This report describes in diary form my experiences of a 17 day safari covering Zimbabwe, Botswana and Namibia. The report mostly notes the new birds seen at each stage of the safari (ie, the first sighting). Many species were seen at multiple sites, but I have used this approach to avoid repetition and for the sake of brevity.
This report will provide a flavour of what might be expected if following a similar route at the same time of year (October). The safari was not a birding safari as such and the guides were enthusiastic general naturalists. Having said that, Bryan had very sharp eyes and was responsible for excellent views of the iconic Pel’s Fishing Owl. I shall for ever be grateful to Bryan!
The safari was booked in the UK through the excellent Wildlife Worldwide and delivered on the ground by Sunway Safaris based in South Africa. The tour was badged as the ‘Ivory Route’ and the accommodation was approximately 3 or 4 star. This included stylish lodges and a remote, unfenced, bush camp in the Moremi Game Reserve, Botswana. Transport was a 12 seater mini bus, and with just 6 participants we all had lots of space and comfort.
After an overnight flight from London Heathrow to Johannesburg, it was then a two hour flight north to Victoria Falls airport, Zimbabwe. Arriving bleary eyed on 6 October 2018, it was reassuring to be met at the airport by our guides, Chris and Bryan, and we were efficiently transferred to our lodge for some rest and recuperation. The Bayete Guest Lodge was a good start to our trip, and because it was situated away from the falls, the atmosphere was tranquil and relaxed. The staff here were very good, and dinner was buffet style which suited me just fine. The first birds noted were:
African Paradise Flycatcher - including a splendid male
African Palm Swift, towards dusk
Dark Capped Bulbul (seen subsequently every day of the trip)
The 7 October dawned hot and dry and after nearly 12hours sleep, I felt refreshed! The highlight of the day was a visit to the mighty and magnificent Victoria Falls. The falls are really impressive and are 100s of meters wide. A footpath winds its way along the falls (from the opposite bank) and with low water, you don’t get soaked. But what you do get are fantastic views of the majesty of the falls, double rainbows, and clear views - not the drenched views and mists associated with the falls when the Zambezi River is in full flood.
A couple of very enjoyable and relaxed hours were spent at the falls and a few new birds for the trip were added:
Yellow Billed Kites
Red Billed Francolin
Chin Spot Batis
In the evening we all went to a local restaurant for a meal and were dissuaded by a security guard from walking down to the river edge. We needed to learn quickly: the river was full of crocodiles!!
On the 8 October we left Victoria Falls and started heading south, on mainly deserted roads, to Hwange National Park. Sadly Zimbabwe was plunging head first into yet another economic crisis and we were dismayed to see long lines of cars and trucks waiting for rationed fuel at petrol/gas stations.
Just before we reached our lodge, we visited a project working to protect and conserve African Painted Dogs. The staff showing us around were hugely passionate, informed, and great communicators, and we left much wiser regarding the plight of these fantastic and threatened animals.
Our lodge for two nights was Miombo Lodge, situated just a short drive from the main entrance on the eastern boundary of the park. We had travelled about 200 km on mainly good roads. Miombo offered tents (on a platform) on stilts, overlooking a rather small water hole. The water hole didn’t actually attract much game but it did pull in some birds, especially:
Cape Turtle Doves
Black Headed Oriole x1
and numerous Fork Tailed Drongo’s
The following day, 9 October, we ventured into the park and found that we almost had the place to ourselves. Over the next few hours, we occasionally came across another vehicle but by and large, the park was deserted. Bliss.
The birds of Hwange started to come thick and fast and keeping my note taking up to speed was an enjoyable challenge. New trip birds were:
Crested Cranes x 2 (stunning beautiful birds)
Helmeted Guinea Fowl
White Browed Sparrow Weaver
Black Winged Stilts
Cape Glossy Starling
Southern Yellow Billed Hornbills
Southern Red Billed Hornbills
Southern White Crowned Shrike
Red Billed Oxpeckers
Arrow Marked Babblers
Meyers Parrot (found by our local Hwange guide)
Crimson Breasted Shrike
Black Faced Waxbill
Blue Faced Waxbill
Emerald Spotted Wood Dove
Crested Barbet (an outrageous bird in my view!)
