Gone Away ~ The journal of Clive Allen in America

(This is one of a series of articles I wrote dealing with memories of an African childhood. To read the first of these, click here)
Whilst it is not true that to grow up in Africa meant becoming accustomed to lions wandering down the main street and having to sleep always under a mosquito net durable enough to withstand the constant attack of savage insects bearing unknown and disgusting tropical diseases, I think it would be fair to say that an African childhood was lived rather closer to nature than in most other continents. Insects were ever present and we became inured to their cacophony at night and invasion of our homes; but most were no more harmful than a housefly and there was no need to resort to mosquito netting. Lions, too, were common enough but only in national reserves set aside to protect wild animals from human encroachment of their habitat.

Much of the remaining land was farmed and, if one lived near the edge of urban settlement, the only animals one was likely to come across were those that had accommodated to man's adaptation of the environment or those that were secretive enough to keep their presence unknown. The big game, the lions and elephants, the buffalo and rhino, needed vast amounts of space in which to continue their timeless existence, and so were rarely seen outside the reserves.

It was those animals that lived in the areas unwanted by man that still lived, largely unnoticed, amongst the inhabitants of the countryside. In the barren and rocky kopjes(1) lived leopards, baboons and dassies(2); in thicker woodland near rivers were snakes and the smaller antelope. These were encountered occasionally but fleetingly, for the animals knew well to avoid man.

If we wished to see large and dangerous animals, we would have to visit one of the game reserves, just like any tourist from outside Africa. The Kruger National Park was the first that I went to, years before we ever moved to Zimbabwe. It was no park, in fact, but a vast area of untouched lowveld bush running the entire length of the eastern border of the Transvaal. Although animals abound there, just as they did in the late 19th century when a dog named Jock accompanied his master, running wagon trains through the area from Delagoa Bay to Johannesburg(3), it is not the best place to see them. The thornbush is thick and overgrown in most parts, making it very difficult to see any wildlife. We had a few scares when annoyed elephants would suddenly appear very close to the car, trumpeting and flapping their ears in obvious displeasure at our arrival in their territory.

In Zimbabwe we visited game reserves occasionally and I became quite blasé about wild animals in general. I had seen lions, elephants, giraffes, crocodiles and impala until they were "coming out of my ears". It took Gorongosa to shake me out of my complacency.

Of all the game reserves of Southern Africa, Gorongosa was the best in which to see a wide range of animals, the most distinctive in its setting and the most remote. To get there from Zimbabwe, we had to drive several hundred miles to the border with Mozambique, crossing into that country at Mutare, and then pressing on for many long miles before reaching the turn off to a dusty, dirt road leading, apparently, nowhere. An hour or so along this road brought one to the broad Pungwe River.

The Pungwe has its source in the high uplands that culminate in the great massif that is Inyangani Mountain in Zimbabwe. From those heights, the river heads southwards as a bold and ebullient youngster, carving out a notch in the face of the foothills. Then, suddenly, it turns to head east and leaps over an edge to create the Pungwe Falls, in my opinion the most beautiful waterfall in Southern Africa. This is no wall of water crashing in one great cascade over a cliff, as are the Victoria Falls of far greater repute. The Pungwe is a young river leaping and bounding in many stages, pouring through a crevice here, forming a pool there, in its impetuous drop of 800 feet. Halfway down, it meets a great, square block of stone and divides in two around it, creating a pair of falls for the final white-veiled descent to the valley floor.

That valley, the Honde, is an enormous U-shaped trench in the landscape that leads back northwards to Inyangani, the brooding presence on the horizon. The river is lost in the forests and cloudy mists of the valley but we know that it must follow this northward direction until at last, in the shadow of the mountain, it turns east again to the flat, humid lowlands of Mozambique.

By the time the Pungwe reaches our crossing point on the road to Gorongosa, it has grown to be a major river, broad and deep. Here the dirt road ends and it is necessary to take a ferry across to its continuation on the opposite bank. In those days the ferry was a primitive affair, a raft constructed of wooden beams and old fuel drums, capable of taking only one car at a time. The matter of driving the car on to the raft, to the accompaniment of encouraging shouts and laughter from the cheerful ferrymen, was an adventure equaled only by the slow and ponderous passage across the river that followed.

It was still several miles from the ferry to the camp and the day was ending when we arrived. In the fast-disappearing light we unpacked the car and settled into our lodging for the next few days, one of several rondavels(4) scattered in a small clearing in the bush. This was familiar territory to us as most game reserves camps are built in this way. It was the ferry crossing that was new and exciting, the inevitable topic of the evening.

