It was the following extract of an article about birding in Kenya that caught my attention about what really does lie north of the Zambezi. It comes from "Where to watch birds in Africa."
'Expect to see more birds than you can possibly imagine in Kenya. Some bird tour companies notch up to 600 species in 2 weeks and 700 species in 3 weeks.
In 1991 Brian Finch set the African record by notching up a staggering 797 species in just 25 days, this also included 70 mammal species...'How many of us South African birders/twitchers call us what you will, are sitting at the 600+ mark and are now fighting boredom, running out of places to bird or the cash to get where the rare vagrant has arrived. Many of us are not prepared to get in a car to drive to Cape Point to see a solitary, quite windswept Tropic Bird on the chance that it might still be there when you get there, or drive all the way to Velddrif for the one and only exotic Little Blue Heron in SA that will probably die, as it arrived alone and has been harassed by the local species.
I agree that all this twitching news and excitement about vagrants is good news for local birding and the promotion of birding in SA - but perhaps we should keep it in perspective. I must admit, that I too get excited when I hear of Ruppell's Griffons moving south to the Blouberg, and I think it is really exciting that they might/could actually establish themselves here as a potentially 'new' Southern African species, but perhaps from a conservation perspective the arrival of this 'new' species could put our Griffons under threat and possibly threaten the long term survival of the Cape Vulture - only time and studies will tell, I guess. Do we know for sure that the Cape Vulture did not move to Southern Africa to escape the Ruppell's Griffon centuries years ago?
We are the type of birder's that would rather see these Southern African rarities in abundance in their natural habitat, even if it is the Indian Ocean islands or north of the mighty Zambezi. It is with this in mind that myself and Grant Dunbar have written this article to show that we birders should perhaps broaden our horizons and bird across our borders for those Southern African 'rarities'. Rarities that in our Southern African birding lifetime we might never get the chance or privilege to observe and thereby not enriching our knowledge of Southern African and other birds.
At the end of the day, you as a birder must decide what is important for yourself, staying within the boundaries and missing out, or going further afield to find those ghost/mythical birds that you dream of - in abundance. If you save the money for one mega East African trip instead of wild goose chases all over the country for the solitary species that is still trying to figure out where the hell it is, you will come back refreshed, motivated, excited and will possibly then have the time to really sort out your LBJ's or get into trees, tree frogs, butterflies or some other challenging pastime that will supplement your birding. So spread your wings and fly - there is so much to see and so little time to do it in.
If you plan this type of trip, you have also got to remember that these are diverse countries, and there is more to them than just birding. The game watching is fantastic with the variety and sheer numbers of mammals that we just don't see in Southern Africa, there is also snorkelling and fishing along the eastern coast and inland lakes. Once you start with your maps and reference books you soon realise how carefully you must plan a trip of this nature, especially in terms of time to include all of the activities you wish to pursue.
There are probably two ways of doing a trip of this nature, either with your own vehicle or with a tour company - if you go with a tour company it is probably a good idea to arrange your own special interest group. That will ensure that you will stop to see the birds and not end up chasing the big 5 with a bunch of non-birding foreign tourists. We opted for the former because of the flexibility it gave us and because of our tight itinerary as a result of our intensive research and planning - we knew what we wanted to see and where. What is also important here is to have the correct vehicle documentation, it makes border crossing pleasurable - the 'Carnet de Passage' is available from the AA. Time spent on research is very well advised to ensure that you don't miss anything along the way. In the early planning stages there was only one real field guide for East Africa, namely the Collins Field Guide to Birds of East Africa. In this guide only 650 species are illustrated, and there are 1283 species described. What this in reality means, is that for species that look 'similar' one must use the meagre description under "Allied Species" for the one that is illustrated. The colour plates don't give you any clues about which illustrated species have described allied species. Not ideal for beginners. Fortunately, the day before we left Russell Friedman Books released the much awaited Illustrated Checklist for the Birds of East Africa, which proved to be absolutely invaluable, and relegated the previous Collins to the bottom of the suitcase.
In a vast area such as East Africa you must get to grips with the 'JIZZ' of whatever it is you are looking at, as quickly as possible, so that the family can at least be identified. That way, the search to ID the particular species can be narrowed down quickly - this must be done whilst you are noting the key features of the invariably new bird - challenging to say the least, but also very, very exciting. Obviously, your Newmans and Sasol will come in very handy as many Southern species are called by other names north of here, to add to the confusion - so always check the scientific names as well.
Our trip was planned for most of February 1996, to take us eastwards from Nairobi in Kenya, then south along the coast, inland and west through Tanzania to northern Malawi and from there south along the west side of the Lake to Blantyre. This would be over a period of 21 days, spending approximately 7 days in each country. The reference books recommend November/December as the best times but we only had February. We wanted to try and get to as many varied habitats as possible, and because of limited time opted for the 80/20 principle spending 20% of the time in each place to get 80% reward. Distances are vast, road conditions not always favourable, so this is almost treated like a 3 week "Big Birding Day".
The air tickets on SAA were booked and paid for in December. January went by in a blur what with budgets at work and preparations for the mega birding trip - visa applications (Tanzania only), travellers cheques, vaccinations for yellow fever, hepatitis (gamma globulin) and tetanus, prescriptions for Malaria (this is critical for Africa) and other medical supplies to prevent the runs and any other possible ailments. Checking and re-checking the itinerary against all possible references to ensure that the time and effort spent in each place in each country is maximised. Studying and learning the only East African field guide with growing excitement at the prospect of finding those elusive Southern rarities and new East African lifers.
