The final phase of our trip was going to be spent in the legendary Honde Valley. As a kid I had read about the Honde Valley and had always dreamed about visiting it. Three years ago I managed to get down there on our whirlwind trip but we left so much behind that it was absolutely necessary to include it in the itinerary this time around. The most critical part of the trip would be a few hours spent at the Katiyo Tea Estate which would be the area most likely to yield a few Mozambique birds. Since I had never set foot in Mozambique this would be the most productive area from a lifer point of view.
The drive down into the valley from Mutare was a slow one. The road turned east off the Mutare/juliasdale road and shortly thereafter dropped from about 1600m to 700m in altitude. A 900m altitude change over 17 twisting and turning kilometers through a heavily populated region. Schools were obviously recently out and school children were walking this way and that along both sides of the road. We took great care as we descended. Although we were careful we had numerous taxis passing by that did not share the same concern for the kids.
It was a stark reminder as to how different our kids’ lives are to the kids in the Honde Valley and throughout the rest of rural Africa. Here are little kids ranging from 4 years old through till about 16 or 17 walking great distances to school on the main road. the smooth tar is the easiest option by far and they really have no choice but to take it and risk an errant taxi taking a corner too fast. I simply cannot imagine sending Jack out the house to find his way safely to school like many tea pickers have to do with their kids.
Another thing that amazes me is that the school uniforms that these kids wear are always spotless. My boys can’t even make it through breakfast without grubbing up their clean white shirts and they know they’ll have a spotlessly clean replacement straight out of the washing machine ready for the next day’s mess.
Anyway, we reached the valley floor and we were soon in amongst the tea estates. We were looking for a spot to enjoy our Nandos when I noticed a Lanner Falcon fly across the road. We screeched to a halt and jumped out of the car. The sight that greeted us was something that I have never seen in all my years of birding – a termite emergence and a raptor feeding frenzy.
It had recently rained and the air was filled with emerging flying ants. Taking advantage of the meal on offer was a group of at least 100 Eurasian Hobbies, a few Lanner Falcons and at least 2 Lesser Spotted Eagles. The hobbies, in particular, were flying low over the tea crops feeding on the termites. It was a very special experience and it made for a memorable lunch stop as the car was pulled onto the side of the road and we hauled out our Nandos.
Aberfoyle Lodge is the last stop on the Honde Valley road. You drive until you eventually drop down one final bumpy road through the forest and you are faced with what I have decided is not far from paradise. The lodge overlooks a small little golf course which is set into hillsides swathed in beautiful indigenous forest. Pockets of mist swirl amongst the trees and there is no shortage of birds.
We were no sooner in the front door being greeted by Timothy, our host, than we had Morgan, our bird guide for the next 2 days, asking us what specific birds we were looking for. My focus was on the birds in the Katiyo Tea Estate area, an area I had never visited and there were a good few Mozambique birds that crept into Zimbabwe in the lowland forests and degraded farmlands. My list included Moustached Grass-warbler, Pale Batis, Red-winged Warbler, Magpie Mannikin, Short-winged Cisticola and the real biggie, Lesser Seedcracker.
The Cisticola was a significant one in that it would complete my Southern African Cisticola “set”. It was the last of the 19 species that I needed and I had waited a long time to get an opportunity. My 18th was Pale-crowned and that was achieved about 10 years ago in the grasslands around Pietermaritzburg. I would be very keen to fill that hole.
Saul and Lombie were less fussy about what we did, as lifers for me were certainly lifers for them and wherever we went there were likely to be a few additional ones for them anyway. The afternoon’s birding was very low key as a massive thunderstorm rolled over the hills and a lightning bolt hit within a hundred meters from the house finally putting paid to the WiFi connection for good. Lombie and I were unpacking the car when the lightning struck (what was Saul doing?) sending us both to the safety of our rooms in a bit of a panic. Being soft Capetonians not used to electrical storms we were both gibbering wrecks for a few minutes. The cooling swim we had looked forward to would have to wait.
It was a pity that the storm let up so late as an earlier shower at the lodge had brought out the flying ants and Morgan casually mentioned the eleonora’s falcon that had been hawking the termites amongst the Eurasian Hobbies. Now that really would have been something…
A quiet afternoon was not the worst thing in the world as it allowed us a bit of a battery recharge to summon up the energy for another early start for the Katiyo tea estate.
