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inyathi

Zambia

 

An off the beaten track adventure in search of special birds and mammals

 

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In February 2018 I visited Uganda, not only one of Africa’s best birding countries but probably the best country to see barbets, just because of the number of different species that occur in the country, at the end of the trip I’d amassed quite a haul of barbet species and passable photos of some of them. Knowing I now had a lot of barbet photos, I decided to add all of my African barbets to the Bird Identification images section here on ST, this led to a conversation on the subject of barbets with @offshorebirder This discussion prompted me to look at just how many African barbets I’d actually seen and then where I would need to go, to knock of some of the remaining species, I said that I needed to visit West Africa somewhere like Ghana and then otherwise perhaps Zambia, the latter country is home to three barbet species that I’d not seen including the endemic Chaplin’s or Zambian barbet. This discussion on barbets was really the genesis of this Zambian safari, but before fully committing I needed to finalise my plan to visit Ghana, where I went in February, I’d been wanting to go to Ghana for some time, for many reasons not just to see new barbets. As a consequence, we were perhaps a little late in planning our Zambian safari, at least from the point of view of persuading other members of ST to join us. Nate persuaded his good friend and birding companion Roger to join us, so it looked like it would just be the three of us and a guide.  

 

I’d already visited Zambia a couple of times, the first time was a brief stop at Livingstone taking in the Zambian side of Vic Falls, tacked on to the end of a Botswana safari, this was followed by  a wet season visit to South Luangwa as an add to a Malawian safari, the next time was a longer visit taking in Kafue, Lower Zambezi and South Luangwa again. Zambia happens to be, at the right time of year one of the best countries to see, one of what birders might call Africa’s ‘grail birds’ the hardest to see species on every birders’ wish list, the bird in question is the African or Angolan pitta. Africa’s ultimate grail bird has to be the Congo peacock endemic to the DRC, but next on the list I would suggest are Africa’s two pitta species, the green-breasted and African, both very challenging birds to see. These birds only call during their short breeding season when they are pairing up, at other times they are just about invisible.

 

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Pitta Angolensis by Daniel Giraud Elliot in 1893
Daniel Giraud Elliot, American zoologist [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

 

The African pitta is an intra-African migrant and when not breeding  it is found in the CAR, DRC and parts of East Africa in Kenya, Uganda and Northern Tanzania, where it lives in dense understorey vegetation on the forest floor, generally it sits very still watching for movements in the leaf litter,  after jumping on and eating its invertebrate prey, it goes back to sitting very still. Since it doesn’t call at all during this time, it is very difficult to see, people based in Africa most often see them by chance on migration as they fly at night and can become confused by lights, occasional birds have thus turned up in safari camps and lodges and other places. In around about late November through December they turn up to breed primarily in riverine thickets mainly in the Zambezi Valley and neighbouring areas of Mozambique. Recently Zambia has become one of the best places to try and see this bird. Nate suggested that we try for the pitta and time our trip accordingly.

 

I agreed but, while I particularly wanted to see the Chaplin’s barbet and the pitta, I felt that if I was to return to Zambia, I really wanted to include some other entirely new places that I had not visited before. in particular the Mwinilunga region in the northwest, this is one of the best birding areas in Zambia as it borders both Angola and the DRC and has some birds that you would otherwise need to visit those countries to see. I also wanted to visit Liuwa Plains having read various reports on this park and if at all possible, include a trip to Bangweulu Wetlands to see the black lechwe antelope and something I’ve always wanted to see the great bat migration in Kasanka NP, if we could include a visit to Kafue too that would be good, as I was keen to go back there. These were just some of the initial ideas that we had had, before we approached Roy Glasspool of Bedrock Africa Birding, by far the best people to arrange a Zambian birding safari. To see the bats necessitates visiting in November or December, which ties in very nicely with the pitta, but it soon became apparent that visiting Mwinilunga at this time of year simply isn’t an option. Liuwa NP was a possibility, Jeffrey and Mc Keith who will be known to some here, have a mobile camp that they can set up in Liuwa, but they need a minimum of four people, which we didn’t have, the only other option really is King Lewanika Lodge but this is very expensive, after some brief discussion reluctantly we dropped Liuwa.  Instead we decided we would visit Lochinvar NP, which on paper at least sounded like it should be amazing. Roy also suggested including Mutinondo Wilderness Reserve, this is not somewhere that I was familiar with, however when I looked it up in the book Southern African Bird Finder, I knew this was definitely a good idea.

