Mozambique: the next premier wildlife destination?
Just beyond the Kosi Bay/Ponta do Ouro border, lies a spot that some believe could be the poster child for conservation in Africa: the 1,040km² Maputo Special Reserve, writes Elizabeth Sleith
For many South African travellers, Mozambique is a Bob Dylan song - that "magical land" of sun, sand and sea, made for lovers and lazy folk. For others, it's the sensory overload of Maputo; or the small-town hedonism of Ponta do Ouro, where little kids build sandcastles, and bigger kids chug rum-and-raspberry and ride quad bikes down the streets - sometimes at the same time.
What it's never really had a reputation for being is a wildlife destination.
And yet, just beyond the Kosi Bay/Ponta do Ouro border, lies a spot that some believe could be the poster child for conservation in Africa: the 1,040km² Maputo Special Reserve (MSR).
LINES IN THE SAND
When the MSR was declared in 1932, it was named the Elephant Reserve in honour of its primary charges - the last remaining coastal herd of elephant in Southern Africa.Once, these lovely beasts - including some of the world's largest "tuskers" - lumbered freely across a line they couldn't see anyway, between southern Mozambique and Maputaland in northern KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa.The even bigger picture is that the "peace parks", or Transfrontier Conservation Areas (TFCAs), which the foundation helps create, transcend political boundaries too - creatures of the wild never carried passports anyway - to share burdens and knowledge and skills, and maximise their potential.
So far there are seven established TFCAs in Southern Africa - and more in the making.
But it is the Lubombo TFCA, more than 10,000km² spread over SA, Mozambique and Swaziland, of which the MSR - and Tembe Elephant Park too - is a part.
With the MSR having seen very little eco-tourism development before recent years, much of the foundation's focus right now is on getting this development/conservation balance right there.
There are plans afoot for a range of camps and mid-level chalets in several spots in the reserve, meaning there is an incredible destination in the making, just over the border.
It's also open right now, and it will never be quite this wild again.INTO THE WILD
Part of what makes it so "special" is its incredibly biodiversity.
In a relatively small area, MSR crosses nine distinct biospheres, with lakes and wetlands, mangrove swamps and sand dunes, coastal forests, savanna grasslands, coastal dune forests, rocky shores and amazing beaches.
Even on a day visit you'll find ever-shifting terrain - and that goes for the roads too: this is strictly a 4x4 zone.
Diverse habitats, of course, mean diverse animal and birdlife.Since 2010, over 4,000 animals have been translocated to MSR from South Africa and Swaziland, and its wildlife is gradually recovering.
Now hippo, reedbuck, grey duiker, red duiker, blue wildebeest, zebra and giraffe, kudu, impala, waterbuck and, of course, elephants range across the park. There are 350 species of birds.
NOT IN KRUGER ANYMORE
On a visit to the park last month, bumping along some exhilarating 4x4 tracks, most of our animal sightings are far-off or fleeting.
Almost on the horizon, there's a distant dazzle of zebra standing a little apart from a dark mass - squint - a herd of wildebeest.
A reedbuck grazing near the road, startled. Pauses. Runs.
A lone bull elephant, as we round a bend, is already moving swiftly away through long grass. As someone in the car comments, "These are not Kruger elephants" - so accustomed to humans they barely cast a glance. This really is as wild as you can get.
These aren't Kruger roads either, with their tarmac and queues of cars and Whatsapp tip-offs to animal locations.
Over two days we see no other vehicles in the park but our own convoy. These are truly the roads less travelled, and they force you to take it slowly.Altogether it's a delicious, take-it-easy, immersive and contemplative experience, where the land and sky and the incredible isolation is what fills you with awe. On the numerous lakes, there are yellow-billed storks and African spoonbills.
As we roll alongside one lake, the tall grasses hiss against the tyres and a fish eagle wheels overhead.
AGAINST ALL ODDS
Lubombo's hand of protection and co-operation reaches into the ocean too, linking the 678km² Ponta do Ouro Partial Marine Reserve with Kosi Bay, to form Africa's first marine "peace park", the Ponta do Ouro-Kosi Bay TFCA.
The resulting co-operation of conservation experts and community involvement has been fruitful here too - particularly for the loggerhead and leatherhead turtles, for whom this is prime nesting territory.
On the beaches of the MSR, locals trained as turtle monitors patrol to give them the best chance to multiply, safe from egg thieves and the interruptions of ignorant humans.
The only cars allowed on the beach are part of this team, and it's with the park warden Miguel Goncalves that we drive one night, in search of a miracle.
Just like the elephants, the sea turtles obey their own primal instincts, returning years later to the very beaches where they hatched to lay their own eggs, though each little one has a less than 1% chance of survival.We find several in various stages of the process, until at last we find one about to begin. As she edges slowly up the beach out of the sea, we shine no lights at all. Spot picked, her flippers jerk back and forth, in a sort of poorly choreographed digging.
We watch by infrared light, which won't disturb her.
When her eggs start to fall, a gooey avalanche of little white eggs tumbling into the hole, Goncalves says it's all right now to take photographs.
She's in a trance, and nothing will move her from her task.
When she's done, we shut down the torches again so the light can't confuse her. Darkness is crucial to this part, too, because it's the shining white line of the surf in the moonlight that leads her home.
THE END IS THE BEGINNING
The final barrier for the elephants, and all the other land-locked creatures of the reserves, is the Muzi Gate, which divides Tembe from the MSR's Futi Corridor, a thin strip of land that unites the two.The complications around tearing it down are many, involving mainly border security and poaching concerns. For the people of the Peace Parks anyway, it will happen one day.
Then the elephants on either side may pack their trunks and answer the call of their old stomping grounds.
We know they know the way.
Elephants never forget.
PLAN YOUR TRIP
The new suspension bridge - the longest in Africa - is set to open on June 25, Mozambique's independence day. It will link Maputo to Catembe and on to the new tar road to the SA border at Kosi Bay. The MSR main gate is already reachable by tar alone, but once the bridge opens it will be 68km from Maputo.
From Joburg, the Kosi-Ponta border is 630km, and 460km from Durban. The MSR entrance is 40km further - only the first 5km is still on sand tracks.
Entrance is 200MZN (about R40) for citizens and 400MZN for SADC residents. Free for under-12s and 60-plus.
WHERE TO STAY:
For now it's Anival Bay or camping at Milibangalala or Dobela. New 4x4 campsites launch in June when the bridge opens.
Anvil Bay is the only five-star hotel in the reserve for now
See peaceparks.org or e-mail email@example.com.
• Sleith was a guest of Boundless Southern Africa and the Peace Parks Foundation.