Down time on this trip has become the source of some mirth for my travelling companions. Whilst I like to make the most of my relatively infrequent birding trips by squeezing in as much as possible, Lombie, in particular, needs his midday nap to make sure he has the energy for the afternoon session. I was labelled Hammy, the hyperactive squirrel, from the kids’ movie “Over the Hedge”. Apparently my inability to sit still for more than 5 minutes is comparable to a cartoon character. I do concede that I have a touch of OC disorder but who knew when I would get another opportunity to be in the field for such an extended period of time.
To fill a few of the quiet moments I spent my time looking for a few frogs and lizards. My good mate Dom had given me plenty of gen for the trip but I feared I may have disappointed him. I tried as hard as I could to cover a bit of non-birding ground but, to be honest, Saul and Lombie, if not snoozing on their beds, were pretty useless herping companions. All Lombie would do was occasionally shine a torch while I took some pics. In fairness to Saul I did ask him to hold a gecko for me at one point whilst I readied my camera but it was a poor baton change and the little creature disappeared before it could be photographed and identified.
Geckos were plentiful on the walls of the lodge and I reckon there were 2 species although I am told that house geckos are virtually impossible to tell apart. It was quite fun watching the house geckos stalking the butterflies and moths on the walls and ceiling, suddenly striking out and grabbing them.
The Rainbow Skinks were ubiquitous. The males were a little scarce but the females were plentiful and a little more colorful than their mates, but it was the young ones that displayed the most intense electric blue in their tails.
The most impressive lizards were the Southern Tree Agamas that would be sitting dead still on the stipple walls of the buildings and then suddenly burst into a noisy run as we walked around the corner. Their enormous size (about 80cms including their tail) would result in a pretty startling experience for me as well.
The small pond at the entrance to the lodge was also the source of a bit of fun. The Swynnerton’s Reed Frogs were the real target and they were easily found clinging to the reeds but I also managed to find a few platannas and one or two Common River Frogs.
The Aberfoyle area is literally crawling with dragonflies and damselflies. I am yet to identify too many of them but we saw plenty and I took a few photos of the ones that I could. I am sure someday I will know what they are and be able to appreciate how lucky we were to see them.
Anyway, back to birding.
A lot of people are put off the drive down to Katiyo. It required backtracking from Aberfoyle to the Pungwe River and a turn to the east before descending alongside the river virtually to the Mozambique border-line at the Katiyo Country Club. Predictably, it was a winding road with the possibility of running into a taxi or a group of schoolchildren around any corner, so care needed to be taken in getting to the estate.
The Magpie Mannikins (lifer number 803) were abundant in the bamboos alongside the river so that one was no problem at all. Neither was the Short-winged Cisticola (lifer number 804). I needn’t have worried that much about it as we found it very easily amongst the tall grass and stunted bushes on the open hillsides above the river.
Another high five, another bird family dealt with and time to move on to something a little more challenging.
In order of difficulty the next bird on our list was the Moustached Grass-warbler. In the past this bird was easily found at the Wamba Marsh alongside the Marsh Tchagra, but it had disappeared from that site and since its disappearance Morgan had done plenty of scouting for a replacement locality. Whilst visiting his mother-in-law for Sunday lunches in Katiyo he had stumbled upon a surprisingly large population of these beautiful birds.
While telling us about his wanderings on a Sunday afternoon I could just picture his wife sitting at the lunch table tut-tutting about his tardiness in appearing for a meal that had so lovingly been prepared by his mother-in-law, whilst he scrambled up and down the vegetated slopes chasing birds.
We birders are all the same no matter where we come from…
We headed straight for his spot and within a few minutes we had this great bird perched on top of a bush on a tangled hillside singing its beautiful call. The light was good, it was SA bird number 805 and I was loving it.
The morning had been a very successful one so far.
We also had some black-winged bishops buzzing around us and a reasonably obliging Little Banded Goshawk perched nearby.
After a few minutes we decided it was time to move on to our next targets – Red-winged Warbler and Pale Batis, two other birds that Morgan’s scouting had revealed in the area. Our target locality would be the Katiyo Air Field which no longer resembled anything like a piece of ground that I would think would be suitable for landing an aeroplane.
The morning had run away from us a fraction and it was now pretty hot and seriously humid. The long pants we had worn to save our legs from the poisonous weeds added to the discomfort level. I was sweating more than normal (which is a lot) and the birds had gone a little quiet.
