Even as late as the 1970s, Mozambique's Gorongosa National Park was a relatively untouched paradise, home to one of the densest wildlife populations in the world. Roaming freely across its 2,500 square miles of grasslands, savannahs, and rain forests at the southern end of the Great African Rift Valley were untold numbers of elephants, water buffalo, zebras, lions, wildebeests, hippos, and some 500 species of birds. Then, as is the case with so many of nature's cathedrals in Africa, the political lines surrounding Gorongosa's borders got thicker and meaner, and war came to Eden.
First was a war of independence with Portugal, followed by a bloody 16-year civil war. Hotels were transformed into bunkers, watering holes became battlegrounds, animals were killed for money and food, and soon the glory of Gorongosa was decimated. By the time the last shot was fired in 1992, Mozambique had become the poorest nation on Earth, with an unfathomable 900,000 of its people dead, and a staggering 95-plus percent of the animals in Gorongosa gone. The story of Gorongosa seemed destined to end in oblivion, yet another of Africa's jewels buried beneath blood and poverty.
Happily, we're now here to tell a different kind of story. The Gorongosa Restoration Project, founded by the U.S.-based nonprofit Greg Carr Foundation in partnership with the Mozambique Government, has steered the park from total disaster to become the next must-see experience in Africa. Since 2006, the project has reintroduced several of the aforementioned key grazing animals, established infrastructure in the villages surrounding the park, and founded a unique safari experience that has created a sustainable, eco-friendly local economy while letting visitors become a part of the restoration project. Outfitter Explore Gorongosa's packages are a long way from the coddled and benign safaris found elsewhere in Africa; at Gorongosa, you spend most of your time on foot, away from the noise and bumpiness of vehicles and at the same level as Gorongosa's animals.
Beyond traipsing through the bush, there's also the opportunity to climb the sacred Gorongosa Mountain. After participating in local ceremonies, you camp on the very slopes of the summit – which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site – beneath a canopy of giant red mahoganies, panga-pangas, and other African hardwoods. Summiting the towering 6,000-foot-high Gogogo peak to watch the sunrise the next day, followed by a visit to the 330-foot Murombodzi Waterfall, will dispel any doubt visitors have that Gorongosa is – once again – one of Africa's most spectacular, treasured destinations. [From $485 per night, not including flights, visa, and some local fees; exploregorongosa.com]