Lourie (go away bird)
On the mammal front, we had some lovely elephant encounters, saw a few hippos and crocodiles and best of all - saw three different cheetahs! I was absolutely thrilled to see Cheetahs, first two together and later in the day another single animal. They were all very close to the road/track and seemed unconcerned by our vehicle. At one point the single cheetah walked very close to our vehicle before disappearing into dense bush. A fantastic sight.
On the morning of 10 October we were on the move again, this time driving further south, via Bulawayo, to Matobos National Park and the stunning Matobos Hills Lodge (about 360 km on mainly good roads). The terrain of the park features huge granite boulders plied on top of one another, and is home to the beautiful Klipspringer, which bounds over the rocks and defies gravity! Our chalet for two nights was super comfortable and the staff at the lodge, and the food, was amongst the best we have ever experienced in Africa. It would have been easy to have stayed longer at this lovely location, especially as there are lots of rock paintings to be seen as well as the wildlife.
On the 11 October we had an early start and set out with Norman, our guide for the morning. The main event was to track White Rhino on foot! The Rhino here are heavily protected and it is humbling to consider the risks involved in anti poaching patrols. The rangers were armed and are allowed to shoot to kill. But this doesn’t deter poachers from trying to kill a range of animals and the Rhinos are now de-horned as a safeguarding measure.
With help from Norman, we eventually met up with two armed rangers and followed them on foot through the tall grass and bush. By 10.00 am it was seriously hot, but exhilarating to be on foot and tracking White Rhino. We eventually got to within 50 meters or so of three White Rhino, including a calf. But it was hot and they were skittish so quite rightly we didn’t start aggressively
pursuing them for photos, and after a while they melted back into the bush. This was a fantastic experience and privilege and of course the armed rangers underlined just how precarious the plight of wild Rhinos is. Sadly, the day when all Rhinos are in zoos is probably not too far away.
A few new trip birds were added:
Red Headed Weaver (a stunning male)
Purple Crested Tuaraco x1
Black Eagle (at least four, the park being a stronghold for this species)
In the early evening back at the lodge we heard a distant Leopard.
On the 12 October we reluctantly bid the staff of the lodge farewell and set out for Botswana, crossing the border at Plumtree. A journey of over 325 km, sometimes on atrocious roads, saw us eventually arrive at Nata Lodge, close to the immense Makgadikadi Salt Pan. In the evening we spent a couple of hours along the edge of the pan, where we were treated to a classic African sunset.
New trip birds were:
Golden Breasted Bunting (around the lodge)
As the sun set by the pan, we beat a hasty retreat because it was mosquito heaven and they were in biting mode!
The 13 October saw us on the move again, this time approximately 310 km due west to the town of Maun and the gateway to the Okavango Delta. We reached our lodge, Mochaba Crossing, early afternoon and were grateful for some down time and the opportunity to do some laundry. On route, through mainly unpopulated, dry thorn bush, areas we had seen some comical Ostriches.
The gardens of the lodge were quite birdy, despite the searing heat, and new trip birds were attracted by some water in a makeshift bird bath:
Coppery Tailed Coucal
Green Wood-hoopoes (stunning birds)
Tawny Flanked Prinia
Red Billed Buffalo Weavers
Long Billed Crombec
We were all ready for bed by 9 pm and enjoyed a very good nights sleep.
The 14 October saw us depart for the Moremi Game Reserve. We left early because although we only had to cover something like 225 km today, the roads were at times appalling! Moremi is a place of contrasts - rivers, lagoons, savannah, mopane woodland, it has it all. As we were at the end of the dry season, when the flood waters of the delta had largely receded, the mammals were concentrated close to any remaining wet areas.