Just a quick aside, if I may.
The previous evening Morgan had suggested we don our long pants to spare us severely torn and scratched legs from the harsh vegetation on the tangled hillsides. I had my rugged Cape Storm “zip off” pants on hand for such eventualities. I often refer to them as “pant for all occasion”. Lombie arrived at the car in similar garb. Birding trips are old hat for him and I expected nothing less.
Saul, on the other hand, arrived wearing a stylish pair of cream lounge slacks. Something you would expect to see at a cocktail party on Clifton 4th beach. I’m not quite sure what he was thinking when he stood in front of his cupboard the night before departure and considered the most appropriate birding attire for a trip in the African bush. Maybe we oversold the trip a little. Perhaps he expected gin and tonics on a viewing platform well away from any rugged nastiness.
Needless to say Saul’s pants were no longer cream from the knee down after about 20 minutes of our morning. Muddy brown would be the colour I would ascribe. In fact, we had dinner in Cape Town the other night and Saul confirmed that his wife, San-Marie, had thrown the pants away. They were beyond salvation despite numerous cycles through the wash.
Anyway, after a very quick start the going suddenly became a lot tougher. We spent over 2 hours trying all Morgan’s spots for the batis and warbler and sadly came up with nothing. Needless to say the Seedcracker also remained elusive and we eventually called it a day with three big birds missing from the list.
I am reasonably philosophical about these things and agreed with Lombie when he said that we had to have a good reason to come back. In fact, being relatively easy Mozambique birds it would make for a very good excuse to make a special effort to get there one day. Perhaps for my 50th?
All was not lost, however, as we stopped at the Pungwe river crossing at the nearby forest of tall Newtonias and Morgan managed to conjour up a pair of Pallid Honeyguides, a bird I had tried for before at that same locality but clearly without Morgan’s magic touch. Bird number 806. That was the last of the realistic target birds and from now on any lifer would be something fortuitous or very special.
Lombie insisted on some more down time which was yet another reason for me to take a walk down to the river running in front of the lodge. I never leave any equipment behind just in case there is something to see, even in the hottest part of the day, so I was well ladened with camera, bins and shoulder bag with lenses, a flash, spare batteries and memory cards. It was a heavy load.
I reached the river and and the spot where the dodgy bridge used to span from one side to the next was missing…a bridge. I discovered subsequently that it had been washed away following a big downpour and there hadn’t been a strong enough reason to replace it.
I stepped on a few of the rocks to check if I could get across but got about halfway and decided the river flow over some of the rocks was far too strong to risk all my equipment. I turned round, hopped back to the bank and started the walk back up the hill to the lodge. Just as I was making my way up, two little kids, no older than 8 or 9, came running down the path towards me. I stopped them and asked them if they were going across the river. An incredulous “yes” indicated that it was a pretty stupid question. So, I turned around and followed them to watch their route. Perhaps I could follow. The one kid was wearing flappy slip slops but he didn’t even slow his gait. He hopped halfway across the river on the dry boulders and then seemed to run on top of the water on the remaining submerged rocks until emerging, without pause on the opposite bank. Shortly thereafter the second kid followed. Same procedure, same result.
Then, both kids stood on the opposite bank and stared across at me. I have no doubt it was a silent challenge.
“Let’s see if this whitey can do it” they were thinking.
Maybe I could do it. It couldn’t be that hard. I tiptoed across the dry boulders for the second time and reached the fast flowing section. I looked up at the two little boys. They said nothing but I am sure they were waiting for me to take that one additional step and end up in the river, equipment included. I suspect it would have made their day.
I just couldn’t do it. My risk-taking genes we not strong enough to overcome my sensible side. I looked at them, shrugged my shoulders, said I couldn’t do it and walked back to the bank. Having missed out on their entertainment they quickly melted into the forest and disappeared.
Once my companions had recharged their batteries we headed down to the Wamba Marsh for the Tchagra. We had seen it 3 years ago but I was missing a photo and a late afternoon spent at the marsh is not a wasted excursion despite having done it before. We did not see the Tchagra and Morgan had to confess it may have been the first time he had failed to deliver the Tchagra for birders using his services. These guides must be under considerable pressure to present lifers (and tough ones at that) to paying birders. Many birders are super-fanatical so I did feel for him in not being able to show us the bird. It was not due to a lack of effort as he patrolled the margins of the swamp for a good hour and a half while we soaked in the last sunny hours of the day before packing it in.
