One of the best surprises of my life was discovering the Niassa Special Reserve. A place typically unknown to most, although its monstrous size, 42,300 km2, makes it easily stand out as one of the largest and most emblematic protected areas in all of Africa.
I owe a large part of my fascination with this place to the array of feelings that stir my senses on every visit. The colours; soft or grotesque, of the landscapes that change without warning according to the time of year.
The infinite smell of the bush, of the wild flowers and the nauseating traces of the animals that pass by. And the sounds … the wild noises of the waking day. From the cries of the baboons who make the tarpaulins of the camp trampolines, and fling themselves from the trees fearlessly, to the soft dripping of the fine rain that greets the thirsty earth with kisses of steam.
There is a very special corner in Lugenda camp that puts all these senses to the test. Facing the river, where every morning the remains of the tired campfire of the previous night burn, with a cup of Niassa coffee from the neighbours in Muembe warming the hands, the day comes alive with the growl of hippos taking their first dip and the first traces of light peeping through the forest.
But the magic of this place is made above all of the people who live here. This corner of the Niassa Special Reserve is also home to almost 5000 people who live distributed in seven communities within the Luwire concession. It is pertinent to note that these communities are descendants of the Yao (or Ajau) ethnic group. The Yao are an ancestral people, who arrived from the southern end of Lake Niassa during the 1800s.
The wild sunset gives its salute, antelope graze elegantly on the grassy plains, and the raging river skirts the monstrous inselbergs of granite and quartz that rise potently to embrace the Luwire sky
They established close ties with the Arab traders who in turn left the legacy of Islam, the predominant religion in the region and one that endures to this day. People of short stature, small and muscular bodies, characterised by a good disposition and contagious smiles.
The Yao are a reserved people who continue to maintain the traditions that make them so special, while facing the daily difficulties of cohabiting with the wild life in the immense miombo forests of Niassa. A relationship of more than 20 years based on friendship and trust makes us ‘MaRongas’, ‘MaChanganas’ and ‘strangers’ adopted sons of the Yao people.
But getting here is not easy and the spirit of adventure tests true devotion. It takes between 10 to 12 hours to reach Lugenda camp from Pemba or Lichinga. Either route has its charm, but after a long day on the sandy roads, the option of arriving by airplane in just over 1h is extremely appealing.
Once at the destination, the feeling of conquest is inevitable. The wild sunset salutes, antelope graze elegantly on the grassy plains, and the raging river skirts the monstrous granite and quartz inselbergs that rise potently to embrace the Luwire sky.