually we were brave enough to lie down in the cool water and have a wash, a shampoo and generally enjoy our ablutions. Armando told 62 us that even the crocodiles had been targets of the bloodthirsty soldiers. We made our way back to camp and a hearty breakfast before setting off again to explore the reserve.
Hours of driving brought nothing new, very little bird life and no game animals other than a few mongooses. We did
come across a few groups of people hunting with spears, accompanied by dogs and carrying snares, looking for whatever they could find. It was quite soul-destroying to think that a paradise like this could be wiped out in a few years by the greed and bloodlust of mankind. As a group, we decided to head back to camp to discuss what we had observed and pool our thoughts about the potential and future prospects of Zinave as a game reserve. When we arrived there, we enjoyed a late, light lunch of salad and leftover wors and chops which Cilla managed to turn into a delicious meal with some home- (camp-) baked roosterkoek (griddle cakes).
Cutting down of Chamfuti trees.
A relic of the war.
Another abandoned and war-damaged property.
I took a walk to the old camp to satisfy my curiosity. In one of the passages between the buildings, I was rather shocked to come across a human skull lying in the leaves and debris. It had what appeared to be a bullet hole above the right eye socket. Who this poor soul was and how he had come to die here is a story that will probably never be told. Just another casualty of a senseless war. After this, I decided I had had enough of exploring the deserted camp and made my way back to the group for some live company and a discussion about the way forward.
Each one of the groups had years of experience and qualifications in the conservation and tourism industry, so the input would be interesting. Generally, everyone had seen enough and decided it was not worth driving around, as it was just time wasted. To make a success of developing the reserve, the 4 000 people living within its boundaries would have to be relocated and even the villages on the borders would have to move in order to prevent large-scale poaching activities. This would be very difficult to implement and there would be resistance from both the communities and the Mozambican development agencies. SANPARKS and the Kruger National Park had offered to translocate game animals, including elephant, as a donation to the trans-frontier parks initiative, but we felt that this would be like opening a ‘free-lunch’ operation. Unless restrictions and control measures could be implemented, it simply would not work. So, sitting in the bush around the campfire with thoughts fresh in our heads, we drew up our draft report to be sent off to the principals involved.
The next morning, we started the long journey back to South Africa still mulling over the past week’s experiences. Fortunately, the trip back was mostly uneventful and, much to our relief, our passports were indeed still waiting for us at the border control. It was a great relief to be back on home soil again, with memories of shared experiences that would remain with us for years to come.
Camp on the Save River.