A safari at Lugenda, in Mozambique, means chasing lions on foot

“Please excuse the mess in the main lodge,” says Lugenda camp manager Chelene Ebersohn as she greets us upon our arrival, “the leopard came into the camp again last night and took another bite out of the couch.” A quick tour of the open-air lounge suggests it may have been more of a feast, as evidenced by the extensive quantity of foam, half-eaten pillows, and scratching-post like state of the seating area. Our tented suites are just steps away, and we ask if we should be concerned for our safety. Ebersohn smiles: “No, he’s young and just being playful.”

Located in a remote corner of Northern Mozambique in the Niassa National Reserve, Lugenda Wilderness Camp is only accessible via a one-and-a-half-hour bush plane ride from the small town of Pemba. As the sole tourist lodge in the whole of a reserve the size of Switzerland (and twice the size of South Africa’s renowned Kruger Park), Lugenda is Mozambique’s — if not one of Africa’s — most isolated safari destinations. It is definitely not for those who relish the safety of a safari vehicle or prefer to see nature from a distance; an enthusiastic, no-holds-barred approach to experiencing wildlife is common here.

“Let’s try to cut the lion off,” says ranger Nic van Rensburg, as he bounds out of our safari vehicle, barely glancing behind to see if we are following. Chasing down lions is not quite what I expected to be doing during my first game drive. “Just keep in mind that if we do catch up to him he is likely to mock charge us,” he adds pushing his way through the tall grass, gun at the ready. That particular lion managed to elude us, but as van Rensburg leads us through the bush on foot we come upon a group of big cats sunning themselves on a bed of rocks. Luckily, the lions see us as boring, rather than bait, and allow us to admire them. On the way back to camp, a lone male elephant isn’t as accommodating; with much ear flapping and trumpeting he pursues our vehicle until we move to a safe distance. “Now that’s a mock charge!” laughs van Rensburg, while the rest of us recover from seeing our lives flash before our eyes.

A lone male elephant, with much ear flapping and trumpeting, pursues our vehicle until we move to a safe distance. ‘Now that’s a mock charge!’

Lugenda’s immense size and remoteness have not only fostered an abundance of animals (of the big five it lacks only rhinos, which were exterminated in the area due to poaching, “and we won’t bring them back until we are sure we can properly protect them,” says Derek Littleton, the reserve’s general manager) but have endowed the camp’s rangers with a propensity to take a decidedly non-conservative approach to ensuring guests experience all the bush has to offer. Hikes are as integral a part of the safari experience as are game drives. How else would you get to poke through a pile of elephant dung and learn how to gauge its freshness, scout out the lair of a lion ant, or nibble on the juicy bits of a frog-fruit tree pod?

Walking also gives guests the time and ability to take in the reserve’s exceptional scenery. The landscape commands its fair share of camera time by offering up distinctive, towering, granite mountains known as inselbergs, which pepper the land like balding sentinels. If you’re adventurous enough to brave the hair-raisingly steep climb, in a crevice half way up one of these imposing giants, you’ll find a series of faint red dots and lines determined to be rock art that dates back some 4,000 years. It’s the perfect vantage point from which to admire nearby ancient baobabs, the massive twisted wild fig and mahogany trees among the dense grasses and shrubs that make up the Miombo woodland.

And where walking won’t take you the water will. Near the end of our stay we go canoeing along the Lugenda river; 360 kilometres long, it’s the lifeblood of the Niassa Reserve. A pair of rare African skimmers fly overhead as we glide past elephants enjoying a mud bath, pods of yawning hippos, and shy crocodiles (our pre-canoeing safety lesson consisted of two simple rules: “If a hippo attacks, get out of the canoe; if a croc attacks, stay in it”). The only time we see other humans is when we come across a temporary camp where local fishermen are smoking the day’s catch.

We take time out to go for a quick swim among a series of rock pools, after our guide Mike Scott assures us “there shouldn’t be any crocodiles around here.” Our journey ends at a beautifully laid-out campsite along the riverbank, complete with warm shower, sumptuous dinner and full bar — at Lugenda, experiencing the bush doesn’t mean roughing it.

Warmed by the campfire, our bellies full, we spend the rest of the evening trying to put into words just what makes Lugenda so special: “Niassa makes Kruger look like a zoo,” says South African Karin Petersen. “How many places do you get to jump out and track a lion?” But it’s the reticent Germans, a husband and wife who have been travelling to Africa for over a decade, who sum it up best. “It’s a little like Zambia, a little like Zimbabwe … but really Niassa’s only itself … one of a kind.” With that and the night sky now ablaze with stars, we head to our tents and fall asleep to the cries of nightjars and the hisses and grunts of some nearby hippos.

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