The next morning demonstrated to us early how different was Gorongosa. As we were getting ready to depart for the day, a man in game warden's uniform joined us.

"Good morning sah. I am your guide today."

This was a surprise to us; in other reserves you were left to buy maps of the area and wander around on your own. But we accepted the man's offer and made room for him in the car. As we drove out of the camp, he asked what types of animal we were hoping to see. My father replied that he liked lions and the guide grinned.

"Oh, sah, we have a town of lions..."

As he directed us on the route, he explained. There was a ghost town in the reserve, a small settlement that had been abandoned, and a pride of lions had moved in to make it their own.

In that part of the reserve the bush is heavily treed with a thick undergrowth, so that we arrived at the town with very little warning. The guide instructed us to drive slowly down the main street. It was a typical Portuguese settlement dating from the early years of the 20th century. The houses were square and simple, with flat roofs and narrow rectangles for windows, the glass long since gone. At one time the buildings had been white, but the paint had yellowed with the passing years and flaked off in places, leaving irregular shapes where the red stucco showed through.

There were lions everywhere, strolling down the street just as imagined by those innocent tourists from abroad, sunbathing on rooftops with paws and tails hanging over the edge in lazy unconcern, glancing through dark windows as we motored slowly by. It was a scene from a dream of a world turned upon its head; here the lions were the owners of civilization, confident and undisturbed by our presence, while we were the interlopers from outside, the gawking visitors from another place less serene than this. We passed through and left them to their quiet haven.

"More lions, sah," declared our guide. "Lions on the kill..."

He directed us many miles through the dense bush until we emerged, unexpectedly and unannounced, out from the trees to an open plain. A carpet of short, green grass covered the ground and, in the distance, a faint blue line suggested water. The road continued to skirt the eaves of the trees but the guide pointed left, out on to the plain.

"That way, sah, lions over there."

My father stopped the car and we peered in the direction indicated. There was nothing but emptiness out there, just miles of level, grassy plain to the horizon. The guide became impatient and made signs that we were to drive out there into the great expanse. We protested that there was no road but he insisted.

"It is all right, we can do this."

So we moved off and turned left, bumping over the edge of the road and finding that the plain made a passable surface for driving, as good as any dirt road. This was unheard of in any other reserve; road signs insisting that you "Stay on the road and in your car". There was something delightfully rebellious and irresponsible in breaking the rules in this way. Only our guide was unimpressed, merely pointing the way and assuring us that the lions were over there.

He was right, of course. How the guides in Gorongosa know exactly where the game is we never found out but in the next few days we learned that they are never wrong. After a few minutes of bumping over the occasional tussock and bouncing out of unexpected potholes, we came to the lions, clustered in a circle around a large, gray carcase.

We stopped and watched for a while, then edged closer. The car stopped suddenly and we felt it sinking slightly. Wheels spun uselessly, digging themselves further into the small mud patch we had chanced upon, a few yards from the lions feasting on their kill. Uneasy glances passed between us.

Still unconcerned, the guide explained that we would have to get out and push. This suggestion was not too cheerfully received but, after a few minutes of debate, we recognized the inevitability of it. We would have to take the chance of the lions deciding to add us to their meal as a dessert.

I remember little of those few seconds in which we emerged slowly from the car and began to push it backwards. I was old enough to feel fear at the prospect of the lions attacking but, in point of fact, they took no notice of us, apparently unaware that there were tasty human morsels now disgorged from the metal monster that had come to visit. In later years I learned that we were quite safe, as long as we did not make an aggressive move towards the lions, as though competing for the kill. Lions are lazy creatures and will not bestir themselves to hunt when there is easier meat to be had.

But the experience was a good tale for telling, in the evenings when talk gets around to "dangerous places I have been" or my scariest moments". The discovery that everyone gets stuck in the mud in Gorongosa and then has to disembark within yards of wild animals did not deter us. There is always someone who will "ooh and ahh" at such exploits.

The next day we returned to the plain and drove even farther, all the way to the water that formed the distant horizon. This was the Pungwe flood plain, where the river overflows to cover the flat land and discourage the trees from invading the grassy area. It was the dry season and the river was low, but still it stretched out before us in lakes and pools as far as the eye could see. Herds of wildebeest and impala, zebra and buffalo formed dark groups along the banks and herons stood in the shallows or took flight above us. On mudbanks out in the river, the dark and ominous shapes of basking crocodiles could be seen.