This was Grant's 7th East African trip, and I consider him to be a veteran African traveller; he had already visited a lot of the places on our itinerary and had a lot of local knowledge from places visited on previous visits. Packing is also done with care because of the varying habitats and temperature variations - coastal to high altitude; again this was made easier because of Grant's previous trips. My dilemma was how much film to take - I once read about a rule of thumb for the Kruger National Park which said budget on a roll of 36 exposure film per day and then add about 40% - as you can see this gets to be an expensive exercise, but for a lifetime opportunity you cannot afford to run out.
We stocked up on provisions prior to leaving, things like pasta, beers in tins and coldrinks. In Africa most beers are only available in bottles which is inconvenient whilst travelling. We had an early morning SAA flight which would give us time on arrival in Nairobi to sort out the vehicle and get in some birding around Windsor Golf and Country Club outside Nairobi, where we would spend our first night. On the flight we had a small wager as to what our total tally would be for the duration of this trip, my guess was 420 and Grant's was 400+.
Flying in to Nairobi was hectic, the ride was bumpy because of the cumulus build-up over Malawi and Tanzania, although our captain did have some humour. After a long forced procedural landing which ended up delaying us, he said we would probably have to use the emergency chutes to disembark. Nairobi left me aghast, the place was arid, very dry, very hot and brown. Kenya is situated north of the latitude that separates its rain patterns from those down south. Kenya has short and long rains, with the long rains only due to start in mid March. However this did not deter any of our excitement of actually being here.
Jambo is the standard greeting wherever you go, and having had the Bafana Bafana win the Africa Cup the previous day, many compliments were received wherever we went. South Africa was held in high regard by all whom we spoke to; they see Johannesburg as a mini London or New York and South Africa like USA or UK.
We based ourselves at the Windsor Golf and Country Club; it is here that the vehicle (Toyota Landcruiser) stood for some 3 months before this trip. We sorted out the vehicle which took quite some time, the battery had drained the life out of itself and there were some fuel problems from standing so long. With that aside it was time for a late afternoon walk around the golf course. I was quite amazed at how long it took me to find my first East African bird, with many Southern African species being seen at first. Anyway, the first was a Variable Sunbird. For me, all of the East African species would be lifers, but it was also those elusive Southern African specials we were after. My first Southern African special was a Grey-hooded Kingfisher which we were to see plenty more of during the duration of the safari. I couldn't believe how many Yellow Wagtails were feeding on the golf course fairways, we saw 4 of the sub-species, and in these great numbers they were easy to pick out. The next morning we had a walk and had a bonanza, European Blackcaps galore, Montagu's Harrier and a female European Harrier in full plumage, Moustached Warbler and a few Honey Buzzards. In a total of 4 hours birding, the previous afternoon afternoon and an early morning we picked up about 80 species around the golf course.
After breakfast we started the safari but first stopped at a garage to replace a shock absorber that we had brought up as a spare. 20 km out of Nairobi we ground to a halt with a combination of fuel and distributor problems. It took us the rest of the day to sort out, so we headed back to the Windsor Country Club - you dont want to travel too far at night or be stuck out of the road, as you would be a target for the shifta's. The flexibility in our itinerary was being tested early on in the trip. This diversion did however give us another opportunity to walk aroung the golf course, and we added Tree Pipit, Grey and Black Cuckooshrike and Scarce Swift to our early list. We decided to go to the Toyota dealership in Nairobi for a full service to sort out any potential problems and have the brakes replaced, it took almost the whole morning - but the Toyota people were most accommodating and helpful.
We managed to get going by 3pm and headed east toward Tsavo West. The Nairobi/Mombasa road is tarred but quite hairy as it is narrow and very busy. The habitat changed as we headed east, becoming greener and more undulating. The park rates for non-residents is payable generally in US dollars. At Tsavo West we entered at the Mtito Andei gate, and we stayed at the Ngulia Banda's. These are cottages with beds and mosquito nets where you provide your own catering. The guidebooks said of Tsavo that Golden Pipits were fairly common. What amazed us was how common they really were. Throughout Tsavo West and East they were the most common Pipit. Absolutely stunning and unmistakable in flight, and also quite approachable, unlike any other pipits. That was a mega tick for us as well as Pallid Harrier, Yellow-billed Oxpecker's and Green Sandpiper. I had seen all 3 harriers now, and after seeing Montagu's and Pallid it is now easier for me to ID them, they are both quite different. Pallid is much more pale and dainty and flies a lot higher above the ground than Montagu's. This was the value of seeing them almost together fairly often, which wouldn't happen every day down south.
On the early morning drive in Tsavo West our spare battery exploded on us, it had vibrated loose and the positive terminal arced against the body. It was quite a scary moment as it exploded whilst we were trying to free it from its mounting. A minor setback, it did however put our fridge out which we would sort out later. Great birding potential at Ngulia Lodge, which is in the middle of the migration route and overlooks the rift valley. This spot would be a must during September when the northern migrants come south, all of the exotic warblers seem to be in abundance. We decided not to pursue a lot of the LBJ's; from a time perspective it would prove to be too expensive trying to sort them out. We did however pick up Red-rumped Swallow and Augur Buzzard at Ngulia Lodge. The previous evening the lodge had set up bait for leopard, and the guests were rewarded with a leopard on the bait about 20m from the veranda, what a sight that must have been over cocktails.
