How does one put two weeks of birding in Mozambique into a few short paragraphs? Well, its just impossible. Renee and I flew to Johannesburg on Sunday 17 July and joined Maans Booysen of WETO at 04h30 next morning in Centurion for the start of our journey to our eastern neighbour. With us were Japie and Ralie Claassen of Karoo Birding Safaris in Beaufort West, through whom we had arranged the trip, along with Dries Herbst from Pretoria, Sita Rootman, also from Pretoria, Cherry Mills from Hermanus, Dawid and Jean Roussouw from Prince Albert, Leonie Fouche from Graaff Reinet, and Hilda De Wit and Maria Andela from Beaufort West. We travelled in three vehicles, each with a guide, and we were in the lead vehicle with Maans.
The journey to the border was uneventful and we started to get to know each other at petrol and pit stops. At Komatipoort we were struck by the ladies who sat at the side of the road, ready to take our Rands in exchange for Meticais at whatever rate they could extract from us. Then came the border with its standard fare of bribery and threats, but we got through relatively unscathed and proceeded into Mozambique. We did not go as far as Maputo, but turned off to the north and took a gravel detour to Xai Xai, our first stopover. The camp, named The Honeypot comprised a collection of wooden buildings which we managed to move into just prior to the power failing, after which we had no more lights, but nevertheless managed to get a good meal prepared over a small gas stove – just how, we never quite worked out!
Next day we set off early (as we did every day – standard rising time was 05h00 unless we had an earlier departure, in which case it was 03h30!) and made our way to the Limpopo floodplains for our first dose of special birds. Thanks to Maans’ wonderful eyesight and incredible birding skills the lifers started to mount up and even he saw three on that first day!
We then drove on to Panda, where our principle objective was the Olive-headed Weaver, and we were not disappointed. In a patch of brachystegia woodland we found it in a bird party along with Racket-tailed Rollers, Grey Penduline Tits, Red Faced Crombecs and many others. And so it went on the birding front. I will not attempt to name every bird we saw. Suffice it to say that I personally noted 333 species of which 83 were lifers, bringing my total to 691. This might not be huge by Mozambiquan standards, but one must remember that it was winter and the migrants were not present – otherwise we would have had far more. What we did have was good weather on no mosquitoes, which was wonderful! Maans was, as I have said, the finest guide one could wish for and I refer you to his website at www.weto.co.za for further information on the birds and his tour options. I would also refer you to www.karoobirding.wetpaint.com, Japie Claassen’s site, should you be interested in Karoo birding trips.
Our next night was at Zavorra near to Inharrime. Here we stayed in a resort comprising a couple of bungalows with a restaurant. Once again the lights went out early, leaving us stranded in the dark. We were beginning to think this was the norm. Our cottage was on the beach and we were thrilled to see a Western Reef Heron flying low over us next morning as we prepared to depart.
Another day of intense birding and many more lifers brought us to Ponta de Barra, where we stayed for two nights in a resort near Barra Lodge called Makolo Bay, occupying two beach bungalows. We had our first swim in the warm Indian Ocean and watched the dhows fishing in the flat, clear water. Our birding comprised searching the mangrove swamps and adjacent beaches as well as the endless coconut palm covered plains and wetlands, and we missed the absent waders.
By now we were a coherent group and had got to know each other quite well – a good thing too as the walls in our cottages did not go right up and all sounds travelled with ease! Eating arrangements were becoming entrenched – dinner at a restaurant at our overnight stop, with breakfast and lunch eaten on the road and normally comprising a bread roll and banana, bought from a stall at the side of the road.
Inhassoro and the Hotel Seta was our next stop, thankfully for only one night. The hotel was quite okay, but the noise from the adjacent night club never ceased and they were still going strong as the sun rose. We had our first (and last) sit-down breakfast! On the road in, we passed through Vilankulos, but were disappointed in the town. The birding, however, never ceased to amaze and the lifers continued to pile up every day.