The day turned into a long and bumpy game drive, with the first elephants being seen within 30 minutes of leaving our lodge in Maun.
On route to our camp, we saw many birds already seen, as well as new trip birds:
White Backed Vultures
Red Winged Starlings
African Black Crake
Southern Ground Hornbills x3
Southern Carmine Bee-eaters (first seen by South Gate to the park)
Long Toed Lapwing
Three Banded Plover
Hooded Vulture at a nest
And as we approached our bush camp, a Giant Eagle Owl was seen well, perched in a tree beside the track we were driving on.
Our camp was Tau Camp, a tented Camp that until recently had been used as a research station. Our tents were spacious, and well spread out, which meant escorts were required to/ from the tents after dark. And with good reason because we were deep in the bush, opposite a semi dry pan, unfenced, and surrounded by dangerous animals! Over the next two nights, Lions, a Leopard, Hyena and Hippo were all heard close by and something very large passed by our tent on the second night. We wisely stayed in bed and didn’t unzip the tent for a better look!
The staff of the camp were great and the food was amazing, given the remote location. Our group also had the camp to ourselves, so it felt very exclusive.
The 15 October started early and ended late. In fact, we were on the road and in the bush for over 12 hours. This reflected the determination of our local guide, Moses, who knew Moremi and the Khwai Concession intimately and was determined to find us cats and dogs!
The first hour or so was spent with Moses following fresh tracks in the sand. We were on the trail of African Painted Dogs. Moses had the skill to interpret the numerous, criss-crossing, tracks and eventually we found a pack of about 10 - 12 Painted Dogs returning from the river. The animals came right past our vehicle, unconcerned, and we followed them into some dense bush. It then got even better because several of the dogs/wolves returned to a carcass and began to feed. So we watched them from a respectful distance until they were clearly finished, whereupon they all left and we couldn’t follow them through impenetrable thick bush. But Moses had an instinct as to where they would head next and 10 minutes later, we were watching the pack again, resting in the shade of a couple of large trees. Amazing views were enjoyed, photos taken, and eventually we left them in peace, probably to sleep off their meal.
The rest of day unfolded in an almost dream like way: herds of elephants, kudu, impala, giraffe, and as evening approached, lions and then two separate leopards. There was also a supporting cast of crocodiles, hippos and spotted hyena.
New birds for the trip were also added:
Greater Blue eared Starling
Great White Egret
African Fish Eagle
White Crested Helmet Shrike
Brown Snake Eagle
Saddle Billed Stork
White Faced Whistling Ducks
Spur Winged Goose
African Openbilled Stork
On the 16 October it was time to return to Maun, and we enjoyed a transit game drive of about six or so hours, meandering through Moremi and the Khwai concession. At one point we were so far north that we actually entered Chobe National park for a brief while. Yet more elephants and other large game were seen and enjoyed, as well as:
Wattled Cranes x2
Red Billed Teal
Banded sandgrouse x2
Scarlet Chested Sunbird (just one splendid male)
Yellow Billed Stork
Golden Tailed Woodpecker x1
Red Eyed doves
Back at Mochaba Crossing I added a diminutive Green Backed Camaroptera.
The 17 October entailed yet another early start as we had about 350 km ahead of us, and we had been warned about the state of the roads! Ultimately the roads weren’t too bad, and we arrived at the stylish Shakawe Lodge on the banks of the Okavango Panhandle at about 2 pm. The location was stunning, with chalets overlooking a papyrus filled channel of water, and forest backing onto the grounds of the property. A Harlaub’s Babbler from our deck was a new trip bird.
The activities at the lodge were all water based - fishing, game viewing and birding. Our first boat trip was scheduled for 4 pm and with some trepidation I asked our boat captain/guide if he knew of any fishing owls in the vicinity. When he replied in the affirmative, but with understandable caution, I was very excited!
