11 April 2005
Following all the hype about the Greater Limpopo Transfrontier Park, CAMERON EWART-SMITH investigates the first real tourist opportunities on offer in the newly proclaimed Parque National do Umpopo (PNL) in Mozambique
You don't have a spade," pointed out Loftus Viljoen, owner of INgonyama Camper Rentals, rubbing his chin anxiously. "And what about a snatch strap?" he continued hopefully. I shook my head in reply.
"Hell, man, don't you even have a Toyota to pull these Landys out?" he chuckled to himself. I patted my new Land Rover 110 double cab reassuringly. Then the camping equipment we were hiring arrived.
Saved from the "which-4x4-is-best?" argument, we busied ourselves loading the 12-volt fridge-freezers into the vehicles along with a collection of chairs, colour-coded jerrycans and, much to my amazement, a portable shower complete with its own canvas cubicle.
Finally with the clobber safely stowed, we waved Loftus goodbye and threaded through the Pretoria traffic before joining the N4 east heading towards the Kruger National Park. There we were to spend our first night before crossing over the border into Mozambique‘s PNL.
This million-hectare park, together with South Africa‘s Kruger National Park and Zimbabwe‘s Gonarezhou National Park, was proclaimed a transfrontier park in 2002. Since then it has generated considerable media attention - mostly centred on conservation, wildlife translocations and social development opportunities. But until now little information on practical tourism opportunities within the park has been available.
With good reason because, until recently, Mozambique‘s PNL lacked the amenities to accommodate visitors. This is all about to change, though, and new border posts are nearing completion, safari camps being constructed, roads surveyed and private concessions finalised.
That evening, as the steaks sizzled on the fire at Orpen Camp, Glynn 0'Leary laid the plan out for the following few days. Glynn, together with a consortium of partners, has obtained a concession to operate guided 4x4 trails, wilderness trails and hiking trails in the new park. He had invited us along on this trip, which was to be a recce aimed at identifying suitable overnight stops for the 4x4 trails and locations for the proposed hiking trail camps.
"Obviously the park is still pretty undeveloped," Glynn points out "We willl be offering guided 4x4 trips from as early as April, but these will still be very much 'reconnaissance' trips - ground-truthing, as it were. We will supply guides but, apart from that, visitors will need to be completely self-sufficient - water, fuel, you name it. By July however, when the Giriyondo border post is due to open, we will probably have finalised the overnight camps and then will have constructed simple ablutions (facilities) and possibly even lapas at the identified campsites. Until then, visitors will be able to experience the park in a uniquely undeveloped way."
Next morning we slipped out of camp early and, after a brief stop at Kruger‘s Satara rest camp to refuel and fill our tanks with water, we headed east over the rolling Lebombo Mountains to the border. Here a special gate is open to official traffic until Giriyondo is completed.
After a cursory glance at our papers and a brief rummage through our equipment, the border officials waved us on into Mozambique. The differences were immediately apparent. Kruger‘s neatly graded roads were behind us and, although the roads were reasonable, in wet weather they would be slightly more demanding.
We hurried on through the mixed bushwillow and marula woodland towards the PNL gate at Massingir Dam, where we had arranged to meet the park officials who would be joining our recce.
Arrie van Wyk, a South African employed by Anton Rupert‘s Peace Park Foundation, the driving force behind the Transfrontier Park initiative, arrived first. "Welcome to Limpopo," he smiled. "Billy Swanepoel, our wildlife manager, and Gilberto Vincente, the park director, will be joining us on the trip and should be here shortly" A few minutes later they arrived in a cloud of dust.
As we entered the park gate, Gilberto motioned for us to follow him to a tree festooned with snares. "This is our handiwork," he proclaimed proudly "Billy and his team have been incredibly successful in reducing poaching in the park and we are beginning to see positive results from their work."
Ultimately, the control of poaching is one of the greatest challenges ahead for the fledgling park - that and the translocation of those people who remain within its boundaries.
Nearly 1000 families remain in the core conservation area and moving them is a top priority. But mass relocations are not simple. Even though funds are available, courtesy of many international donors, the process is delicate.
In all likelihood, these families will benefit greatly from the move. Irrigation schemes for their new lands have been mooted which will increase their food supply The land they currently occupy is marginal at best.
"We are beginning to bring wildlife back into the park," Arrie told me. "But until the people are moved we are limiting the numbers of animals. Those we do move are restricted to a fenced 'seed' area in the south-west of the park. Kruger would like nothing better than to give us a couple of thousand elephant right now, but with the people still here that would be dangerous to both the elephants and the populace."
