This was an excellent trip, with loads of birds (382 species including 179 lifers in 2 weeks), and we escaped almost unscathed from Cyclone Eline, the fuel shortages and the political uncertainty afflicting Zim at present. The most lasting memories, among all the birds, are of a stunningly beautiful country, and some of the friendliest people I've ever been privileged to meet.
Sadly, matters have deteriorated badly since my visit, with several deaths and injuries, which will certainly put off many potential visitors. Hopefully, things will quickly settle down again, allowing this fabulous country to achieve its true potential.
First and foremost, sincere thanks to Mike and Gill Pope, who looked after Sara and myself brilliantly on our last day in Southern Africa, giving us a room for the night, feeding us, driving us around, and generally making us feel extremely welcome. Thanks again - our turn next!
Thanks to Peter Mnadziwana, Abasi Jana, John Jones, Anthony Cizek, Kit Hustler and Chris Pollard for their time and patience in the field. Thanks also to Peter Ginn, Susan Childs, Brian Igoe and Derek Solomon for their parts in arranging this guiding, and for general advice throughout.
Thanks to the dozens of people who helped and advised us during the planning stages, and for the constant flow of information especially during the last worrying couple of weeks before the trip - Alvin Cope, Andrew Tucker, Anne Gray, Ashley Banwell, Brian & Di Horton, Callan Cohen, Carol de Bruin, Chris Lotz, Chris Spengler, Christine Tarski, Claerwen Howie, Craig Thom, David Kelly, Drinie van Rensburg, Eddie Chapman, Geoff McIlleron, Giles Mulholland, Guy Gibbon, Ian Mileham, Jane Axon, Jan-Joost Bouwman, Jannes Fourie, John McAllister, Jonathan Rossouw, Joscha Beninde, Ketil Knudsen, Larry Rubey, Linda Lee Baker, Mel Tripp, Mike Dyer, Nicola Duckworth, Nicolette Demetriades, Norman Ford, Norman Jobson, Paul Wood, Pete Irons, Peter Thompson, Petra van Basten, Ray Mellish, Richard & Toni Simmonds, Richard Fairbank, Richard Randall, Rick Nuttall, Rolf Becker, Roy Hargreaves, Ruud Kampf, Sam de Beer, Schalk Nieuwoudt, Stefano Brambilla, Stephan Terblanche, Stephen Jackson, Tim Earl, Toby Austin, Tom Tarrant, Tony Mills.
Special thanks to fellow traveller Felix Jachmann from Germany, who visited Zim a couple of weeks before me (and saw more species than me!), and with whom I swapped information on a daily basis during the last month of planning. Glad you had such a great trip, Felix!
Finally, as always, a big thank you to my non-birding wife Sara for tolerating yet another 95% birds holiday.
Our usual approach is to book flights and a car in advance, and take the rest as it comes, and this is what we did with this trip. The hardest part of planning the trip was trying to sort out which birds to target. In the end I based the trip around the following groups:
I didn't get all of these, but I got enough of them to make the trip really memorable, with enough left to tempt me into another trip in the future!
Ideally, we'd have booked flights direct to Harare. However, we'd already booked flights to Jo'burg as part of our abandoned Namibian trip. Connecting flights through to Harare were extremely expensive, so we decided to get off at Jo'burg, hire a car and drive to Zim. The flights were booked through Trailfinders in London (phone 0171 938 3939). The best deal we found was with Turkish Airlines, and cost just UKP 343 per head including all taxes. The flight duration was some 15 hours each way, including some 2 hours on the ground in Istanbul, and the main Istanbul - Jo'burg stretch was a manageable 9.5 hours overnight stint each way. Flight times were as follows:
Outwards: Depart London Heathrow 18.2.00 15:15, arrive Istanbul 18.2.00 21:00
Depart Istanbul 18.2.00 23:55, arrive Johannesburg 19.2.00 09:20
Return: Depart Johannesburg 4.3.00 21:25, arrive Istanbul 5.3.00 07:05
Depart Istanbul 5.3.00 08:30, arrive London Heathrow 5.3.00 10:30
Note that Johannesburg is 2 hours ahead of the UK (same time as Turkey) in February.
Arranging car hire was a big problem. Most firms wouldn't allow their vehicles to be taken over the border from SA into Zimbabwe and Botswana, or charged an exorbitant additional insurance charge for allowing you to do so. I eventually booked with Rand Auto Hire, who were willing for the car to go to Zim, and could supply a leaded fuel car. They are based in Jo'burg (e-mail Roger Buckley on email@example.com). Their rates were very good at ZAR 215 (UKP 21.50) per day all inclusive, plus ZAR 600 (UKP 60) for cross-border fees. Their excess level was ZAR 3,000 (UKP 300) in SA and ZAR 5,000 (UKP 500) in Zimbabwe, and covered accidents on gravel roads at the normal excess - a big plus in their favour.
Hertz were also quite happy to allow cross-border travel, and their rate of ZAR 3,386 (UKP 339) for 15 days inclusive of unlimited mileages, collision damage and loss waivers and all local taxes was extremely good value. Hertz rates in Harare are apparently also very good, including reasonably cheap 4WD. I also found their Jo'burg office (firstname.lastname@example.org) to be very helpful, and they answered queries very quickly. However, the normal fuel in Zim is called Blend which contains a percentage of ethanol. Hertz couldn't supply a leaded fuel car and wouldn't allow me to use Blend in their vehicle. I would therefore have had to depend on being able to find unleaded fuel, difficult at the best of times, and almost impossible during the fuel crisis there at the time.
The car itself was a bit ropey - the headlights were almost non-existent, the air conditioning just blew warm air around the car, and it quickly developed a problem with the ignition system which meant that the car was guaranteed to refuse to start, unless you happened to be parked on a hill!! We become experts at bump starting it, and are eternally grateful to the three or four Zimbabweans who inevitably materialised to help push whenever we got into trouble. Still, Rand were the only company who could bail us out, and it got us around without too many problems. Total distance driven was 5,227 km, and we averaged some 40 miles per gallon.
Many firms will not offer an unlimited mileage deal, but give a fixed number of free kilometres (typically c. 200 km per day), with an excess charge payable on additional miles. This could be an expensive option as Zimbabwe is a large country, with a fair amount of driving needed to cover the best sites, especially if starting and finishing in Jo'burg. Also, many companies, including Hertz, do not cover you at all if you have an accident on a gravel road.
The only road tolls we paid was ZAR 40 (UKP 4.00) to cross the border at Beitbridge and ZAR 50 (UKP 5.00) in motorway tolls between Jo'burg and Beitbridge. We also had to buy Botswana road tax at the border at Kazengula, which cost just BPu 5 (UKP 0.68), but they only take BPu's, so you'll need to change some before crossing. To cross the border between SA and Zim you will need a letter of consent and a copy of the registration document from the company - write to them and ask them to arrange this before you arrive to save time at the airport.
The quality of tar roads in Zim was generally excellent - wide and well-surfaced. Potholes only became apparent on the outskirts of major towns, especially Mutare and Bulawayo, but these can be deep and vicious. On the other hand, the few dirt roads I drove varied from poor to atrocious. The last 7 km to the Aberfoyle Country Club was very rough, as was the track down to Wamba Dam, while the track up the hill to the Gleneagles Reserve was beyond belief, and barely passable by 2WD! The access track to Seldomseen was also pretty rough, and very steep at the end, making it tricky in wet weather. Finally, the gravel roads in Hwange, although pretty good, were badly affected by the very wet weather, and I found myself unable to get very far as a result of flooded and muddy sections.
Driving in the dark is definitely not recommended - we only did it twice, the first time coming across several vehicles driving very slowly with no lights at all, and the second time almost colliding with a herd of elephants - both reducing me to a gibbering wreck! The fuel shortages didn't affect us at all until we approached Harare, and then we couldn't find any at all! Luckily we kept the tank full all the time, and carried a full jerrycan in the boot - while we never needed to use this, it made us feel a lot happier.
Finally, we also had to contend with the effects of Cyclone Eline. Somehow we managed to escape unscathed, and although there were plenty of stories of roads being closed (including the Beitbridge border crossing, the only direct crossing between Zim and SA), and bridges washed away, we had no real problems at all, apart from the effect on dirt roads, and one tricky couple of hours in the Vumba Mountains driving around lots of fallen trees, and even over one!
The local currencies and approximate exchange rates against sterling (UKP) at the time of my visit were as follows:
These are the exchange rates I have used in translating costs throughout this report.
Credit cards were pretty widely accepted in hotels, restaurants, shops etc, but other places including National Park accommodation required cash. Some petrol stations advertised that they took credit cards, but these were mostly around Harare, where they didn't have any petrol to sell, so we never had the chance to try this out.
As well as Z$, USD and UKP were pretty widely accepted throughout Zimbabwe, even by government agencies e.g. Hwange Main Camp, Victoria Falls National Park etc. In Botswana, however, payment was always required in Pula.
We took our money in a mix of USD (cash & travellers' cheques), UKP and ZAR. Take small denominations if you can. We changed money into Z$ at the Beitbridge border crossing, and then periodically at hotels. Changing Z$ into Pulas in Vic Falls before crossing into Botswana proved tricky as Pulas seemed to be in short supply. You couldn't walk five yards in the town without being approached by young men offering to change money, but stories of scams abound, and it's probably illegal as well. Always ask for a receipt when you change money, and keep them safe - you may need to show them if you try to change any Z$ back on departure.
Petrol prices averaged Z$ 22 (UKP 0.36) per litre in Zimbabwe, ZAR 2.96 (UKP 0.30) in SA and BPu 1.75 (UKP 0.24) in Botswana.
The total cost of the trip is estimated at UKP 1,970 for 2 people (UKP 985 each):
I used several professional bird guides during my trip, all of whom were excellent, and made a big difference to my enjoyment of the trip. Details are as follows:
I have absolutely no hesitation in recommending all the above most strongly. There is no doubt that I would have seen far fewer birds without these guys, and they contributed enormously to my enjoyment of the trip.
Accommodation was generally excellent, although it did vary. The roughest place was the chalet at Main Camp, Hwange, but at just Z$200 (UKP 3.33) per night between us, we could hardly complain! Take a mosquito net with you - not all places had them, and some of the ones that were provided had lots of holes in them.
We booked Seldomseen, Aberfoyle Country Club and Possum Lodge (Harare) in advance over the internet. The rest we booked when we arrived - there was plenty of accommodation available, and we had no trouble finding places to stay. As expected, there was a noticeable lack of budget accommodation in the main tourist areas, although I guess that camping is always an option. The next cheapest place to Main Camp that we found at Hwange was the Hwange Safari Lodge at USD 200 (UKP 129) per night! The Sprayview Hotel where we stayed in Vic Falls, classed as a budget hotel, was also the cheapest in town (other than camping and youth hostels), at Z$ 2,960 (UKP 49) per night. Mind you, my idea of a budget hotel doesn't usually include doormen, swimming pools and fountains in the foyer!
The quality of food was excellent throughout. Anyone who likes steak will think that they've died and gone to heaven, but there were plenty of alternatives on offer including vegetarian options. I can also recommend the crocodile tails in Sprayview Hotel in Vic Falls!