 

While I would like to have returned to Zambia at a time of year when I could include Mwinilunga, I knew that on balance a decent view of the pitta would more than make up for not being able to go there this time, and arranging a safari specifically to see the African pitta is the only way I would likely ever get to see this bird. You could spend a lifetime going on regular African safaris and never see the pitta, even going to the right area at that right time of year you’d be very unlikely to see one just by luck, you need to know where to find it and how.    

 

Although the two major objectives around which the trip was centred were finding new barbets and seeing the pitta, this was by no means exclusively a birding trip. of equal importance was seeing some of the rare and interesting mammals that are found in Zambia.

 

Interesting mammals like the species we hoped was nesting in the hole in this tree

 

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Not just new species, but also new subspecies like the Kafue Lechwe that is endemic to Zambia 

 

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Before long Roy had put together an itinerary that we all agreed would do nicely.

 

This is brief summary of our itinerary.

 

18th November arrive in Livingstone, afternoon birding in Mosi-oa-Tunya NP around Vic Falls

19th Nov drive to Machile Important Bird Area to look for endemic black-cheeked lovebirds

20th Nov Transfer to Masuku Lodge Nkanga Conservation Area for Chaplin’s/Zambian barbet.

21st Nkanga Conservation Area

22nd Lochinvar National Park daytrip

23rd Transfer Masuku Lodge to Forest Inn

24th Transfer to Kasanka National Park

25th Kasanka NP

26th Bangweulu Wetlands daytrip

27th Transfer Kasanka to Mutinondo Wilderness Lodge

28th Mutinondo Wilderness

29th Transfer Mutinondo to Wright’s farm

30th Transfer to Zambezi Valley

1st Dec search for pitta

2nd Dec Transfer to Lake Kariba Inn

3rd Dec Transfer to Cresta Golf View Hotel Lusaka

4th Dec departure Lusaka Airport

 

For the duration of the trip we would be driven around and guided by Kyle Branch from Tusk and Mane Safaris, this as we discovered would be a real privilege as he an exceptional bird guide with an encyclopaedic knowledge of the bush, ordinarily he’s based in Lower Zambezi National Park where he and his business partner Luke Evans currently operate two safari camps Chula Island and Kutali Island (and will soon open a third camp Tafara Springs). 

 

This we all hoped was going to be an amazing trip, Zambia here we come!

 

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Let the adventure begin!

Edited by inyathi

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inyathi

Getting to Zambia or not?

 

Satisfied that we had what should be an excellent safari planned out, I paid my deposit and once committed I thought I might just as well get on and book my flights, since our dates were fixed and our ground plans sorted. I phoned the UK travel agent Trailfinders who I always use to book flights, to get me to Livingstone on the 18th of November, they offered me a choice of British Airways or South African Airways. This was not very long after I had returned from my safari to Ghana, to get there I’d flown to Accra on British Airways, this should have been great because the flight is only around six to six and a half hours and there’s no time difference, thus you can leave home at reasonable hour in the morning for the airport, fly around lunchtime and arrive in Accra not too late the same evening. However, the flight was delayed for over an hour before we boarded and then because of that we missed our take off slot causing further delay, this meant we arrived in Accra very late, such that when we reached our first hotel they’d closed the restaurant, the only food we had was packet of melted milk chocolate hobknob biscuits that our guide had found. I would probably have forgiven BA if our guide hadn’t said that their flights our always late. I was still annoyed about this when talking to Trailfinders, so thinking that SAA couldn’t be worse than BA and was of a pretty similar standard or so I thought, I chose to go with SAA. It was cheaper and I didn’t want to fly BA again, the downside was that had I opted to fly BA I might have paid a bit extra and chosen to fly premium economy, this is an option not offered by SAA.

 

Knowing that my companions were also flying SAA and would thus be on the same flight to Livingstone, I thought that’ll make our arrival in Zambia and the start of our safari much easier. As departure grew nearer, I suggested to Nate that I would meet them at a restaurant called Mug and Bean when I arrived at O.R. Tambo, we could hang out there until we needed to board our Livingstone flight.

