A Conversation with Jocelyn and Rob Janisch of Explore Gorongosa

This month, the featured destination in our e-newsletter is the east African country of Mozambique and its relatively undiscovered gem in the African safari circuit, Gorongosa National Park.

Aerial View of Gorongosa National Park and Lake Urema - Photo by Jeffrey Barbee
Aerial View of Gorongosa National Park and Lake Urema - Photo by Jeffrey Barbee

Gorongosa spans 4000 sq km and is located at the southern end of the Great East African Rift Valley.  Prior to the civil war in Mozambique, Gorongosa supported some of the densest wildlife populations in Africa.  Current partnerships between the national government, the Carr Foundation, and surrounding communities are focused on restoring the park to its former glory.

Explore Gorongosa is the first private ecotourism initiative in Gorongosa National Park.  What follows is a recent conversation with Jocelyn and Rob Janisch from Explore Gorongosa. 

R2RMozambique has been labeled an up and coming African hotspot.  Why do you think Mozambique is the next “it” destination in Africa?

EG: Mozambique is an incredibly diverse country and as yet, only a few areas of it have been discovered – mainly the amazing islands and beaches.  But inland, its wilderness areas and its mountains are as of yet, undiscovered.  In central Mozambique, conservationist Julian Bayliss accidentally discovered what is now thought to be the largest piece of mid-altitude rainforests in Southern Africa.  The canopies of Mount Mebu have so far yielded five new species of butterfly and two species of snake.  Just so many secrets awaiting us…

There is also a great mix of cultures that seem to merge together – the Portuguese influence, the Arabic influence and then the numerous Mozambican tribes that all have their expertise, different languages and way of life.  Mozambique also has a crazy history.  In the 60s, Mozambique gained independence from Portuguese rule and just a few years later, the civil war started.

Mozambique Beach
Mozambique Beach

It is incredible to think that in the early 90s, just over 10 years ago, the teams that work with us at Gorongosa and Niassa were either in hiding, refugees in a neighbouring country, or having the misfortune of actually fighting in the war.  And now when you travel around Mozambique, you are greeted with huge, big smiling faces, happy people and a country desperate to move forward. 

Mozambique is the new ‘it’ country in Africa because of its diversity, its beauty, and its people who are determined to lift their country out of its past.  We love this country and are so excited to help grow their tourism and create awareness.  We really believe that Mozambique will be a great example of how communities can come together and live a simple yet fulfilling life.  We have learnt in Mozambique that little is actually much. 

R2RWhat was it that drew you to Gorongosa National Park?

EG:  We first got attracted to Niassa Reserve in the north of Mozambique and it was on a trip down to Zimbabwe that we ‘stumbled’ upon Gorongosa National Park.  We had heard a lot about the national park and were interested to see how it compared to Niassa Reserve (where we were busy setting up a walking and canoeing safari operation).  So we decided to spend just one night at the park.  Well, when we drove through the gates of the park, it was an instance of ‘love at first sight’Gorongosa wowed us with its diversity and its game densities which were not at all what we were expecting.  Whilst we drove around the park – we went through palm thickets, fever tree forests, open floodplains, albida river lines and open savanna plains – all in a 2 hour drive.  We were just blown away.

Yellow-billed storks - one of the many bird species at Gorongosa
Yellow-billed storks - one of the many bird species at Gorongosa

That night at dinner, we were lucky in that Greg Carr and all of the core Gorongosa team were in camp.  They chatted to us about their vision and what was actually happening in the park on a day to day basis.  We also watched some DVDs of what the park was like in the 60s and 70s – when it was one of the most famous parks in Southern Africa with frequent visits from celebrities  and when it had the highest lion density in Africa!  And it just all made sense – restoring this amazingly scenic park back to its former glory for the benefits of all.  We had to be involved in some way!

It is also one of the most forward thinking private-public contracts in Africa wtih the ultimate aim to achieve sustainability as a holistic project including communities, conservation and tourism.  This concept is exactly what we at ONE AFRICA strive for – a way to ensure the future of Africa’s wild places by integrating communities, conservation efforts and supporting tourism.  It was a perfect fit!


R2RCan you tell us about your favorite/most memorable wildlife viewing experience at Gorongosa?

EG:  You are going to think I am now mad, as my most memorable experience was not with the Big 5 (of which there are many at Gorongosa); but rather it was a warthog!  Yes, a little Pumba!  We were out on the floodplains doing a recce walk to measure out distances and find all the best places for lunches and hammock chill outs.  Very gentle walking and of course, on the floodplains you can see for miles around you, so no big surprises of walking into elephants or lions.