From Tsavo West we headed to Lake Jipe, missed the right (easier) road, and ended up taking about 4 hours to get there instead of 1 hour. This was due to navigational error, poor maps and lack of signposting. The last section was quite horrific, and made worse by having to tackle it in the dark. On arriving at the lodge we saw a Striped Hyaena which is pretty rare. After such a long and taxing day we decided camping was out and took a room. Lake Jipe is described as a crater lake and is 18 x 6km; it is abundant with waterbirds. European Marsh Harriers were common, but the most exciting find was Red-throated Pipit, Garganey, Sand Martin and Gull-billed Terns. It is great for all of the Egrets, Herons, Ducks and we also found Double-banded Courser. We couldn't stay long, but had we taken the opportunity of the boat ride around the lake could have added some reedbed specials to this list. This time we found the right road out, which did take an hour, and headed toward Taita Hills. We detoured around the top of the hills, but did not find the localised Taita Falcon; we did however find the endemic and rare Taita White-Eye (Silvanus). Only later did we find out from the most recent Africa Environment magazine of March/April 96, that this White-Eye is considered to be one of the 12 rarest birds of mainland (sub-Saharan) Africa. It's world range is less than 3 square kilometers, which is quite staggering. Taita Hills rises to 2000m above the plains below with quite spectacular views. It is however heavily populated, and one would need to spend some time finding the uninhabited forest patches to look for their other specials and endemics.
From here it was on to Voi gate and into Tsavo East. Tsavo East is supposed to be more arid than Tsavo West, but we found it to be quite the opposite; it was quite lush and green in the south. We had a look at the Lodge first which had a spectacular view over the plains below, and the warbler flitting about in the trees in the garden was Olive-tree. We camped at the campsite along a dry river and felt as if we had the whole park to ourselves, the luxury of the lesser known East African reserves. There were a lot of raptors in this reserve which is always a good indication of the health and state of any piece of bush. Montagu's was the common Harrier, and Golden Pipits were more than abundant, we also saw a Peregrine unsuccessfully stoop on some Laughing Doves drinking at the river edge. The next day we headed north to the Galana River which divides the park in two; north of the Galana is out of bounds to the visitor. We had a great morning separating Isabelline, European and Pied Wheatear and also finding Redstart, Spotted Redshank and White-throated Bee-eater in the more arid areas, as well as a Booted Eagle for Grant. What was quite strange is that down south these species would be found in the west, but in Kenya they were in the east. As we headed north it became more and more arid and was quite reminiscent of the Karoo. Game was quite scarce and scattered in isolated pockets because of the reserve being so vast. On the way out of Tsavo toward Malindi the front left leaf spring broke, which again meant a small re-think on the itinerary.
We timed our arrival at Malindi which is on the coast just right, although it was blisteringly hot and humid, the tide was out in the harbour and the coral exposed, so it was heaven. Plenty of Gulls - Herring, Lesser Black-backed, Sooty and Terns - Gull-billed, Little, Lesser Crested, Caspian, Swift, Sandwich as well as Waders - Grey Plover, Terek Sandpipers, Sand Plovers, Ringed Plover, Greenshanks, Curlew, Whimbrel, Sanderling. What was not so good was to see the numbers of House Crows along the coast wherever there were people, thank goodness we have managed to eradicate ours from Durban. From Malindi we headed south to Watamu and got a boat ride around Mida Creek along the mangroves; we didn't find the kingfisher but we found Crab Plover paradise. We must have seen at least 300 on the exposed sand banks as well as Osprey and Palmnut Vulture on the mangroves.
We stayed at Mrs Simpson's who is an early Kenyan pioneer. She arrived in 1923 and has driven an 8hp Morris Minor across the Sahara, flown her own aircraft from the UK to Kenya - a truly remarkable woman. She is now instrumental in conserving the unique Arabuko-Sokoke Forest which is the largest surviving coastal forest in Kenya and is a key site for the global survival of 6 Red Data Book bird species (Amani Sunbird, Clarke's Weaver, Sokoke Pipit, Spotted Ground Thrush, Sokoke Scops Owl and East Coast Akalat) and 3 mammal species. This forest is made up of 3 distinct vegetation types namely Mixed Forest, Brachystegia and Cynometra. Mrs Simpson has ensured that there are trained guides who can take visitors through the forests looking for the endemic birds and mammals and plants. For us it made for exciting birding opportunities, as we all know how difficult forest birding is.
Before we visited the forest we walked through the very interesting Gedi Ruins which date back to the 13th century. The rains hadn't arrived here either, and as a result the forest was very quiet, which made it quite eerie. This was a possible site for the Angola Pitta, but time of year was wrong. We decided to head for Mombasa to get that leaf spring replaced. The locals are very resourceful and are always willing to help. They use the most basic and rudimentary tools to fix whatever it is that needs fixing. Spares are generally hard to come by or are very expensive, so as a result they end up being able to fix almost anything that is broken.