I was looking forward to my departure which was scheduled for 18:05 on Sunday the 17th of November arriving in ORT at 07:50 on Monday the 18th and then flying on again on SAA at 10:40 arriving in Livingstone at 12:20. On Thursday the 14th of November the bombshell hit, SAA would be going on strike on the Friday, Nate and Roger’s flight from New York to ORT had been cancelled and they were trying to sort out alternative flights, I initially got the mistaken impression from the SAA website that my flight was unaffected, but realised I’d better phone Trailfinders urgently and see what the real situation was. For a while at least I wondered whether any of us would make it out Zambia or just when exactly we might get there and what would happen if we arrived on different days. When I spoke to Trailfinders it was clear that my flight had as I feared been cancelled, they informed me that the alternative BA flight which I had rejected months ago was full but not yet listed as closed on their computer,  but there were seats on an earlier BA flight leaving on Saturday the 17th. Between being on standby for the 17th and having a confirmed flight on the 16th and leaving day earlier than intended, there was no choice I couldn’t take the risk that Sunday BA flight really was full and end up having to fly a day or more later messing up the start of the safari. Flying on the 16th would of course mean that I would need to stay the night in Joburg on the 17th and then return to ORT to fly to Livingstone. The simplest think to do, especially as the accommodation recommended by Roy from Bedrock was fully booked was just to get Trailfinders to book a room, since I would only be there for an afternoon and one night it made sense to stay close to ORT, I reckoned I had enough to worry about without having to try and workout where best to stay, so I simply opted for the Protea next to ORT, not the cheapest nor the nicest option but I wanted to get a room booked and out of the way. Then on Friday the 15th I woke up to the not unexpected news that our Livingstone flight had been cancelled, while my consultant at Trailfinders was busy dealing with other SAA passengers, I had a quick look at the flight search website Momondo a website I discovered a few years ago and use purely for looking up flights, I quickly saw that there was a slightly later flight BA/Comair going from JNB to LVI, that would get me in not much over 20 minutes later than originally scheduled, failing that there was another Comair flight a bit later going to Vic Falls in Zim, if I had to get that flight it would just mean having to pay $50 for a visa to cross the border. Our first two nights’ accommodation was at the Avani Resort at Victoria Falls, it would have been annoying but not the end of the world if we had had to fly into Livingstone on Tuesday the 19th, we would only miss a day and the rest of the trip would be unaffected. When I finally got back through to Trailfinders the first thing he said was I’ve got you on the 11:00 Comair flight to Livingstone. On the Thursday morning, I had no idea if I would even get to South Africa never mind Zambia, by Friday afternoon I was confirmed on two alternative flights and had a night’s accommodation in JNB booked and knew that I would arrive on Monday the 18th as planned. I just hoped that when I got to ORT, I would find Nate and Roger waiting to meet me at the Mug and Bean, I will leave it to …. To explain the travel nightmare, they endured to get themselves to ORT.

Besides the serious matter of not really knowing whether I would still be able to fly home on the 4yj of December on SAA as intended, my only fear now was that I would forget all sorts of things as a consequence of having to leave home a day early.

 

Approaching Johannesburg

 

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Despite numerous safaris I’ve never actually visited South Africa, an omission I’ve always intended to put right someday, I didn’t envisage that the first time I set foot outside ORT would be a one-night stop in a nearby hotel. Although I may have had just enough time to visit somewhere in an around JNB for some very brief sightseeing, I didn’t get a lot of sleep on my BA flight and this was in any case late, they had emailed me before departure to say the flight was delayed and then when we arrived, there was a mix up which meant that our plane had to be towed to a different parking bay much further away causing further delay, so I thought on balance I’d rather just rest at the Protea and not go out. Getting through the airport was for once extremely easy, British citizens don’t require a visa to enter SA and they weren’t operating the usual camera and fingerprint machines at the passports desks as seems to be the norm arriving at African airports, I literally sailed through and picked my bag almost straight off the carousel, this was just about my fastest exit through an airport ever. Except that the Hotel pick up point wasn’t that well sign posted, at airports in Africa one thing to try and avoid is having a porter latch on to you offering to help out, as once attached you will find that like a limpet they are hard to get off, in this case I was too tired to mind.