We stayed at the following places (all accommodation prices are per room):
|19.2.00||Lion&Elephant Motel, Bubye Bridge. Room Z$ 1,043 (UKP 17.38) per night, dinner for two Z$ 542 (UKP 9.03), breakfast Z$ 125 (UKP 2.08) each. Very nice place, although very warm in the evenings, but last time I heard it was completely underwater courtesy of Cyclone Eline. Tel +263 (0)14 336|
|20.2.00||Seldomseen Lodge (Swynnerton Cottage), Vumba Mountains. Room USD 40 (UKP 25.81). Dinner at Eden Lodge, Vumbas Z$ 759 (UKP 12.65). Very peaceful and relaxing, although very rough access road. Biggest problem - no catering on site, and a fair drive to nearest restaurant. Plan better than us and bring your own food (cooking facilities in cottage). Tel +263 (0)4 215115|
|21.2.00||Seldomseen Lodge (Swynnerton Cottage - 4 beds), Vumba Mountains. Room USD 40 (UKP 25.81). Dinner at White Horse Inn, Vumbas Z$ 756 (UKP 12.60)|
|22.2.00||Aberfoyle Country Club, Honde Valley. Room Z$ 1,643 (UKP 27.38) with breakfast. Dinner and lunch - total Z$ 530 (UKP 8.83). Colonial-style luxury, and as much tea as you can drink (club is on a very picturesque tea estate). Tel +263 (0)28 547, e-mail Brian Igoe on email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org|
|23.2.00||Aberfoyle Country Club, Honde Valley. Room Z$ 1,643 (UKP 27.38) including breakfast. Dinner and lunch - total Z$ 550 (UKP 9.17)|
|24.2.00||Possum Lodge Backpackers Hotel, Harare. Private room (i.e. large shed in the garden with mattress on the floor!) USD 14 (UKP 9.03). Pizza delivered to lodge Z$ 300 (UKP 5.00). Good fun place to relax over a couple of beers, and lots of tall stories! Tel +263 (0)4 726851 or e-mail on email@example.com|
|25.2.00||Hilltop Motel, Bulawayo. Room Z$ 1,380 (UKP 23.00), dinner (salad) Z$ 145 (UKP 2.42). Very nice place indeed, 5 km out of Bulawayo, on road towards Beitbridge, and very reasonably priced. Tel/fax +263 (0)9 72493|
|26.2.00||Hwange Main Camp. Chalet Z$ 200 (UKP 3.33) Dinner at nearby restaurant Z$ 588 (UKP 9.80). Very cheap, but pretty basic e.g. no mozzie net. Phoning is apparently a waste of time - just turn up and hope!|
|27.2.00||Sprayview Hotel, Victoria Falls. Room Z$ 2,960 (UKP 49.33). Dinner Z$ 824 (UKP 13.73). Cheapest place in a very expensive town, but extremely nice with good-sized pool. Situated on left hand side of road, as you enter the town from Hwange. Tel +263 (0)13 4344|
|28.2.00||Sprayview Hotel, Victoria Falls. Room Z$ 2,960 (UKP 49.33). Dinner Z$ 714 (UKP 11.90)|
|29.2.00||Chobe Safari Camp, Kasane, Botswana. Room BPu 291 (UKP 39.30), dinner BPu 90 (UKP 12.15). Another area not really trying to attract budget travellers - this was the cheapest place we could find. Again, though, very nice! Tel +267 (0)25 0336|
|01.3.00||Gaborone Travel Inn (also known as Gaborone Motel), Gaborone, Botswana. Room BPu 285 (UKP 38.50), dinner BPu 100 (UKP 13.50). Situated in middle of town, near train station, on road out from Nelson Mandela Drive towards Molepolole. Very comfortable, and pretty good value for notoriously expensive Gaborone Tel +267 (0)3 22777|
|02.3.00||Bloemhof Gasthuis, Bloemhof, SA. Room ZAR 180 (UKP 18.00), dinner ZAR 80 (UKP 8.00). A brilliant find. Tel +27 (0)53 4332249|
|03.3.00||Stayed with local birder Mike Pope and his wife Gill in Midrand, between Jo'burg and Pretoria. Fabulous end to the trip!|
Hardly any. I'd heard some horror stories about the Beitbridge border crossing from SA to Zim, but we had no hassle at all, and made it across in about an hour. Another group of birders we met at the Lion&Elephant that night had been less lucky and had taken about 2.5 hours to cross. Try not to arrive just after a bus!
Report first to SA Immigration and Customs and fill in a custom declaration for the vehicle, for which you'll need a copy of the registration document and a letter of consent if it's a hire car. Also, declare any equipment you have such as cameras, binoculars, telescopes, radios, tape players etc. We were never asked for this again, but you might be, and failure to declare these items could cause you problems when you try to take them back into SA.
Drive over the bridge to the Zim side, keeping to the speed limit (50 kph, I think), or you could land a ZAR 5,000 (UKP 500) fine. Park on the Zim side, and go to the offices on the right. Pay the bridge toll of ZAR 40 (UKP 4.00) and obtain a gate pass. Visit Immigration and Customs to fill in lots more paperwork including, importantly, a Temporary Vehicle Import Permit. Declare all currency being imported into the country, largely to satisfy the authorities that you have enough means to pay your way (and therefore that you will not be trying to find work!).
Finally, buy compulsory Third Party Insurance for ZAR 110 (UKP 11.00) (no Z$ accepted, so no hint of a hard currency scam here!). Get your gate pass stamped by Immigration, Customs and the Insurance seller as you will need to show it to be allowed through the gate into Zim proper. The border post is also a good place to change money.
The other border crossings we did, between Zim and Botswana at Kazengula and between Botswana and SA at Schilpadshek were much easier, taking about 20 minutes each, although the Botswanan border officials were particularly obnoxious. The Zim and SA officials were much better.
Borders apart, hardly any red tape at all. One police road block south of Masvingo who asked to see our Temporary Vehicle Import Permit, and lots of roadblocks in Botswana, mostly to disinfect your car and shoes as a disease control measure, and occasionally to look at your driving licence.
Plenty of public phone boxes, taking either coins or phone cards. However, lots out of order, frequent error messages and often very long queues. In fairness the cyclone was playing havoc with telephone lines, so it may not always be that bad. The international code for Zimbabwe is 263, Botswana is 267 and South Africa is 27. To make an international call from South Africa dial 09 followed by the relevant country code (44 for the UK). For directory enquiries (free) call 1023. In Zim and Botswana, dial 00, then the country code.
February and March is normally the rainy season in Zimbabwe, but this year was something a little different to normal! The usual pattern is for heavy showers in late afternoon but in 2000 February and early March saw cyclone after cyclone sweep westwards from the Indian Ocean across Madagascar and Mozambique into Zimbabwe, Botswana and eastern SA, bringing with them strong winds and incredibly heavy rain.
Under the circumstances, we got off very lightly indeed! It rained occasionally, but only in the on the morning of 22.2.00 was the birding completely washed out. Otherwise, we got away with a few showers, and the birding was hardly affected, apart from occasionally quietening the birds down a bit. Many roads were closed, with several bridges washed away, but we always seemed to be in the right place at the right time.
Beitbridge border crossing was actually closed when we left Jo'burg airport on 19.2.00, but had opened again by the time we got there. A few days later Cyclone Eline struck, several bridges south of the crossing were washed away, and the road south to Jo'burg was still impassable when we left on 4.3.00. The most worrying experience was the night of 21.2.00 lying in our cabin in the forest at Seldomseen listening to trees crashing down all around us!
The weather was pretty warm throughout and got hotter and drier as the second week progressed and we moved further westwards, and the last couple of days were extremely hot.
No vaccinations are compulsory, but I always keep up to date with tetanus, typhoid, polio, hepatitis 'A' and meningitis jabs. Zim, Botswana and parts of Northern SA are a malarial zone - we took weekly Chloroquine (Avloclor) and daily Proguanil (Paludrine) prophylactics. The best preventative is not to get bitten, so we used a Permethrin-treated mozzie net throughout, kept ceiling fans on through the night where supplied (mozzies don't like moving air), wore long trousers and long-sleeved shirts and covered exposed skin with a DEET-based repellent after dark.
There were very few other nuisances. Ticks were abundant in a few places, especially Gosho Park (Marondera) and Haka Park (Harare), both places where game animals occur. Long trousers, with the ends tucked into socks largely kept them out, but frequent de-ticking sessions were needed, and the numbers found at times were staggering. I'm not sure if these ticks carry any diseases such as Tickbite Fever - I think not - but you don't want them on you any longer than necessary.
As for other hazards, I'm sure that Zim has its share of poisonous snakes etc but we didn't see any. There are lots of wild animals in Zim, especially in the west around Hwange and Vic Falls and presumably elsewhere. Lions occur in places - you definitely shouldn't get out of your car in Hwange - and there were signs in our hotel in Vic Falls warning about them wandering into town at night! Leopards also do this, and one recently attacked a local in Vic Falls.
Hippos and crocodiles are a serious hazard near water, e.g. the Zambezi River - don't get between a hippo and water, and be careful if out in a small boat, as they will attack and overturn them. Elephants are also dangerous and shouldn't be approached, and warthogs and buffaloes should also be treated with great respect.
As far as human threats go, I'd read a lot about racial tension in Zim, but we saw nothing of this. I never felt at all threatened, although we didn't spend any time in downtown Harare itself, where the chances of muggings etc are said to be highest. The nearest we got was a little hassle with hustlers and money changers in Vic Falls, but this was no more than a bit of an annoyance. However, things have deteriorated significantly since our visit, with much civil unrest, so check the up to date situation before you go.
|19.2.99||Drive from Jo'burg to Beitbridge and on to Bubye Bridge - roadside birding|
|21.2.99||Inn on the Vumba area, Seldomseen, Vumba Botanical Gardens|
|22.2.99||Seldomseen, drive north through Mutare to Aberfoyle Country Club|
|23.2.99||Aberfoyle Country Club, Wamba Dam, Gleneagles Forest Reserve|
|24.2.99||Drive to Marondera, Gosho Park, drive to Harare|
|25.2.99||Harare area - Mukuvisi Woods, Haka Park, Marlborough Vlei, drive to Bulawayo|
|26.2.99||Aisleby Sewage Farm (Bulawayo), drive to Hwange|
|27.2.99||Hwange, drive to Victoria Falls, sightseeing|
|28.2.99||Imbabala Camp (Kazengula)|
|29.2.99||Victoria Falls, drive to Kasane, Botswana|
|1.3.99||Kasane, drive to Gaborone|
|2.3.99||Drive to Bloemhof, SA, S.A. Lombard Nature Reserve|
|3.3.99||Sandveld Nature Reserve, drive to Potchefstroom, OPM Prozesky Reserve, drive to Midrand|
|4.3.99||Borakalalo, Vaalkopdam, Magaliesburg, drive to Midrand, fly home|
Details given in the Daily Account section. Unfortunately we were unable to spend as much time in some of these places as we'd have liked. Another day at Aberfoyle/Gleneagles, especially in the forest, would probably have provided many more extra species. Cyclone Eline and the worsening fuel crisis persuaded us to move on earlier than we'd have liked. I'd have liked more time around Harare, to try for the more difficult miombo birds like Cinnamon-breasted Tit, Cabanis' Bunting, Violet-backed Sunbird etc.
Our time at Hwange was much shorter than we'd have liked, but we were badly affected by the recent rain here, with the extensive network of dirt roads largely impassable in a 2WD vehicle. We were restricted to the 75 km of tarred road between Main Camp and Shumba picnic site, and we even turned back 10 km before the end of this road as it was flooded.
Similarly, Chobe/Kasane is almost impossible to work properly without 4WD and/or a boat. The former is expensive to hire locally unless part of a group (with more time to shop around before travelling, we might have found a better deal), and the latter seemed in short supply, albeit at very short notice. This area seemed worthy of a separate trip, perhaps in combination with the Okavango, and it would probably pay to hire a 4WD for this area.
There are many other excellent areas which we were unable to visit at all, due to the short duration of the trip. Some of the best of these include:
In the days leading up to our departure from Wales, we weren't sure whether we'd actually be able to follow our planned itinerary around Zimbabwe. The heavy rain was playing havoc with the infrastructure, and the prior weekend the entire Limpopo River Valley was flooded, closing not only the main Beitbridge border crossing, but all the other options via Botswana. Furthermore, the fuel shortages which had plagued Zim for several months were really starting to bite, and there seemed a real risk that we wouldn't be able to get hold of enough fuel to get around. In the end, reassured by regular updates by several SABirdnet correspondents, especially Mike Dyer, we decided to wait until we arrived in SA and decide then.
The trip got off to a bad start. We arrived at London Heathrow for our 15:00 Turkish Airlines flight via Istanbul, to find that the flight was overbooked. However, they arranged for us to fly direct overnight to Jo'burg with SAA instead, at no extra cost, and we arrived in Jo'burg the next morning just half an hour later than we would otherwise have done.
By 11:00 the next morning, leaving the terminal in our hire car, we heard on the radio that Beitbridge was closed again because of flooding! A great start! There was no indication as to how long it might be closed, so we decided to start on the 6 hour drive north, and keep our fingers crossed. When we got there it had indeed reopened, and in fact the water levels were far below the level of the bridge.
