Jill Goldman and I flew from Johannesburg, SA to Beira, Mozambique. We were a bit delayed because while we were shopping in Jburg’s giant mall-like airport, everything suddenly went dark. Jill yelled “Scott! Where are you?” until I could hold her hand and find our way to a part of the airport with windows. I think Jill was a bit nervous that there was some disaster occurring, but I figured it was just a typical African power shortage. I will admit it was a bit strange to be in a major airport that suddenly goes dark. In any case, we eventually boarded the small plane, but they needed to unload fuel, and that was going to be a challenge without electricity I guess. Seems you need fuel to unload fuel. Finally, we took off but arrived somewhat late to our destination. From the skies, Beira seemed much more built up and Western that I expected… it looked like a smaller version of Miami Beach, though I imagine on the ground things are probably quite different. We have been offered a free helicopter ride from Beira to our ultimate destination of Gorongosa, but Jill has a fear of helicopters, so we asked for a driver. Unfortunately, they forgot to send a driver, so we waited a bit at the airport, until finally a driver showed up. We piled into his small car and drove until long past dark on bumpy pot-hole filled roads. We couldn’t really communicate with our driver – People speak either Portuguese or their local African language, and Jill and I speak neither – so we didn’t really know where we were going or how long it would take us. To top off the fun, it’s apparently the season where everyone burns their land, and we went through patches of smoky terrain like I had never experienced. Between that smoky ride, the air conditioning in airports, the cold nights and hot, dusty days… Let’s just say my bronchial system is being tested, and I’m failing the tests.
We are staying at a modest lodge inside Gorongosa Park. This park used to be a haven for tourism, and it has some of the most beautiful landscape in the world, but most of the animals were killed in the 2 wars. First, the war of independence from Portugal, which ended in 1972 I think. And then 2 years later, a civil war broke out, mostly because of the cold war between the US and Russia. Who knew that while we were all comfortable in our homes talking about the Cold War but not really caring about it, people (and animals) halfway across the world were losing their lives for it. Seems half the country was backed by US and allies and the other half by Russia and allies. When the Berlin Wall came down, suddenly the 2 Mozambique sides didn’t have anything to fight about anymore, so the war ended. Meanwhile, Gorongosa Park was completely destroyed. All the zebras dead (the fighting armies had to eat something), only a few lions left, a handful of elephants…. Really tragic. (Side note: Did you know that Readers Digest also sort of died off after the Cold War? I just learned that it was primarily a way for the US to promote the American way of life abroad and was supported, at some point in its history, by the State Department. I thought it was just an old-fashioned magazine my grandmother subscribed to. Who knew it was really subversive American propaganda?)
Today US philanthropist Greg Carr is working with the Mozambique government to restore Gorongosa. He’s got a team trying to bring back the animals and tourism. Really fascinating stuff. (You can watch a 60 Minutes piece about him online.) Greg invited Jill and I here to see how GO might be able to help fund girls’ education and job training, the lack of which is a huge problem here. Interestingly, there are matriarchal tribes in Mozambique where the women inherit all the land and where one woman might have five husbands. Still, girls suffer when it comes to getting a good education and equal opportunities for work. Greg wanted us to go out and see some of the park this morning, so we drove around for a few hours and had some nice quality time with a few lions, many warthogs, baboons, some water buffalo, vultures, eagles, and lots of antelopes and bucks and such. Lots of Hollywood movie stars used to come here before the 2 wars, and Greg is hoping to restore this park so they will come back again. (Not the same exact stars, of course, since I don’t think Ava Gardner would bring much business here anymore.)
One of the creatures who survived and thrived the wars: black mamba snakes. Apparently they are aggressive and will come at you and you’re dead within 20 minutes of a bite. Luckily for us humans, a local on Greg’s team figured out a way to breed house cats into mamba-eating feral cats, and death from mamba has been cut drastically by distributing these cats to villagers. Here kitty, kitty…
Tomorrow we venture out into the remote villages, which is why I came here, so I’m looking forward to that, despite the news I just heard that I must wade across a river in my pants to get to one of the villages…. Remind me to verify if crocodiles, like zebras and giraffe, were also a casualty of the 2 wars….