After a long day on the road we arrived in Beira – and what a let-down that was. It was sad to see how poverty stricken Mozambique is and this was nowhere more in evidence than in Beira. Our hotel was on the outskirts and we could not believe that the track we turned onto would lead us to our digs for the next three nights. Fortunately it led to a small oasis (in the Mozambiquan sense of the word) which was comfortable and where the lights stayed on all night. Our birding whilst there was to the north, on the floodplains of the Rio Savane and the adjacent patches of dense forest where Greenbulls, Malkohas and Apalises abounded. On the plains we saw new species of Waxbills as well as Pipits, Larks, and many others.
Early on Tuesday 26th, we set off for Catapu, just south of the Zambezi River. I have thusfar omitted to say anything about the roads, which were very potholed in parts, especially the highway from Zimbabwe to Beira. Others, like the EN1 which is the main north-south highway were, for the most part, pretty good. Unfortunately, the same could not be said of the unpaved roads. We were lucky to be there in the dry season and one could only imagine what they would be like in the wet!
At Catapu, we spent two nights in the very comfortable Mphingwe Camp. This is situated in beautiful forest and our circular drive the next day included some very intense birding in the surrounding forests. We were after the elusive East Coast Akalat and were not disappointed. We failed to see the White-chested Alethe, despite long periods of sitting quietly in the dense undergrowth calling it, but were happy with a large flock of Silvery-cheeked Hornbills.
Then came the highlight of the trip, when we arrived in Piet and Ria’s van Zyl’s camp in the area adjacent to Gorongosa Park. It was a very rustic set-up with a huge homestead and boma made of branches and reeds – quite unlike anything we had ever seen, and our accommodation was in tents under similarly rustic grass and reed covers. We had two nights there (unfortunately the water supply was somewhat intermittent) and enjoyed the wonderful hospitality offered by our hosts. Their daughter Gerbre, aged 16, guided us up onto the lower slopes of Mount Gorongosa on Friday. It was an unforgettable experience. After a nearly three hour drive up a very poor track, we walked the last few kilometres until we reached the rain forest, where we we greeted by sighting of the elusive Green-headed Oriole, a very special bird for South African birders. Gerbre, one of four very talented children of the van Zyls, speaks English, Afrikaans, Portuguese, two local languages, as well as some Spanish. She knows the names of all the birds in English, Afrkaans and Sena and was a very knowledgable guide, even describing some of the local geology. And here’s the best part – she is self-taught, having been home schooled along with her equally talented siblings, whose only assistance has been some occasional input from their mother! They are a truly remarkable family!
From Gorongosa with its special African aura, we travelled through Chimoio and Manica to Mutare in Zimbabwe for the last part of our trip. We spent the night in the White Horse Inn in the Vumba (Renee and I had stayed there in 1969 and found it little changed). Once again we were beset by electricity shortages, but had a good meal and a comfortable night. The birding concentrated on Swynnerton’s Robin and we were lucky to have one approach to within a metre. We also saw the elusive Buff-spotted Flufftail and some Red-throated Twinspots – all special birds for most of us, and we were ably assisted in our search by Peter, the long time guide at Seldomseen. The Vumba region appeared little changed, compared with the rest of Zimbabwe, which has gone downhill rapidly since our last visit in 1992.
Next day saw us travelling to Lake Kyle and then on to the Lion and Elephant Inn on the Bubi River. What had once been beautiful ranches with healthy herds of cattle was now a desert with nothing more than a few scrawny goats. It was a shock to see and made us want to weep. The country must now be at an all time low and, like so much of Mozambique, is broken by war, greed and misguided ideology.
On Monday 1st August we drove the 60km left to the Beit Bridge border post and crossed into South Africa again, well satisfied with our birding experience and sorry that it was over. It was our first trip to Mozambique and it was an eye-opener. The country has been laid bare by the ravages of war and its people have been brought to their knees. One could measure the extent of the problem through birds – in two weeks I did not see a single Egyptian Goose, but I did see a bundle of live queleas on their way to market! Now that really does say something about hunger. For all that, the people were friendly and one sees the beginnings of new development in the region. One can only keep one’s fingers crossed and hope that the country will go forward and regain some of its former economic independence. The potential is certainly there.
Finally, I can only commend Maans for providing us with an unforgettable experience. He has the most incredible ability to see and identify birds that most of us would never find. One would have to go a long way to find a better guide.
Click on the images to enlarge them.