* New species in CAPS
Friday 8th June 2018
Continuing our love affair with Africa, Bridgette and I had booked a 9 day tour with Africa Zim Travel, travelling from Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe to the Okavango Delta in Botswana.
We travelled by coach from Gloucester to Heathrow to catch the 8pm Virgin flight to Johannesburg in South Africa before travelling on to Zimbabwe. Red Kites and Buzzards along the M4 were the only notable birds of a long day.
Saturday 9th June 2018
After a good overnight flight we touched down in Jo’burg just after 8am and we had a couple of hours to kill before our onward flight with South African Airways to Victoria Falls. I only managed to see six birds here which didn’t improve my South African list, three Feral Pigeons, two Rock Martins and a Cape Wagtail.
The transfer flight was just 1 hour 40 minutes. Arriving at Victoria Falls airport we were plunged into the chaos that you only seem to get in Africa. Instead of giving out entry forms on the plane they were issued to 200+ people as we descended a narrow hallway to the Passport Control. Finally having filled in the form to their satisfaction you were allowed entry to Zimbabwe on payment of a fee depending on your nationality. British was US$55 each. After collecting our bags we came into the main hall where we were greeted by the smiling face of our guide, Mthokozisi Ramaphosa, a kind, funny and knowledgeable man who looked after us very well. We were led out into the warm sunshine towards the air-conditioned van. Once inside we asked where the rest of the tour group were and Mthoko said “You are the tour group”. An African Monarch butterfly was in the car park. We set off on the short drive to Bayete Lodge in the town of Victoria Falls. After we were checked in Mthoko said he would pick us up at 3:30pm for the evening Zambezi Sunset Cruise. We unpacked a bit and I wandered around the small grounds to see what I could find. It was very quiet in the heat of the day but I saw two Cut-throat Finches and a Pied Crow and overhead there was a White-backed Vulture, a Cape Vulture, a Marabou Stork, a Tawny Eagle and two Red-winged Starlings. A KIRBY’S DROPWING (Trithemis kirbyi) was by the pool.
Bang on time Mthoko made sure we were picked up for the transfer to the riverboat. This was definitely more of a tourist type trip, but Hey we were on holiday and there was a free bar. We realised the constant roar which you could hear for miles around was Victoria Falls. Once the guide realised I was a birder he took the trouble to point out birds for me. It was lovely sat in the sun with a glass of wine, watching all the birds along the river. Most species I had seen before but three SPUR-WINGED GEESE and three TRUMPETER HORNBILLS were lifers. Best of the rest were three Swallow-tailed Bee-eaters which hawked for insects around the boat. Other species new for the holiday list were Cattle Egret, Hadeda Ibis, Wire-tailed Swallow, Egyptian Goose, Wattled Lapwing, Hooded Vulture, Red-eyed Bulbul, Reed Cormorant, African Jacana, Water Thick-knee, Pied Kingfisher, Great Egret, Sacred Ibis, Glossy Ibis, African Openbill, African Pied Wagtail and African Palm Swift. Of course the stars of the cruise were the Hippos, we saw at least five close to the boat. The cruise ended with the sun setting over the Zambezi with flocks of Sacred Ibis flying through the sunset. Six Impalas were in the road as we joined the bus for the return to our lodge. We arrived in time for a very nice meal and ended up staying up late talking to the other guests.
Sunday 10th June 2018
I was up fairly early and wandered about the compound before joining Bridgette for breakfast. We made up our mind to have a walk and also follow up on a guest’s recommendation to see the vulture feeding at a nearby lodge as Mthoko wasn’t picking us up until 2pm. I added WHITE-BROWED ROBIN CHAT, Fork-tailed Drongo, Dark-capped Bulbul and Red-eyed Dove to the holiday list.
What was going to be a gentle Sunday stroll turned into a 12 mile route march but we both needed the exercise. First we headed towards Victoria Falls town centre. Along the way we saw quite a few new birds for the list and some mammals too. AFRICAN GOSHAWK was the only lifer which showed brilliantly on overhead wires.