We wanted to get to Bubye Bridge before nightfall, and so didn't stop much for birding along the way. In the vicinity of Rita, north of Pietersburg, a falcon on the roadside wires turned out to be an Eastern Red-footed Falcon, my first lifer of the trip, and over the next few kilometres I estimated a total of over 200 of these birds. White Stork, Black-shouldered Kite and Lesser Kestrel provided some variety.
North of Louis Trichardt we passed through Wyllie's Poort, a pass through the Soutpansberg mountains, and stated encountering a few exotics along the roadside - Southern Yellow-billed Hornbill, Eastern Paradise Whydah, Fork-tailed Drongo, Lilac-breasted Roller and European Roller. We arrived in Messina to fill up with petrol and check on the state of the border crossing, and picked up a roadside White-crowned Shrike on the northern outskirts of town.
Having crossed the border we pressed on to Bubye Bridge, arriving at the Lion&Elephant Motel about 15 minutes after dark. By this time I had come to realise how bad were the car's headlights, and made a mental note not to drive at night again if I could help it!
We checked into our rondavel and went down to the restaurant for the first of a series of excellent steaks, where we met up with a group of SA birders led by Zim birder Derek Solomon and Wakkerstroom expert John McAllister, who were doing a trip to the SE lowveld of Zimbabwe. We had a very pleasant chat and exchanged notes, before turning in for the night
Any thoughts of a lie-in to get over the exertions of the previous 48 hours never stood much of a chance in the face of all those possible lifers, so dawn saw me outside trying to identify silhouettes! First birds were Broad-billed Roller and Long-tailed Starlings near the restaurant area. Wandering back towards our rondavel along the river I picked up some more birds, including Black-backed Puffback, Black-headed Oriole, Woodland Kingfisher and Paradise Flycatcher.
Turning away from the river I found some Scarlet-chested Sunbirds in a hedgerow, then a Grey Lourie flying into the top of a large bare-branched tree. The SA group had set up station surveying the tree, so I went over to join them, and by staying put here for the next hour picked up Southern Black Flycatcher, Southern Black Tit, Diederik and Jacobin Cuckoos, Red-winged Starling, Cardinal Woodpecker, Blue Waxbills and Garden Warbler.
Eventually the South Africans decided it was time for breakfast, and so we bid farewell. I stayed there for another half an hour or so, adding Black Cuckooshrike, Steel-blue Widowfinch and Lesser Masked Weaver. By this time I reckoned that Sara would have had time to get up and have some breakfast, so we packed up and checked out. Sadly, a week later we heard that Cyclone Eline had struck the area and that the Lion&Elephant was completely underwater. Hopefully, they will by now have recovered and are back in business - it was a great place to stay. As for the South Africans, I heard later from John McAllister that they had beat the lowveld a hasty retreat when the storms arrived and finished up their trip around Harare, and had a great trip nonetheless.
Going north from Bubye Bridge on the A4 towards Masvingo, we stopped after 43 km, just before Mwenezi, for Southern Carmine Bee-eaters on roadside wires. A petrol stop at Rutenga produced Red-billed Buffalo Weavers and White-browed Sparrow-weavers.
Near Tokwe River, 35 km south of Masvingo, we found Red-breasted Swallows and Eastern Paradise Whydah on the roadside fenceline. From Masvingo we took the A9 east towards Birchenough Bridge, where the road swung north to Mutare. 16 km east of Masvingo a lone raptor turned into a whole kettle of White-backed Vultures. 40 km further on, near Glenclova, a Yellow-backed Widow was perched on the telegraph wires.
Just before Birchenough Bridge we crossed the Devure river - I believe that it was this bridge that was completely washed away by floodwaters a few days later. In any case, a bridge disappeared somewhere along this road, making the Masvingo to Mutare direct route impassable. Hopefully, it has now been repaired, but you may wish to check before you travel.
A Hamerkop flew over the road near Birchenough Bridge, and another Lilac-breasted Roller was also seen here. From here we quickly pressed on, arriving in Mutare in mid afternoon. Our next destination was the Seldomseen Field Study Centre in the Vumba Mountains, right on the border with Mozambique. When you get to Mutare, turn right, and follow the signs for the Vumbas. Travel through an industrial area and pass a large pulp and paper factory on your right.
Keep going for about 15 or 20 km, staying on the main road the whole time, until you see a turning to the right signposted for the Burma Valley Road. Keep straight on here, unlike us - we turned right, and drove for about half an hour in the wrong direction! The road is a loop tarred road which goes around anti-clockwise, passing very near the border with Moz., before eventually rejoining the main Vumba road a little further on. If you have time, driving slowly and stopping along this road may produce good birds - we saw Green Woodhoopoes at this junction, and Crowned Hornbills and Hamerkop around the banana plantations at the eastern end of the loop, before we finally realised we'd gone wrong and turned back!
The road continues to wind slowly uphill, passing a road on the left, again signposted Burma Valley Road. Keep going, passing a dirt road on the right called Tom Holley Road. (This road connects the Vumba road with the southern part of the Burma Valley Road). Don't take THR, but continue a little further, and at the 25 km peg, take a dirt road downhill to the left called Nyamheni Road. The main road continues uphill eventually reaching a dead end at the Vumba Botanical Gardens.
Nyamheni Road starts off pretty well, but gets worse as you go along. It starts off straight, then curves around to the right at the first junction. A little further along you will need to turn left down a narrow, rough and very steep track to Seldomseen (look out for the sign). I really didn't enjoy this last little stretch in a 2WD saloon, and several times managed to ground it on the hump at the end of the track (designed to prevent erosion of the track by runoff). Going back up was even worse - it was so steep, and muddy after rain, that a certain amount of speed was necessary to climb it, which made it extremely difficult to prevent the car banging the exhaust on the piled up dirt.
By the time we got to Seldomseen, it was drizzling, and there was only about an hour and a half of daylight left. Nevertheless, I set out for a walk in the forest in high spirits, only to quickly realise just how tough the birding is in this thick dark woodland, especially with virtually no knowledge of the local calls and songs! After an hour of this, Seldomseen seemed a very appropriate name, as I hadn't managed to identify a single bird other than the Yellow-bellied Sunbirds which were constantly buzzing around the gardens.
Back at the reception Paul Heath, the manager, confirmed arrangements for me to hire the resident birding guide, Peter Mnadziwana, for the following day - I was going to need him! On the way back down, I did manage to find an East African Swee - an excellent find, and my only sighting of this species.
Woke up to miserable weather - light drizzle and thick fog. Met up with Peter who assured me that weather patterns in the Vumbas are very localised, and he was sure it wouldn't be so bad on the other side of the mountain.
Incidentally, while I am a big fan of using local guides as I believe that you generally see a lot more in their company, as well as getting "the local angle" on things, never have I felt a guide to be as essential as at Seldomseen. This is seriously thick forest, and if you don't know the bird songs, or have eyes as amazing as Peter's, you will probably see a fraction of the birds you will see with him. At just Z$280 for 1.5 days birding, there is absolutely no excuse for not encouraging eco-tourism of this kind.
We left Seldomseen up the daunting access road, turned down the valley, then left along Tom Holley Road. It was still very foggy, although we managed to find Grassbird, Singing Cisticola and Red-collared Widow. On reaching the Burma Valley Road we turned right and soon rejoined the main Vumba Road. Continuing downhill towards Mutare, we eventually took a right on a good dirt road signposted Inn on the Vumba. After a couple of hundred metres, you will reach a T-junction. Turn left, park on your right in the inn car park, and carry on walking up the road away from the inn, scanning the trackside vegetation as you go.
There was indeed no fog here, and we had an excellent few hours birding, although Peter saw a lot more than I did, such as Little Spotted Woodpecker, Whyte's Barbet and Grey Waxbill. I eventually managed good views of Yellow-fronted Tinker Barbet, Northern Grey Tit, Chinspot Batis, African Black and Miombo Double-collared Sunbird, Blue Waxbills, Bronze Mannikins, White-necked Raven, Yellow-eyed, Streaky-headed and Black-eared Canary.
We walked back to the car, turned right back down towards the main road, crossed and continued down the track on the opposite side of the road. It was, however, much windier in this more open area, and we only saw Grey-backed Camaroptera and Fiscal Shrike. Returning to the car, an Augur Buzzard was overhead, and we found a stunning Black-collared Barbet in a tree near the car.
We headed back up the Vumba Road towards Seldomseen, detouring down the tar road to the left signposted White Horse Inn. We continued past the inn for a few kilometres looking out for Silvery-cheeked Hornbills but with no luck, although Peter heard them calling in the distance. We did, however see a pair of Black-eared Canaries, and a Black Widowfinch was on a roadside wire just as we got back to Seldomseen.
Back at Seldomseen, after Peter's tea-break, we walked down the access track to the bottom, where Peter quickly found Olive Bushshrike, Forest Weaver and Cape Batis.
At the very bottom of the hill, just before the last cabin, we took a narrow path right into the forest, stopping a short way in at a nest for Red-faced Crimsonwing. Unfortunately, no adult birds were in evidence, so we pressed in to the forest. The vegetation here is extremely thick, and birds were invariably heard before they were seen, if they were seen at all!
Livingstone's Louries had been very vocal all morning, and at last one showed itself reasonably well clambering around in a small tree. Peter pointed out the song of a Roberts' Prinia, one of my two main target birds, singing from a thick patch of undergrowth, but it showed no interest whatsoever in showing itself. Shortly afterwards a Chirinda Apalis, the other main target bird, called some distance away, as well as a Starred Robin, but again no sighting - this was becoming extremely frustrating!
Some bird movement was finally seen in the canopy overhead, and eventually we had decent views of White-tailed Flycatcher, Yellow-throated Warbler and Yellow-streaked Bulbul, and a few Olive Sunbirds were also seen. The path eventually looped back to join the access road just by our cabin, where we had a brief glimpse of an immature Starred Robin.
I found this forest birding very frustrating, although there were a few factors which could be blamed for this, apart from my own incompetence! The timing, late morning, was not perfect, and the weather was still poor - very overcast and drizzling slightly, so that most birds even when seen were just silhouettes. However, this is far from unusual weather at Seldomseen - the Vumba Mountains translate as Mountains of the Mist, so this is to be expected.
After lunch, it was back in the car, up the track to the Vumba road, and left (uphill) to the Vumba Botanical Gardens. By this time I was getting a bit worried. I had been in the area for a whole day, without even a sniff of seeing any of my target species, and time was running out before Cyclone Eline was due to arrive from Mozambique. At the time I was unaware of the devastation which was being wrought on Mozambique, which put my petty birding worries firmly into context.
The Botanical Gardens is a magnificent place, and we were, incredibly, virtually the only visitors. We left the car in the main parking area and headed downhill towards the ornamental lake, with the tea shop directly in front on the other side of the lake. We skirted around the left hand side of the lake, along one of a network of small trails.
Again, birdsong was everywhere, with identified species including Heuglin's Robin, Livingstone's Lourie, Olive Sunbird, Tambourine Dove, Orange Thrush, Collared Sunbird and another Roberts' Prinia, but again nothing wanted to show in the continuing light drizzle. Then, Peter froze, gestured to me to keep quiet, and I heard faint bird song coming from the undergrowth alongside the path. Peter crouched, and pointed, and there it was - a Swynnerton's Robin hopping along the ground in the gloom of the understory, with its mate a little further back. Brief views, but good enough for me!
Movement in the canopy overhead proved to be a pair of White-tailed Flycatchers, showing much better than the Seldomseen individual this morning, even fanning their tails to show the white tips to the tail feathers. A Yellow-throated Warbler also put on a much better show than this morning at Seldomseen, probably due to the more open vegetation and better lighting.
Further along was a small glade on the left hand side, surrounded by high trees climbing up the hillside - a real goldmine! A Square-tailed Drongo was my first lifer here, quickly followed by a Golden-tailed Woodpecker. Then, I spotted a small bird with a long tail in the top of one of the trees ahead of us - a Chirinda Apalis! This gave great views before flying off, only to return a little while later.
I was just celebrating with a Yellow-streaked Bulbul when Peter started pointing excitedly at the same tree which had held the apalis - incredibly, a Roberts' Prinia was working its way through the lower branches! Both target birds in the same tree within five minutes of each other! This one took a lot more work, however, before I was finally able to get satisfactory views - most prinias are very active birds, but this one was something else, and never stayed still for more than a second at a time.