Our choice to call it a day was a “force of nature” decision. The tranquility of the dam changed from mirror-like to white horses within minutes as a pre-storm wind blew in. We hustled to the car and made it just in time before the rain came bucketing down. Once again the timing of the day’s storm was fractionally late to produce anther termite emergence.
The rain did provide a degree of relief from the heat and humidity and a bit of an outdoor shower facility in front of our rooms at Aberfoyle. What could be better than a rainshower with a view:
Saturday was our last day at Aberfoyle and I was relatively ambivalent about our prospects. Don’t get me wrong – I was very excited about birding the Gleneagles State Forest again but I was not expecting too many new birds for the trip nor any lifers.
Our first stop was for an early morning Eastern Bronze-naped Pigeon on the way up to the forest. A distant pic but a pic nonetheless.
We parked our car at the start of the contour road that meanders through the forest and greeted the tea pickers as they were about to set about their day. How different our lives are to the people that live in the Honde Valley. A day of picking, bagging and hauling tea in the humidity of the valley would have most of us in pieces.
The Gleneagles State Forest, I have decided, after that Saturday morning’s walk, is my favourite birding walk in Southern Africa. Sure, the forest is spectacular as it works its way around the mountain side but the variety of species on offer and the excitement of literally finding just about any bird is what made it for me.
We saw heaps of stuff including knockout views of some of my favourite birds. A Black-fronted Bush-shrike posed beautifully whilst a pair of Pallid Honeyguides perched on a dead tree, evading the attention of their hosts (White-eared Barbets).
A Green-backed Woodpecker pecked away in the early morning sunshine and a noisy group of Retz’s Helmet-shrikes nearly gave me a heart attack as I searched determinedly for a chestnut forehead.
A cute little Grey Tit-flycatcher fanned its tail as it worked its way up and down the huge Newtonias and Yellowwoods whilst several Gorgeous Bush-shrikes kon-koited around us.
African Emerald Cuckoos were common and unlike their counterparts down in the Western Cape they perched very obligingly in the open for some very good views. This pair was seen working their way through several catepillars whilst we stood and watched.
Other forest dwellers included this very vocal Blue-mantled Flycatcher which I managed to catch in between countless branches at just the right time:
On the other hand, a bird that we are used to being very vocal, this Red-chested Cuckoo was perched very silently on a branch out in the open.
As good as that gallery may seem there were two moments that were a fraction more adrenaline-fueled.
We had spent considerable time chasing the shy little Red-faced Crimsonwings at the Vumba and several times at Gleneagles, battling like crazy just to get a view, never mind a photo. I had had a glimpse of one in the Vumba and a few glimpses of a number of pairs at Gleneagles, but eventually one perched obligingly on a cross branch for at least 5 seconds whilst I lined my camera up in the gloom and fired away hopefully, just wishing that something was in focus. Well, it wasn’t a perfect shot (where, you might ask are the crimson wings?) but in the circumstances I was delighted with my result considering how tough it is to find this bird.
And then, potentially the most exciting moment of the trip came whilst walking through the Forest. We were in a small clearing and I happened to look up when I saw a long-winged dark falcon shoot across the gap in the trees. I shouted to Morgan to have a quick look before it disappeared. He got the quickest look before it was gone and he shattered my hopes when he said it looked like a Lanner.
A few seconds later we got a second bite of the cherry. It came across us again, flying in the opposite direction and as I looked up and saw it Morgan shouted from behind me: “Eleonora’s!”
Yes, that was exactly what I had thought and what I wanted to hear. Probably in my top three most wanted birds in the sub-region and here it was on my favourite birding walk (yes, I know the two are probably linked).
No Eleonora’s Falcon, however, goes unchallenged and so in a flurry of arms, cameras, binoculars and straps I lifted my camera and fired off three shots. The first was almost completely out of focus and the next two were only slightly more in focus and I had managed to chop the bird in half as it sped across the clearing for the very last time. Frantic reviews of the photo, standing shaking in the forest, revealed what I had hoped to see: long slender wings, a longish tail, an absence of rufous leggings (ruling out an adult Euro Hobby), a white cheek and very dark underwing coverts and dark, barred primaries and secondaries. Morgan confirmed my ID and all of a sudden I had the bird on my list that I had hoped to see the most.