So we cast off at 4 pm and started to sail up stream and away from the lodge. It wasn’t too long before we were staring at a huge crocodile hauled out on the bank. And when it decided to re-enter the water, at great speed, I think that we all screamed in shock. Crocodiles can move very quickly indeed!
After about 15 or so minutes, Nandos, the boat captain moored the boat and we set off into the forest in search of ‘the owl’. As we neared a favourite roosting spot, Nandos asked us to wait quietly why he went to see if the desired bird was at home. After about ten tense minutes Nandos returned, clutching a large ginger feather! But also with the news that the object of my desires had flown off.
So I thought that was that, and trudged back to the boat with my expectations considerably lower than when we had set out.
The boat continued up stream, and soon entered a creek. We watched a Giant Kingfisher at close range and then suddenly (OMG) - a Pel’s Fishing Owl flew over our heads. There was no mistaking what we had just seen, but it was a very brief view. However, within seconds, Bryan, our guide, had relocated the bird in a large tree overhanging the river. The boat was manoeuvred and we were all soon enjoying very good views of the owl and could see the huge dark eyes. Magnificent! After a minute or two
we decided that we should leave the bird, for fear of disturbing it. So feeling very pleased, we continued along the creek for a 100 meters or so, and then turned back. And now our luck got even better, because Bryan again relocated the bird, this time on an even more exposed perch! All the non-birders on the boat were nearly as excited as me! I had been talking about my passionate wish to see this bird, so it was only natural that they shared my birding ‘high’. And all agreed that it was a stunning, charismatic, bird. In all the excitement, no usable photos were taken!
The boat rip then served up some more new birds for the trip:
White Throated Bee-eaters
African Skimmers (another highlight for me - a really iconic African bird)
Green-backed Night Heron
The next morning we had some very welcome rest time and I was able to wander around the grounds of Shakawe Lodge. Before it got seriously hot, I was able to add Broad Billed Roller and White browed Robin Chat to the trip list. The gardens were very birdy and I enjoyed seeing lots of common birds well.
The second boat rip was never going to match the previous days success, and in fact we didn’t even attempt to find the Owl again. But we enjoyed further close views of African Skimmers, Little Bee-eaters, and a Harrier Hawk. A common Sandpiper was new for the trip. We also had further close views of Hippos and Crocs. In the evening we enjoyed a buffet style feast, and reflected on the potential that the lodge has for being an outstanding destination. At present, however, the staff need to be trained better and I personally felt sorry for their struggles. Hopefully the relatively new manager will support his staff and the lodge will realise its full potential.
On the 19 October we left Botswana (a very smooth border crossing) and entered Namibia. Our journey east along the Caprivi Strip was somewhat boring in truth, but with 320 km to cover, we were pleased that the road was in a good state of repair. And occasionally we saw elephants that brightened our day. By early afternoon we left the tarmac road and hit gravel again as we approached Camp Kwando. And what a camp it turned out to be: beside the Kavango River, our ‘tent’ felt luxurious - and vey hot - and we just drank in the sights, sounds and smells of the bush. (Tent number 9 on the water front.)
Of course there wasn’t actually much time before we were heading out on another evening boat safari, and enjoying good views of:
(and numerous species already seen on the trip)
We also got scarily close to a large pod of Hippos (about 25) as we rounded a bend in the river and found them very close to the boat!
The camp was an absolute delight and we all wished that we had another day there. The accommodation was comfortable, the food very good, and the staff seemed to take a real pride in their jobs. The waiting staff and chefs also had very fine voices and sang to all of the guests after dinner. It was genuine and magical, and I highly recommend Camp Kwando.
The 20th October saw us on the move again, about 260 km east, along the Caprivi Strip and crossing back into Botswana. The border crossing was busy but as usual Chris and Bryan knew exactly how to smooth the process and we weren’t delayed for too long.