The Indian Ocean was very warm and the water quite buoyant compared to what it is further south, and there are hardly any waves crashing onto the beaches, it is pretty much like a large lake. We managed to arrange the most knowledgeble birding guide for our sortie into the 42,000 Hectare Arabuko-Sokoke Forest. We met at 6am without too much hope after the experience at Gedi, however this guide was really very good and used all the tricks to find us the forest endemics, he did well finding us 3 of the 6 endemics - had we been there at the right time we would have found all 6. The most exciting of the 3 was the delightful Sokoke Scops Owl which is only 15cm long, making it 5cm smaller than our Pearl-spotted Owl. This guide was also very good with the difficult group of Greenbuls and Brownbuls and identified some of them with the help of a tape. A pair of Amani Sunbirds, Little Spotted Woodpecker, Red-billed (Reitz's) Helmetshrike, Gorgeous Bush Shrike and Red-throated Twinspot were next before it was time to search for the Chestnut-fronted Helmet Shrike, which is considered common here when the rains come. After a good walk through the Brachystegia we eventually came across a group of them with youngsters, which was fantastic. Whilst taking some time for a breather we managed to call up and spot a Green Barbet (Woodwards) and also see Boehms Spinetail, so we were on a good wicket. We then went off to find the Sokoke Pipit and were also shown two sites where the Pitta had been seen - not this time, however. The Sokoke Pipit has got to be the most elusive bird we have ever tried to find. It is a bird of forest floors amongst the dried leaves, it doesn't stand still and despite us being only 2-3m away from it, we only got fleeting glimpses of it scurrying away. I think our guide was getting quite frustrated with us, everytime he showed us where to look we said where? After an hour of creeping quietly around a little patch of this forest, we resigned ourselves to only seeing that fleeting glimpse of this pipit. I would like to know if any other birders have had a decent sighting of this elusive species. It was however, a most rewarding mornings birding, and it is essential that you take a guide as it is a huge forest, and they need the funds for its preservation. We were told that after the rains in March, this forest is unbelievably rich in birds.
It was time to head south again to the Shimba Hills reserve close to the Tanzanian border. It is situated about 10-15 km inland from the coast on a plateau which is 200m above sea level, from which you could see the Indian Ocean. It has rolling hills with Brachystegia patches and some high canopy forest patches on the drive up we saw Mottled Spinetails which are really distinctive, a bit like a White-rumped Swift flying upside down. Palmnut Vulture and Silvery-cheeked Hornbill were found just before sunset on the evening drive. The game viewing in this park was not bad; it boasts the largest population of Sable Antelope in Kenya which we saw, as well as the biggest tusker both Grant and I have ever seen. In fact all of the elephant we saw in Kenya and Tanzania seemed to have far bigger and longer tusks than those in our Kruger National Park; is there a reason for this I wonder?
The next morning we took the walk to Shedrick Falls and also took the opportunity to have a 'shower' under the torrent of falling water. We found more Chestnut-fronted Helmetshrike and a few more common Southern species. We were the only two people in the park so felt as if we had our very own Garden of Eden. We decided to drive through the park and go back to the coast to explore Tiwi and Diani beaches hoping to find the Sooty and Bridled Terns. On route we had a fantastic sighting of a leopard attempting to ambush two young warthog, unfortunately it was unsuccessful for us, but fortunate for the pigs. It was too quick to grab a photo, but the image is indelibly etched in my brain forever. At the estuary that separated Tiwi and Diani beaches we picked up Mongolian Plover and Brown-breasted Barbet. The terns were all still out at sea and would be for some months still.
Back to Shimba Hills National Park where we found a gem of a spot called Makadara picnic spot. It was surrounded by a high canopy forest that wasn't to dense. Within half and hour we picked up Palmnut Vulture, Mottled Spinetail, White-throated Bee-eater, Green Barbet, Green Tinker Barbet and wait for it, that ghost bird in Newmans called the Green-headed Oriole, which responded beautifully to the tape. What would it cost down south to put a trip together to see these birds!!! This was a definitely an OO (Ornithological Orgasm) site and a fitting end to what had been a spectacular week in Kenya. Besides seeing the big 5 mammals and a close encounter of the elephant type when a bull strolled passed us while we were packing up camp - two birders trying to disguise themselves as Landcruiser doors must have looked quite comical from the elephant's viewpoint. After he passed we measured that he was only 6m away - it was quite awesome! We also ticked in excess of 330 bird species, which is phenomenal in anyone's book.
The great names of Kilamanjaro, Ngorongoro, Serengeti, Selous, Zanzibar ... evoke images of the early European adventurers through virgin African bush - David Livingstone, Henry Stanley, Johannes Rebman and before them the Chinese, Arabs and Persian traders. With a rich cultural heritage of more than 120 tribes and an abundance of wildlife living in their natural habitats, Tanzania today is reputed as the last frontier of the enchanting Africa of the past century. Comfortable modern amenities however, make present time exploration delightful.
Tanzania is situated just south of the Equator bordering the Indian Ocean for a stretch of 800km of unspoiled beach with an area of 939,701 sq.km. It is the largest country in East Africa.
The main physical features vary from Coastal plains (0m above sea level) to rift valleys, Miombo woodlands, Southern highlands and northern mountains (5,895m above sea level) and temperatures vary from 15°C to 30°C.
