It’s just before sundown on the floodplains of Lake Urema, in Gorongosa National Park in Mozambique, and I’m standing, speechless, watching my first sunset in Africa. The low sun is silhouetting a copse of trees at the edge of the water, where small tubby crocodiles scurry toward the water as we approach, and white egrets paddle at the edge among the white water lilies that cover most of the lake. The lake is illuminated an otherworldly metallic pink. It could be a sea of mercury on an alien planet. I’ve never seen a color like it. I wonder if anyone every has, or if this particularly intense shade of pink is here for one night only – a unique combination of the angle of the sun, the dust in the evening air and the merest hint of magic. I’m convinced I’ve never seen a more beautiful color, but I’m wrong. As the sun sinks below the horizon, the reddish hue deepens, and the water shimmers an even deeper rose. I turn from the lake, toward Tish, a senior guide at the park, and stammer:
“Tish, it’s …” is all I can manage. Tish laughs, and kindly finishes my sentence. “Yes, it’s beautiful, isn’t it?” She’s pretty used to dumbfounded tourists.
Photo: By Tish Grant of Bushfind
It’s my second day in Africa, where I’m going to be spending the next two months on a working holiday with my family. (James, my husband, is Media Director at the Park) While we’re here, we’re overlapping with Paola Bouley, a research scientist who will be researching the Parks lion population over the next few years, and Paola has generously allowed me to tag along with herself, Tish, and Lucas, a park ranger, for their evening’s work. Their evening’s work? Finding lions!
Paola’s mission this year is to collar six of the approximately 50 lions that call Gorongosa National Park home. Once she collars them, she’ll be able to track their movements, and gather the data she needs to paint a clearer picture of how the lions are doing in the park. But first, she’s got to find them.
Photo: Lioness from the Sungue Pride (by Ilze Wagenaar)
We start the search at dusk and continue until after dark, looking for tracks and scat (or, as you might call it, poop!), and listening for the roars of lions. A few hundred meters from the edge of a damp ditch, Paola thinks she spots something in the mud. Lion tracks. Paola, Tish and Lucas jump out to examine them, to figure out how fresh they are. Then, close by, Paola attaches a motion sensitive camera to the trunk of a palm tree, where she hopes to capture some footage of the lion pride.
Photo: Paola attaches a trail camera to a fever tree. (by Jeff Reed)
The others teach me a lovely technique for finding wildlife in the dark. As we drive slowly through the bush, Tish sticks a powerful lamp out the passenger window, and sweeps it slowly through the tall grasses, looking for the telltale twinkle of eyes reflecting back the light. ‘Don’t worry” Paola assures me “you can’t miss it” and she’s right. We spot pairs and pairs of eyes. But none of them are lion. Impala, bushbuck, and a couple of crocodiles, but no lions. After a few hours of lamping, we stop at higher ground, turn off the car engine, and sit, silently, listening for lions. We don’t hear lions, but the air reverberates with the sounds of a million insects calling, the occasional whoop of baboons, and the grunts of warthogs.
“Have you seen the sky?” Paola whispers. I look up to a sky bright with starlight, the Milky Way like a great spill of fairy dust.
Photo: Lion House at night. (by Jeff Reed)
On the return to the Chitengo camp, we spot mongooses (mongeese? mongeei? What IS the plural?) and civet, and Paola asks if I’d like to go again in the morning? Why yes, yes I most certainly would!
I get picked up at 3:30am by Paola, who is far more chipper that you’d expect for someone whose workday begins this early. “Did you hear them?” She’d heard the lions roaring at 2am, and again at 3am, so she’s feeling bullish about her chances of spotting the pride. We head back out into the park excited; fueled by strong black coffee and euphoria. As we drive back out to the floodplains, again we see more civet, and mongoose, and startle several nightjars from their resting places in the center of the road.
Photo: Civet at night.
This morning, we’re minus Tish, so I get the opportunity to sweep the long grass with torchlight, lamping for lions. I get goosebumps from every set of eyes, though none of them are lions, but still, it’s wonderful to see the bush so thick with wildlife. We head back close to where Paola spotted the footprints yesterday, closer to the water, where we are swarmed by mosquitos. Despite being covered in bug spray, we get blitzed – they seem to be swarming the light, and finally Paola concedes defeat, and we retreat to higher ground to scratch and listen. After a few more enchanted hours, we head back to camp. We didn’t see lions, but I get to see my first African dawn, I get to see elephant tracks, I get to see impala, I get to see a herd of sable. Oribi, waterbuck, even ground hornbills (endangered, but doing well in Gorongosa)
Paola is almost disappointed for me “I’m sorry you didn’t get so see lions” she says “but another time” I’m not disappointed, I’m so in love with the wild of the place that I honestly believe that if I never see lions, I won’t mind.
Photo: Paola listens for lions. (by Jeff Reed)
UPDATE – A few days after I went out with Paola, she spotted the pride, and herself and Rui, the Park vet, collared their first lion of the year. A day later, I got to see the lions. Follow Paola’s progress on our blog, and to help support the lion project.
By Grainne Keegan