The other new species were Laughing Dove, Southern Grey-headed Sparrow, Tawny-flanked Prinia, Grey Hornbill, Magpie Shrike, Blue Waxbill, Brown-crowned Tchagra and Long-billed Crombec. The mammals were four Warthogs, nine Chacma Baboons and eight Banded Mongoose.
We did get approached by a few locals who tried to sell us billion dollar notes, Zimbabwean currency now being worthless, and bracelets and trinkets. I only had US$3 in small change and I gave that to the first guy who spoke to us, it didn’t seem much but that was equivalent to a week’s wages! I also had some packets of sweets which I gave to some children. Their economy is just a barter economy now and Victoria Falls is one of the more affluent areas because of the tourism. We were told that even if you have a lot of money in the bank you are only allowed to withdraw US$50 per week.
We had a wander around a couple of art galleries, saw the tourist crocodiles in a paddock. Then we left the town to head for Victoria Falls Lodge where the vultures are fed at 1pm daily. On the way there we added African Black Swift, Red-billed Firefinch, Village Indigobird, a nice male, I had only seen a female before in The Gambia and a Yellow Pansy butterfly.
We got a bit lost, hence the extra mileage in boiling sunshine, but we followed the growing kettle of White-backed Vultures overhead. The Lodge is open daily, free to all to see the vulture feed and hear the important conservation method. At 1pm the guide emptied a box of bones and meat leftovers onto the ground and in swarmed c150 White-backed Vultures, c100 Hooded Vultures and 20+ Marabou Storks. The meat was gone in a couple of minutes.
On the way out we had a Smith’s Bush Squirrel and an adult and juvenile Warthog. We seemed to see Warthogs everywhere.
We eventually made it back to the lodge just in time for last lunch orders and a couple of omelettes and cold drinks later we were ready to go again.
Mthoko picked us up in the van and dropped at the entrance to Victoria Falls. He ensured we got in OK (fee payable) and said he’d pick us up at 5:30pm. We were well prepared in that we knew we could get very wet, so we had waterproofs and dry bags. The first short walk towards Livingstone’s statue gave us our first view of the falls. It was truly awesome, hearing the noise, seeing the volume of water and with its own microclimate complete with rainbows.
Birds were quite thin on the ground around the Falls, and as we walked towards the bridge leading into Zambia we did indeed get soaked. Clouds of spray were suddenly dropped on us depending on the direction of the wind. It was like being caught in a heavy rain shower, several times. Little Bee-eater, Bronze Mannikin, Senegal Coucal and Emerald-spotted Wood Dove were new for the trip. Also got good views of Trumpeter Hornbills and better pictures. We also saw six Vervet Monkeys, a pair of Bushbucks and another Warthog. AFRICAN VEINED WHITE was a new butterfly. I had two new lifers along the track through the forest towards the end of the day when most of the tourists had left. The first was a YELLOW-BELLIED GREENBUL and then I found two LIVINGSTONE’S TURACOS, the latter I was very pleased with. I walked back there to try and show Bridgette but they had gone, fortunately I managed one shot, difficult enough with a green bird in a green tree in fading light.
Mthoko was waiting for us and took us back to the lodge and said he would return shortly to take us to the Boma Dinner and Drum Show. On the way we had to stop for an African roadblock, 15 Cape Buffaloes were in the road. We had a great time, wore African garb, tried all manner of unusual foods, played drums, got our faces painted and I completed the challenge of eating a Mopane Worm, it looked worse than it was and tasted like burnt chicken.
Monday 11th June 2018
Another day, another country, we were being picked up after breakfast for the transfer to Chobe Safari Lodge in Botswana. Before breakfast I took a quick tour around the grounds and took the opportunity to get some photos of the lovely White-browed Robin Chats. Not easy as they were quite skulking and a noisy chorus of Hadeda Ibises didn’t help.
We said our goodbyes and Mthoko appeared like clockwork to drive us 100kms west to Chobe Safari Lodge.
Between Victoria Falls and Kazungula Border Post I added Black-headed Oriole to the trip list and the first Elephants, a small group of eight, were beside the road. At the Border Post formalities were concluded pretty quickly. We had to carry a second pair of shoes and dip them in the F&M dip as well as what we were wearing.
