I started blogging long before Facebook became the chosen platform to share experiences and I have to acknowledge that my average blog length way exceeds anything that may be suitable for Facebook, so I thought long and hard about doing a blog for our most recent family road trip.
However, since my blogs were originally started as a diary of my experiences, mostly for my own consumption as a store of memories, I decided to write something down about our Zimbabwe adventures.
As a family unit, we are not small. It makes these road trips cumbersome to organise and generally quite expensive, especially when travelling to a place like Zimbabwe (which is undoubtedly one of the most expensive places on the planet) but being a big family is what makes the experience worth more than double the cost. Nothing makes me happier than picking up the airport rental (always an Hyundai H1 as our preference), piling in our luggage like a game of Tetrus (only those that are older than 40 will know what that means), switching on the GPS point for our first destination and hitting the road.
That was what we did for the June holidays when we landed at Harare International (it pains me to call it the Robert Gabriel Mugabe International Airport). The trip had been long in planning and Jeanie had left me with carte blanche in the setting of the itinerary. She may have regretted the freedom she gave me at times as I was always going to focus on the birding hotspots. I had travelled to Zim on many occasions but the boys had never been and my plan was to pack in as many new bird experiences for them as possible. All SA birders know that a trip to Zim cannot be counted unless you travel to the Eastern Highlands which is really where all the real specials are, so that was going to be our focus area.
But, I also tried to balance things with a three day stopover at Vic Falls. Some might say that seven nights in the Eastern Highlands and three nights at the Falls is not exactly balanced but, as I mentioned above, I was given freedom of choice with our itinerary and I wasn’t going to look a gift horse in the mouth.
Our travelling party consisted of the six Buckham family members – Mike, Jeanie, Tommy, Adam, Jack and Emma and my mother-in-law, Annetjie (Goggo or Goggs), joined us as well.
The arrival in Harare was pretty painless and it wasn’t long before we had shuffled through immigration, collected our luggage, purchased EcoNet SIM cards and signed the multitude of forms that go with renting a car. And so we were on our way.
Our first destination was the colonial guest house at La Rochelle, which is a beautiful property on the northern side of the Christmas Pass that winds down into the frontier town of Mutare. It was a nice distance to travel having landed at around midday on our first Saturday away.
One enters the property on a typical potholed and bumpy Zimbabwean road, winding through a line of palms leading up to the homestead, which is fronted by a wide veranda, overlooking a rose garden and an extensive lawn which is backed by indigenous forest which making up the popular botanical gardens. It was the indigenous forest that was the focus of our attention on our first evening as we were itching to tick our first birds.
It wasn’t hard to add lifers for the boys at this point with Variable Sunbird, Miombo Double-collared Sunbird (which, I am led to believe, is a possible split from the birds with a narrower breast band in other areas we saw them) and then the clear bird of the day, being a small group of Red-throated Twinspots feeding quietly on the ground at the forest fringes. The darkness descended before we could tick anything else but at least we were out of the starting blocks.
We met up with Peter from the Vumba for an early morning walk at La Rochelle, which was followed by a quick hour in the miombo at Cecil Kop while the non-birders picked up our picnic ingredients (more about that later). The forest walk with Peter delivered Adam’s 650th Southern African species with a Chirinda Apalis but it would be the miombo that would deliver the most diverse range of lifers for the boys at this point in the trip.
I have a bit of a love/hate relationship with miombo birding. My initial forays into the miombo about ten years ago were completely forgettable. I recall driving around Gosho Park on my first attempt at miombo lifers and seeing absolutely nothing. It was as though Michael Crichton had dropped his Andromeda strain amongst the planet’s bird population and everything had been vapourised.
But, over the years, I have come to appreciate the need for patience amongst the miombo woodlands and it has now become one of my favourite habitats. It is like a drought that turns into a slow drizzle, which eventually becomes a torrential downpour. It usually starts with the “three blind mice” from a Chinspot Batis or the “chick-wee” from a Black-backed Puffback and, once the first birds start coming through in their symbiotic feeding parties, it becomes hard to know in which direction to look as there are just too many birds to see.