After a description like that it was time for us to head for Tanzania, the border crossing was time consuming but uneventful. We headed for Tanga and on this road ticked Southern Banded Snake Eagle and Red-headed Quelea, even though it was the heat of the day. We then headed for Amani which is situated at the top of the East Usambara Mountains. As we started ascending ground we ground to a halt with the vehicle. This time it was the condenser; we bypassed it before we could carry on. We did however see a Long-crested Eagle dive into a group of chickens and take one of the youngsters, exciting for us birders but not good news for the eagle in the eyes of the villagers. This one got away, but I wonder how many don't! The road up to Amani was quite an ordeal, pretty much like Sani Pass but without the loose boulders. The Parks are busy establishing a proposed Forest Reserve with the help of Finnish money. It is quite ironic that the Finns also sell logging equipment to the Tanzanians to help them chop down other parts of the forest. (Double standards, maybe they had lessons from Sappi?)
Amani is the site of high altitude, high canopy (40m) forest at about 1200m above sea level and is a lot more accessible than the Udzungwa forest further in the south/west. The quaint village was established by the Germans in 1902 and features a full board rest house for $10/night with African cuisine like fried eggs minus the yolk for breakfast. Amani has a special appeal to hikers, birders and botanists, and we were told that it is the only place where the African Violet grows wild naturally. A quick walk around before sunset produced Western Banded Snake Eagle, East African Swee and Red-faced Crimsonwing. We knew that birding would be difficult because of the 40m canopy and the absence of the much talked about long rains. During our walk along the marshes and reedbeds of a mountain stream we noticed the complete absence of widows and bishops in breeding plumage. They too only change once the rains come which we found most interesting, which is much later than our bishops and widows down south. The forest here was also desperately quiet. On route to the Kwamoro Station, met Frank the Forester who was most helpful and acted as our guide, we were the first ever South Africans to sign the visitor book. Ayre's Hawk Eagle was a mega tick, and a pair of Crowned Eagles displaying was great to watch. This is another good site for the 4 greens (barbet, tinker barbet, twinspot and oriole). One good bonus here was that we were able to buy some Castle Lagers from the local shop at the Tea Estate. Amani, which means Place of Peace, was just that, friendly people and wonderful habitat - we just hope that the proposed forest reserve does become a reality for Tanzania.
From Amani we wound our way slowly down the mountain trying very hard for Barred Cuckoo - but it was the wrong time of the year. The forest was still eerily quiet, but it must really sizzle after the rains. We did however pick up Forest Buzzard, Delegourge's Pigeon, more Red-fronted Helmet Shrikes and Green-headed Oriole. The road to Pangani traversed some lovely coastal bush, quite different to what we passed in Southern Kenya. Here we picked up Bishops for the first time in breeding plumage, as rains had started on the coastal plains. From Pangani we caught quite a dilapidated ferry across the river and headed south to try and find the only Tanzanian coastal reserve called Sadani. The guide books said that they had only ever heard of one person going there and that it was possible to see elephant on the beaches - so this was for us. This turned out to be quite an ordeal, but using GPS, compass and 1:50,000 maps we eventually stumbled into Sadani; the roads were quite horrific and would be quite impassable once the rains start. Some parts were quite dubious for us, with what little rain that had already fallen. Unfortunately, Sadani was very disappointing, but we did feel like the early pioneers that did their own pathfinding. It is a reserve without national status, and game is still being established. There is only one house when you eventually do arrive, no ele's on the beach, although signs of some in the reserve. What does make it quite unique, is that the coastal bush encroached right onto the beach, and one could quite easily imagine an elephant stepping out of the bush onto the white sand. We decided not to stay, access to Bagamoyo was out of the question, so we had to head for Msata quickly as a large storm was approaching, and we didn't want to be stranded on these desolate roads. Another torrid road that took 4.5 hours to do 140km to reach the Tanzam highway. The big tick however was a pair of African Hobby's, which we found just before the main road outside a small settlement. The Tanzanian road system was very good and even had emergency lanes demarcated making them quite wide. We tried to push for Mikumi just past the Uluguru Mountains, but didn't quite make it, so set up camp just off the main road - not always a wise thing to do, but in this case, our only option.
Only when we headed toward Ruaha did we see how green and lush Tanzania is, because of their different rainfall pattern. It was stunning to see the difference to Kenya, although I'm sure when the rains fall in March, Kenya would look just as lush. The main Tanzam highway passes through the middle of Mikumi National Park, and traffic must slow down, as there was plenty of game to be seen from the main road: elephant, zebra, giraffe, wildebeest etc. Birding wasn't bad on this stretch, but we didn't waste to much time as we wanted to get to Iringa and then head for Ruaha National Park. On route we passed Udzungwa National Park, which is a wild, remote and quite untamed park with very little infrastructure and a place where I'm sure there are new species still waiting to be discovered. In fact, there are some bird and mammal species that have only been discovered here in the last 4 years. From Iringa it was 130 km of a not too bad sand road. I picked up an eye infection and was really battling to see, which was really irritating. Ruaha is a relatively new and undisturbed park and is one of Tanzania's largest elephant sanctuaries. Its name derives from the Great Ruaha River which flows along its entire eastern border creating spectacular gorges and scenery. We made camp at campsite No 1, on the banks of the river with storms happening all around us - a fantastic setting. It is quite amazing that besides us, there was only one other couple in the reserve, and we were the 9th and 10th people to visit that month. One feels quite special to have a Park just a little smaller than the Kruger all to yourself. There is a price to be paid though, and $60 per day for camping is steep, but that is the trade off.