This little spot wasn't quite finished yet, though - as we were leaving to climb the grassy hill in front of us, we picked up Black-fronted Bushshrike and Forest Weaver in the same patch of trees up on the hillside. We were now up on the ridge behind the lake, with the tea shop downhill on our right hand side. We walked along the tar road to the right, skirting a lightly wooded grassy area with a feeding Tambourine Dove on our left.
On reaching a junction in the paths, we turned right back towards the tea shop, finding Golden-rumped Tinker Barbet, Speckled Mousebird and Pin-tailed Whydah. Finally, we managed to get a view of the Heuglin's Robin heard singing earlier.
Back to Seldomseen we decided to go for an early evening meal. The wind had really picked up by now, and driving back down the Vumba Road in the fog I was concerned to find a large tree down half way across the road. It was just about possible to pass it on the other side of the road, so I made a mental note to look out for it in the dark on the way home.
By the time we finished our meal, the rain was hammering down. The fog was so thick that we could hardly see the front of the car, and mindful of the fallen tree we drove very slowly back up the Vumba Road towards Seldomseen. My worries were increased by encountering several other smaller trees down part way over the road, which I hardly saw until they were right in front of me.
Another driver, not quite so patient, overtook me and headed off up the hill. When he was about 100 metres ahead of me and his lights hardly visible, his brake lights come on, then his hazard lights. When I got there, I could see the problem - a poplar-like tree down and right across both lanes of the road! There was only one thing for it, and that was to take to the grassy verge, already very muddy from other vehicles taking a detour, and sloping worryingly away from the road. Even then, it still involved driving over the topmost branches of the tree, with much skidding and wheel-spinning, and when I eventually managed to get onto the other side, I was at a 90 degree angle to the road itself, and made it back on to the tar by the skin of my teeth!
Arriving back at Seldomseen, I found out that the real storm hadn't yet arrived, but was scheduled to hit at about 2 a.m. My immediate reaction was to pack up everything into the car and head for Mutare, but in the end we decided to stay put for the night. In retrospect we should probably have gone. A tree had brought down the power and telephone lines, and we had a real job finding the cabin in the dark, having stupidly left the torch behind, and we had a very unpleasant night's sleep listening to trees and branches crashing down in the forest all around us wondering whether the next one would fall on the cabin or car.
Up early the next morning for a last walk around Seldomseen with Peter, but it was almost a complete washout in the pouring rain. We walked into the forest on the left hand side of the track as you go downhill, behind our cabin, and got brief views of another Chirinda Apalis. We heard Grey-hooded Kingfisher and flushed a Black Duck from the woods, which gives an idea of how wet it was! The main target bird was Buff-streaked Flufftail, which Peter tried to call out, but which didn't want to co-operate, maybe because of the rain.
We quickly gave it up as a bad job, changed and had a cold shower (electricity still out), then jumped in the car to drive to our next destination. We got all of 40 metres, before coming across a tree down across the access road. There were a team of 3 men cutting it up and carrying it away, and we soon realised that while fallen trees may be a fact of life in the Vumbas, they don't stay a problem for long! There was nothing to do but wait it out.
After half an hour, the road was clear, I turned the ignition key and ... nothing! I never did find out what was wrong, but this was the first of many times that this particular problem cropped up to annoy us during the trip. So, there we were - in a broken-down car, facing uphill blocking a very steep and muddy access track, in a place with no phones! Great!!
Not for the last time I was saved by the local Zimbabweans - the 3 tree-removers came over, pushed me up a steep hill into the main parking area outside the reception area, where, thankfully, I managed to bump start the car. Then, it was up the access road, skidding and wheel-spinning like crazy as I desperately tried to stop the car from stalling, and finally I was clear and on the Vumba Road. Our progress to Mutare was halted twice more by fallen trees, but they were quickly cleared and we eventually got to Mutare, 25 km from Seldomseen, 2.5 hours after starting our journey!
What to do next? Cyclone Eline was still battering the area - Mutare was hit badly a few hours after we left, with lots of damage to roads and buildings and, tragically, several people killed. The next destination was the remote Honde Valley, north east of Mutare on the Moz border, where there seemed a real chance of more trouble, and on top of this, we now had an unreliable car to worry about!
Perhaps rather foolishly, we decided to risk it and stick to our original plan, and headed northwards towards our destination of the Aberfoyle Country Club. Head north from Mutare on the main A3 road towards Harare. After climbing Christmas Pass, you will pass a turning to the right to Penhalonga, before taking the next right towards Nyanga. After about 65 km, and after passing the village of Mutasa, turn right on a good tar road signposted for Honde Valley. Just before this turning a large all dark swallow flew across the road in front of the car, which I'm convinced was a Blue Swallow, which breed in this area. Unfortunately, by the time I got out of the car it had disappeared, and despite much searching no other birds were seen.
From here, stay on the main tar road for about 70 km passing the spectacular Mtarazi Falls, Hauna settlement and Ruda Airstrip, over the Pungwe River following signs for the Aberfoyle Estate. Eventually you will reach the end of the tar road at the entrance to the Aberfoyle Tea Estate, where you will drive the last bone-jarring 7 km on a rough dirt road to the country club. When you arrive at the club, you will see that it was worth every minute of the journey - the setting is spectacular, nestling in a bowl at the end of the valley, surrounded on three sides by high mountains, and with tea bushes stretching away in every direction as far as the eye can see.
The club itself is sheer colonial-style luxury, complete with a swimming pool, tennis court, golf course, snooker room etc, and absolutely fabulous rooms with their own private lounge and bathroom. The only real problem we experienced were the frequent power cuts, which also meant no telephone communications. By a total freak of local geography, while virtually the whole of the rest of the country, including Nyanga and Mutare were being severely battered by the winds and rain, we had a very pleasant day and a half at Aberfoyle, with sunshine and only a little light drizzle at times!
While we had lunch and watched Lesser Striped Swallows feeding over the pool, the manager Mike Wicksteed, went to find Abasi Jana, the local bird guide, to accompany me for the afternoon. We quickly saw Delegorgue's Pigeons, African Golden Oriole and Crowned Hornbill near the club. We walked back along the access track from the club, and downhill to the river where we found Long-tailed and African Pied Wagtails
We walked a little way up the road on the other side, before cutting down into the woods on the right and crossing the river. This is a good area for Half-collared Kingfisher, but we had no luck. Birding was quiet in the late afternoon - Abasi spotted a Starred Robin, but I couldn't get onto it, while Stripe-cheeked Bulbuls called in the woods but stayed hidden. We walked slowly back from the river to the club through some allotments, again finding African Pied Wagtails but little else.
We again headed slowly up the access road in the failing light, and the birding started warming up. In quick succession we found White-eared Barbets, Golden-tailed Woodpecker, Burchell's Coucal, Blue-grey Flycatcher and Red-backed Mannikin. Finally, a Brown-hooded Kingfisher was seen perched on a telegraph wire near the swimming pool. A quick game of snooker was followed by dinner in the club and some lovely cold beers, before bed.
Up early to meet Abasi, with White-rumped Swift overhead and a perched White-eared Barbet. We decided to start the day at a site called Wamba Dam, and headed off back down the road to Hauna. On leaving the club a Red-throated Twinspot flew across the road, sadly the only one seen on the trip, and a Long-crested Eagle was also seen.
To find Wamba Dam drive down the estate dirt access road for 7 km towards Hauna. As you exit the estate and get back onto the tar there is a large pulp factory on your left. Immediately after it a dirt track leads off left downhill at an angle to the road. Follow the main track, passing a turn to the right, and another to the left, at which the road swings right over a small river. 1.8 km from the factory is another junction uphill to the left, with a lake in front of you, and a wet area of reeds on your right. Park here, leaving room for other vehicles to pass.
We walked down to the lake, and around to the left. A little further on, the road swings left again following a small valley. A Giant Kingfisher called in the distance, a European Hobby flew over, and then we found this area's speciality - 3 Marsh Tchagras in the reeds below us.
Thick-billed and Spectacled Weavers were seen here, and a Red-chested Flufftail called several times but wouldn't show. Where the valley narrowed further up, we found several mannikins including at least one Red-backed Mannikin, Yellow-rumped Widow, African Stonechat, Red-collared Widows and Yellow-eyed Canary.
Working our way back down the valley produced Golden Weaver, Common Waxbills, Bronze and Red-backed Mannikins, Pin-tailed Whydah and a flock of Arrow-marked Babblers. Reaching the lake we found Tawny-flanked Prinia Speckled Mousebirds, Little Bee-eater, Tropical Boubou, Black Crake and African Jacana.
We got back to the car to go back for lunch, and then a cuckoo flew into a tree in front of us. We went to investigate, and it flew back out into another tree, although it seemed to come from a slightly different part of the first tree. It landed in the open and was identified as an African Cuckoo, and we duly turned our attentions back to the first tree to find that the original bird was indeed still in place, and was in fact a Red-chested Cuckoo. Skulking badly at first it eventually flew into a small bush where it showed well.
A cracking Fire-crowned Bishop was buzzing over the marsh in front of us, and a Jacobin Cuckoo flew into the same little group of trees between the road and the reeds, making it a hat-trick of cuckoos in the same tree! Lunch was put on hold while bird activity reached a bit of a peak with Blue-spotted Dove, Yellow-bellied Sunbird and Black Cuckooshrike all in the same area, and a Broad-tailed Warbler called from the reeds, but sadly wouldn't show.
Finally giving in to hunger we got back into the car, which luckily was parked on a hill as it again refused to start! A Three-streaked Tchagra flew into some tea bushes just as we arrived back at the pulp factory - tchagras appear very fond of these bushes - and a European Bee-eater was also seen. Over lunch we enjoyed Palm Swifts overhead, and Yellow-bellied Sunbirds in the garden. A Little Sparrowhawk was on a telegraph wire near the tennis courts.
Our next destination was the Gleneagles Forest Reserve, on the mountain seen from the club veranda. If the tracks to Seldomseen and Aberfoyle were rough, they were brilliant compared with the track up to Gleneagles - undoubtedly the worst road I have ever driven, and made worse by the fact that it was very steep in places, and that I was in a car which I knew would not start again if I stalled it! It was passable with great care in a normal saloon car, but it took over half an hour to drive the 3.2 km from club to reserve entrance.
Leave the club, and turn right down the hill to the river (0.5 km), where the usual African Pied and Long-tailed Wagtails duly obliged. The road then climbs uphill for a further 1.5 km to a small village, passing a few turnoffs. Exactly 2.3 km from the club, a heavily overgrown track went off to the left, and I assumed that this was where we would leave the car, as it seemed far too rough to drive. Wrong again! Although it seemed terrible, and I had no way of knowing if I was about to hit a hidden rock, it wasn't too bad. A stop along the way, with breathtaking views of the valley below, produced a mixed flock of Mottled Swifts and House Martins.
I was extremely relieved when 0.9 km later (3.2 km from the club) we arrived at the entrance to the reserve. I was even more relieved to find that there was room to turn the car and I could park facing downhill! We headed into the reserve, and immediately Abasi picked out a Crowned Eagle soaring overhead - a speciality of the reserve. The original plan was to walk all the way through the reserve to emerge on montane grasslands on the other side which are very reliable for Blue Swallow. However, Mike Wicksteed had very kindly arranged for one of the estate's mechanics to have a look at the car, and the Blue Swallow site was a couple of hours' walk each way, so we soon realised that we didn't have time to make the full trip. We therefore decided to take our time and explore the forest instead.
Several Square-tailed Drongos were calling in the woods, and we soon started encountering bulbuls. However, for me at least, seeing and hearing them were completely different matters. Abasi quickly called in a Yellow-bellied Bulbul, but try as I might I just couldn't see it. Abasi's frustration turned into hysterics at this idiot Welshman's inability to spot a bird he could easily pick out with his naked eye, and then suddenly there it was right in front of me.
