The coastline to Niassa

When I was asked to participate on an expedition with Flora and Fauna International (FFI) in far Northern Mozambique I jumped at the chance. FFI is the lessee and protector of a 2-million-acre wildlife reserve called Chuilexi within the Niassa reserve. FFI’s mission was to find a system of financial self-sustainability for their highly involved anti-poaching efforts in the area, as well as providing jobs for the local population through eco-tourism.

I had spent some time earlier in the year driving from Botswana through to South Africa’s Kruger National Park and out of Mozambique’s Parque Nacional de Limpopo, heading West to East across Mozambique to reach the stunning coastline.  Exploring popular tourist haunts such as Pomene, Tofu and Inhambane. I found country has a way of quickly getting under your skin. Not hard to understand why when you consider the tropical climate, the white sand beaches, locally made rum, fresh seafood, lively music, palm thatched huts, brightly dressed women in ‘capulana’ fabrics (traditional cloth with cultural significance). It’s a country full of soul, flavour and vibrance.

A look at the Capital

This trip I knew was going to be very different from my recent indulgent coastline holiday. Not only because we were heading into a VERY wild, remote area but also because I was going to need my thinking cap on with this excursion. My role was to give some perspective on the tourism industry in Botswana, having been heavily exposed over the last few years. What learnings are applicable for Chuilexi? How to begin in the world of tourism… What would be the main draw card in the area and how explain this draw card to the rest of the world?!   It also seemed highly likely we’d be looking at concepts for a high-end lodge or mobile. I was there with a group of interesting and diverse people to brainstorm, to brand, to design… and I was beyond exited to begin.

It’s a country full of soul, flavour and vibrance.

The first night was spent with the team in Maputo the capital. Maputo has been visibly influenced by its colonial past with the European model of wide streets, public gardens, and paved sidewalks inlaid with mosaic tiles. I was keen to see work by the Portuguese architect Amancio d’Alpoim Guedes, who had designed many of the city’s office and apartment buildings in the 1950’s, combining shapes and symbols from traditional African art with a modern twist.

Learning about culture and art

I also learned some of the cultural symbols that Mozambique is recognised for.  The Makonde people, for example, are well known throughout the world for their art.   Their ancestry is traced through the female line and the reason for this is rooted in their creation story. It speaks of the first man who sculpted a woman out of wood. Because of this, the female figure is an important protective symbol in Makonde society and in their art – as seen in the body or face mask.

the female figure is an important protective symbol in Makonde society

Mozambique also has produced several well-known contemporary artists, including Malangatana Goenha Valente, whose large canvases depict conflict between colonial culture and native culture. Two contemporary sculptors are Nkatunga and Chissano.

The country has a long musical tradition. It is customary for musicians to make their own instruments. Drums have wooden bases covered with stretched animal skins. Wind instruments known as lupembe, used by the Makonde tribe, are made from animal horns, wood, or gourds. The marimba, a kind of xylophone that has been adopted in Western music, originated in Mozambique, where it is popular with the Chopi in the south.

I learned there are elaborate, well-developed traditions of dance throughout the country. The Chopi perform a hunting dance in which they dress in lion skins and monkey tails, carry spears and swords, and act out battles. Makua men in the north dance on two-foot-tall stilts, hopping around the village for hours, bedecked in colourful outfits and masks.

Into the wilderness

Leaving the cultural discoveries and the big city of Maputo behind, we headed into the wilderness. MAF (Mission Aviation Force) – the only people to fly this far north in Mozambique – met us at Nampula airport and we departed on the 80-minute flight to Chuilexi.

Landing at the headquarters of Kiparara we were briefed on the anti-poaching logistics and background to the concession. I was amazed that Niassa was the 7th largest in Africa and that Chuilexi concession is at the very heart of it.  With 200 km of river front (80km and 120km of Ruvuma River) and with diverse landscapes from inselbergs to bamboo forests and a seemingly never-ending sea of baobabs as we landed – I knew we were in for a treat.

The next few days were a blur of scenic diversity, a cacophony of birds greeted us in the mornings on our walks, we heard ‘big game’ at night and animals that I had never experienced before, such as Niassa hartebeest. We slept in dry riverbeds, climbed up inselbergs, navigated through tsetse fly areas and flew over 180km of riverbed from the north back to the South East of Chuilexi.

There were some small (but rapidly expanding) villages within Chuilexi.  The contrast between the metropolitan way of living I had just seen in Maputo and rural villages in Mozambique could not be starker. Most of these homes are made with mud-walls and thatch-roofs. The mud is held in place by a frame of crisscrossed sticks. Circular in shape, they are built in clusters around a common yard where most cooking and food preparation takes place. People are poor and food is scarce, one meal a day of rice and dried beans seemed to be the standard. Tourism is a chance to lift up from this level of poverty, utilising local knowledge and skills and providing an income.

Before I knew it I was whisked on a plane back to Nampula and then made my way home to Maun in Botswana. My mind was buzzing with ideas. Colour combinations I had seen, cultural references, materials, shapes, plus all the energy and life I had experienced this year in Mozambique (in the capital, at the coastline and in the wildlife reserves). It was giving me plenty of food for thought for the new Chuilexi Eco-Tourism plans. Exploring complete… now to wait and see whats next!