Warthogs at Gorongosa (not members of Africa's "Big 5")
Warthogs at Gorongosa (not members of Africa’s “Big 5”)

I guess my guard was down because suddenly out of a bush about 5 metres away this warthog came flying out directly at me.

He was not trying to attack me, but was just trying to run away from us and I happened to be in the firing line!  We both tried to side-step each other for about 30 seconds and kept on going to the same side!  He was kicking up a lot of dust and boy, do those tusks look huge when they are half a metre away.  I thought I was going to be run over by a helpless little warthog and be the laughing stock of Gorongosa!  But after a 20 second tete-a-tete he narrowly missed me as I managed to out side-step him.

A very "supportive" Perreira!
A very "supportive" Perreira!

When I turned around from my ‘harrowing’ experience I found our scout (a lovely old man, Pererria, who has lived in the Park for over 40 years) and my husband in absolute hysterics.  Can’t blame them, it was very funny.  But now whenever the villagers see me, they ask for the story of how I nearly got squashed by a warthog!  So much for my ‘tough bush girl’ reputation!!

R2RWhy walking safaris?

EG:  When you see pictures of Gorongosa, you will understand one of the reasons why we chose walking safaris – the terrains are perfectly suited.  The huge open floodplains and riverine forests are ideal for exploring on foot.  Also, we have worked in the industry for many years and really believe that there is no better way to really experience the African bush than on foot or by canoe.  No engines, no outside noise – just you and the sounds around you.  It is an incredible experience.

Walking towards a baobab tree
Walking towards a baobab tree

Whilst you walk, you can uncover the many stories of the bush, through learning about the tracks, the trees and the vegetation; and, of course walking near, or up to animals.  It is of paramount importance that you have a great guide who can be your bush interpreter and keep you safe and out of harm’s way.  The other great thing about walking is that it is much easier to do birding and get closer to the birds.

And although we predominantly do walking safaris, we will do whatever it takes to fully explore the park – walk, canoe, drive, eat under the stars, climb, swim and swing from hammocks!

R2RCan you tell us a little more about the current reintroductions and partnership with the Carr Foundation at Gorongosa?

EG:  Greg Carr discovered Gorongosa about 4 years ago.  He was speaking with the Mozambican government about investing in Mozambique and coincidentally flew over Gorongosa National Park.  When he saw the beauty of the park below him with herds of sable and oribi on the plains – he knew exactly where in Mozambique he would invest!  It took 3 years to sign the final agreement with the government.  It is a joint management partnership between the goverment and the Carr Foundation.  The basis of the agreement is to restore the park to its former glory (during the 60s and 70s) and to ensure that the park is 100% sustainable within the next 30 years.  The agreement incorporates all of the surrounding communities that are affected by the park’ activities.

Hippo release at Gorongosa
Hippo release at Gorongosa

The game reintroductions are just one part of this project.  Gorongosa is lucky to have one of Mozambique’s most experienced wildlife vets heading up this project – Carlos Lopes Pereira.  During and immediately after the war the animals worst hit in Gorongosa were the big grazers, buffalo and wildebeest, due to their meat content.  Therefore it is imperative that the Park now bring these in first to restore the balance.  Carlos, together wtih his dedicated conservation team, has been re-introducing animals into the park over the past 3 years, focusing first on these big grazers.  They have also brought in some old elephant bulls from Kruger, a pod of hippo from Lake St Lucia to extend the gene pool, as well as a number of plains’ game.  Still on the list are leopard, zebra, wild dog, cheetah, and rhino to name a few.  This is a really exciting programme to add to the already great wildlife populations in the Park. 

R2RAre visitors able to view the reintroduction of species to the park?

EG:  Absolutely!  Explore Gorongosa has an agreement with the park that allows us to view any game reintroductions that are happening.  Also, our guests will have the exclusive opportunity of being shown around the park’s fenced Wildlife Sanctuary where the animals who are being reintroduced stay for a while before they go into the Park.  This allows Carlos and his team to monitor the animals before releasing them into the wilds.  Carlos, or one of his team, will join us on our visit to the Sanctuary to give our guests a first-hand insight into their work.  Some of the released animals are also collared so they can be monitored on a daily basis by Park ecologists.

R2RDo you have anything else you’d like our readers to know about Mozambique and Explore Gorongosa?

EG:  Only that you should all come explore it with us soon!  Mozambique is in a transition phase which is fascinating to see and be part of.  There is also an element of exclusivity, expecially in Gorongosa, that is hard to find elsewhere in the world.

Of course, if the rat race seems at all like returning to hell, you’re welcome to come and join us full-time in Gorongosa – unqualified dish-washers are always welcome!

For more information on Explore Gorongosa, visit: www.exploregorongosa.com.

Mozambican sunset
Mozambican sunset