The afternoon/evening drive was a killer one: besides quite an abundance of game, all the grasses were in seed, and a lot of birds were taking advantage of this available food. Cardinal Quelea in masses, Fire-crowned Bishop, Black Coucal, Bronze-winged Courser, African Crake and Common Quail, as well as a host of new East African species, brought excitement back into our birding. This park was absolutely alive with Harlequin Quail; wherever you drove they exploded out of the grass on the side of the road. One has to have one's wits about all of the time; in the process of doing a straight forward U-turn, we slipped off the road into some black cotton soil and that was us - Stuck. Without the necessary recovery equipment we would have been there for quite some time, and with the lack of people, we could not rely on any help. Again, your vehicle, your responsibility, with the emphasis on being prepared. During the quiet time there was a warbler calling nearby, with the help of the tapes called out European Reed Warbler, which is a great tick. Lion, hippo and hyaena was our night time chorus before bed. Ruaha is the place for Baobabs, I have never seen so many healthy specimens in my life before. Grey Kestrel was a great find here, we saw a few, but in the drier months they are much more common. Again the seed eaters were having a field day. Although it wasn't doing much good to our radiator, we cut up a mosquito net to tie in front of the radiator to stop the overheating. Again we were treated to more great sightings of African Crake. It heated up during the afternoon, so we had ourselves a little siesta under a thatch next to the river. I heard all 3 great African birdcalls (my personal ones) one after the other: African Fish Eagle, Red-billed Hornbill and Mourning Dove. Our truck was starting to use a lot of fuel, 450km on 140 litres, which was really worrying. So our driving was a little limited. At our camp a troop of Yellow Baboons had decided that the big tree we were under was to be their shelter for the night, so it was a night of dodging for us - urine and pasta is not a great combination. We had a good laugh though: a 250 gram Guineafowl in the tree above made a heck of a lot more noise than the 40 tons of elephant herd that silently padded past us on their way to cross the river.
It turned out to be a long night, it rained, our tent leaked we got wet, the lions were very close, so we were up early to leave. Crossed the Ruaha River - there is no bridge and the level had risen some, we then discovered that we did not have enough petrol to get to Iringa, turned around to go back to HQ when something shorted under the bonnet and had us diving for the fire extinguisher (lesson #345 - check that wires have not vibrated loose, especially positive wires!). We found the fault, repaired it and re-crossed the river again, this time the level was up from 30 minutes before. We managed to source some petrol from the wardens, but it took almost two hours before we were finally on our way. At the river crossing we were hesitant about the level, but thought we would give it a try. The Landcruiser inched in, but suddenly gave way, the water was above the bonnet and below the front doors when the river lifted the front and swung us sideways. It was heart stopping, as Grant said F... we've lost it, he grabbed reverse gear, maintained revs and somehow the back of the truck had enough weight to get some traction and we managed to slowly reverse out - a very, very close call. But now we were stuck in Ruaha as this was heavy rains that had fallen in the escarpment 80km away. We waited out the day, only to watch a river that is 200m wide, rise about 2m - basically we were stranded and at the mercy of the river.
It gave us time to re-group, change gearbox oil, another leaf spring was on its way out, and the vehicle was sagging badly. We dried everything out. This is where one's itinerary has to be flexible, because in a situation like this there is nothing one can do. We however decided to make the most of it and get into some more serious birding to get the numbers up. Our camp proved to be a good spot for Thrush Nightingale, and we had some excellent sightings of it out in the open, quite out of character. Cardinal Quelea is the common Quelea in this park, and we also found Penduline Tit, White-bellied Korhaan, Collared Palm Thrush and Slaty Boubou which is one of the delightful East African species that is readily approachable. Re-grouped about our itinerary and decided that Nyika Plateau in Malawi was now out of the question from a time perspective as well as the weary vehicle. The next day the weather pattern had changed, and we could finally cross the river and head back to Iringa where we repaired the broken left rear leaf spring. It took a good part of the day before we could finally hit the road and head for Mbeya close to the Malawi border. We actually reached Tukuyu and booked into that 'famous' hotel called the Langiboss that the guidebooks said had clean sheets and running water. I took my malaria tabs on an empty stomach and shivered and shook the night away - not a good idea.
Next morning we thought all our troubles were behind us when we woke to find that the starter motor had packed up! We weren't prepared to fix it and decided to park in a way that we could always push start the Cruiser.
Crossed into Malawi at Songwa and headed toward Karonga along the western side of Lake Malawi. As I said earlier, Nyika was out of the question but the following extract written some time during 1949 from Venture into the Interior by Laurens van der Post will ensure that I make a plan to get back up there.
'I wish I could describe the effect that the view had on me, but I will say little more than that it seemed to me miraculous. It was so unlike anything else. It was deep in the heart of Africa and filled with the animals of Africa, and yet it was covered with the grasses, the flowers, and colours of Europe. Yet it was unlike any other colour I have ever seen: I expect, basically, it was a tawny gold, the gold of a leopard's rather than the lion's skin, but this gold was shot through with the undertones of a deep blood red and a shadowy purple.