Whilst we were waiting for Mthoko we watched birds outside and added Little Swift to the holiday list as well as seeing two White-backed Vultures, two Marabou Storks, five Blue Waxbills, a Yellow-bellied Greenbul and a Warthog. The first birds as we went into Botswana were Lilac-breasted Rollers, also new for the trip.
When we arrived at Chobe Safari Lodge we were checked in very quickly, were taken to get our safari vouchers, and were assigned a lovely room overlooking the river. We were warned not to leave the balcony door open unless we wanted Vervet Monkeys to disassemble our room.
We went for a walk around the grounds before getting lunch. There were plenty of birds around including a TROPICAL BOUBOU, a lifer, and Green Wood-Hoopoes, Arrow-marked Babblers and African Fish Eagle were all new for the holiday. Also several butterflies including GUINEAFOWL (pic below), Spotted Sailer and SMALL ORANGE TIP and a Smith’s Bush Squirrel. We also had even better views of White-browed Robin Chat (pic below).
At 3pm we met for our first safari in Chobe National Park. It was created as a game reserve on 14th July 1960 and was upgraded to become Botswana’s first National Park on 31st August 1967. A Greater Blue-eared Starling flaunted its fabulous colours whilst we waited for the safari vehicles.
We entered the Park at speed rushing past a herd of 20 Elephants and being old hands we knew we must be in for a good sighting. We arrived at the beach and parked up within yards of a Leopard. We had amazing out in the open views.
A big Hippopotamus was also on the beach out of the water, and unusually active on land during the day.
We moved on adding new birds to the list all the time including Blacksmith Plovers, Helmeted Guineafowl, Southern Red-billed Hornbills, two RED-BILLED SPURFOWL (pic below), a lifer, Yellow-billed Oxpecker, Red-billed Oxpecker, Swainson’s Spurfowl and a Martial Eagle.
We also saw a lot of mammals, 40+ Elephants, 142 Impalas, two male Greater Kudus, 360+ Cape Buffaloes, four Giraffes and a Smith’s Bush Squirrel. We watched three Lionesses stalking the Buffalo herd but they were unsettled by the number of Elephants around and did not make a kill before dark. We finished the safari with a mammal tick, a bit distant and in fading light, but a SABLE ANTELOPE was a really good sighting here.
Finally a couple of MAURITIAN TOMB BATS were flying around near the boat dock whilst we ate dinner.
Tuesday 12th June 2018
We were up before the lark in the dark for the early morning safari at 6:15am. There’s no lie ins on our Safari holidays. We were driven out in the cold of the early morning towards the entrance of the National Park. There were many Impalas about, and we soon found three Lions lazing in the grass waking slowly to the warming sunrise. Birds were everywhere but the first lifer of the day was a cracking KORI BUSTARD, which came within a few feet of the landcruiser. This was the first of five on this drive.
Near the Lions was our first mammal tick of the day, a lovely BLACK-BACKED JACKAL. We had only seen Side-striped previously. It stopped and sniffed the air as it approached the Lions and then wandered off away from them.
Generally it was a quiet drive though but we saw two Giraffes, six Hippos and two Buffaloes. New birds for the trip list were Crested Francolin, Gabar Goshawk, Red-billed Quelea, Crowned Lapwing, Grey-backed Camaroptera, Grey Go-Away Bird and Bateleur. Inevitably Lilac-backed Rollers were always a hit with everyone, they are so showy and almost impossible to resist.
We returned to a hearty breakfast and some down time to explore on our own.
We decided to walk to the shopping centre, just a few hundred metres from the Safari Lodge, to exchange cash and buy a few essentials. Botswana was different to Zimbabwe in being a much richer and more stable country. The locals were friendly but we weren’t hassled for anything here. At the roundabout just outside the Lodge was a large party of Banded Mongoose, over 20 strong. They happily posed for photos hoping some tourist might have a nice tidbit for them.