The vegetation changed from mixed bushwillow to thick mopane veld as we moved deeper into the park, heading towards the Shingwedzi River. The tracks that sliced through the trees were barely wider than the vehicles; branches scraped down our sides with a sickening whine.
After a few hours of carefully navigating the narrow tracks, we joined a better road and sped up as the light began to fade. With the sun low on the horizon, Billy turned off the road and through a patch of scrub mopane.
We followed, trying keep to his tracks to prevent puncturing our tyres on the sharp stumps. We stopped on a flat open patch under a huge jackalberry tree on the banks of the Shingwedzi.
The river was dry, unfortunately, even though it was the wet season.
"Welcome to camp," Billy shouted over the grumble of our TD5 diesel engines, "what do you think?"
The site was near-perfect. It was flat and open. Rays of sun slanted through the trees, setting alight in bright orange the dust thrown up by our passing vehicle. The humidity wrapped around us like a thick blanket as we stepped from the airconditioned luxury of our vehicles. We were soon bathed in sweat as we set about erecting our tents and lighting the fire. With the camp complete and the light all but gone, I sank into my camp chair and welcomed the icy beer Glynn was offering.
Our surroundings were alive with sound. Bats fluttered about throwing high-pitched chirrups into the darkness. In the distance, a Scops' owl called out with a characteristic, almost insect-like, prrrup, prrrup, prrrup. A blanket of stars burned above the dancing shadows.
The heat and humidity were intense and I slept fitfully, the sheet sticking to my sweat-drenched body.
I awoke early and watched as light began to filter through the thick riverine vegetation. It was a dull, grey day and the battleship-coloured skies kept a lid on the oppressive humidity The skies grew ever darker and large raindrops began to fall as we quickly broke camp and headed on our way.
Billy led the way, guiding us along a rutted track across a rocky hillside thronged with mopanes. The rain abated as we crossed the dry riverbed of the Shingwedzi River, following a well demarcated track.
By mid-morning, the sun had returned, causing the landscape to steam in places as we passed. A few hours north of the Shingwedzi we turned off the road along a narrow track and stopped at a rough camp.
While Arrie and Gilberto fussed over a gas cooker producing breakfast, Billy poked around the camp. "I think we need to send a patrol through here," he remarked. He pointed out the newly marked trees and the areas where the path had been widened recently "We've known about this path for a while, but they seem to want to bring a vehicle through here, and usually that means something is up ..."
After breakfast the team decided to turn south in order to scope out locations for new walking trail camps and to check the progress at the new safari camp. That night, as we pulled into Billy‘s Camp, a permanent tented camp that Billy Swanepoel has been using as a base for operations and that will soon be converted into a wilderness trail camp, the sound of frogs was almost unbearable.
The camp overlooks a small permanent pool and thousands of frogs were projecting their calls into the night. The assault was continuous and deafening.
As I sat there, I began to sift through the opportunities the new park offers. And in some ways Glynn was right: they are unique.
Here is adventure right on Kruger‘s doorstep. What‘s more, there is a tremendous feeling of remoteness, yet it is no more than seven-odd hours from Johannesburg.
• You can read this and other excellent getaway pieces in the latest edition of Drive Out at local bookstores.
IF YOU GO...
TRAILS: Currently, four-night trails are offered for a maximum of six vehicles (four persons per vehicle) at a cost of R3 800 a vehicle. These will depart from Punda Maria in the Pafuri region of the Kruger National Park and finish at Massirigir, Mozambique. From there you | have the opportunity to head either east to the coast or south to the Ressano Gariaa border post near Komatipoort.
These are still exploratory trips and you will need to be fully self-sufficient, carrying your own food, water, fuel and so on. Once the Giriyondo border post opens in June or July, the trails will use this border, allowing greater flexibility in the routes available.
VISAS: Although there has been much speculation that visa requirements for South Africans will be lifted soon, currently South Africans still require a visa to enter Mozambique. These are obtainable either through the Mozambican consulate in South Africa or at the Ressano Garcia border post near Komatipoort They will also be available at the Giriyondo border post once that is open. Visas are not available at the Pafuri border post
MALARIA: The park falls within a high-risk malaria area and suitable prophylactics are recommended throughout the year. At night it is advisable to wear cool, long clothing and make use of one of the many anti-mosqurto lotions or sprays to prevent bites. Consult your doctor or local travel clinic at least three weeks before departure for advice on the most suitable prophylactics. For more information, check out the website at www.malariahotspots.co.za
INFORMATION: For information and bookings, contact Great Limpopo Transfrontier Trails in Pretoria tel/fax: 012-348-2708, e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org or www.landroveradventures.co-za (the website). Check out the Peace Parks Foundation website: www.peaceparks.org
Saturday Star TravelCameron Ewart-Smith