I hadn’t been to Mozambique before this trip to help the elephant calf, after all the years I’d spent in South Africa you’d think I’d cross the border at least once but as time snowballs and there’s always something else to do I’d never made the trip. I’d heard many a fond word spoken of Mozambique, of the beautiful shorelines and friendly people, so much so that I didn’t feel in any way apprehensive as I made my way to a country I had never been to work with a team I hadn’t met. As it turned out, the team I worked with were some of the most genuine, passionate and down to earth people I have had the pleasure of crossing paths with.
In my last week before heading to South Africa I was invited to join Conservation Manager and Fixed Wing Pilot Brian on an early morning patrol. He was picking me up just after 6am and told me to dress warmly. When I got up that morning, I already knew my only pair of jeans weren’t going to be dry from being washed the previous afternoon but I did honestly consider putting them on regardless. When I felt the damp, icy cold material against my warm skin I immediately changed my mind, instead opting for thin dark leggings that were definitely not created for warmth. As I pulled on a jacket, I made myself a coffee in the camp kitchen while waiting for Brian to arrive. Everyone else in camp was still waking up so I enjoyed the quiet and darkness as I sipped my coffee. I heard the rumbling engine of the approaching vehicle long before I saw the headlights through the trees.
As I climbed into the passenger seat with a grin, Brian asked if I’d had coffee and whether I’d be warm enough. I nodded to both, not willing to admit my jeans were still damp and that this was my only outfit option. I was so excited to be going on an air patrol and to have this opportunity to see more the reserve, I’d previously only seen such a small yet breathtakingly beautiful fraction of the park. As we drove out of the camp and along the sand roads towards the airstrip the extent of the morning fog became clear. It was so thick and dense that we would have to wait for the sun to burn through it before we could take off.
Once at the hangar, Brian did all of his checks and preparations for the flight while I watched the sun rise and waited for the vast blanket of white to lift. The thick morning dew clung to the grass in tight, perfect beads that made my shoes damp as I walked. After 20 minutes of listening to the birdsong and watching the fog gradually lift, we could get going.
I climbed into the two seater, door-less, savannah airplane and buckled my seatbelt. Brian handed me a camera to take photos from the sky and then he started flicking switches and reading displays, readying for the patrol.
We pulled on the headsets, made sure we could both hear each other and then we were ready to go. We slowly rolled to one end of the runway before turning ready for the take off. I stared out as we picked up speed and lifted into the air, passing over the fence that keeps wildlife off the airstrip.
I watched as the world took on a whole new visual and the scenery opened out in front of me. The area I had spent all of my time in since arriving in the park was now reduced to just a minor piece of the puzzle, like an autumn leaf that has fallen from the tree. Nothing could wipe the smile from my face and the gratitude from my heart.
The cold morning air that whipped through the plane did not bother me because I was so in awe of the view. Our first wildlife sighting from the sky was at least 15 hippos lazing on the banks of a watering hole. The views were endless and breathtaking – the deep green of tall, dense swamp and mangrove forests gave way to expansive savannahs scattered with dusty paths naturally worn in by wildlife, the grasslands were broken up by watering holes and split by the smooth curves of streams flowing swiftly across the landscape.
We continued as we passed over another dense forest, only this time the forests were flanked by the pristine coastline. The crystal clear ocean kissed the sands and I felt as though I was in heaven. Having always been a lover of the ocean to see the vibrant blues of the water, the white wash of the waves, the band of golden sand and the vegetation that lay beyond it from the sky was nothing short of spectacular. The ocean looked like a watercolour I could only ever dream of painting.
To my absolute delight, we flew along the waters edge. Looking down under us I saw a turtle swimming through the transparent water. I cannot tell you the last time I saw a turtle, I was ecstatic. Part of me wanted to stay here, suspended in the air watching the world go by. To stay and watch the turtle go about its day and see if any dolphins or whales pass by. We continued on our patrol, carrying on along the coast until we reached the parks boundary where we banked right.
We preceded to fly over Mozambique’s second largest lake – approximately 27 square kilometers in size. There were a handful of wooden fisherman boats along one of the banks and a pair of fisherman out on the lake, completely dwarfed by its sheer size.
As we continued along, I saw ripples in the distance. It was too far away to see the cause but as I looked through the zoom lens of the camera I saw two hippos, mouths open facing each other and another hippo further back with its head poked out of the water looking on at the tussling pair from a safe distance.
The lake gave way to thick forest and we began to head back in the direction of the airstrip, now picking our way along grassy plains. We passed over a flock of over 200 Great White Pelicans who were all sitting on a small body of water surrounded by long grass, oh and not forgetting the yellowbilled stork who stood in the same patch of water with its long pink legs, white body feathers, black tail feathers, red face and large yellow bill.
Our journey continued, as did the abundance of wildlife. We saw a small herd of zebra and then in the distance… a herd of elephant, made up of around 30 individuals including small calves. Even the herd looked dwarfed thanks to the expanse of the grasslands. As we closed the gap between us, the baby elephants were more visible as they stood close to their mothers sides. The elephants continued about their day, walking across the grasslands staying together and keeping the tiny youngsters close by. It was an amazing sighting.
Among other wildlife, we saw wildebeest, buffalo, waterbuck, giraffe, crocodiles, a lot more hippos and more elephants before arriving back at the airstrip. How I had imagined that flight to be didn’t even come close to the reality, it was so much more.
The reserve is breathtaking, abundant and wild. Rich in biodiversity and ecosystems. It is without a doubt one of the most divine experiences I have had. To fly over Maputo Special Reserve is an honor I will never forget.
Tread lightly on this Earth,