My Encounters with Wild Places

April 17, 2017
by Connor Liu, Undergraduate Environmental Science Major, Dickinson College
 
My time in Gorongosa National Park is one that I will not soon forget. I had never been to Africa before, and flying in on a tiny plane from Beira, had me giddy with excitement. My dad had already told me much about his former visits, so I knew how privileged I was to have the opportunity to go to such a special place. During my month-long stay, I gained so many valuable experiences and learned so many things. Being around so many intelligent 20-30 year olds was a bit daunting at first, but the connections I forged with the scientists there will last a lifetime. 
 
Setting up camera traps in Gorongosa
 
The beauty of Gorongosa is difficult to describe. It is in essence a wonderfully complex and diverse ecosystem with spectacular flora and fauna. Going out into the park with Kaitlyn, a student from UC Berkeley, to help her setup camera traps was the time when I got to see the spectacular flora and fauna in the true wilderness areas of the park. A typical day: I woke up at 6 am on a cool morning, quickly got dressed, and grabbed a simple breakfast from the camp restaurant. Kaitlyn and I met at the vehicles at 7 am and loaded up our truck with camera equipment. A pulse of excitement shot through me at the prospect of exploring the Bush on foot for the whole day. Any vehicle driving out into the park is required to bring an armed ranger, so we picked up our ranger from the barracks and headed to our first location. Using a GPS Tracker, Kaitlyn would drive to the closest accessible location before we continued our journey on foot. During our drives, my eyes tirelessly scanned the diverse landscape, soaking up every detail like a sponge. These drives were a great way of appreciating the parks diverse habitats. 
 
Connor Liu in Gorongosa
 
Setting up the cameras sometimes took us 2 miles off the road. As we sliced our way through head-high vegetation, I sometimes couldn’t quite believe where I was. Wait what’s that barking sound? Oh no big deal it’s just a troop of baboons. What is our ranger pointing at over there? Oh no big deal, just a large herd of aggressive Cape buffalo. Our ranger was a seasoned veteran, one of the oldest active Gorongosa rangers. He saw things that Kaitlyn and I had no hope of spotting, including the large herd of Cape buffalo that we would have walked right into had he not been there. Trudging our way through the African bush was a thrilling, and occasionally frightening experience. During one of our last outings we got a huge fright when a group of 3 elephants sprinted off into the bush from where they had been hiding, a mere 50 ft. from where we were setting up a camera. For the most part though, I felt my soul revitalized more so than ever before. Being around such true, untainted wilderness made me feel more alive than I had ever felt before. It was a humbling walking through a place free of human dominance, and the close interactions I had with the wildlife was something I had simply never experienced before. To this day, I still check for elephants while hiking around my home in Maryland.
 
The wilderness of Gorongosa aside, I learned much about the issues that the park faces every day. Mozambique is one of the most impoverished nations in the world, and many native Mozambicans live off the land. The park must deal with illegal subsistence hunting, men and women whose families have hunted the animals in the park for hundreds, perhaps thousands of years. They are not criminals, most of them are just trying to put food on the table for their children. 
 
It was no one thing that made my time in Gorongosa so memorable; rather it was a collection of all my experiences that helped me put together the puzzle of what Gorongosa means to Africa, to Mozambique, to conservation in general. It was piecing together what it takes to make a park like this successful, the creativity and teamwork necessary to keep things balanced. I met many native Mozambicans during my travels and listened to their stories. They are still there, living out their lives in Africa’s Lost Eden.