As I looked at it, I understood at once why I had felt below that there was a large, purple cat purring up there behind the clouds. It looked in its colours, its shape, and its isolation, a contented, serene, and deeply fulfilled land. It seemed a place, which, without human interference, had made it's own contract with life, struck its own balance with necessity and nature. Beyond that I cannot go.'The Karonga tar road was terrible, the potholes were unbelievable and stretched over at least 100km which took just under 3 hours. We limped into Salima not having done much birding and with the truck backfiring and spluttering. We filled up, and the truck died on us. Fortunately there was a roadside 'garage' next to the petrol station, and James the mechanic said he could help. He diagnosed faulty condenser and points and said he could fix the starter motor. That is one thing about Africa again, in times of need there are friendly people willing to drop everything to help. They can also fix most things because spares aren't always available. We left the starter motor with James, push started and headed for Livingstonia Beach and decided to have a party with some of the overlanders that use this campsite as a base - we needed and deserved it. The next morning, feeling not too clever, back to James who had repaired the starter motor and got us going on our way, the lonesome hooting from a treetop turned out to be that ghostbird, the Grey-headed Bush Shrike, difficult to find for such a big bird. Again, we didn't get far when we started with the same symptoms from the day before, spluttering and backfiring. We could not understand why we were blowing condensers, the coil was fine the wiring OK. We replaced everything again after a lot of discussion, diagnosis and frustration in the heat of the day, with no help in sight - self sufficiency and common sense must take priority - getting angry with the vehicle and each other doesn't get the vehicle going.
What should have been one of the shortest legs of the trip ended up being a normal day when we eventually arrived at the ferry crossing to Mvuu Camp in Liwonde National Park. It was a welcome relief to cross the Shire river in someone else's transport that wasn't our responsibility. A shower and beer came in that order before a walk around the camp, as our bird count for Malawi was very poor indeed, besides Olive Bee-eater en route. Mvuu Camp, which is part of the Wilderness Safari stable, is in a wonderful setting; this time of year however one has to make use of the ferry to access it because of the conditions of the roads within the reserve. So one is a little restricted, however Mvuu is a river camp and one must take advantage of this. Peters Epulated Fruit Bats kept us awake for part of the night. We took an early morning walk, but not before I had found the White-backed Night Heron on the bank below our tent. The walk took us through some Miombo, and we collected some great Southern birds like Lilian's Lovebird, Broad-tailed Whydah and its host the Golden-winged Pytilia and Yellow-spotted Nicator. Boehm's Bee-eater and Collared Palm Thrush were the common camp birds at Mvuu. After the walk took a river cruise, no African Skimmers but plenty Osprey, hippo's and croc's. Livingstone's Flycatcher is considered common in the camp, but we had no luck finding it. Our guide also mentioned that Pitta has been found here quite a few times, so it was out with the recorder and off to the sites, again to no avail, but I suppose after what we had seen on this trip it would be asking a bit much. We arranged to have an evening cruise with Norman to try and pick up Bat Hawk and Red-necked Falcon, so it was off with sundowners and spotlight and on to the river. We found a spot to park the boat, cracked a Green and waited. This was the last night of our African adventure, and we were treated to a blazing sunset. No Bat Hawk, but cruising the banks picked up Lesser Gallinule, great sightings of Malachite Kingfisher and of course White-backed Night Herons, the bonus was a Pel's Fishing Owl which wasn't expected at this time of year as they generally head inland to the quieter pools. We drifted downstream and came back under power to the dead tree the owl was perched on and actually managed to grab hold of the tree with Pel's probably 4m away from us - it raised goosebumps. This was a great end to an absolutely fantastic trip which showed us just how exciting it is to bird for Southern African species north of our borders.
The next day it was a long trip to Blantyre to catch the SAA flight back to Johannesburg, which was in the grips of floods and phenomenal rains. The flight gave us time to really reflect on the trip and come up with some tips to intrepid traveller wanting to do what we had just done.
If you are going to do a trip like this in your own vehicle there are some fundamentals to consider. Always expect the unexpected and ensure your itinerary is flexible enough to handle these challenges. Roads are bad and distances quite hard to estimate as maps aren't very accurate and there are very seldom signs or distance markers to help with direction. Locals are not too good with distances either because road transport is a luxury for most of them. Have some understanding of navigation and where possible use 1:50,000 maps and GPS if you are really going off the beaten track, it gives one a sense of comfort. Know your vehicle, Africa is unforgiving, there is no AA when your vehicle breaks down, carry all the spares and tools you can and ensure that they are original spares, a lot of our problems arose from pirate parts. A crucial thing about carrying all the spares and tools is that you must know how to fault find and fix and use all you have. Remember that conditions are generally hard on your vehicle, and it will probably get damaged/broken/dented somewhere on your trip, and this shouldn't upset you. What we found to be a pleasure was a Polaroid camera: instead of giving money, we gave locals photos, and to see the reactions when some of them saw themselves for the first time ever will always be a memory that is cherished. For us a Minus 40 fridge proved to be invaluable as it does get hellish hot, and cold water, cold beers and some fresh food is always welcome. Lastly, for a long confined trip like this travel with a companion who shares the same interests and has the same disposition. This is what truly made our trip the fun, and success it was as we were both prepared to pioneer and to be friendly, which is the essence of travelling in Africa. These tips will ensure that your trip is a memorable one, like ours was.