The process was repeated shortly after with a Stripe-cheeked Bulbul, which took me slightly less time, and a Forest Weaver was also seen. Then we came across a flurry of bird activity around the path ahead of us - a group of Terrestrial Bulbuls flitting over the road, a Chirinda Apalis calling but not seen, and a Red-faced Crimsonwing glimpsed briefly as it flew across the path. Grey Cuckooshrike and Scaly-throated Honeyguide were both seen high in a tree over the path, although viewing was poor in bad light caused by the overcast conditions.
We turned right off the main access track and followed a smaller track up into the woods. A couple more Stripe-cheeked Bulbuls were seen, and another party of Terrestrial Bulbuls, before Abasi found a pair of Yellow-breasted Apalis flitting about in the top of a small tree. By this time it was late afternoon and bird activity had quietened down considerably, so we headed back to the car. This was a great site, and if I went again I'd spend a whole day here, starting early, despite the appalling access road. Driving back down the grass-covered track we flushed several Blue-billed Firefinches from the thick vegetation, but they wouldn't settle and were only seen in flight.
On arriving back at the club Mike's engineer looked at the car and guess what - yup, it started first time for the only time in 2 days!! Despite looking for about half an hour no fault was apparent, and indeed it behaved perfectly for the rest of the day and most of the following day - typical!
We went back down to Wamba Dam in the late afternoon to see if we could lure out a Red-chested Flufftails. However, progress there was slow because of several distractions. First of these were Little and African Black Swifts, then Abasi heard a Natal Robin in the roadside scrub, and we had a repeat of the bulbul experience with Abasi seeing it easily and me failing to see it at all, except when it would fly across the road. At long last I managed to pick it out on a bare branch deep inside a tree - a beautiful bird.
A little further along, the road reaches a crest with a junction to the right, and here we started seeing falcons flying past - European Hobbies, at least 50 of them, all moving north. An Ayres' Eagle flew right over our heads.
We got to Wamba, parked the car where we had parked that morning, and descended the slope to the flat grassy area below, where we started trying to attract a flufftail. Sadly, none wanted to show, although several were proclaiming their territories in the marsh. Abasi saw a Grey Waxbill, which disappeared before he could point it out to me. Just then, however, Abasi spotted possibly the bird of the trip - a Nyasa Seedcracker low in a nearby bush. He walked quietly around the back of the bush, and sure enough two of these birds appeared at the front of the bush right in front of me, some 5 metres away - stunning birds. They stayed in the same area for the next half an hour and could be seen with the naked eye clambering around in the long grass and small bushes.
Elated, and with nightfall approaching, we headed back for the club, hoping for a look at one of the Scarce Swifts which often hawk over the club at dusk. Back on the estate a Blue-billed Firefinch was flushed from the side of the road and this time gave good views. Back at the club one of the resident Palmnut Vultures was seen in a tree on the other side of the golf course. A Scarce Swift was finally picked out by Abasi above the club, and a Broad-billed Roller was a nice end.
The club had been without electricity most of the day courtesy of a problem further down the valley and had still not returned by dusk, so we enjoyed a candlelit dinner and a few beers before retiring ready for an early start the next day.
Today we had arranged to meet a local birder, John Jones, in Marondera, some four hours to the west. We left Aberfoyle at 6 a.m. travelling up the Honde Valley. Birding stops were brief and few, but produced Blue-billed Firefinches, Long-crested Eagle and Brown-hooded Kingfishers as we were leaving the reserve. A Long-tailed Wagtail was on rocks in the Pungwe River. Other birds en route included Blue-spotted Doves, Common Waxbills, Red-collared Widows, African Stonechats and Eastern Saw-wings
Otherwise we drove non-stop westwards, meeting John Jones at Malwatte village some 7 km east of Marondera. Up to now fuel had been no problem, but from Marondera westwards things were quite a different matter. This was pretty worrying news as we had a long way still to travel, although we had thankfully filled up in Rusape and still had the full jerrycan in the boot.
Leaving Sara and the car at Malwatte we headed off eastwards to nearby Gosho Park in John's 4WD and were very glad we had done so, as the tracks inside the park were very rough and rocky in places, and I think we'd have struggled in our saloon. Gosho Park is a very nice area consisting mostly of miombo woodland, with rocky areas and a few dams (small lakes). It is an especially reliable spot for the enigmatic Boulder Chat, another bird high on my want list.
I'm not sure if the park is open to casual visitors - we came across a locked gate for which John had a key, so you may need a permit to visit - ask local birders. There is game in the park, including giraffe, and as a result we encountered phenomenal numbers of ticks - take precautions.
The rest of the day was spent driving slowly around the park, stopping and walking where we saw bird activity. The first bird party we encountered contained Mouse-coloured Flycatchers, Yellow-eyed Canary, Yellow-fronted Tinker Barbet, Striped Pipit, and Golden-breasted Bunting, although I didn't see the latter. African Cuckoos were common, and we soon found one of the park's specialities - Collared Flycatcher.
A bare rocky area gave views out to a rocky pinnacle some distance away, with Rock Pigeons, Rock Martins and Little Swifts circling. Another bird party produced new birds - Wood Pipit, Chinspot Batis, Black-backed Puffback, Black-eared Canary and Stierling's Barred Warbler. John kept seeing White-breasted Cuckooshrikes which kept eluding me (familiar story!), but did get to see Whyte's Barbet, Black and Miombo Doublecollared Sunbird.
We arrived at a stream area with a row of high rocks and boulders on the other side. This is the prime spot for Boulder Chat, and as soon as John whistled an imitation of their call, a pair of these great birds appeared in a crevice under a large boulder and started bouncing around on a nearby rock, soon joined by a third bird. A Mocking Chat was in the same area, as well as Yellow White-eyes and Groundscraper Thrush.
Next stop was an area of open water - Reed Cormorant, Little Grebe, a pair of Black Ducks, Greenspotted Dove and Little Banded Goshawk. Arriving at an area of wet grass and reeds we had an excellent surprise in the form of a Pied Mannikin, a very rare bird in this part of the world. We returned back to the camp site area in the middle of the park, and soon found Mashona Hyliota, Black Flycatcher, White Helmetshrikes, Eastern Red-footed Falcon and Red-winged Starling. John also saw Brubru and Bar-throated Apalis.
By this time it was 3.30 p.m. and time to move on. John took us back to Malwatte, and we drove the last hour west to Harare. On arriving we came across the first of many fuel queues, several many hundred metres long. We had reserved a room at the Possum Lodge in Harare, which we found quite easily in the northern suburbs, in the same area occupied by several embassies.
We checked in and found, to Sara's delight (?!) that our "private room" was in fact a large garden shed with a mattress on the floor! Nice to feel like a student again. We showered, moved to the bar for some cold beers and ordered delivery pizza, before phoning local bird guide Anthony Cizek to make arrangements for the morning and crashing out in front of the TV with the other tourists - very laid back and good fun.
Anthony Cizek met me at the hotel at 6 a.m. and very generously offered to take his vehicle despite the crippling fuel crisis. First stop was to Mukuvisi Woods in Harare, for some of the miombo birds missed yesterday at Gosho Park. This was an excellent site, especially for somewhere so near the centre of town.
Almost immediately we found our first bird party - lots of Black Flycatchers and Fork-tailed Drongos plus Red-headed Weavers, Chinspot Batis and Black-backed Puffback. Red-chested and Klaas's Cuckoos and Bearded Woodpecker were seen, and several birds which I'd missed at Gosho Park finally showed - Kurrichane Thrush, Green-capped Eremomela and Brubru. A Stierling's Barred Warbler was heard calling.
Black-crowned Tchagras were common, and groups of White Helmetshrikes and Scimitar-billed Woodhoopoes were encountered on several occasions. Anthony was very excited at finding a Northern Grey Tit here, the first he had heard of at this site.
Moving further into the park we found Cardinal Woodpecker, and then Anthony spotted the main prize here, a cracking Spotted Creeper making its way up a nearby tree trunk. Down by some rocks by the river we found a female Red-billed Firefinch and Bronze Mannikin, but little else.
Heading back away from the river, we flushed a Rufous-cheeked Nightjar , and as we stopped for a quick cup of coffee from Anthony's flask, we came across another target bird - a group of Southern Lesser Blue-eared Starlings. These birds, a miombo special, are very tricky to identify, although we were helped by the presence of a nice juvenile with distinctive reddish-brown underparts.
We arrived at another part of the river, where a narrow bridge crossed in an area with a lot of flowers and streamside vegetation. Despite the incessant light drizzle which was worse away from the shelter of the trees we found Little Bee-eater, Yellow-rumped Widow, Southern Masked Weaver, Streaky-headed Canary and Yellow-eyed Canary. We then headed back for the car, pausing on the way for a second Spotted Creeper and an African Yellow-throated Sparrow.
The next spot to visit was another area of mostly miombo woodland, also within the Harare city limits called Haka Park. Unfortunately, I don't have directions on how to get there, but it wasn't very far from Mukuvisi, and I am sure you could get directions from locals.
Haka Park was a real gem of a place - excellent miombo woodland and an extensive vlei area with a different set of birds. There is game in the park, and ticks, completely absent at Mukuvisi, were present in large numbers. We started off in the miombo area which, although it looked the same as Mukuvisi to my untrained eye, produced a quite different set of birds. Some, like Fork-tailed Drongo, Eastern Black-headed Oriole, Kurrichane Thrush, Green-capped Eremomela, Stierling's Barred Warbler, Southern Black Flycatcher, Chinspot Batis, White Helmetshrike, Black-backed Puffback, Black-crowned Tchagra and Red-headed Weaver were seen at both sites, but Northern Grey Tits, so rare at Mukuvisi, were very common here, and we got superb views. No Red-chested or Klaas' Cuckoos were seen here, but instead we saw a nice Diederik Cuckoo.
White-breasted Cuckooshrikes, so elusive yesterday at Gosho Park, were initially just as difficult here but were eventually seen well, and after that were seen regularly. A stunning Grey-headed Bushshrike also played hard to get at first but soon gave brilliant views, quickly followed by a juvenile Greater Honeyguide and some Red-billed Woodhoopoes. A small party of Grey Penduline Tits was seen, but only poorly; a Croaking Cisticola was seen rather better.
We had one more target bird in this area, the notoriously difficult Miombo Rock Thrush. Unlike others of its genus, this bird is usually found perched at the top of brachystegia trees. It sits without moving for long periods of time, making it difficult to spot, and I'll never know how Anthony eventually managed to pick one out at the top of a nearby tree - a stunning male in full breeding plumage.
We continued to a vlei area in the middle of the park,. A Rufous-naped Lark was signing from the top of a fence post, and a group of Wattled Plovers flew away. A large roost of Eastern Red-footed Falcons were swirling around some trees on the hill on the far side of the vlei. Crossing the small stream via a causeway, we sacrificed our dry feet and waded into the marshy area, being rewarded with Yellow-throated Longclaw, Cuckoo Finch, Southern Red Bishop, Yellow-rumped and Yellow-backed Widow.
We headed back to the car, removing ticks en route, and off to Marlborough Vlei for some real wetland birding. Abdim's Storks were seen in the middle of Harare en route. Water levels were very high in the vlei, and I was very glad that I had brought my wellington boots with me.
The first task we faced on arrival was sorting out the strange widowfinch which was perched on the fence surrounding a small electricity substation. The combination of white bill and red legs did not really fit any logical combination - Black Widowfinch shares this combination of bare part coloration but is strictly restricted to the Eastern Highlands. We eventually concluded that it had to be a Steel-blue Widowfinch, which can show variation in bill colour. Several Black-throated Canaries were also seen here.
Heading off into the vlei we soon encountered Pink-throated Longclaws. Grey-rumped Swallows were mixed in with House Martins and Greater Striped Swallows, and we flushed first a couple of Black-headed Herons then two Marsh Owls. Several detours and backtracks were needed as the water became too deep for our boots, but the birds kept coming. The next special bird was a Black Coucal which flew across in front of us and perched up, chestnut wings contrasting beautifully with its all black body.
Swinging around to the left the terrain dried out a little and the birds changed with it. The Longclaws here were all Yellow-throated, while Cisticolas included Croaking, Fan-tailed and Pale-crowned. Other good birds here included Orange-breasted Waxbills, Cuckoo Finches, Southern Red Bishops, Yellow-backed and Red-collared Widows, Rufous-naped Lark and Bronze Mannikin.