For those that are uninitiated in what “miombo” represents, it is the vernacular name for the dry woodland that dominates much of Zimbabwe, Zambia, Mozambique and Malawi in a broad band where mid to high altitude savannah is covered with a mix of medium to tall broad leaved Brachystegia tree species. The trees are mostly leafed throughout winter as well and the gnarled barks and broad leaves provide cover for the birds and the nooks and crannies in the bark are filled with insects for feeding. So, the bird parties move through the branches and leaves, disturbing prey and providing the mutual feeding opportunities.
It was a good thing I had prepared Tommy and Adam for what lay ahead, as the first 45 minutes of our allotted hour delivered exactly one bird, being a Singing Cisticola (which was fortunately a lifer for the boys, but not really a miombo special anyway), but the final fifteen minutes finally delivered two miombo specials in a Cabanis’s Bunting and a pair of Miombo Rock Thrushes.
Incidentally, there are only five Southern African species that have the word “miombo” in their name and we at least managed to see four of them on our travels (being Miombo Rock Thrush, Miombo Tit, Miombo Double-collared Sunbird and Miombo Wren-warbler; while missing the Miombo Blue-eared Starling). It’s not to say that those are the only miombo specials so we would still have plenty of work to do before we had done any justice to our attempt.
While we were working hard in the miombo, the rest of our group were working hard in Mutare looking for picnic goodies. Mutare was a thriving town as the gateway to Mozambique back in the day and I would suggest it is still a thriving town but it has suffered from a lack of attention in terms of infrastructure. The roads are a bit of a mess and the lack of money in town has has resulted in a descent into widespread poverty that was hard to ignore. It was into this that Jeanie set out to get picnic stuff, which may have been quite an optimistic endeavour. I suspect the chaos at the Pick ‘n Pay and Spar were a little different to the order she is accustomed to in Cape Town. Picnics, however, only require a few important ingredients which were mostly available and we were on our way.
The chaos in Mutare was not completely without reward. A big surprise was doing some urban birding with a good sighting of the only Silvery-cheeked Hornbill we saw on the entire trip.
Picnics have become a feature of our road trips. We will always favour a roadside picnic above a bought lunch and just about any roadside lay-by or single tree will do.
Well, sort of.
There seems to be some minimum level that has to be achieved before we pull over to the side of the road and so we had to search a little bit in the Vumba to find that special spot. Jeanie was quite keen that we throw our goodies on the lawn in front of Tony’s Cake Shop, which is possibly the most incongruous place you’ll ever visit. In the midst of the Bunga Forest Reserve up in the Vumba above Mutare is a cake shop run by Tony. He has been there for 24 years and has been producing the most impressive and surprisingly extensive range of cakes for that length of time. His little tea house is set in a clearing amongst the trees and it would not be hard to imagine Hansel and Gretel stepping out of the forest and taking a bite out of the walls of his house. The cake selection, every day except Mondays and Tuesdays, is bigger than most mainstream cake shops and it is astonishing that he has been producing such an impressive array for so long.
Perhaps he has managed to maintain his standards by ensuring his front lawn is not a picnic spot for dishevelled travellers from Cape Town and so he politely turned us away as we descended with shopping bags and paper plates. Jeanie was set to flutter her eyelashes and sweet talk him but I dragged her away before she embarrassed herself. We were not, however, going to go far lest the cakes get eaten by other travellers so we popped around the corner, parked in amongst the forest canopy just off the road, gorged quickly on our chip rolls and dashed back to Tony’s to enjoy the cakes.
Our stay at Leopard Rock in the Vumba was a very pleasant one. Our first night coincided with the last night of half-term holidays in Zim and so the dining room was reminiscent of what it must have been like in days of old, with a noisy hum and clinking of glasses and crockery as families and travellers discussed their days’ activities but that all changed dramatically the next day as everyone, except for us, departed and we were waited on by a rather large contingent of staff who had no one else to attend to.
The birding in the Vumba was top quality as always. The Vumba and our guide from Seldomseen, Bulawesi, are essentially synonymous as he has been there for such a long time and he is a vital resource. He is also a wonderfully enthusiastic person who seemed to get as excited by our new birds as we did.
Our localities were simple. We would spend a morning at Cecilkop to have a second bash at the miombo and we would also spend as much time as we could at the Vumba Botanical gardens.