Again and again we returned to this spot in the days that followed. The variety of animals was seemingly infinite, all keeping to their groups but happily co-existing. No other game reserve in Southern Africa could offer such a sight.

The days flow into each other in my memory; they are all apiece with each other. I remember only the feeling of that open plain and the emptiness, dotted with animals, great distances reaching out to the horizon and the river, wide and shallow, barely moving as it spread out in its rest. This vast space, this marriage of land and water, this will always be Gorongosa to me.

(1) Kopje: Afrikaans, pronounced "koppie", meaning an isolated hill, usually including large rounded boulders.

(2) Dassie: Afrikaans, these animals are sometimes called rock rabbits and look like large guinea pigs. They are about the size of a cat and are, interestingly, the closest living relative to the elephant.

(3) Another gratuitous plug for the book Jock of the Bushveld by Sir Percy Fitzpatrick. See the article Rufus 2 of this blog.

(4) A round hut, usually adobe painted white, with a conical thatched roof.

(to read the next African Memories article, click here)


Funny to think that the whole area later became the lair of Mozambique's rebel forces. Most of the wildlife was killed for food but now they are trying to return it to its former glory. I hope they succeed it sounds wonderful...
Date Added: 26/01/2005

Gone Away
There are articles on the net about the rescue being done at Gorongosa after the massacres of animals that occurred there during Mozambique's civil war. Just ask Google about it...
Date Added: 26/01/2005

I love the description of the "town of lions". I can see it in my mind's eye. I am sorry to hear that the beauty of this place was marred by war and animals lost. I hope the rescue succeeds.
Date Added: 26/01/2005

Gone Away
Much of Africa has been ravaged by war in the last thirty years and many animals have been wiped out, some becoming extinct in areas where they were once numerous. The real miracle is that, in Gorongosa, there remains a breeding stock of almost all the species that made the place so amazing. It is very likely that the rescue and restitution of the area to its former glory will succeed.
Date Added: 26/01/2005

Amazing descriptions that rival the A&E travelogue presentations, even with their video.

"...northwards to Inyangani, the brooding presence on the horizon." How can TV beat that?

I thank the intrepid senoir Allan for collecting his clan and insisting on leaving the safety of the hearth to become stuck in mud yards away from lions. At that point I had to wonder, "Would the younger Allan live to finish this tale?"

(And did mum grow upset?)
Date Added: 26/01/2005

Gone Away
Thank you, Way. And yes, my mother was the supreme panicker - she was, shall we say, all a-quiver...
Date Added: 26/01/2005

Excellent-- gave me the shivers.
Date Added: 26/01/2005

Gone Away
Hey, not bad - the shivers in Africa, hey? Must be malaria or something... ;)
Date Added: 26/01/2005

I followed your suggestion to look it up on the net and I was glad I did. I came across photos of many parts of the reserve including a thatched roof hut, which reminded of your story. I found some pictures of the Pungwe as well. Your description of the river perfectly matched the photo I saw. Alas, I didn't see any pictures of the "town of lions". Great Stuff!
Date Added: 26/01/2005

Gone Away
.oO( Is it Blushing Day today?) Thanks, Ned. :)
Date Added: 26/01/2005

i was very enthused to read about your memories of Gorongosa. I am part of the team performing the restoration of the Park. We'll keep posting photos and we hope to have you visit the Park again someday. We'll be ready for you in 2007.
Date Added: 15/10/2005

Gone Away
Gorongosa was a wonderful place in those days, Greg, and I wish you all the best in restoring it. It would certainly be on my list if I were ever to afford a holiday in Africa. Perhaps if I can find an agent and get a few books sold... ;)
Date Added: 15/10/2005

How cool is that? One of the guys rebuilding the park reading your post! Nice. Gotta love the net.
Date Added: 15/10/2005

Gone Away
I am deeply honored, Mad. And yes, ya gotta love the net! :D
Date Added: 15/10/2005

Was there a few days ago (end of June 2006) and saw the Lion House (no lions in residence!) and heard about the amazing efforts to restore Gorongosa to its former glory. Greg Carr (Google him) is doing an amazing amount of good in the area. Heard all about it from a highly articulate member of the Carr Foundation (Vasco Galante), who is resident in the park. 50 buffalo from Kruger being introduced in July '06.
Date Added: 05/07/2006

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