What this trip did for me personally was take away my concerns about deepest, darkest Africa and open my closed mind to what is really out there. It is a place that is waiting to be explored with many fascinating places to visit, and for the birder it is absolutely mind blowing. Just some statistics for those who would like know. In addition to the birds which I will leave to last we saw 44 mammal species, many of which were new and exciting for me like Black and White Colobus Monkey, Sykes Monkey, Kirks Dik-Dik, Grant's and Thompsons Gazelle, Four-toed and Golden-rumped Elephant Shrew, Palm Squirrel and many, many more. Now to the birds: on this trip with the many stops because of breakdowns and places like Nyika (where 80% of Malawi's birds are found) that we couldn't get to, we still managed to identify 450 species. What is interesting out of this total is that 97 (21,5%) were East African birds and an amazing 353 (78,5%) were Southern African species. This really stunned me and gives even more weight to the argument about heading north to find the Southern African specials and rarities. This trip gave me 60 Southern African lifers, which is fantastic considering that I'm on 600+, as well as 97 East African lifers. What would it cost to try and find all of these south of the Zambezi, and how long would it take me? Lastly, out of the total of 450 species, 337 were seen in Kenya, 220 in Tanzania and 111 in Malawi (almost all of these at Mvuu in one day). Although our trip was to find these Southern African specials, let me not detract from some of the spectacular East African species that we saw as well. My favourites were Rueppel's Griffon, Vulturine Guineafowl, Fischer's and Yellow-collared Lovebirds, Bare-faced and White-bellied Go-away Birds, Sokoke Scops Owl, Black-and-White Casqued Hornbill, Brown-breasted Barbet, Ethiopian Swallow, Sokoke Pipit, ID'ing some of the Greenbuls unaided, Red-tailed Ant Thrush, Grey-capped Warbler, Yellow Monarch, Amani Sunbird, Rosy-patched Bush Shrike, Slate-coloured Boubou, Rueppel's Long-tailed Glossy Starling, ID'ing some of the difficult Weavers and the Steelblue Whydah amongst many, many others.
Should anyone want to plan a trip of this nature, please feel free to contact either Grant (through my e-mail) or myself.
|Great White Egret||X||X||X|
|Whitebacked Night Heron||X||X||X|
|Blackcrowned Night Heron||X||X||X|
|African Fish Eagle||X||X||X||X|
|Brown Snake Eagle||X||X||X|
|Southern Banded Snake Eagle||X||X|
|Western Banded Snake Eagle||X||X||X|
|Blackbreasted Snake Eagle||X||X|
|European Marsh Harrier||X||X||X|
|Little Banded Goshawk||X||X|
|Lesser Spotted Eagle||X||X||X|
|African Hawk Eagle||X||X|
|African Hobby Falcon||X||X||X|
|Lesser Blackbacked Gull||X||X|
|Lesser Crested Tern||X||X||X|
|African Collared Dove||X||X||X|
|Cape Turtle Dove||X||X||X|
|Barefaced Go-away Bird||X||X|
|Whitebellied Go-away Bird||X||X|
|Great Spotted Cuckoo||X||X|
|Sokoke Scops Owl||X||X||X|
|Pel's Fishing Owl||X||X|
|Giant Eagle Owl||X||X|
|Spotted Eagle Owl||X||X|
|Cinnamon Chested Bee-eater||X||X|
|Carmine Bee-eater (N)||X||X||X|
|Black and White Casqued Hornbill||X||X|
|Von der Deckens Hornbill||X||X|
|Green Tinker Barbet||X||X||X||X|
|Redfronted Tinker Barbet||X||X||X|
|Goldenrunped Tinker Barbet||X||X|
|Red and Yellow Barbet||X||X|
|Little Spotted Woodpecker||X||X|
|Lesser Striped Swallow||X||X||X|
|Black Saw-wing Swallow||X||X||X||X|
|Collared Palm Thrush||X||X||X|
|Common Rock Thrush||X||X|
|Northern Bearded Scrub Robin||X||X|
|Whitebrowed Scrub robin||X||X|
|Redtailed Ant Thrush||X||X|
|European Reed Warbler||X||X||X|
|Great Reed Warbler||X||X|
|Cape Reed Warbler||X||X|
|African Sedge Warbler||X||X|
|Greenbacked Bleating Warbler||X||X|
|White-eyed Slaty Flycatcher||X||X|
|Whitebellied Black Tit||X||X|
|Southern Black Tit||X||X|
|Grey Penduline Tit||X||X||X|
|Eastern Violetbacked Sunbird||X||X|
|European Golden Oriole||X||X|
|Rosypatched Bush Shrike||X||X|
|Orangebreasted Bush Shrike||X||X||X|
|Greyheaded Bush Shrike||X||X|
|Gorgeous Bush Shrike||X||X|
|Blackbellied Glossy Starling||X||X||X|
|Bronzetailed Glossy Starling||X||X|
|Greater Blue-eared Glossy Starling||X||X|
|Rueppells Longtailed Starling||X||X|
|Longtailed Glossy Starling||X||X|
|Whitebrowed Sparrow Weaver||X||X|
|Greyheaded Social Weaver||X||X|
|Blackcapped Social Weaver||X||X|
|Redbilled Buffalo Weaver||X||X||X|
|Whiteheaded Buffalo Weaver||X||X||X|
|Palm Golden Weaver||X||X|
|Zanzibar Red Bishop||X||X||X|
|EA %||21.5||SA %||78,5|