We hit the gardens immediately after feasting at Tony’s and so the post-sugar lethargy was a concern. It really needn’t have been as within a few minutes we were engaging in lifers for the boys: Swynnerton’s Robin, Orange Ground-thrush, Yellow-streaked Greenbul, White-tailed Crested-flycatcher, Black-fronted Bush-shrike, African Golden Oriole, Bronzy Sunbird, Roberts’s Warbler and Yellow-bellied Waxbill. Those were just the lifers. We also saw a bunch of other great birds with only one fail being the Red-faced Crimsonwing. We scoffed at that failure as we knew we had plenty more chances, but we would live to regret the over-confident attitude on that one as we continued to miss it at every possible location.
Cecilkop the next day was the next instalment of miombo ups and downs for the boys. But, this time the bird parties were pretty strong from early on with only a few moments of silence. The most exciting surprise was an unexpected low fly-by of an Ayre’s Hawk-eagle, which certainly wasn’t a bird I had on our target list. I had only seen one once before, not that far away in the Vumba, so I considered it a bonus lifer for the boys. It was straight after adding Green-capped Eremomela and Miombo Tit so the day had got off to a very good start.
The big target in the Zimbabwean miombo has to be African Spotted Creeper and this is where Bulawesi was invaluable. He managed to pick up the weak, sibilant whistle of a creeper a long way down the slope and before long we were hurtling through scratchy long grass on the slope to try and find it. After 30 minutes I was ready to accept defeat but Bulawesi just wouldn’t give up and justifiably so. Eventually it flew into the tree above our heads and ended up putting on quite a show.
I did feel, though, that the boys were just having it too easy at the moment as it took me forever to see my first creeper.
The next morning we left Leopard Rock hotel and headed down the valley back to Mutare for a quick shop as we’d be self-catering at Hornbill House down at Aberfoyle in the Honde Valley. We had a good early morning walk around Seldomseen for another attempt at the Red-faced Crimsonwings, which we didn’t see, but it was not completely fruitless as Bulawezi managed to find an Eastern Bronze-naped Pigeon for us.
The Honde Valley lies to the east of the Zimbabwean escarpment and is bordered in the West by the sheer cliff faces below Nyanga and is mostly bordered in the east by the Pungwe River which forms the border between Zimbabwe and Mozambique.
The altitude of between 600m and 900m above sea level meant a completely new habitat of lowland forest which has been cleared quite extensively and replaced by tea plantations. The tea plantations are mostly devoid of birds but they do make for a rather pretty picture.
The new natural habitat would bring a whole new set of birds, particularly down at the Katiyo estate, which produces a number of Mozambican specials as birds tend to ignore political borders. Our guide was Morgan Saineti from Aberfoyle Lodge and, just like Bulawesi and Peter in the Vumba, a birding trip to this area without Morgan would be substantially less successful.
The road down into the valley, with Aberfoyle at the end of it, was slow-going with produce sellers, school kids, taxis, potholes and cattle being the moderating culprits. We had an unplanned stop to bargain a few avocado sellers for their wares and then an obligatory stop on the banks of the Pungwe River under the tall Newtonias for a picnic was a welcome pause before we eventually got to Hornbill House sitting atop a hill standing amongst the tea plantations.
We were well met by Morgan and Elias, our chef for the two days, and after a quick offload of the luggage we were back in the field as Morgan had us on a very tight schedule, given the list of wanted species I had given him a few weeks before in my final planning.
He took us straight down to the Wamba Marsh for the Marsh Tchagra and a few other bits and pieces. I have spent many hours down at the Wamba Marsh, most of which has been Tchagra-less. We spent a cumulative 4 or 5 hours there 5 years ago but fortunately this time around it was successful. Aside from the Tchagra the Wamba Marsh was very productive and we walked out of there having ticked Black-throated Wattle-eye, Grey Waxbill, a very obliging Orange-breasted Waxbill, Magpie Mannikins and a hooting Red-chested Flufftail.
We were even able to get back to Hornbill House before the sun went down and Tommy, Adam, Emma and I took a walk in the tea plantation, which made for some breathtaking views. It really is an absolutely beautiful area.
The birding focus for me, specifically, however, was to spend a morning with Morgan down at Katiyo, which lies at an even lower altitude than Aberfoyle, right down at the border between Zimbabwe and Mozambique. It is a steamy part of the world, so a winter visit can be a lot more enjoyable than summer. Cicadas start cranking up early on as the heat rises, but it was still pleasant for much of the morning.
