A "sundowner" and bush dinner under a full moon on a bluff over the Mussicadzi River.
The structure of the last eight days have become framed by the morning safari drive and the late afternoon drive, ending with a notable tradition: a “sundowner,” someplace to watch the sunset. I am going to miss that. I will miss a lot of things as I leave Gorongosa.
I will miss being surprised around the corner by a flash of red, blue and turquoise. And I’m going to miss Heidi Ware telling me what it is. (A purple-crested turaco; no photos, just a flash of color seared into my memory.) I’m going to miss waterbuck that have become so familiar, with their distinctive rump marks; I’m going to miss the graceful impala, the impish oribi, the spotted bushbuck atop a termite mound, the reedbucks who rest in the grass so just their heads are showing. I might not miss getting them all mixed up.
Never miss a local story.
I’ll miss baboons in the yard, vervet monkeys playing in the trees, warthogs wandering under my window. I’ll miss the conversation with scientists over dinner — getting to know them enough to be able to ask for an update on their morning’s work and marveling over the complexity of this ecosystem through the work that they do. Having my mind exploded by things I’ve never even thought to marvel at.
Let’s be honest: I’ll also miss the buffets three times a day — and I’ll especially miss the half-dozen different dessert options every night. Which I am obliged to sample, you know, for research’s sake.
I will miss being in a different culture, including that of safari. Chitengo is a lovely place to stay and I’ll miss the luxurious decadence of that. I’ll miss the local women in their brilliant skirts and turbans sweeping the walks every day and I’ll miss the melodic Portuguese that I can't speak.
I will miss simply being here.
Oh, but I will take so much with me, starting with an absolute wonder for this world. An amazement that there is a place where elephants can graze and wander and be elephants; a place big enough for lions to roam and raise cubs, water where hippos can splash and play. (Gratitude that crocodiles don’t grace our rivers.) A landscape far vaster than Idaho wilderness and every bit as precious.
I’ll treasure the spiritual moments I’ve written about with the animals, and the friendship among our group through our shared journey; and the nanoseconds of connection with people who I can't talk to, simply through a smile. Like gentle Baltazar, who doesn’t speak any English, who let me take pictures of his household and who kissed me goodbye in the traditional way; and his son, Simon, who practiced his English as my guide.
I take with me a soul-level appreciation for Greg Carr, with his audacity and capacity to have a vision for Gorongosa. Not only for the animals and their place in the ecosystem, but also the people and their place as well; and for his understanding of the connection between them all. I have a huge admiration at his skill in the chess-like game of politics and marketing and persuasion and compromise and listening. And empowering.
I take with me gratefulness for the wisdom of people closer to home. Like Zoo Boise Director Steve Burns, who had his own vision for how visiting a zoo in Boise, Idaho, can have world-wide implications for animals. And Liz Littman, development of development and communications for Friends of Zoo Boise, who makes sure it all happens.
Each time we were breathless with wonder, Steve would whisper in my ear the realities of the world — poaching, the snowball of habitat destruction, the appalling number of certain animals left in the world. (Along with bad puns. I can’t decide if I will miss them.)
I take with me the image of the skittish zebras, bought by Zoo Boise, who will soon be released into their part of the restoration project. Gives me chills to think of that — and of how to explain that connection to people who will never be able to come here. I think of children, living next to Gorongosa National Park, living here in Africa, who will go on their first safari to see animals that they’ve never seen before, either — first, because they’re here; and secondly, because education is part of the whole project. More chills.
I take with me an image of the lioness Helena, serene and magnificent as she snoozed on the floodplain at sunset. I take with me the fact that she has three cubs and did not see them. Nor her in her most awesome power as huntress nor heard her roar.
I wonder if life is the same after having seen a lion in the wild? Or elephants? Or hippos? Or impalas — and I think the list can go on. I think not. I wonder how I have been changed.
Two weeks ago, I wrote an introduction to this blog that said: “Gorongsa National Park. Halfway around the world? In mileage only. It’s really close to home in many other ways.”
Our group milled around this morning, exchanging hugs and handshakes before we parted, taking group photos with Greg Carr and our guides — Simba Muyambo, Castro Morais and Jose Montinho — with whom we had spent the last eight days exploring the park.
“This is nostalgic,” said Irv Littman. “It’s easy to get attached to the park.”