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The Hidden Wonders of Chitengo

April 15, 2013

As Media Director for the Gorongosa Restoration Foundation, I’ve been fortunate enough to visit Gorongosa National Park many times and witness countless beautiful sights. But now, with my family here with me, I get to experience the park through their eyes. And seeing Gorongosa through the eyes of my two children is a revelation!


We, adults, often focus on the big animals in Gorongosa: the lions, the elephants, the buffalo, etc. We celebrate a good sighting of these magnificent creatures and toast a great photo in golden light, perfectly focused, on our long lens. But my kids, Daniel (7) and Iona (5) remind me of the wonder of the “less glamorous” creatures hiding in plain sight in the park’s main headquarters of Chitengo.


Photo: This golden-orb spider was a big hit.


For example: warthogs! To many adults, they’re just ugly wild pigs wandering around digging up soil as they look for tasty roots. Warthogs don’t often feature on many people’s “Must See List”. But to my kids, warthogs are a wonder of nature! Together, like young David Attenboroughs, they follow Chitengo’s warthog families, gasping in amazement and squealing with glee. (The character of Pumba, from ‘The Lion King’, may have something to do with this fascination!)


Photo: Some of Chitengo’s many warthogs wandering around the cottages.


There’s also a family of Vervet monkeys that descend from the tree outside our thatched cottage every morning after sunrise. Their miniature, human-like, gestures and expressions keep my kids absolutely entranced. My son, Daniel, waved at one and said hello and is 100% convinced the monkey waved at him back! He’s hoping their friendship will blossom over the coming months!


While vervet monkeys get the thumbs-up, baboons get the thumbs down…because my children have decided they stink. They do have a point: baboon poop does have a very distinctive and powerful odor. Matters of an olfactory nature are probably of great importance in the baboon world and one boy’s stinky baboon poop is another baboon’s fragrant treasure. My kids, however, are not to be convinced of the vital importance of smelly poop in baboon society.


Photo: Iona (5) gets some Math-practice in as she counts the legs of this millipede.


And then there are the insects: the endless variety and miraculous forms of the creatures that buzz and bob through the air or scuttle along the ground. We, adults, have outgrown whatever wide-eyed obsession with insects we may have had as children. But my kids remind me that we should try to re-kindle that love affair with “the little things that run the world” (as E.O. Wilson calls them.) For my kids, these insects are the true hidden treasures of Chitengo! Fantastic preying mantids that rival any make-believe creature my kids have seen in a Pixar movie: their jerky, robot-like movements and bizarre, human-like gaze are absolutely mesmerizing. Incredible hawk moths, spiders and katydids are everywhere you look here, especially now, at the end of the rains. And kids are the perfect little explorers of this amazing micro-world. Each intricately designed insect they find represents an incredible journey on the road of insect evolution, a masterpiece of shape, color and pattern. But, cupped like little fairies in my kids’ gentle hands, they’re simply “totally awesome” and “sooooo cool!” (They kept a hawk moth “as a pet” for about 4 hours tonight and treated it like a family hamster. The adults finally had to intervene and liberate the moth.)


Photo: Daniel (7) with a new friend.


Being with my kids in Chitengo has reminded me that the magic of Gorongosa isn’t just in the roar of a lion, the beautiful horns of a sable or the ancient silhouette of an elephant herd on the open plains out in the park. It’s also here in Chitengo, right under our feet. My son runs from the restaurant bathroom, a huge smile on his face: “Dad, there’s a komodo dragon in the toilet!!” (Presumably, he’s talking about a tiny gecko!) So, he takes my hand in his, and leads me off to another unforgettable moment of wonder…


I’ve also realized another great thing about Chitengo. Back in the USA, my kids ask for “media time” several times a day. (They don’t get it, but it doesn’t stop them from asking.) We’ve been here for 3 days and not once have I heard that persistent, annoying question: “Dad, can I play on your iPad?” Now, that’s the miracle of Nature!


Photo: A perfect day in Chitengo always ends with a splash in the pool!


Photo: “Come on in! The water’s perfect!!”


By James Byrne


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