Returning to the Lodge and Bridgette decided to sit in the sun with a cold drink and I naturally went birding. If I’m awake I’m birding when I’m on holiday, and if I’m asleep I’m probably dreaming about the next bird.
I wandered around the grounds, a mixture of river’s edge forest, scrub and man-made perches. I added three lifers in the hour I was gone. The lovely ASHY FLYCATCHER, a COLLARED PALM THRUSH and a preening WHITE-BROWED COUCAL.
I also saw two large Water Monitors, two female Bushbucks and a Smith’s Bush Squirrel. I added African Darter, Bearded Woodpecker, Village Weaver and a Brown-hooded Kingfisher to the holiday list.
I joined Bridgette for an al fresco lunch by the boat dock and we in turn were joined by two impressive SCHALOW’S TURACOS, a lunchtime lifer.
We gathered up our gear and went to join the queue for the afternoon boat trip out onto the Chobe River. I wandered off a short way and looked over the river wall and immediately found a large OLIVE GRASS SNAKE basking in the sun. Everybody came to look except Bridgette, she went in the opposite direction, my assurances that it wasn’t poisonous falling on deaf ears.
The boat trip was phenomenal, getting us up close and personal with Elephants, Hippos and birds, and lasted from early afternoon until sunset.
We chose our deck positions wisely although that went out of the window as soon as we set sail. There was an upper photography platform for about 20 people at a time but I only went up there once, as it was too hot and sunny. Along the shore was a huge Nile Crocodile, four Water Monitors, two Hippos, a group of 21 Banded Mongoose and a WHITE-CROWNED LAPWING, a lifer (missed with the camera) with several Blacksmith Plovers.
Moving further along the riverbank the guides found a Leopard, probably the same one we had seen yesterday. 6+ PEARL-BREASTED SWALLOWS were constantly around the boat. We then approached the first of many Elephants and Hippos in the shallow part of the river.
The birding was wonderful; three more lifers, two KNOB-BILLED DUCKS flew over (pic 1 below), a pair of AFRICAN STONECHATS and 10+ AFRICAN SKIMMERS. Additions to the holiday list were White-browed Sparrow Weaver, Squacco Heron (pic 2 below), White-faced Whistling Duck, Collared Pratincole, White-winged (Black) Tern, Black Crake, Little Bittern and African Spoonbill. Also much better views of Spur-winged Geese (pic 3 below).
The views of Elephants were some of the best we’d had and included two young bulls play fighting for a long time.
We returned to the dock for a final evening at the Lodge before being on the move again.
Wednesday 13th June 2018
I was up at dawn and out for a final tour around the grounds before breakfast and our transfer onwards. I did a bit of a detour around three Chacma Baboons, I just don’t trust those guys. Three Hippos were snorting a lot just offshore and there were warnings to keep an eye out for them. I added Kurrichane Thrush and Striated Heron to the holiday list before returning for breakfast.
Mthoko picked us up bang on time, he was more reliable than Big Ben, and we hit the road for Elephant Sands at Nata for a one night stay. There were sightings to keep us entertained along the route, which was just as well as it was a 260 km 3-hour trip.
Most of it was on the A33, the more notable sightings were three new birds for the trip; four Southern Ground Hornbills by the Lesomo Valley turn off, a pair of Ostriches by the North Gate and two Brown Snake Eagles nearby.
We arrived at Elephant Sands and encountered our first minor hitch, there had been a mix-up with our planned afternoon Safari, but we were happy to be moved to a Safari the following morning. In fact after being stuck in the van for three hours it was nice to take some down time.
Elephant Sands is a camp with tents and other buildings surrounding a waterhole, which is kept filled. Its unique selling point is that throughout the day and night Elephants and other wildlife visit to drink and bathe giving the chance for very close encounters with the largest mammal on Earth.
We ordered lunch and drinks and sat beside the waterhole to watch the comings and goings. Then we had a walk around the camp perimeter, we were just told to keep our wits about us and if Elephants approached stand still.