Our first stop was in a section of woodland a little short of the open savannah down near the Katiyo airfield. We had a number of targets for the boys but I was most interested in a Pale Batis, being a full lifer for me. I had started to get a little jealous of all the lifers the boys were ticking and I was yet to open my account. The great thing about the birding in these woodlands is that target birds are accompanied by a supporting cast of many great birds and so while we honed in on our Pale Batis (after hearing it call repetitively a little further up the road) we merrily ticked everything else that buzzed by.
We had a very vocal African Broadbill right next to the road, along with a Pallid Honeyguide and Green-backed Woodpecker – all three birds being lifers for Tommy and Adam. Eventually the diminutive batis was above our heads and it felt like it took me forever to get a decent view. Tommy and Adam even ticked this one about 15 minutes before I did.
The rank grassland near the airfield was also exceptionally productive. One of our target birds for the boys was Black-winged Red Bishop. There were hundreds of them in the grass but not one of them was in breeding dress which I guess is the downside of a winter visit. The boys chose not to add it to their lists as a consequence. But, we had other compensatory birds, and some really good ones. The most important one was a Red-winged Warbler, which was very obliging, and it was a lifer. We also had great views of Red-faced Cisticola, Dark-capped Yellow Warbler, Pale Flycatcher, Orange-breasted Waxbill and Blue-spotted Wood-dove. Sadly we missed two of the targets, Moustached Grass-warbler and Short-winged Cisticola, but, as I said to the boys, it was necessary to miss good birds to make sure we had a reason to come back.
Our birding was suitably excellent in our time down in the valley but the non-birding highlight needs mention as it was voted as our best picnic lunch ever. Down below the Aberfoyle estate the mountain stream cascades over a rocky shelf providing the most picturesque location. Despite the icy waters we all swam (except for Jeanie and her mom) before partaking in sandwiches stuffed with avos bought from the roadside subsistence farmers on our way down. It was quite an ordeal to get Goggs down there with us as it is a treacherously slippery path, not necessarily suited for someone in their 70s but it was well worth the effort. Birding is always present as we also managed a lifer for the boys as a pair of Mountain Wagtails bounded up and down the moss-covered rocks as we sat in the sun and enjoyed another perfect day on holiday.
We spent a final morning down in the forest along the edge of the golf course giving the Red-faced Crimsonwings a last ditch attempt but sadly we failed yet again. We were compensated with a number of good birds that were relatively photogenic.
Our final activity on our way out of the valley was a visit to the Wamba tea factory, which provided the kids with an educational experience beyond all the birds I was showing them!
The next phase of our journey was an exit from the warm tropical conditions down in the Honde Valley and a travel to the much higher altitudes of the Rhodes Nyanga National Park. As the crow flies, our accommodation at the Rhodes Nyanga hotel was no more than 20kms away from Hornbill House, but it would be a substantial drive south to exit the valley towards Mutare and then a right turn to the north to Juliasdale and into the park and hotel. The route took almost three hours to travel and sadly much of the higher climes near Juliasdale are covered in alien plantations presenting nothing pleasing for the eye.
The Rhodes Nyanga National Park sits on the edge of the escarpment with a sheer cliff face dropping down into the Honde Valley. The most noticeable feature of the escarpment is the Mutarazi Falls (excuse the spelling but there seem to be about 12 ways to spell it) that drops in a single narrow stream of water a total height of 762m, which makes it the second highest waterfall in Africa and not that far behind the Angel Falls, which is the highest in the world, at around 950m. The Mutarazi Falls is not impressive in terms of the volume of water it spews over the ledge, but rather the dramatic cliff face over which it falls that makes it something truly fantastic. It is most easily and noticeably visible as one drives out of the Honde Valley and the kids remarked on the fact that it reminded them most of the waterfall that features in the Pixar movie “Up”. That one is fictionally labelled “Paradise Falls” and, in fact, was based on the Angel Falls in Venezuela so the resemblances are not that coincidental.
Our birding up at Nyanga was not that frantic as we had seen most of the species down in the Honde Valley or in the Vumba so it is probably relevant to allow this section of the blog to be dominated by the non-birding highlight which was a zip line over the Mutarazi Falls with my two older boys.
We had decided to splash out on this extravagant activity, mostly because I knew the expenditure would be limited to the three of us (being frugal as I am) – Jeanie is petrified of heights, her mom was an unlikely contender for the oldest participant (plus a 92 year old had apparently already claimed that distinction) and Jack and Emma were quite simply not heavy enough to qualify, so we would only have to splash out for three, with Adam going at half price. At $60 per person it was not an insignificant splash-out.
