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October 2011 Bush Blog

October 2011
Pereira Amauga Charles... a living legend

Ask anyone who has had the privilege of bumping into Mr Pereira (a.k.a. Old Man P) during a visit to Gorongosa and you will be hard-pressed to find a negative comment amongst all the absolute rave reviews of this remarkable man. 

Pereira comes from the Nhamatanda district, which borders the park on the southern bank of the Pungwe river from Chitengo.  He has worked in the park since he was "14 or 15" in 1972.  This means he has worked for the Portuguese colonial authority, through the Independence War years, into independent Mozambique, through the civil conflict years, and finally into the peaceful times since 1994.  He has over 38 years experience in Gorongosa National Park and is an absolute treasure chest of old stories, history lessons, anecdotes, and character sketches.

His first job in the park was as a boma assistant for the (at that time) newly re-introduced white rhinos.  There were a handful of these animals brought in from South Africa in 1972 and they were kept in a log-pole boma which was situated near the mopane forests near the Baobab Hill.  Pereira's job was to cut grass and throw it over the walls for these large herbivores to feed on.  He was also put on night duty many evenings to protect the rhinos against lions, elephants and poaching.  One afternoon he heard not-too-distant gunshots and thought that it was poachers coming for "his" rhinos.  It turned out to be an attack on Chitengo camp by Frelimo forces in 1973 which led to the Portuguese temporarily closing the camp. (There is a memorial wall in the current Chitengo which bears the bullet holes of that casualty-free attack, a key moment in the fight for independence in Mozambique.)  Pereira, the trembling teenager, was left in charge of the rhino bomas whilst the vet and his sidekicks went to investigate.  Needless to say, the rhinos all were abandoned when the Portuguese left the park and their whereabouts were never discovered when the park re-opened after Independence in 1975. 

During the civil conflict, Pereira was contracted as a scout for the government forces and often led troops into the park area, knowing it as well as he did.  He was one of the lucky ones who escaped Chitengo in the early 1980s when it was raided by the rebels.  He and a few of the others who had escaped hid out in the Pungwe valley until the follwoing morning when he led a recce back to Chitengo to check out the damage.  They found many of the camp staff and others sitting in the emptied swimming pool, petrified from the events of the previous evening.  Apparently the rebels had come and gone after a brief raid on the stores and the bar, and had made off with the park tractor and other vehicles.  The tractor was recovered parked rather unceremoniously into the park gates head first, something which still makes Pereira smile every time we pass through these gates together.

After the horrific years, after the election of 1994, Pereira and some of the other old scouts from the park, made their way back into the park to start the long process of re-opening roads and camps and airstrips.  These dozen or so brave men were the first to kick off the park restoration project that has since gathered steam under the Carr Foundation and Mozambique Government support.  But in 1995, when Pereira and co had to dodge landmined tracks and booby-trapped buildings as they tried to make some sense of the shell that Gorongosa had become, the thought of the park returning to anything like its former self was a long-distant pipedream.  How happy he and his mates mst be now that the park is starting to hit its straps again - thanks in no small part to their efforts all of 16 years ago. 

There are only four scouts left in the park who have been there since pre-Independence.  All four have libraries worth of stories to share on the history and tragedy of the park.  Pereira is no exception.  He has kept many a staff member, guide and guest captivated by stories of human bravery, wild animals, devastating fires, Biblical floods, and much much more.  He has filled in a number of blanks in terms of the human history of the park, since its early days as a cotton farm in the 1940s through its hunting years to its being proclaimed a national park in 1960. He is also very serious about the importance of spiritual blessing ceremonies in the park and its surrounds.  He has great respect for the spiritual realm, and is always the first to initiate ceremonial bessings (not to mention the first to knock back the customary cup of ceremonial wine!)

Jos & I first met Pereira in 2008 when we were in the park to do a 2-week recce of it, looking for opportunities for developing private tourism.  The Head of Conservation, Carlos Lopes Pereira, quickly recommended Pereira as our go-to man for the recce and so began a long and very fulfilling friendship with this legendary man. I clearly remember him dragging us all over the park during those 2 weeks, despite the fact it was mid-October with temperatures in the mid 40s, and one of us had sleeing sickness at the time...

He was the one who suggested we camp on the Msicadzi river for the best combination of access, water, shade, animals and birds. He was the one who showed us the Baobab Hill with its ancient baobabs and pottery shards.  He was the one who has walked us into elephants and lions numerous times, without a sign of fear anywhere on his ever-smiling face.  He has chased lions out of camp with nothing but a torch and his renowned hack cough. He has led us into the limestone gorges and out again - a feat that was barely manageable by some thirty something fitness freaks, let alone a fifty-something survivor of two wars and many decades in the bush.  More importantly I guess, he has constantly been a mentor to the camp staff who we have hired from the local communities, always enforcing a rule of respect for eachother and respect for the wild things that surround us. 

He has been the face of our personal Gorongosa story, probably without even knowing it.  WIthout him, we would never have achieved what has been achieved in developing private tourism in the park.  Without him, Jos would probably have a nice set of warthog tusks buried in her calves.  Without him, I would almost certainly be dead (a few times really).  And without him, the world would be a really poorer place for sure.  Old Man P is a living legend, who despite some chesty issues in winter and some arthritis issues in the wet season, still amazes us with his vitality and zest for life.  He is always the first to jump off the vehicle and open the boom gate and always the last one up at night making sure the camp is safe for all its inhabitants.

He is now the honorary great grand-godfather to our little Lula Blue and hopefully she will gain some of his wisdom and love of life as she grows up.  For a man to smile as much as Old Man P does, after the life he has lived, must surely be the best example for any young child to follow, especially in this day and age. 

This is not a normal bush blog entry, but that is because Pereira is not a normal bush man.  We are super chuffed to call him a friend and look so forward to many more evenings around the fire talking rubbish with this great man...       
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