Another group of hotels that’s helping put Mozambique on the tourist map is Rani Resorts. owner of the Pemba Beach Resort, Lugenda Wilderness Camp, and Medjumbe Private Island, among others. After spending time in the far south of the country at White Pearl, we flew clear across the (large) country to the far north, landing in Pemba on a hot, cloudless October afternoon. Then, after a night in Pemba, we caught a local prop flight to Niassa Reserve, a massive protected area the size of Switzerland hard up against the Tanzania border.
Alone on the 10-seat Caravan prop, we watched out the window as virtually all evidence of human habitation melted away as we flew away from the coast. Flying east, large, rocky outcrops began to appear — these “inselbergs” are a signature feature of Niassa and added a dose of scenic beauty to the parched landscape. After our landing on a dirt strip, the staff drove us the short distance to the camp, taking advantage of the cool, wet towels they provided to wipe away the grime.
Niassa is an ongoing experiment in whether a poor post-war country can start to build a wildlife-based tourism economy in the midst of severe poaching, population pressures from 40,000 people living in the reserve, and the challenges of remoteness. Based on our experience at Lugenda, we’re cautiously optimistic. Lugenda is the only photographic safari lodge in the entire reserve (there are some hunting concessions elsewhere), and the true value of a trip there is to experience the silence, the emptiness, the aloneness, that comes with being off the tourism radar.
True to their wild nature, the animals are skittish around a Land Rover, and you won’t find lions or buffalo lounging lazily by the side of the road as five or ten safari vehicles crowd around and take turns getting the best angle. Instead, you’ll see them scampering through the forest or grazing at a cautious distance, knowing that you’re sacrificing some of the Kruger Park-style slickness of production experience for a more rustic and authentic encounter.
Likewise, visitors who come hoping for a 5-star luxury lodge with all the trimmings, world class food and facilities, stylish rooms, and huge cocktail spreads at sundowners will be destined for disappointment — Lugenda doesn’t try to compete with top lodges in other safari destinations on these scores. Instead, the place will appeal to visitors who crave authenticity and uniqueness in an age of experience convergence, and in a place that even the guidebooks have next to no information about.
Near the tail end of the dry season, the heat in Niassa was intense, and many animals were clearly scrounging for anything that was available to eat. Our guide Nick, a hard-bitten but incredibly knowledgeable Afrikaaner from outside Kruger, was intimately familiar with all the mega- and microfauna we came across over three days. In an area as massive as Niassa, part of what made the experience so rewarding was not just the many elephant and buffalo encounters, but learning about the more unheralded animals we saw, like civets (a nocturnal hunting mammal), bush babies (very small primates), bushy-tailed mongooses, sable antelope (gorgeous scimtar-shaped horns), and Taita falcons (the rarest birds of prey in Africa). And, our local spotter Jamie was uncanny in his ability to spot even the faintest movement or flashing eye, enabling us to twice get a glimpse of leopards. All the while, we never saw another truck, driving on tracks cut by the lodge and locals with machetes (Nick was never limited to the tracks, being happy to charge the truck off into the bush at any moment).
In addition, there were opportunities to get out of the vehicle, which can be especially rewarding for those who tire of long days sitting. One afternoon, we hiked up to see some amazing San bushman rock art that was likely thousands of years old. What a privilege it was to see this with just a few people while simultaneously gazing out from atop the hill across limitless bush, with nary another person, or even evidence of people, in sight. Other highlights included driving ridiculously steeply up on top of several inselbergs and watching the sun set over the bush, dinner under the stars while an elephant grazed only 50 meters away, and hearing the deathly screams of a lion kill as we enjoyed gin & tonics overlooking the Lugenda River.