As a warning for those that are tempted by the thrill of the line, it should be noted that the 19kms from the main road to the zip line activity centre is close to the worst road I have ever driven. It has been systematically potholed by logging trucks and in winter it is at its best with huge holes that require substantial dodging but at least it is achievable. The 19kms took us almost an hour. In summer, the wet, slippery conditions would be undriveable in a normal sedan.
Anyway, I had feared the travails getting to the falls would not be worth it but they really were. The activity “centre” is a mere clearing in the forest a stone’s throw from the falls and a tarpaulin covers the table upon which the indemnity forms are signed and the crisp US dollar notes are handed over. Our guide assisted us with the safety paraphernalia that we had to wear and then took us on our hike over the first bridge over the top cascades of the falls and then up to the ridge from where we would be launching ourselves over the abyss.
The zip line links the rocky promontories on either side of the top section of the falls and travels a distance of 400m at a height of 600m. It is the highest zip-line in the world. Adam asked me if I was nervous as we set out on the hike and, being the good dad that I am, I told him “definitely not, we’ve done the zip line in Elgin and how much scarier can this be?”
Well, it turned out it was a lot scarier.
They say the views to the left of the falls and the cliff face as you are zipping down the line are spectacular and they also say that the view to the right down to the Honde Valley and into Mozambique are very pretty, but I only looked straight ahead and clutched on tight for the 40 seconds it took for me to travel from one end to the other so I really can’t comment on the views.
Being the good dad I have already suggested I was, I went first to test the strength of the line, not thinking of the “bad dad” bit that I was deserting my two boys at the top. Fortunately they both survived the ordeal and, in fact, they both reckoned it was the most exhilarating thing they had ever done. I am at least 30 years older than both of them and I can say the same.
Anyway, the Nyanga area is most likely very pretty in summer but being at over 2,000m above sea level over some parts of the area meant it was dry and brown and a brittle winter breeze was ever present. We explored a bit of the countryside, mostly during an afternoon excursion where we tracked down the Nyamhoro Dairy which we had heard served the best tea and cake in the area. It was an interesting drive over hills and dales to reach the dairy after some uncertainty as to whether we were even on the right road but, much to our great surprise we arrived at a quaint little tea house, which, even more surprisingly, was still open at 4:30pm on a random Thursday afternoon. It differed substantially from Tony’s Cake Shop, mostly because three slices of melktert and five cups of tea were three quarters the price of a single slice of cake at Tony’s.
From a birding perspective we didn’t add any new ones but the hotel gardens were a hot spot of activity with a big fruiting tree providing an endless supply of food. Garden birds included: Bronzy Sunbird, Miombo Tit, White-browed Robin-chat, Whyte’s Barbet, Yellow-bellied Waxbill, Miombo Rock Thrush, Roberts’s Warbler (far more friendly than in the Vumba) and Augur Buzzard. Certainly not a bad garden list.
So, we then headed back to Harare for a regroup before our flight to Vic Falls and a refreshing change to the species to be added as our list had somewhat started to slow down in the Eastern Highlands. Overall it was an excellent loop and for those that are interested in picking up most of the specials in the area I would recommend a similar itinerary. It is about my 4th visit to the highlands and I think our success rate with the specials was highest this time around.
We exchanged the rural pot-holed roads in the Eastern Highlands for the dry, dusty roads inbound to Harare to spend a night with our good friends in the city. The traffic was mostly outbound on a Friday afternoon but there were plenty of trucks to negotiate and it felt like we really had come to the end of the isolation of the highlands as we sat in the queue at the tollgates entering the city. There was a haze of smoke and dust lying over everything and there just seemed to be traffic and people everywhere. Thank goodness our GPS was up and running for the directions to our destination.
Our good friends, Leigh and Keith Skinner, live in the suburb of Chisipite in the north-western end of Harare and we were excited to see them for a night before heading on to Vic Falls. Jeanie was itching to throw a bag of washing in a washing machine (she has a “dirty clothes” phobia and I think a bag of clean washing is as exciting to her as a bag of lifers are to me) and drink a proper cappuccino. I was less excited for the urban sprawl of Harare but it was so good to spend some time with the Skinners. We were fed continuously and they made sure we were all very comfortable after having to reshuffle all four of their kids around their house to make sure we all had a bed. We can’t thank them enough for putting up with us.
