Birding in Botswana and Namibia

I named it the SABONABONASA trip since it went from SA to Botswana, thence into the Caprivi (Namibia) back to Botswana and then through Namibia again before returning to SA.  No less than 6500km were covered, giving all the participants a good chance to get to know each other quite well!

Japie Claassen was our guide and did all the driving, whilst Ralie, his wife, kept us well fed throughout the trip.  Between them, they were able to quickly identify every bird we saw along the way!  Also with us were Lee Burman from Hermanus and Neal Reynolds from Kommetjie.  When we arrived in Francistown, we were joined by Derick and Charmaine Oosthuizen, also from Cape Town, but they were only with us until we left Drotsky’s Camp in Botswana.  Needless to say, they had their own transport.

We left Hermanus on Thursday 8 December and travelled as far as Beaufort West.  There, we did some Karoo birding and were delighted to see a great many Karoo Korhaans as well as both Kori and Ludwig’s Bustards.  The weather was pretty cool for midsummer and we wondered if we had the right clothing with us.

Next day saw us driving the long road to Mafikeng.  What a dismal and dirty town it has become.  Even in what appeared to be the most affluent part, there was rubbish strewn in every direction!!  We stayed in a Nature Reserve bordering the town, so were able to avoid the worst, but it certainly is not the spot to choose for one’s retirement!  We saw many birds along the way, but did not have much time for stopping, except in Kimberley where we studied the swifts in the Big Hole.

On Saturday we crossed the border into Botswana and the birding started to get more interesting on the long road to Francistown.  I got my first lifer of the trip, whilst Neal, who started from a fairly low base, was busy writing up lifer after lifer.  At this stage we were really still en route to our northerly destination, so we had to be content with roadside birds, but there appeared to be plenty of them.  The weather had, by now, warmed up and we were into the tropics.  Rain threatened and by the time we reached Woodlands, our very comfortable overnight stop on the banks of the Tati River, it had become a reality. We heard a Giant Eagle Owl and Neal was proud to be the first to see it, but what he saw turned out to be a monkey!  He was, in equine terms, taking his first tumble!!

From Francistown we continued north to Kasane, passing many elephants along the road.  We were now in prime birding territory and the lifers really started to mount up.  We stayed at the Chobe Safari Lodge and were able to see many new birds in the lush gardens and along the river.  Next day we took a cruise along the Chobe River and were enthralled at the number of interesting birds along the river banks.  The proliferation of herons and kingfishers was amazing, and we also saw our fair share of hippos and crocodiles.  Our cruise ended with all of us soaked as we were caught in a very heavy downpour, but our spirits were not dampened.  With the sighting of a Rock Pratincole, I had seen my 700th bird and the drinks would be on me that evening!  In the afternoon we took a drive in the Chobe Game Reserve and were treated to more new sights, but managed to get through without seeing a single elephant as they had all moved south after the good rains.

On Tuesday 18 December we crossed the border into the Caprivi Strip and drove north to Katima Mulilo.  Lee wasn’t feeling too well  and appeared to have picked up a bug, but managed to see a doctor who was able to assist.  We picked up some groceries and proceeded along a very slippery clay road to our destination for the next two nights, Kalizo Fishing Camp, on the banks of the Zambezi.  One of our objectives was to see the Carmine Bee-Eater colony close to the camp, but we were a week too late as most of the birds had already departed.  Apparently they arrive in late August and leave in the first week of December, and there are usually between 3000 and 5000 birds present at the height of the season.  We nevertheless managed to see a good number of them, but were disappointed to see the Yellow-billed Kites preying on the younger birds.

Our camp was filled with the songs of Swamp Boubous, Mourning Doves and White-browed Robin Chats as well as the raucous calls of the Hartlaub’s Babblers.  A Barn Owl stood guard at the entrance and we saw many Coppery-tailed Coucals and Open-bill Storks.  It rained continuously and the weather was hot, but we were lucky not to be troubled by mosquitoes.

On our second evening there, Derick stepped outside to check on the hot water boiler and got the fright of his life when the lid of the septic tank gave way underneath him!  Only some very agile footwork and a good dose of adrenalin kept him from falling in, which must have relieved him immensely, as Charmaine vowed that he would have had to find his own way back to SA had he done so!!  It was certainly a narrow escape from a fate worse than death.

By now the ice had been well and truly broken and Neal came into his own as a raconteur of note!  He kept us all in fits of laughter with his stories and repartee!