On the way back to the car we had overflying Reed Cormorant, Purple Heron, Eastern Red-footed Falcon and Black-shouldered Kite. Just as we got back to the car we flushed a pair of Swainson's Francolins which flew a short distance and dropped down. We got back to the hotel at 1 p.m., where I said goodbye to Anthony, collected Sara, and we headed off on the long drive to Bulawayo.
We still hadn't found any petrol in Harare, and with over half a tank full we decided to press on southwards in the hope that the situation would be better there. About 30 km from Harare we found a garage with a very small queue of cars, which amazingly had petrol to sell, and we managed to fill up. They must have just had a delivery because it was to be the only garage on the 440 km drive to Bulawayo which had any to sell, without a huge queue outside.
We soon realised that we would not reach Bulawayo before dark. We considered staying the night at one of the towns along the way, but Chegutu, Kadoma, Kwekwe and Gweru came and went without inspiring us at all. Half way between Gweru and Bulawayo night fell, and the last hour's drive in the dark with our car's appalling headlights was absolutely horrific. Potholes weren't seen until it was too late, animals wandered along the sides of the road, and twice we came across vehicles driving very slowly along without any lights at all - amazing! To make it worse, we were constantly overtaken by buses and lorries hurtling along at 80 mph and more. The only break in the stress was a Barn Owl flying over the road as we approached Bulawayo,
Eventually, to our relief we arrived at Bulawayo (very hard potholes on the outskirts), and even better we found a garage selling petrol, who even agreed to fill us up rather than just restricting us to the usual 20 litres. We booked in at the Hilltop Motel, 5 km along the road towards Beitbridge, phoned local birder Kit Hustler to make arrangements for the next morning, and went to bed.
Kit met me at the hotel at 7.30 a.m., and we drove to nearby Aisleby Sewage Farm for a few hours. Leave Bulawayo towards Vic Falls, then a little way out, at the Falls Road Service Station, turn right onto Stirling Road, and after about 2 km turn left into the sewage farm, signing in at the security gate.
This site quickly produced some new species for the trip. We saw Blacksmith and Wattled Plovers, Marsh, Wood and Common Sandpipers in the grass and small roadside pools either side of the access road, together with Cattle Egrets and Sacred Ibises. Other good birds included Marico Sunbird, Jacobin Cuckoo, Red-billed Firefinch, Long-billed Crombec, Kurrichane Thrush, Tawny-flanked Prinia, Lesser Striped Swallow and White-crowned Sparrow-weavers.
A little further along, we took a junction to the left, and across a small river. Greenshank and Common Moorhen were seen here, as well as Crested Barbet, Long-tailed Shrike and Marico Flycatcher. We found our way to a very muddy wide track leading off to the left, which skirted a wet rushy area, with an area of open water behind - we parked and walked.
Two Pink-backed Pelicans were perched in a tree on the far side of the pool, and Palm and Little Swifts flew overhead. Plenty of birds were seen in the tall vegetation alongside the path - Rattling Cisticola, African Sedge Warbler, European Marsh Warblers, White-bellied Sunbird and Orange-bellied Waxbills. A flock of ducks flying over consisted of both Fulvous and Whitefaced Duck.
Further along, both European Reed and Great Reed Warblers were singing, but weren't as obliging as their earlier relatives. A Diederik Cuckoo was seen here. After a few hundred metres, a smaller track lead off to the left, to a bird tower overlooking the open water. Around the junction of the two tracks there were loads of European Sedge Warblers, and a special treat in an African Yellow Warbler, well west of its usual range.
The reed-fringed area of open water was very productive, with Hottentot and Red-billed Teal, Southern Pochard, Fulvous and White-faced Duck, Purple Gallinule, Lesser Moorhen, Red-knobbed Coot, Squacco Heron, White-breasted Cormorant and Cape Reed Warbler. Walking back to the car, we found a Thrush Nightingale, which gave great views as it crept through the hedgerow. I've missed this bird repeatedly in Europe, so it was great to finally catch up with it in a Zimbabwean sewage farm!
Back at the car we returned back over the small river to the T-junction, and turned left. Birds here included Sacred Ibises, Cattle Egrets, Glossy Ibis, Black-headed Heron, White Storks and Montagu's Harrier. At the far end of the road we found Namaqua Dove, Bully Canary and Arrow-marked Babbler, and a Swainson's Francolin walked up the road towards us until it finally lost its nerve about 20 metres away. Driving back along the road to the entrance we found more new birds - White Helmetshrikes, Paradise Flycatcher, Red-faced Mousebird and Black Flycatcher, Ruff and Little Stint, and a Great Reed Warbler finally showed itself.
Returning to the motel at about 10.30, I said goodbye to Kit, collected Sara, and we headed off to Hwange. We didn't stop often, but saw Black-shouldered Kite (after 20 km), European Roller (61 km), Cut-throat Finch and Miombo Double-collared Sunbird (Insuza - 85 km) and several Helmeted Guineafowl. A brief rest stop at Gwayri River, just short of Hwange, produced Long-tailed Starling and a group of Willow Warblers.
Arriving at Hwange Main Camp at 2 pm, we tried to book a cabin for the night, only to be told that they were all full, and that we should return at 4.30 pm to see if there were any cancellations. This was a real pain, as it effectively limited how far into the park we could get before having to turn around. Another nasty shock was the entrance fee of Z$ 820 (UKP 13.70) for a 7 day pass. A couple of Grey Louries were around the reception area, a Bateleur flew overhead, and we saw the first of what were to prove to be abundant Whitebrowed Sparrow-weavers.
We drove a short way into the park along the tar road, finding some of the commoner species - Blacksmith Plover, Lilac-breasted Roller, Southern Yellow-billed Hornbills, Red-backed Shrikes, White-crowned Shrikes, Cape Glossy Starlings and Red-billed Francolin, as well as one Greater Blue-eared Glossy Starling.
An area of open water held only a Red-billed Teal, but a little further I saw Golden-breasted Bunting, Rufous-naped Lark, Crested Francolin (much less confiding than the Red-billed and Swainson's Francolin), and Long-tailed Shrike.
Returning to the booking office at 4.30 pm, we were not at all surprised to find that there had indeed been a "cancellation", although we were rather surprised to arrive at the cabins to find that we were virtually the only residents. We never did find out what happened to all the other unfortunate people who had reserved accommodation but couldn't get there in time!! This incident seems to be fairly typical of the inefficiency and bureaucracy which is dogging the Zimbabwean National Park Service.
An early start and out into the park, looking for birds and mammals. We got off to a nice start with a Blackbacked Jackal crossing the road. Red-billed Francolin, Green-spotted Dove, Rufous-naped Lark, Grey Lourie and Red-breasted Swallow were seen early on, before we found a Dwarf Bittern perched in a small dead tree adjacent to a flooded area. Other new birds for this site included White-faced Duck, Swainson's Francolin and Blue-cheeked Bee-eaters.
We had planned to drive westwards along the tar road to Shumba picnic site, and then take the dirt road to Sinamatella Camp, taking side trips along the way along the various dirt tracks, especially those leading to waterholes. However, on trying to visit the first of these, Nyamandhlovu Pan, we realised that the condition of the dirt roads had been badly affected by the recent heavy rain, and that passage wouldn't be so easy. Indeed, we were unable to reach this pan as the road was flooded and the approach churned into mud. Extreme close-up views of a Reticulated Giraffe made the detour worthwhile.
Back on the tar we found more birds - the Goldenbreasted Bunting in the same place as last night, Knobbilled Duck, Lilacbreasted Roller, Rattling Cisticola, Crimsonbreasted Shrike, Grey Hornbills, Eastern Redfooted Falcon, Scalyfeathered Finch, Carmine Bee-eaters and Arrowmarked Babbler, and we had Burchell's Zebras and Masai Giraffe right along the side of the road.
We tried another side trip, to Guvalala Pan, and this time just about made it through a very deep and muddy puddle,. The pan was disappointing. We flushed one bird, possibly a Corncrake, but didn't see it well enough. There were a few birds around, with Spur-winged Goose, Southern Pochard, Kittlitz's Plover, Yellow-eyed Canary and Groundscraper Thrushes new for the site. There were a few Burchell's Zebras on the far side of the pan, and Sara saw an Elephant emerge briefly from the woods at other side of the water.
Back on the tar, a wetland area on the right produced a Lesser Moorhen, but the rain had now started to come down very heavily. It got worse the further west we went, until even the tar road was frequently underwater. Flooded potholes became a menace and eventually, 10 km from Shumba picnic site, with the rain still falling heavily, we turned around. Even if we had made it all the way to Shumba, we didn't fancy trying to drive the subsequent dirt road in the circumstances.
As we headed back east, the rain eased and stopped in about the same area it had started - a localised storm over the westward half of the park? We immediately found two good lifers - Purple Roller and Bradfield's Hornbill - a Bateleur was seen overhead, then a Shaft-tailed Whydah on the roadside fence. Red-billed Woodhoopoe flew by, then a flock of Southern Pied Babblers about 30 metres back from the road.
Black and Marico Flycatchers, a female Melba Finch and a small flock of European Bee-eaters were seen further along. We reached the east side access road to Guvalala Pan, and decided to try the pan again, but this side wasn't passable in a 2WD saloon. It didn't matter as we found a flock of 5 Southern Ground Hornbills in the roadside grass.
I had promised Sara some non-birding time in Victoria Falls, so sadly it was time to make our way out of the park. As we neared the entrance gate I found a scruffy juvenile Saddle-billed Stork stalking through the wet grass, then Sara found a fabulous Southern Crowned Crane just 20 metres from the road. Reaching the entrance gate, and driving back towards the main Bulawayo - Vic Falls road, we stopped for another flock of Southern Ground Hornbills and a couple of roadside Wildebeest.
We drove quickly down to Vic Falls, stopping once for a couple of Long-tailed Starlings, and booked into the Sprayview Motel at Vic Falls. We paid a quick visit on local birder Chris Pollard to make arrangements for the following day and then drove down to the falls. I was looking forward enormously to these, and I was certainly not disappointed - they are really awesome, and well worth the USD 10 (UKP 6) entry fee. Having decided not to bother with waterproofs (big mistake) we were absolutely drenched by the time we had finally seen enough, and squelched our way back to the car.
Just before the entry gate, a pair of Trumpeter Hornbills flew into a nearby tree. Thoroughly satisfied, we returned to the Sprayview, and crashed out for the night.
I picked Chris up from his house at 5.30 am, and we set off for Imbabala Safari Camp at Kazengula, 70 km west of Vic Falls, on the border with Botswana. Imbabala is a luxury private camp on the Zambezi River catering for more up-market travellers than me, and they don't normally allow casual visitors. However, Chris has been associated with them for many years and can make arrangements for a visit if guided by him. It was a fabulous place, and I'd certainly try and stretch my budget to include at least one night's stay if I visited again.
On arrival we found Black-crowned Tchagra and Black-collared Barbets. We checked in, and picked up the camp's resident Landcruiser for a trip down to the river. This is the way to go birding - sitting comfortably with the wind and sun on your face, waiting for the birds to come to you! And come they did - Red-billed and Swainson's Francolin, Paradise Flycatcher, African Golden Oriole, Red-billed Hornbill, and Red-backed Shrike. At at the river we found Spur-winged Goose, Squacco Heron, Blacksmith Plover, Common Sandpiper, African Jacanas and White-shouldered Widow. Lesser Gallinules kept lifting out and dropping back into the reeds, although it took a little while longer to get a good view.
Rounding the next lot of bushes we encountered a very lethargic Hooded Vulture on the ground, which very reluctantly took to the air and flew into a nearby tree, while larger White-backed Vultures soared overhead. Coppery-tailed Coucals were seen flying around the long grass, with Little Bee-eaters in the foreground. A little further along we came across a herd of nervy Impala (lions around?) and Waterbuck, one sporting a Red-billed Oxpecker. Stopping to scan the wet area ahead of us from a viewing platform, we found a small mixed flock of White-crowned and Long-toed Plovers, while an African Mourning Dove called from the branches above us.