I did not see Harare as a chance for R&R. It was an opportunity for a few more birds. We had missed some good miombo birds on our travels in the east and there is no better place, in my experience, to mop up missing birds than Christonbank, about 30kms north of Harare. Christonbank is a small community of small-holdings situated on the edge of a miombo-covered hillside, which always seems to deliver the most productive bird parties.
We took Harare birder, Ian Riddell, with us for some local gen and it certainly helped to ensure we covered the right ground. Sure, there were long moments of total silence in the miombo but we worked through two specific bird parties that had just about everything in them, with the exception of a White-breasted Cuckooshrike, which just wouldn’t show itself.
Down in the woodland on the flat ground approaching the hillside we had a huge party which had the following wonderful species (as always in no particular order): Yellow-throated Petronia, Cardinal Woodpecker, Common Scimitarbill, Grey Tit-flycatcher, Green-backed Honeybird, Klaas’s Cuckoo, Green-capped Eremomela, Southern Hyliota, Black-crowned and Brown-crowned Tchagra, Spectacled Weaver, Brubru, Chinspot Batis, Black-backed Puffback and Grey Penduline Tit.
As my birding friends would know a Green-backed Honeybird is an extremely difficult bird to find and it was only my second one ever and certainly gave us a big show by gleaning the leaves of the trees no more than 5 metres away from us for several minutes. Bizarrely, we saw 4 of them on our morning at Christonbank so if you are looking for this tricky bird, I would recommend starting at Christonbank.
The hillside was equally as productive but the target up there is always the Boulder Chat family that is usually so reliable and thankfully it was for us as well as it was a key bird for the boys, being one of those iconic Zimbabwean species that would be so hard to do without. We had a small group of them with a youngster in tow. In addition to the Boulder Chats we added Yellow-fronted Tinkerbird, Lazy Cisticola, Mocking Cliff-chat, Stierling’s Wren-warbler, Black-eared Seedeater and Red-faced Crombec. The seedeater was the stand out bird in that lot with it also being a lifer for the boys.
Our time with the Skinners was too short and sadly they couldn’t jump on the plane with us to Vic Falls which had been our original plan, but looming exams for the boys was an impediment. We left their place in a bit of a rush (as is always the case when marshalling the Buckham troops) and headed for the airport, thinking our flight was at 4:30pm. A stop on the roadside for a small group of Blue-eared Starlings (hoping for Lesser but not being able to determine as our optics were packed away) delayed us further and so we arrived at the airport at 3:30pm to discover our flight was actually at 4pm. There was some running and some sweating and some shouting but in the end we eventually got on the plane in time and tucked into our seats looking forward to our first views of the Victoria Falls from the airplane seats.
Jeanie and I had been to the Falls before (in fact I’d been many times) but the kids, nor Annetjie, had ever been and I am quite strongly of the view that it is something that every African should see if they have the opportunity to do so. It is surely one of the world’s magnificent sights and I was excited to see the excitement amongst those that would be seeing it for the first time.
I didn’t have to wait too long as we had a view of the spray shooting out of the gorge from a distance from the plane and there was much excitement amongst the kids, all scrambling over each other to take a peak through the distorted little plan window.
We would get a lot closer in the fullness of time but, for the time being, the look of awe and wonder on their faces was more or less exactly what I had hoped for. We even had a lifer in the airport parking lot with a pair of Northern Grey-headed Sparrows chirruping from the top of a lamppost.
What we didn’t realise when we booked our trip was that our three days coincided with the Victoria Falls marathon and half-marathon, which turns out to be a very popular event and so the bustling little town was bursting at the seams. Vic Falls has something for everyone with a mixture of big, gaudy hotels (The Kingdom), old colonial beautiful properties (the Victoria Falls Hotel), game lodges (Victoria Falls Safari Lodge, which was where we were staying) and a huge number of backpacker hostels and cheap accommodation. I suspect every single bed in town was occupied on the night we arrived as there was a traffic jam getting in and out of the main street.
Vic Falls is at the far right end of the “touristy” spectrum but one cannot go there and moan about the commercialism of the place. It is touristy for good reason – there is just so much to do and see.
We had three days and we really had to pack it all in. Our second day was to be spent in Chobe on a day trip, so was fully accounted for, and so we really only had one day to do all the things one would do over the course of three days at Vic Falls. It was going to be a squeeze.