Our next lodge was the Chobe Safari Lodge on the banks of the Chobe River. This lodge was a shock to the system (we had been warned) because it was really a large hotel complex with several hundred guests and TV in the rooms!The grounds had a few birds, however, and we particularly enjoyed very close views of a pair of noisy Trumpeter Hornbills.
It was soon 4pm and so time for yet another boat safari/sunset cruise. Although it was strange sharing the boat with other people (horror) we actually met some very nice people and the boat gets safely close to huge crocodiles, hippos, buffalo and numerous birds. New birds for the trip were glossy ibis and we also enjoyed yet more Skimmers and beautiful collared pratincoles.
The group safari had now ended and our last three days were to be without the group, staying at Ichingo River Lodge. So on the 21 October we were met at Chobe Safari Lodge and transferred by boat back to Nambia and Ichingo. The process was novel, landing on a small Namibian Island in the Chobe River, customs/immigration that we walked to, then back on the tender boat and onwards to the Lodge. Ichingo River Lodge is beside a fast flowing channel that splits from the main river. As we approached the channel and rapids, it felt like we were entering a bird sanctuary because suddenly there were birds everywhere, including masses of yellow billed storks, open billed storks, darters, and pied kingfishers. But best of all, as we passed through the rapids, were delightful rock pratincoles, a bird that I though I had missed and greatly desired.
Before reaching the lodge I had also added the following to the trip list:
African Marsh Harrier x1
African Pied Wagtails
White Breasted Cormorant
White Backed Night Heron - a juvenile showing surprisingly well
The Lodge was situated beside the river channel and the ’tents’ were spacious and well spaced apart. And the welcome to the Lodge from Kennedy, the duty camp manager, could not have been more warm or enthusiastic!
We soon understood that for the duration of our stay, we had been assigned our own boat and personal guide, Anton. This was brilliant because we were able to choose when we wanted to take boat safaris, or Tiger Fish fishing, and we didn’t have to share with anyone else!
So that evening we decided to set sail, so to speak, at 4pm and head back to the main river for more birding and game viewing.
As with the previous afternoon on the Chobe River, there were plenty of large game animals to be seen, hippos to dodge, and crocodiles to fear! The birdlife was prolific and apart from all the usual herons and egrets, there were also lots of skimmers with newly fledged chicks, a flock of ruff, long toed plovers, a coppery tailed coucal, red-billed oxpeckers, and african palm swifts. As dusk approached, and enjoying a cool bottle of cider, we cruised back to the Lodge, via the rapids, and admired once again the diminutive rock pratincoles.
A birding cruise on the 22 October was good for:
Black Headed Heron
African Stonechat x1
Ruby throated Longclaw - an absolutely stunning bird
Half Collared Kingfisher
White Crowned Lapwings
And on the final full day, the 23 October, a noisy group of terrestrial brown-bulls in the lodge grounds were new for the trip. We also spent a couple of hours fishing for Tiger Fish, catching one small one. In the afternoon new birds included:
Pygmy Geese (Anton worked really hard to find these for me)
Grey Headed Gulls
Anton proved to be a very good guide, finding some excellent birds, and keeping us safe from hippos and crocodiles that were often very close to the small boat.
On our final morning in Africa we transferred back to Kasane, Botswana, and still had time for a land based safari drive in Chobe National Park (chobe river front). Elephants were encountered within minutes of clearing the entrance gate and a couple of sleeping lions were found (they always seem to be sleeping!). At a carcass three species of vulture were present: singles of lappet faced and white headed vulture and about 50 white backed. Also seen were swallow tailed bee-eater, crested barbet and grey headed kingfisher. And a final new bird for the trip (and 24th lifer) a Bradfileds Hornbill.
The trip was a huge success, with some superb birds seen including the longed-for Pet’s Fishing Owl; cheetahs, leopards and lions; diverse scenery; fascinating politics; and wonderful people. Well over 2,500 km covered by road and not one breakdown or mechanical failure. Sunway safaris are highly recommended, although we appreciated that we were very lucky that there were only six of us on a trip that takes up to 12!