As I packed for my trip to Africa, I took along my new digital camera - although I'd bought it more than a year before and I'm the first to admit that it was a bit more camera that I can easily manage. Nevertheless, I was determined to take it along and take as many photos as possible with my limited skills. This was only the second time I'd been to Africa and I'd never seen a game animal like an elephant or lion outside of a zoo except for one time when my family visited Lion Country Safari at King''s Island amusement park when I was a kid.
I was headed to Gorongosa National Park in Mozambique - a once proud place that had been, in the 1960's, perhaps the best wildlife park in all of Africa. That was before Gorongosa Park was ravaged by war, when it had an abundance of both animals and tourists. Our story was about American entrepreneur, Greg Carr, who hoped to revive the park to its past glory and in doing so, lift the people of this part of Mozambique out of poverty.
My Gorongosa adventure began on Memorial Day 2008. As co-producer, I was travelling out in advance of the rest of the 60 Minutes team and soon learned the true meaning of TIA - "This Is Africa." One of my bags was lost for days, communications at the base camp were sometimes challenging and our camera crew was having difficulty clearing customs with all their gear. These proved to be minor inconveniences and were soon sorted out with the help of Carr and his enterprising team - especially Vasco Galante, the director of communications and Joao Viseu, Gorongosa's business director.
It was also my opportunity to scout locations and come up with a game plan for shooting once the correspondent, Scott Pelley, and co-producer Henry Schuster and our stellar camera team of Chris Everson, Ian Robbie and Anton van der Merwe arrived. We didn't see any large animals that first day, but as I settled into my bungalow at Camp Chitengo that night, I felt sure we would and also somehow strangely at home in such an exotic locale.
But I was beginning to feel like I'd never see a lion or an elephant. Greg decided to take me up in the helicopter he often uses to fly back and forth to meeting in Mozambique's capital city of Maputo and to the far flung areas of the park. Gorongosa stretches over 1500 square miles and sometimes it can take three hours to travel a mile and a half because of rough terrain and limited roads. Because of the lions, it is simply too dangerous to venture off road or too far from your vehicle. Others, including an elderly village chief who was visiting the base camp, actually heard a male lion's roar as he was bunking down for the night.
I'd experienced a golden moment - and I was prepared to go home with an impressive tale to tell all my friends. But, I was in for an even bigger surprise. As we circled the Urema River in the helicopter, Baldeu Chande, Gorongosa's game warden and trusted advisor to Greg Carr, spotted a strange beast in a herd of waterbucks - a type of antelope.
It was a female waterbuck with entirely white fur - apparently an albino waterbuck. This was the first time this waterbuck had been seen by anyone in Gorongosa National Park and there was much excitement about the sighting. As the helicopter circled, I reached for my camera and snapped a picture of the fairy tale creature. My camera didn't fail me. I was able to provide the first documentation of this unique animal. A few days later, our 60 Minutes cameraman Chris Everson was able to videotape the albino for posterity.
The reason everyone was raving about our find is because, while others albino waterbucks may exist is Africa, the last report of a sighting that anyone could remember was nearly fifty years ago by two game rangers at Kruger National Park in South Africa in 1959. Now that the Gorongosa staff had proof of the animal's existence, they made plans to follow up and determine if the animal is a true albino which is a rare genetic condition.
We also met and interviewed many of the newly employed workers who are bringing the park to life and saw communities that are already benefitting from the revenue that is being breathed into the economy. After my 60 Minutes colleagues arrived we began taping, we all got a chance to see Greg Carr's dreams beginning to come true and to document the hard work in progress. With Carr's help, the people of Mozambique will ultimately determine the fate of the park - for themselves and the all the wildlife great and small, rare and commonplace, that call Gorongosa home.
Written by Rebecca Peterson