Back in the Landcruiser, we crossed a ditch containing a Hamerkop and a few Spotted Dikkops, while a couple of Pygmy Geese flew along the river, and a dense flock of Red-billed Queleas lifted from a nearby bush. Then, success - Slaty Egret - one of my main target birds for this area and a bird endemic to the Okavango and nearby wetlands. Other birds here included Black-crowned Night Heron, Pied Kingfisher, Reed Cormorant, African Grey and Bradfield's Hornbill.
Chris then heard a Hartlaub's Babbler, and we soon found a flock of these in nearby bushes. A Red-faced Mousebird was seen and both Diederik Cuckoo and Thrush Nightingale heard here. We headed back to the camp, finding Steel-blue Widowfinch, Blue-cheeked Bee-eater, White Helmetshrike, Red-billed and Scimitar-billed Woodhoopoe, Black Cuckooshrike, Jacobin Cuckoo and Violet-backed Starlings en route.
Back at the camp Lesser Honeyguide and Orange-breasted Bushshrike were heard calling but wouldn't show. We next headed off in the Landcruiser to the Border Road area. Drive right down to the border crossing with Botswana, and then turn left just before it on a reasonably good track that follows the border all the way down through Hwange National Park and beyond, and can be followed quite easily in a 4WD. Be careful - there are no posts to mark the border with Botswana, which starts just a few feet beyond the road, and the border guards can get a bit twitchy.
At the border crossing area we found European and Lilac-breasted Roller, Eastern Paradise Whydah, Masked and Spot-backed Weavers. Down the track, we saw a flock of Southern Ground Hornbills. Woodland and Greyheaded Kingfisher and Green-spotted Doves were seen here, and a Harlequin Quail flushed from the grass in the middle of the track, and flew into the longer grass a few dozen metres away. An eagle in a tree was originally thought to be a Wahlberg's Eagle, but then flew showing itself to be a Tawny Eagle.
Yellow-eyed and Black-throated Canaries were feeding in the grass, and a Greybacked Camaroptera was flitting around in a trackside bush. Turning around to head back, we started seeing raptors everywhere - Little Banded Goshawk, then European Hobby, hunting the huge flocks of feeding Red-billed Queleas. This was follows by an African Hobby and a Brown Snake Eagle.
As we got back to the main road, we found a Bateleur overhead, and Rattling Cisticola and Grey Lourie nearby. We decided to try the other part of the Border Road, between the main road and the river. The start of this road was completely overgrown, so we had to take a bushwhacking detour before finally finding the track. This northern side was much wetter than the southern side, with frequent muddy patches and much standing water alongside the path. This area was previously cultivated as rice paddies, but these have now been abandoned and are overgrown.
We soon found Long-tailed Shrike, Scaly-feathered Finch, White-fronted Bee-eaters, Intermediate Egret and Wood Sandpiper. Arriving at the river, we had the unique experience of being able to see 4 African countries simultaneously - standing in Zimbabwe, with Botswana on the other side of the ditch, and Zambia and Namibia on the other side of the Zambezi. A Wire-tailed Swallow was here, and the Bateleur had been joined by a Black-chested Snake Eagle and a Black Stork.
Other birds seen here included Tropical Boubou, Cardinal Woodpecker, Greater Honeyguide, Red-breasted Swallow, Black-backed Puffback and Olive-tree Warbler. Incidentally, while there are birds here which look like Swamp Boubou, they are believed to be hybrids with Tropical Boubou and usually show just a little of a pinkish wash to the underparts - you have to go west to the Kasane area in Botswana for pure Swamp Boubous.
We returned back to the Landcruiser and we headed back cross-country to the camp for lunch, finding Little Egret en route. On arrival we tried in vain to find the Wood Owl which often frequents the large tree in front of the camp, but it appeared that the windy conditions had forced it to seek shelter elsewhere. During lunch, a large Warthog wandered over out of the bush and stood patiently waiting for scraps.
After lunch we borrowed the camp's boat - a motorised canopied pontoon complete with garden chairs - and set out for an afternoon's birding on the Zambezi river, accompanied by the pair of Wire-tailed Swallows which nest under the boat, and follow it around all over the river. We firstly headed over to the large island in the middle of the river. The Zambian-Zimbabwean border runs through the middle of this island, and there are often hippos etc present, so we proceeded with caution and stuck to the Zim shore area.
As we were berthing the boat we saw a Malachite Kingfisher, and shortly after landing found Purple-banded Sunbird, Spectacled Weaver and Trumpeter Hornbills. The main target here was Brown Firefinch, but despite extensive tramping around in the heat of the early afternoon, none were forthcoming - they're far from easy here. A Pennant-winged Nightjar was flushed, and a White-browed Coucal flew into some nearby vegetation - I didn't see it well enough to tick it, and it refused to reappear.
An African Marsh Harrier was quartering the area of reeds behind the first main ridge in from the shore, and several Red-shouldered Widows were flying about in the same area. Technically this area is in Zambia so my Zambian list currently stands at 2 species! Nearer to us, in Zimbabwean territory, were Golden Weaver, Fiscal Shrike and Brubru, and we flushed a Mozambique Nightjar.
The sky was now darkening eastwards - rain was on the way. We gave up on Brown Firefinch, and went to try to see some of the warbler specialities, before the rain arrived and drove them into cover. The first target was Greater Swamp Warbler, which is restricted to papyrus beds - we motored over to a known territory and were soon rewarded with good views of one bird. Other birds seen here included Purple Heron, Egyptian Geese, Great White Egret, Sacred Ibis, Fulvous Duck, and Knob-billed Duck, while Black Crake and Cape Reed Warbler called.
Drifting slowly down the Zambezi, several Hippos were swimming in the river just a short distance away, one poor individual with a sunburned head, and then one of the highlights of the day as a herd of half a dozen Elephants wandered down to the nearby shore to drink - the perfect African moment!
We next tried an area for Chirping Cisticola, but by now the rain had arrived, and no birds were showing. With dusk fast approaching we called it a day, heading back to the lodge, seeing Rufous-bellied and Black Herons en route, and Brown-hooded Kingfishers, Spotted Flycatcher and Yellow-bellied Bulbul back at the lodge.
Having settled up and said our goodbyes we headed back for Vic Falls, stopping a few miles out of Kazengula as another, much larger herd of Elephants took their time crossing the road, feeding on the roadside grass - magnificent! As night was falling we made a quick stop at a spot where Chris had seen Violet-eared Waxbill previously, and while we didn't find any we did see a White-browed Robin.
By now it was totally dark, but the excitement wasn't quite over. Driving along with minimum visibility due to the car's appalling headlights, we suddenly found ourselves surrounded by Elephants on both side of the road, and one female trumpeted angrily at us as we sped past. Luckily, none had actually been in the road, as we would otherwise have certainly collided with them. However, we still weren't finished as just a few kilometres short of Vic Falls we picked out a pair of eyes in the middle of the road - as we got closer we could see that it was a young Leopard, which gave absolutely crippling views at close range, before slinking off into the bush.
Last night Chris had given me a few tips for birds in the Vic Falls area, so dawn today saw me down by the Big Tree just outside town looking for Collared Palm Thrushes. Drive down from town towards the falls, then turn left just before the entrance gate on a loop road called Zambezi Drive. The road more or less parallels the river, then swings sharply left where there are a group of palm trees on the right hand side. A little further along, the road again bends left at the Big Tree itself - a giant baobab tree.
The palms are a reliable spot for the Collared Palm Thrushes, and I had superb views of one just after arriving. Other good birds included Crested Francolin, Sacred Ibis, Blue Waxbill, Palm Swift, Little Sparrowhawk, Striped Cuckoo, Yellow-bellied Bulbul, Green-spotted Dove, Eastern Paradise Whydah and Spot-backed Weaver. At the end of Zambezi Drive, where it reaches a junction with Park Way at the end of the loop, I found a pair of Red-winged Starlings.
The next stakeout for Schalow's Lourie was much more bizarre. Go into the Vic Falls National Park itself, paying the USD 10 entrance fee, and take the right hand path from the entrance gate, passing a toilet block on the right hand side. Continue along this path through the rain forest, ignoring a left hand fork, until the path enters a more open grassy area. You will pass a bench carved from a log on your left, and then the path swings left towards the river in front of a much more open area, where there is a second bench again on the left.
I was told to carefully watch the trees and open area in front of me, which the louries would fly across before disappearing into the forest for the rest of the day, where they're almost impossible to see. However I was told that timing was critical, and that I should get here by 10.15 am, and watch carefully between 10.30 am and 11 am (10 am - 10.30 am in the austral winter), when these birds always made their appearance.
At exactly 10.34 am a Schalow's Lourie flew across into the tree directly in front of me, and a few seconds later emerged from the other side and flew past me into the forest behind, red wings contrasting beautifully with green body - quite unbelievable!
It was now time to leave Zimbabwe for Botswana so it was back to the car, and along the road we had followed the previous day to Kazengula. It was midday and very hot, so birding stops were few and far between, although we did stop for a soaring Martial Eagle along the way.
Having completed the border formalities at Kazengula, we drove down to Kasane, a short way inside Botswana on the Zambezi River, and checked into a rondavel at the Chobe Safari Lodge. A quick walk along the river produced very close views of Pygmy Goose and some Blue Waxbills and Whitefronted Bee-eaters, then we headed back east to the very upmarket Mowana Safari Hotel. Richard Randall, proprietor of Into Africa Mowana safaris and top local birder, is based here, and I was hoping to get some local gen from him. Richard was extremely helpful and did his best to assist, making a few suggestions but more importantly giving me free rein to wander the Mowana's bird-filled grounds.
So, five minutes later we found ourselves down by the pool, drink in hand, scanning a very nice weedy patch down by the river. This was a great spot, quickly producing Swamp Boubou, Jameson's Firefinch, Heuglin's Robin and Bronze Mannikin, and extreme close-up views of Collared Palm Thrush and Brown Firefinch. I left Sara by the pool and took a walk along the riverside nature trail to the hide, finding Cut-throat Finch, Yellow-bellied Bulbul, Darter, Reed Cormorant, Spot-backed Weaver, Green-backed Heron, Paradise Flycatcher and Collared Sunbird.
We decided to spend the rest of the day relaxing, and so returned to the Chobe Safari Lodge for the rest of the afternoon, which was livened up by a Warthog wandering around the hotel grounds.
I'd planned to spend the rest of the day around Kasane, and where better to start than the Mowana Hotel. On arrival in the car park I found Violet-backed Starling, African Pied Wagtail, Southern Grey-headed Sparrow and a Tropical Boubou (contrasting nicely with the Swamp Boubou seen yesterday), Collared Palm Thrushes (on the hotel roof), Fork-tailed Drongo, Green-backed Heron, Mourning Dove and Grey-backed Camaroptera.
My plans to spend the day in the Chobe Game Park weren't getting very far. Access without 4WD is restricted to one tar road along the river, with the park itself requiring 4WD, and hiring one of these as a lone individual wasn't cost effective. The other option was to hire a boat and bird the river, looking for Winding and Chirping Cisticola, White-browed Coucal etc. However, the Chobe Safari Lodge had only one boat for hire, and that was already booked for the next five hours. We made a snap decision, and decided to cut and run southwards to Nata, or maybe all the way to Gaborone.
The road southward from Kasane was generally excellent and fast, although with some potholes. Birding from the moving car produced Saddle-billed Stork (after 55 km), Bateleur (84 km) and Eastern Paradise Whydah, Cape Glossy Starling, European Bee-eater and Lilac-breasted Roller (119 km). Flood damage became more evident as we approached Nata, and water levels were obviously very high. I called in at Nata Lodge, south of the town on the road to Francistown to enquire about the possibility of hiring a 4WD to visit the nearby salt pans, but they had clearly suffered very recent heavy flood damage, with mud and puddles everywhere, and told me that access to the pans was not possible at present due to high water levels.
So, we pressed on to Gaborone, a very long day's driving (965 km), but it took us a long way nearer Johannesburg, and into a different area with possibilities for new birds. We arrived in Gaborone shortly after nightfall and booked into the Gaborone Travel Inn. I decided to target the very localised Short-clawed Lark for the next day, as there was a prime site for it near Gaborone called Mogobane Dam.