On Thursday 15 December, we drove the short distance to Camp Kwando, a delightful destination on the banks of the Kwando River.  Our cabins were on stilts over the water and the bird life was plentiful.  We went to sleep that night to the sounds of a massive choir of frogs.  Somehow, the noises that keep us awake in Hermanus, were pure music in the bush!

From Kwando we wandered westwards up the Caprivi, stopping occasionally for interesting sitings, until we reached Shankara Camp.  Our main pre-occupation on this leg of the journey was to find a Souza’s Shrike, but we were unsuccessful.  We did, however, see many other species and the lifer lists continued to grow.  Neal was, by this time, pushing 100 and claimed writer’s cramp!!

From Shankara we retraced our route back to Divundu, where we turned south and entered the Mahango Game Park before crossing the border into Botswana once more.  It was not long before we reached Shakawe.  The heat was beginning to take its toll on Neal and when he disappeared into Choppies Supermarket, we thought he was on shopping expedition.  Not so!  We found him hanging over the freezers and trying to get between the cold meats as a means of cooling down!!  It wasn’t easy to extricate him!

A short distance further down the road we reached the turn off to Drotsky’s Cabins, a beautiful spot on the banks of the Okavango River.  The accommodation was excellent and the pool was put to good use prior to the usual evening activity of a beer or two before dinner.  Next day saw us out on the river looking for the elusive Pel’s Fishing Owl.  We did not find it, but did see a good number of other birds, including the Luapula Cisticola and Slaty Egret.  Later in the afternoon after a wet trip down river, we returned to the camp and Jan Drostky led us into the forest near to the old chalets, where he managed to locate two Pel’s Owls, much to the delight of all present!  Derick also showed his skill in bird calls by summoning a couple of Narina Trogons which displayed in the branches above us.  Needless to say, I had left my camera behind as there was rain around and I did not want it to get wet, so missed the shot which I wanted most!

Neal, meantime, was getting distracted by every dog we met along the way.  He had left Colleen in Cape Town as she apparently is not a birder, but he had also left their three dogs and a cat there and was missing them hugely.  He said that they normally travel everywhere with them!

Monday morning, the 19th December, and we arose somewhat sadly.  It was the start of our return jourmey and we had to bid Derick and Charmaine goodbye.  They had been fine travelling companions and had both proved themselves to be expert birders.  They would stay on at Drotsky’s, before taking a slow journey home via the Kalagahdi and Tankwa Reserves.   We set off on the long road via Ghanzi, across the border into Namibia, to our overnight destination of Gobabis.  The scenery changed dramatically from the wet forests of the delta, to the dry scrublands of the central Kalahari.

New birds were becoming scarce, but we had all added a good few lifers to our lists and were well satisfied with what we had seen.  On Tuesday the road via Windhoek produced a few more interesting species, but we were temporarily diverted from our birdwatching when Renée managed to slam the Combi door on her fingers!  Fortunately, she broke nothing except her skin, but we all got an awful fright at the thought of what might have happened.  We proceeded south to Mariental where we had accommodation on a farm in the irrigation areas below the Hardap Dam.  It was a very hot afternoon and we were parched as we chased birds along the river bank and in the fields irrigated by the dam.

Fortunately, it was cooler on Wednesday for our journey to Springbok.  This necessitated our final border crossing, earning us our tenth passport stamp of the trip.  All went smoothly and we arrived in Namaqualand in time to spend a good few hours birding.  We were rewarded with a fine sighting of a Cinnamon-breasted Warbler, Karoo Eremomelas and Cape Penduline Tits.   We had our final dinner together and Neal once again entertained us with a fine song he had written about our trip (to the tune of “Ag, please Daddy” by Jeremy Taylor)

The last leg of our journey took us to Somerset West, where Neal was to meet Colleen.  We had our last roadside breakfast  (mine was always muesli and marmalade sandwiches – I will miss them!).  It was cold and raining by the time we arrived and Neal looked positively miserable as he bid us farewell!  He did, however, perk up when Colleen arrived a few minutes later.  We carried on to Hermanus, well satisfied with our two week experience.   As a group we had seen 412 separate species, whilst my personal list stood at 407.  I had added no less than 29 new lifers to my list, Lee had added around 38 and I think that Neal had no less than 161 new birds to look back on!  We had learnt that we needed to hone our observation skills if we ever to call ourselves real birders.  The difference between what our guides saw in a bird and what we saw was like chalk and cheese!!

We had also seen a new part of southern Africa and met interesting people along the way.  All in all, it was an uplifting experience and one that will remain in our memories forever.

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