We joined eight other birders on Reach Africa’s trip to Zimbabwe and Mozambique in the first two weeks of December. Included in the mature group was Neil Dittrich, 15 years old and with eyes like a hawk – so much so that he was only armed with a camera and no binoculars, but this was no handicap for him! With Grahame Snow and John Bradshaw as guides, we were in good hands and managed to see no less that 375 species during the trip. I personally got 333 which included 20 lifers, although I have to admit that one of them, a Rufous-Chested Sparrowhawk, was seen as I returned to Hermanus!
Our journey started in Johannesburg early on 3 December and we managed to reach Norma Jean’s on the edge of Lake Kyle that night, but not without huge hassles at the Beit Bridge border post. One cannot imagine a more chaotic place, with long queues, money-hungry touts and complete mayhem. We were able to avoid the worst, but not without some clever moves by our guides. What followed was the terrifying prospect of travelling on narrow, potholed roads with endless huge trucks and overladen taxis towing equally overladen trailers. This was to become the norm in both countries, with only occasional respite when a smooth section of road was encountered.
The birding around Lake Kyle was excellent, however, we had to press on to Mutare and the Eastern Highlands, where we spent a night at Seldomseen and had the benefit of some superb guiding in the forest by Bulowezi, one of the two resident guides. Regrettably we did not see the Swynnerton’s Robin, but managed many other species.
The next day saw us making a much easier crossing into Mozambique and a trip to Beira, where we had good accommodation close to the beach front. Two nights there gave us the opportunity to visit the Rio Savanne area, however, the fact that the rains had not yet arrived meant that many species could not be seen. We did manage to flush three Blue Quails and this caused much excitement amongst the group.
Our next stop, after a rough ride up the eastern side of Gorongosa, was Mpingwe Camp and the surrounding forests where our target bird was the Angola Pitta. Again, late rains meant that the area was very dry and although we heard a Pitta, we did not get to see one, despite three days of searching. This was not without incident as we managed to get lost on one occasion and it was only Neil’s compass that finally helped us to find our vehicles after a three hour walk!
Sleep deprivation was becoming the order of the day. We rose at around 3:30 am every day in order to be at our birding site by first light, and seldom returned or arrived at our destination before late evening. Never had beer tasted so good, and the local product was excellent!
The bird list was growing daily, but we had another target in mind. This time the Bohm’s Bee Eater, which would be a lifer for all twelve members of the party. The bird had been reported on the banks of the Zambezi, near Sena, so we set out along the stony road that led there. Luck was on our side and we soon had the Bee Eater in our sights and it caused much excitement. Only 38 birders had previously seen this bird in the Southern African region, so we were all pretty chuffed to record a joint 39th!
Our return south the next day was marred by 4 punctures, but Grahame was equipped with many cans of pressurised foam that kept us going, despite many stops. Another visit to the forests at Catapu for a final look for the Pitta proved fruitless, so we carried on south to Gorongosa and our destination at Piet and Ria van Zyl’s camp.
Early next morning those who had not previously seen the Green Headed Oriole climbed Mount Gorongosa under the expert leadership of Gerbre van Zyl. They saw many good birds and came back elated. A huge thunderstorm that evening broke the drought and cooled the air. We had seen many new birds and Neil’s lifer list appeared to be heading for a record!
The following day saw us heading back to Zimbabwe and Seldomseen, this time for two nights, thereby giving us the opportunity to not only bird in the highland forests, but also in the Miombo woodlands which proved to be very productive. A good view of a Spotted Creeper had everyone in awe, as did the Tree and Striped Pipits. Wilna managed to see the extremely rare Blackcap – only the tenth sighting in the region, so she was over the moon!
A long drive down into the Lowveld, this time via Triangle and Chiredzi, to the Lion and Elephant Hotel, heralded our last stop on the trip, before another day of mayhem and confusion at the Beit Bridge border, however, we made it back safely and could all look back on a very worthwhile outing. It gave us a true insight into birdlife (and life) in these troubled countries, where poverty reigns. We probably all needed a holiday after the timetable to which we had been subjected!
Our guides were truly excellent and I do not hesitate to recommend Reach Africa to anybody wishing to extend their birding knowledge in the region.