The next morning after a leisurely breakfast we were off to Mogobane. Drive south from Gaborone towards Lobatse, then just before the village of Otse, turn right exactly 42.5 km south of your start point of Molepolole Road in Gaborone. Pass the Police College on your left after 1.3 km, at which point the tar road turns to dirt. There were Marico Flycatcher, Black Kite and Cape Glossy Starlings here. After 5 km, the road bends sharp left, and then turn right at the junction by the dairy. 0.3 km further take the left fork and the road then crosses a causeway and on to the dam. The Short-clawed Larks can be found in the grassy areas west of the dam.
Unfortunately, we only got as far as the causeway before hitting trouble. The floodwaters had really roared through here and had torn up the causeway very badly, and I was unable to cross. In trying I grounded the car badly on a rock, having to reverse off it. I stopped and looked under the car, to have my worst fears realised - there was water dripping from under the engine. Now not only did I have a car that wouldn't start, but it now looked like the water pump was damaged! I decided to get across the border to South Africa, and get the car looked at there.
So, it was off to the nearest border crossing at Schilpadshek near Lobatse, and on to the nearest big town, Lichtenburg, where we found a garage to get the car fixed. To my huge relief we found that there was nothing wrong with the water pump - the water I had seen was condensation dripping off the air conditioning system. We were back in the game again! So, where to go next?
I had identified an alternative site for Short-clawed Larks, near the town of Bloemhof, on the border between North West Province and the Free State, so that's where we headed on the R505, having firstly seen our first Cape Sparrows of the trip in Lichtenburg.
Outside the town of Strydpoort, we made a roadside stop where there were some birds flitting around, and found White-winged and Long-tailed Widows, Greater Striped Swallow and Southern Ant-eating Chat. Further south, near Kingswood a little north of Bloemhof a Greater Kestrel was perched on a telegraph post.
We booked into the wonderful little Bloemhof Gasthuis, where I left Sara by the pool and headed off to the local SA Lombard Nature Reserve. This is accessed by leaving Bloemhof on the R34 towards Schweizer-Reneke. After 12.2 km turn left on a dirt road, and after a further 6.7 km you will see the reserve entrance on the left. The grass was very long so late into the summer, and the birds were very difficult to see. However, with a little patience, some birds did come out onto the dirt road, and by driving up slowly and scanning the road, I managed to identify Southern Ant-eating Chat, Grassveld Pipit, Spike-heeled, Red-capped and Rufous-naped Larks, as well as lots of Cape Sparrows, and a kettle of White-backed Vultures overhead.
Leaving the reserve, and driving back along the dirt road scanning the grassy fields on the north side of the road, I found several Blacksmith and Crowned Plovers, Swainson's Francolin and Scaly-feathered Finch.
My destination today was the Sandveld Nature Reserve just over the border in the Orange Free State so, after pausing to watch a couple of Groundscraper Thrushes feeding outside the guesthouse, I headed east on the E29 towards Wolmaransstad, then south on the R700 towards Hoopstad and Bloemfontein. The road shortly crosses the Vaal River, where a brief stop produced Goliath Heron, Eastern Red-footed Falcon, Southern Red Bishop, Masked Weaver, White-faced Duck, White-breasted Cormorant, Grey Heron and Great White Egret.
Just after the end of the bridge, you will see the reserve entrance on the right. Talk the good though rather corrugated road straight ahead to the entrance, ignoring for now the game loop road which branches off to the left. Pay the R15 (UKP 1.50) entrance fee, and spend some time exploring the lawns and scrub between the entrance gate and the lake.
This was a nice spot, with a subtly different mix of birds from those seen further north. Here were Cape Sparrows, Cape Wagtails, Cape White-eyes, Chestnut-vented Titbabblers, Yellow-eyed Canary and Fiscal Shrike. On the lake shore were Grey-headed Gull, Little Egret, Blacksmith Plover and Reed Cormorant.
I also found both Red-faced and White-backed Mousebirds, Jacobin Cuckoo, Groundscraper Thrush, Scaly-feathered Finch and Willow Warbler here. The direct track down from the entrance booth to the lake was bordered by a drier scrubbier area, which produced Black-chested Prinias, Spotted and Fiscal Flycatcher and Icterine Warbler.
Wandering back behind the toilet block, I almost ignored the bulbul in the nearby tree, until I realised that it was a Red-eyed Bulbul, and not the Black-eyed Bulbul I'd been seeing throughout the rest of the trip. Greater Striped Swallows and Masked Weaver was also seen here.
Back in the car, it was time to try the Game Loop, to try to find a Short-clawed Lark. A Rufous-naped Lark momentarily got my hopes up but both song and jizz were unmistakable. The bird life along this trail was completely different to that back at the camp site, with the habitat much drier. A roadside tree held one of those massive colonial Sociable Weaver nests so characteristic of northern Bushmanland, although sadly no Pygmy Falcon. Half a dozen Ostrich ran across the road, and African Hoopoe and Swainson's Francolin were also seen.
By this time I had reached the far end of the Game Drive, and followed the loop around back towards the entrance, when I saw a lark singing from the top of a bush. I stopped the car, got the scope out, and after 20 minutes of grilling the bird, satisfied myself that it was indeed a Short-clawed Lark. I was now running late, and it was time to head back out of the reserve, seeing several Southern Ant-eating Chats along the way. On the road between the entrance booth and the main road I found a Sabota Lark and a White-backed Sparrow-weaver.
Having collected Sara and checked out of the guesthouse, we started on our last long drive of the trip, up to Midrand near Jo'burg to stay the night with local birder Mike Pope and his wife Gill. Along the way, we stopped off in Potchefstroom to check out the OPM Prozesky Sanctuary. On entering the town from the west, turn right on Mooi River Drive towards Skandinawia Drift, which has the sanctuary firstly on your left and then on both sides of the road. After 3.7 km, turn right into Viljoen Street, then left after 250 m into the sanctuary.
This was another area badly affected by the recent floods, with a lot of mud and standing water, as evidenced by the Glossy Ibis feeding on the lawn. There was a trail through the sanctuary but it looked very wet even at the start, and it had started to rain again, so I returned in the car to Mooi River Drive, and drove slowly along the verge scanning the open water and areas of reeds and sedge. Birds here included Golden and Southern Red Bishops, Reed and White-bellied Cormorants, Yellow-billed Duck, Levaillant's Cisticola and White-winged Widow.
Driving back through Potchefstroom, I saw Groundscraper Thrushes, African Pied Starlings and Indian Mynas before it was time to continue the long trip up to Midrand, and to Mike and Gill's house, where we were greeted with another African Hoopoe. Mike and Gill were great company and brilliant hosts, and we enjoyed a superb meal of marinated steak, washed down with several beers and some excellent wine, before collapsing tiredly in bed.
Mike had very kindly offered to take me birding today to one of his favourite sites, Borakalalo, a couple of hours north of Jo'burg, while Gill took Sara out shopping and sightseeing. We set out pre-dawn in Mike's 4WD towards Brits and onwards to Borakalalo through a fierce electric storm with torrential rainfall, which made following the dirt road tricky at times. Even in the dark we recorded a few new birds - Spotted Eagle Owl and Spotted Dikkop flushed from the road and Hadeda Ibis calling.
Unfortunately, my stomach had started objecting to the malaria prophylactics over the last day or two and decided to put its foot down today, so I was feeling pretty rough for most of the day, especially on what was easily the hottest day of the trip. Nevertheless, the steady procession of birds kept my mind off it, starting with my first lifer, Natal Francolin, almost as soon as we arrived. We started down by the river, again showing evidence of massive flood damage, in the hope of seeing African Finfoot, which is very regular here, but found just Common Sandpiper and Pied Kingfisher.
The approach today was to drive the dirt road through the reserve, stopping regularly to see what was about. In this way, the list grew steadily during the morning - Long-tailed Shrike, Bearded Woodpecker, Red-backed Shrike, Grey Lourie, Chestnut-vented Titbabbler, Rattling Cisticola, Spotted Flycatcher, Woodland Kingfisher, Green-spotted Dove and Greater Honeyguide were all seen, and Red-chested Cuckoo heard calling song. Mike spotted a pair of magnificent Fish Eagles in some trees on the other side of the river.
More birds followed - Grey Hornbill, Tawny-flanked Prinia, Arrow-marked Babbler, Swainson's Francolin, Crested Barbet, Cape White-eye and White-browed Robin. We arrived at an area of standing water, where the local bird club had erected a couple of hides. Sitting in the cool of the hides we found White-faced Duck, Masked Weaver, Spur-winged Goose, Red-breasted Swallow, Pin-tailed Whydah, European Bee-eater, Green-backed and Grey Heron.
Back on the trail we found two lifers for me in quick succession - African Rock Bunting and Meyer's Parrot. While enjoying these birds we also saw Red-billed and Southern Yellow-billed Hornbill, Scimitar-billed and Red-billed Woodhoopoes and Black Flycatcher, and a Brubru called. Further along we added Hamerkop, Red-billed Oxpecker, Pied Babbler, Little Egret, Egyptian Goose and Mouse-coloured Flycatcher.
By this time we had arrived at the shore of the lake, and a triangular area of trees around a junction. Mike said that this was a reliable spot for Burnt-necked Eremomela, which duly appeared and showed well together with some Blue Waxbills and Yellow-throated Sparrow. We parked up under a tree at a toilet block with a sandwich and a quick beer while enjoying crippling views of a Yellow-fronted Tinker Barbet visiting its nest hole above the car's bonnet.
Wandering the lawns around the toilet block added Familiar Chat, Striped Kingfisher, Groundscraper Thrush and Lilac-breasted Roller, and back in the car we soon added Shaft-tailed Whydah to the list. We drove down a track which broadly paralleled the lake shore, finding Wattled and Blacksmith Plover, Darter, Crimson-breasted Shrike, Red-eyed Dove, Great White Egret, Paradise Flycatcher and Yellow-billed Duck, before swinging back inland.
Back in drier scrub we added Namaqua Dove, Chinspot Batis, Black-headed Oriole, Rufous-naped Lark and Burchell's Starling. Another wetland area was visited and scanned from the hide, producing Golden Bishop, Little Grebe and Lesser Moorhen.
Mike had mentioned several times during the day that the park was good for White Rhinos and was surprised that we hadn't seen any. Well all of a sudden, there they were - half a dozen monsters sleeping in the shade of some trees no more than 40 or 50 metres away - magnificent beasts! Having finally had my fill of watching these rare animals, we continued, hearing Red-crested Korhaan calling, and then seeing it fleetingly running behind some trees. We left the truck and circled around behind the bushes, to see the korhaan lift off and fly away behind some more bushes.
It was time to leave the park, but even on the way out we added African Hoopoe, Sabota Lark, Striped Cuckoo, Crowned Plover and Red-billed Buffalo Weaver to our list. Although time was running out we decided to try to visit Vaalkopdam near Assen, west of Borakalalo. Near Assen we saw Purple Roller and Lesser Grey Shrike, and between there and Vaalkopdam a stop by a small pool down below the road on the right hand side produced White-fronted Bee-eater, Brown-throated Martin, White-rumped Swift and Lesser Striped Swallow. Unfortunately, Vaalkopdam was another flood victim, and no access was being allowed even in 4WD. White-winged Widow, Steel-blue Widowfinch and Eastern Paradise Whydah were seen around the entrance gate.
With the clock running down, we decided on one last stop at the Cape Griffon colony at Magaliesburg, south of Brits, and a kettle of about a dozen birds were seen over the ridge in overcast conditions. Finally arriving back at Midrand at the same time as another electric storm hit, we managed to find a group of Hadeda Ibis, Greater Striped Swallows and White-rumped Swifts.
The trip was now over, and there was nothing left to do but say our goodbyes to Mike and Gill, pack the car, and head for the airport in the still pouring rain to return our hire car and catch our flights home. This time Turkish Airlines hadn't overbooked us, but they'd got their booking wrong again, so it took about two hours just to check in, and when we eventually boarded the plane for Istanbul we were seated 30 rows apart - oh well, luckily it was a night flight!
Please note: where I have not accurately counted the number of a particular species seen, I have preceded the location with 'n'. Numbers of each species seen are understated in many cases, especially regarding the commoner species - I'm not always as diligent as I should be in keeping numbers of species seen.
The letter 'h' denotes that the bird was heard but not seen.
Abbreviations used: S.F. - Sewage Farm; N.P. - National Park; N.R. - Nature Reserve
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