There were a lot of different species here but no lifers, new for the holiday were Cape Glossy Starling, Southern Yellow-billed Hornbill (Pic 2 below, trying to steal windscreen wipers), Speckled Pigeon, Little Grebe, Common Myna, Capped Wheatear, Magpie Shrike, Cape Turtle Dove and Pearl-spotted Owlet right by our tent (Pic 4 below). White-browed Sparrow Weavers and Arrow-marked Babblers were everywhere (Pic 1 & 3 below). We also had VARIEGATED SKINK, African Striped Skink and a small Bat species as the sun set.
Eventually whilst we were talking to some locals who were travelling around in a campervan three Elephants arrived to drink. We made our way back to the bar to watch them from relative safety.
We had a nice buffet dinner and a couple of drinks and were then escorted back to our tent by a guide when we were ready. A large bull Elephant was still wandering around the camp in the dark. It was a freezing night, the coldest we’d known in Africa and Bridgette slept in her clothes.
Thursday 14th June 2018
We were awoken whilst it was still dark and escorted to the centre where hot drinks and rusks were available prior to our Safari. Ten ducks had arrived on the waterhole overnight and when we returned in daylight I could see that they were RED-BILLED TEAL, a lifer. Wearing all the warm clothes we had brought we set out in the truck at 6:30am. It was a pretty quiet drive but eight Steenboks were new for the trip and four ELANDS right at the end of the drive were a lifer. Notable birds included six Ostriches, an African Hoopoe, a trip tick, and another Pearl-spotted Owlet.
After breakfast Mthoko picked us up for the 355 km 4-hour transfer to the Sedia Riverside Hotel in Maun. The journey was mainly along the heavily pot-holed A3 via Zoroga, Gweta, along the edge of the Makgadikgadi Pans and Motopi to Maun. Along the way we saw Elephant, Giraffe, Plains Zebra, and a juvenile Saddle-billed Stork at Zoroga was a trip tick. This was probably the worst leg of the trip although the van at least was air-conditioned.
We arrived in Maun mid-afternoon and were quickly checked into our room. We ordered a late lunch and sat on the terrace watching birds whilst we ate. Then we went for a walk around the large hotel grounds.
I had two lifers, AFRICAN PYGMY GEESE and a male HOLUB’S GOLDEN WEAVER (Pic 1 & 2 below), the geese I was particularly pleased with as I’d had a soft spot for them since I saw them in the old Tropical House at WWT Slimbridge. Other additions to the holiday list included Burchell’s Starling, Red-billed Buffalo Weaver, Groundscraper Thrush, African Harrier-Hawk and Crested Barbet (Pic 3 below). Also we had point blank views Groundscraper Thrush (Pic 4 below) and African Hoopoe (Pic 5 below).
Once the sun had set we went back to our room to clean up before dinner, then an early night in preparation for a big day tomorrow.
Friday 15th June 2018
Straight after breakfast Mthoko drove us to the Okavango River Lodge where we were being collected to be taken to the Okavango River where we would spent the day on the Delta with a local boatman/guide. Whilst we waited at the Lodge a Giant Kingfisher was new for the trip. The driver appeared and bounced us down a sandy road to a traditional village on the river’s edge. The driver went off to find our guide and we watched birds around the beach including a pair of African Grey Hornbills, an African Green Pigeon and a Black Crake.
The driver returned with our guide, Jonah, and we were given a Health and Safety briefing as he would be punting us up the delta in a mokoro, a fibreglass flat bottomed boat where we would sit on plastic chairs with the legs sawed off. The briefing went – “Sit still and I’ll punt, if you don’t we’ll all end up in the river and the crocs will eat us”. I’d been looking forward to this day the most, since I had seen “Okavango – Jewel of the Kalahari” on TV in the late 80’s and had put the Delta on my bucket list. We boarded the boat and set off upstream.
There were birds everywhere, new species for the trip included Black-winged Kite, Fan-tailed Warbler (Zitting Cisticola, if you prefer), Meves’s Starling, Hamerkop and Malachite Kingfisher and African Jacanas were everywhere. Jonah put the mokoro into a small bay where he showed us a small herd of RED LECHWE, a new mammal.