I couldn’t wait to get back to SA to share this with Jeanie so I sent an SMS right there and then. A few minutes later a message came through saying: “Tommy is gutted. In tears, in fact. He says it is not fair. He says that is HIS bird”. Ever since telling Tommy about the bizarre sightings of Eleonora’s in Kirstenbosch once in a blue moon, it became his most wanted bird and here was his dad 2,200kms away telling him he had just one-upped him.
Well, I thought it was too good to be true and, as it turned out, it actually was. Shortly after returning to Cape Town I had one or two seeds of doubt starting to ripple through my mind. The photos in my new raptor book looked pretty spot on, but the tail just seemed a fraction short and was the bird really big enough? I decided to send my photos to several good mates for what I was hoping would be routine confirmation. I had to make absolutely sure. Dave Winter was the first one to respond with the words: “not what you want to hear but it looks like a Euro Hobby to me”.
To defend my incompetence I will report that there were one or two opinions that did not dismiss the possibility that it was Eleonora’s, but the final word came from a very prompt response from world raptor expert Dick Forsman that it was indeed a Euro Hobby. It is particularly unusual, he told me, for juvenile Eleonora’s to be in the Southern Hemisphere in that plumage and the tail was too short and the wings not elongated enough.
It was a disappointing word of finality but a pretty good lesson.
It is entirely possible that there are many mis-IDs of Eleonora’s in that part of the world and for those traveling up there I would recommend a degree of caution with snap ID’s of such a rare species.
Anyway, with so much done in our week, Hammy, the hyperactive squirrel, decided that the team deserved some time off and we did some real R&R at the waterfall below the lodge. I know it looks a little “Blue Lagoonish” but I can assure you we insisted Lombie keep his clothes on.
A short walk on the golf course gave us a Lizard Buzzard running through the grass gorging itself on flying ants emerging from a nest next to the river. The buzzard was oblivious to our presence and we got quite close and watched it devour what must have been hundreds of termites. The pic here shows how engorged its crop was from the easy pickings. It is also interesting to compare the plumage of this bird with the one we had seen at Gosha. This one was so dark so as to seem like a different species.
The resident Palm-nut Vulture also put in several appearances whilst we were there and finally perched somewhere accessible for a photo.
We finished our last night in front of the TV acceding to Saul’s one and only request for the week which was to settle in and watch his beloved Liverpool play Wigan Athletic. I tried hard to watch for the full 90 minutes but I have to confess that I popped out of the room a few times to look for frogs and reptiles in the dark. I don’t think Saul minded as Liverpool won 4-0 thanks to a hat-trick from Luis Suarez.
Our final day was a long one with a 5 hour drive back to Harare. We made one stop to look for Blue Swallows somewhere near Juliasdale with no success but were compensated with a final Bronzy Sunbird.
We had to make a very quick stop at Leigh’s house for tea and a piece of chocolate cake, then to the airport and then two flights back to Cape Town to reunite with the family.
Some final thoughts are necessary after such an epic trip:
It was a true trip of a lifetime. It wasn’t cheap as flights, car hire and some of the accommodation was expensive (although reasonable given the facilities and catering) but well worth it from all respects. Doing a trip like this with two of my oldest and closest friends made it even more memorable. I will never forget some of the non-birding moments. My two companions would never be described as conventional but there were times when I laughed so hard my stomach muscles hurt.
Zimbabwe is a beautiful country to travel and aside from a few controversial characters in the Burma Valley the people were extremely friendly and helpful. The roads in Harare are a disaster but the rural roads are still okay and things seem a little more structured than they were 3 years ago.
Make no mistake about the costs though. Food, fuel, drinks and general consumables are considerably more expensive than they are in SA and the lack of small change results in everything being rounded up to the nearest US dollar making low unit cost items even more expensive.
The birds are as good as ever and although we saw a lot we would not have done so without the use of local guides. If you have several weeks to explore the areas we visited in a week then you can probably get away on your own but on a tight time budget it really is a no-brainer. Rates for guiding are around $100 per day which, split between three of us, made it more affordable.
Places like Seldomseen and Aberfoyle are not getting as much visitor flow as they used to and it is hard to understand why. It really would be a travesty if the potential non-viability of places like that caused them to close down.
In the end I saw 12 lifers with a total trip list of 256 species (after reluctantly erasing the Eleonora’s Falcon). The reptile and amphibian count is still unresolved due to some of my dodgy IDs.
I can’t wait to get back with my boys one day.