Boise & Garden City

First day in African park: 'Everything's new'

Gorongosa National Park gate, still 45 minutes from Chitengo Camp and our lodging.
Gorongosa National Park gate, still 45 minutes from Chitengo Camp and our lodging. Katherine Jones / Idaho Statesma

It was dark by the time we arrived at Chitengo Camp deep in Gorongosa National Park.

Most of what we did today was get there: almost a two-hour flight from Johannesburg, South Africa, to the port city of Beira (pronounced Beer-a) in Mozambique. Then we drove 205 kilometers — more than three hours on a highway through the countryside and nearly two more on a bumpy dirt road.

Two days ago, when our little group had finally all arrived in Johannesburg, we gathered to meet each other and talk a little bit about what to expect.

“Look at everything,” said Steve Burns, director of Zoo Boise. “Everything’s new. None of the stuff that’s here is in Boise.” He was suggesting that if all we wanted to see was lions, elephants and rhinos, then we’d miss a ton of things between the big animals.

So those 205 kilometers were full of noticing. Birds — and every single one of them new to us. People bent over hoeing their fields, selling beans by the side of the road, hawking cans of soda and bags of peanuts at stop signs. School kids walking home in their uniforms, women with babies tied on back balancing loads on their heads. Fields of sugar cane, small plots of maize and potatoes, mango trees that will bear fruit in a few months.

Fields burning, enormous bags of charcoal balanced precariously on bikes. Truck after truck of beautiful hardwood, harvested — mostly likely illegally — to be exported. Cutting trees without replanting is not sustainable and affects wildlife conservation, we learn. Thatched roof houses, yards swept clean, trash in the gullies, women washing laundry in the creeks.

The kilometers were good practice — transitioning from the familiar and letting the unfamiliar sink in.

And so it was, too, the last little bit that we drove after dark. Instead of the deer that we would expect to see in Idaho, we saw a pair of bushbucks and a group of waterbucks — they look like antelope, sort of, only different.

We arrived at the lodge after dark, greeted by Greg Carr and a PBS film crew. As Carr talked briefly about activities for the next days, he talked about projects Zoo Boise had funded. “You’ll see the lion cameras, which you paid for, and the zebras, which are magically beautiful,” he said. “Thanks to Zoo Boise for all you’ve done.”

Tomorrow, we will look at everything again, only more.