A little further up the channel we met with a traffic jam, all mokoros were stopped because there was a Hippo in the channel, which I caught a quick glimpse of. No-one could see it or knew where it had gone, and no-one wanted to move as it is the last thing you want to encounter. Eventually it was deemed to be safe and we all carried on, but keeping a wary eye out for it.
Up ahead there was a large kettle of birds in the sky, dozens of African Openbill Storks, a juvenile African Fish Eagle and a lone Pink-backed Pelican. We stopped on a raised island and went ashore. There were masses of waterbirds here including 80+ African Openbill Storks, six Grey Herons, 30+ Spur-winged Geese, six Red-billed Teal, two Saddle-billed Storks and a White-faced Whistling Duck. Jonah also showed us an Aardvark burrow, sadly the incumbent was probably firmly asleep deep underground.
We got back in the mokoro and were punted through the reeds towards our lunch stop at Thokatsebe. On the way new lifers were RATTLING CISTICOLA and CHIRPING CISTICOLA. Jonah led us ashore to the shade of a ring of trees, where we left our seats, lunch and rucksacks. He said first we would go on a bush walk before eating lunch. He led us off through the long grass in crocodile fashion. We could see plenty of mammals coming in to view. There was a mixed herd of 40+ Plains Zebras, 13 Blue Wildebeests, six Red Lechwe and a SOUTHERN REEDBUCK bounded past the herds, a lifer. I found an African Pipit that showed well.
Jonah showed us a pair of Hippo tusks and a pelvic bone lying in the grass, everything returns to the earth here. Returning for lunch two SABOTA LARKS flew up, and flocks of 6 and 15 RED-FACED MOUSEBIRDS were seen, both lifers. We sat in the shade of the trees and ate our packed lunches. A Black-backed Puffback was in the trees and a Bearded Woodpecker was drumming.
Then we returned to the mokoro for the trip back to the village. I managed to ID a couple of new dragonflies, a BLUE EMPEROR and a DARK SPRITE. There were two more lifers on the way back the first a COPPERY-TAILED COUCAL which popped up on top of a bush briefly and finally we found a much-wanted LESSER JACANA. A BROWN HOUSE SNAKE swam across in front of the mokoro, which Bridgette avoided looking at and Jonah found a couple of ANGOLAN REED FROGS. We also had nice close views of a Goliath Heron.
We arrived back at the beach, with a fly past from an African Pygmy Goose and five Little Bee-eaters flying around us. We thanked and tipped Jonah for a great day and our driver took us back to the Lodge. On the way we stopped to look at a couple of Hamerkops, five SOUTHERN WHITE-CROWNED SHRIKES were lifers and a Namaqua Dove was a trip tick.
Mthoko appeared to take us back to the hotel and whilst Bridgette stayed in the room I went birding in the grounds for the last time before dinner. There was plenty to see, a pair of SWAMP BOUBOUS were lifers and 6+ Mourning Collared Doves were new for the trip. Finally in the dimming light whilst I was watching an African Fish Eagle across the river and four smashing African Pygmy Geese, I spotted a small wader and thanks to my bridge camera I was able to get a good enough photo to identify it as a CHESTNUT-BANDED PLOVER, the penultimate lifer of the holiday.
Saturday 16th June 2018
After breakfast Mthoko took us the short hop to Maun Airport where we said our goodbyes. Mthoko had been a brilliant driver/translator/guide and friend and we were lucky to have such an amenable man.
It was going to be a long, long day, flying from Maun to Gaborone, then to Jo’burg and on to London. We had a 5 hour layover in Gaborone, which saved us £800, but there wasn’t a lot there although it was a very modern airport. I managed a bit of birding around the airport car park and surrounding roads. In the same bush I had a new butterfly, a WHITE-BARRED EMPEROR and the final lifer, a gorgeous MARICO SUNBIRD. Southern Masked Weavers and a female House Sparrow were the final additions to the trip list.
It had been a brilliant holiday, filled with new birds and wildlife and unforgettable scenery especially Victoria Falls of course.
Mike & Bridgette King The Gloster Birder © 2018