We started with a sunrise cruise on the Zambezi River, arranged by our guide Darryl Tiran, which I think was my personal highlight of the entire holiday. The river was empty of boats (in contrast to the jam-packed sunset cruise) with a cool morning mist rising from the surface as the sun rose in the north-east.
We had a full buffet laid out for us so the breakfast eaters were happy whilst Tommy, Adam and I enjoyed our own feast in the form of birds that appeared in front of us as the boat slowly cruised between the islands upstream of the falls. There is no need to name them here as there are pics below. The undoubted top bird, however, was the small group of African Skimmers that floated past us as they flew sorties to feed. It was yet another new bird for Tommy and Adam and I think one of their best.
We docked at around 10am and after dropping our equipment off at the hotel we grabbed a lift into town and were deposited at the entrance to the nature reserve where the viewing of the falls is most optimal. We were standing in the queue when my phone rang. It was an old school friend of my brother-in-law’s, Ioan, who flew helicopters in the town for one of the main operators. Ioan had lifted us from the airport and had suggested he may try squeeze us onto a helicopter flip over the falls if his scheduling allowed it. I hadn’t expected him to be calling me so soon, if at all, on such a busy weekend. He asked “what are you all doing now?” to which I replied we were standing in the queue for the falls. So, when he asked if we could be available immediately for a helicopter flip, it was a pretty quick and easy decision: “Of course we’re available!’’
We were picked up by the shuttle and whisked out of town to the helicopter base and within an hour we were all taken up and flown over the falls for the best view in town. I was fortunate to be in the same helicopter as Tommy, Adam, Jack and Annetjie and all of us were connected by the headphones and microphones and it was just amazing to hear the regularity of their exclamations of enjoyment as we did a figure of eight over the falls. It was their first time in a helicopter and it was a once in a lifetime experience for them. I don’t think they’ll ever forget it. Once again, the photos below do more justice to it than any of my words could.
It was quite hard coming down from that high (figuratively, not literally, as it was the smoothest landing) but we had our schedule and we had to stick to it! We raced back to the lodge which has a vulture feeding at 1pm every day. The hotel staff empty a cooler box full of bones in a clearing just in front of the lodge veranda and Hooded and White-backed Vultures and a smattering of Marabou Storks descend en masse and squabble over the relatively limited supply, given the demand from over 200 birds. It may sound contrived but given that the Old World vultures are amongst the most endangered creatures on the planet, this supplementary feeding in a safe, healthy environment is a positive service and certainly something worth experiencing.
With that now done we returned to the falls and paid our park fees for entry to the falls viewing paths. The helicopter views give a great perspective but it is the face to face views from across the gorge that really express the true power and volume of the 1.7km wide curtain of water. We split into two groups (between the boys and girls) and Tommy, Adam, Jack and I played like little children running from one viewpoint to another, getting completely soaked by the spray to try and take the most imaginative photos we could.
Ironically, it was on our walk in the rain forest that we saw one of our best birds of the trip – a pair of Orange-winged Pytilias – that appeared out of nowhere and then a few seconds later, disappeared into the thick bush never to be seen again. Unfortunately no usable photos but there were a few other birds worth taking pics of.
And so with that ticked we took a walk to the bridge to watch the bungee jumpers and bridge swingers but we pooh-poohed the zip line, having our 600m experience in the bag compared to the rather small 100m experience at the falls.
The day was rounded off with a sundowner at the iconic Victoria Falls Hotel and then dinner at the Boma restaurant where we stuffed ourselves with African cuisine and we took home a daughter who looked a lot more African than when she had arrived with her braided hair.
Our Zim road trip was sadly coming to an abrupt end but we would finish with a very large dessert. I had got in touch with Darryl Tiran months before our trip and asked him to assist us with an itinerary for our time in Vic Falls. Darryl had suggested, without hesitation, that we spend a day in Chobe. I would trust his judgement.
It was an appealing itinerary for the whole family but I think the kids were most excited for the four additional stamps they would get in their crisp and clean passports. We were shuttled from Vic Falls to the Zim/Botswana border at Kazangule and then crossed the border on foot, before being picked up by the tour operator on the Botswana side to take us to the Chobe Safari Lodge from where we got onto our river trip.
The format was similar to our time on the Zambezi but, by the time we got onto the boat and had all the admin dealt with (border posts, park permits, toilet stops and waiting for our boat), it was already mid-morning. It also meant we didn’t have the river to ourselves but it wasn’t actually a problem as there was plenty of space for us to focus on our birds as most of the other boats were focussed on the elephants (Chobe is probably the elephant capital of the world).
We had been counting Tommy’s list down to 700 species in the subregion for the whole trip. I knew it would be a close run thing but it was now coming down to the wire. We had a few target birds on the Chobe trip but all of them were quite tough, so it would continue to be touch and go. We were slowly cruising along a papyrus fringed channel when Tommy suddenly shouted “Coucal!” It was a Coppery-tailed Coucal, which was a new bird for him and I counted it as number 698.
That was soon followed by a few Collared Pratincoles, which were 699.
So, what would it be? Milestone birds are always memorable and to make them even more so it is always quite special to be an attractive, striking, iconic bird. We hoped for an African Pygmy-goose or a Slaty Egret. I almost couldn’t believe it when I spotted a cisticola sitting on a grass stem in a reed bed alongside the boat. I knew immediately it was a Luapula Cisticola and I knew that this would be number 700 for Tommy.
For those that are not birders, you would need to know that the birds that make up the cisticolidae family are the quintessential LBJs (Little Brown Jobs). There are 160 cisticola species worldwide (most occurring in Africa) and we have around 30 of them just in our subregion. I’m prepared to admit that to the untrained eye, they all look pretty much the same, so this Luapula Cisticola was virtually no different to the Levaillant’s that we see almost every day back home. Sure, the calls are different and they live in completely different habitats but it really wasn’t what one hopes for as a milestone bird.
I had to remind Tommy that my 700th species was a Buffy Pipit (ironically about 500m away from this Luapula Cisticola) and the only bird family that may make the cisticolas look exciting are the pipits.
Still, it was a good moment to celebrate and to reflect on Tommy’s wonderful journey alongside me as a birder. Our first trip together was to twitch the famous Golden Pipit back in 2010 when he was only 6 years old and we had done countless twitches and family trips together since then, and his list had climbed steadily. Although teenage interests and long lazy lie-ins had stolen a few of our birding moments, he had been a stalwart on our Zim trip and we owed many of our sightings to him as his sharp eyes had picked up stuff that Adam and I had missed.
I have to admit at this point, though, that we had made a calculation error on our list spreadsheet and Tommy was spared the cisticola as his milestone bird. In fact, it was the far more attractive Collared Pratincole that we had seen just before the cisticola.
A few more birds from the boat trip:
We spent most of our lunch break trawling the grounds of the Chobe Safari Lodge trying to find that silly little Brown Firefinch but, alas, no luck, so it was only the afternoon game drive that remained before we would be starting our long journey home.
I’m always reminded how lucky we are that we are birders when I drive through a big game park like Chobe where foreign tourists are the norm. In Chobe, the river route is jammed with foreigners all sitting on the edges of their seats waiting for the big game to appear. We had heard about a leopard with three cubs that had crossed the road a few hundred metres from us. I am always thrilled to see a leopard but we had already added great birds like Bradfield’s Hornbill, White-headed Vulture and Kori Bustard to our trip lists and so I was in a relaxed mood about the leopards. We passed about 10 vehicles who were now hunting this leopard and the panicked look on the faces of the tourists lest they miss this sighting were that reminder of how lucky we are to get excited about birds.
Well, we didn’t find the leopard but we were consoled by the last lifer for the boys on the way to the border as a pair of Meyer’s Parrots came screeching past us just before we were dropped off.
Our last night was spent at the very enjoyable River Brewing Company brewery in Vic Falls where we, once again, participated in the Buckham Road Trip quiz which has now become a tradition. It’s always a great summary and reminder of the wonderful time we have spent together as a family. There will be no revealing who the winner was…
It is now worth reflecting.
We visited some beautiful places and did some amazing things in a jam-packed 10 days. We logged almost 300 different bird species and took a ton of photos that will be a memory of our trip for a very long time. I know this blog has been a long one but I’m already looking forward to re-reading it in 10 years’ time to remind me of how special these family times really are.
Zim is a wonderful place to travel despite the challenges it has and despite the high expense. The people are incredibly friendly and it just feels safe, no matter which far flung corner you find yourself in. We will certainly be going back there.