 

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The Protea is not a particularly attractive hotel, but it might still be quite nice if it were in another location, after a short rest I investigated the birding opportunities in the garden, it has a nice pool area with the usual sun loungers and some tables and chairs under some big shady trees, but behind these trees is a steep grassy slope with a busy very noisy main road down below on the other side and beyond that the airport. If you stand at the top of the bank you can look across at some of the big jets parked at ORT. Very briefly it started to rain and having seen five birds which was as many as ai expected to see, I decided to retire back to my room, mainly because the noise from the road was too much to make it a pleasant place to relax. Other than that, it was a perfectly nice hotel and the buffet dinner was pretty good. I was a bit surprised as I’d not come across this before, perhaps it’s a sign of how things are in South Africa, but if you want your meals put on your room then you have to pay a R500 deposit when you check-in. I was told that this just applied to dinner and breakfast and that if I wanted lunch I should just pay at the time, my intention had been to have lunch and then dinner but not breakfast, I opted not to pay the deposit, in the end after falling asleep for a little while in the room, I decided lunch was pretty much over and I should just have dinner, which I paid for afterwards with my credit card. As far as I know I had no trouble with my credit card there or later when I used it to withdraw Kwachas from an ATM in Zambia, whereas my iPad really didn’t like the fact that it was in South Africa, which made emailing the UK to say I’d arrived okay more difficult than necessary.

 

For whatever reason, whether because I’d already slept for a bit, or maybe because of the stress or likely because I’d just taken my first malaria tablet, I didn’t get very much sleep, which was particularly annoying as I’d barely slept at all on my flight, but at least I had had a comfortable hotel bed.  

 

Having opted to meet my companions at Mug and Bean in ORT I’d decided to have breakfast there and not at the hotel, I took the appropriate shuttle to ORT arriving in good time. Initially I was a little unsure as to how to proceed into the airport, a porter helpfully showed me how to use the automatic check-in, when you enter the airport you just scan your passport enter a few details and it prints out your boarding card. He then explained where the BA desk was, having learned my lesson from the previous morning, I said “right so it’s all the way down there, okay I’ll find it, thank you” and strode off, I had no intention of letting him latch on, having brushed him off I quickly found my way to the gate.

 

Back in August 2017, I went to London to see the South African musician Johnny Clegg give his penultimate London Concert, at the time he was suffering from pancreatic cancer but in remission, sadly but not unexpectedly he died in July this year, at the concert I purchased a couple of T-shirts on of which has the title of one of his hits on it a song called “Woza Friday”. I had decided to bring these T-shirts to wear in the evenings, they’re black so I wouldn’t chose to wear them during the day, however I thought I’d put on my Woza Friday T-shirt to go through ORT as I could change in to another shirt in Livingstone, Woza Friday is a Zulu expression that means come Friday or I suppose “I wish it was Friday” this seemed appropriate as it was Monday morning. As I approached security to go through passport control, one of the guys looked at me and said “ah woza Friday, but why It’s only Monday?” that put a smile on my face, not many minutes later I was through and walking towards Mug and Bean which is just beyond security, would my companions be there?

 

Over to @offshorebirder

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offshorebirder

First I should say what an honor Roger and I considered going on a safari with @inyathi, not to mention Kyle Branch as well as Rory McDougall for part of the trip.  I learned a lot listening to those gentlemen and being with them in the field.

 

@inyathi describes the genesis of our trip planning very well.  From my perspective, an African Pitta quest was something that kept nagging at me and the Bat spectacle at Kasanka had been on my mind.  

 

 

 

I also wanted to see new barbets, tinkerbirds and other goodies in mopane and miombo woodlands.  Kenya's woodlands had seemed degraded and frankly disappointed me.  I wanted to bird and look for rare and difficult mammals in Zambia's vast tracts of unspoiled forest and mixed-habitat mosaics I had heard  about.  

 

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In terms of timing: Pittas and bats occurred at the same time - late November and early December - which was also the start of the green season and birds should be advertising and in good plumage.  We wanted to see herds of some special game as well as waterbird and shorebird spectacles if possible.  

 

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Though Liuwa Plains did not work out this time, I do hope to visit at the right time of year some day.  As a consolation, we had a good time at Lochinvar and saw some great birds.  

 

In talking to Roy Glasspool at Bedrock Africa, we learned that a visit to the Bangweulu Wetlands would be possible.  We could do so while staying at Wasa Lodge in Kasanka National Park - assuming heavy rains had not rendered access roads impassable.  Let's give it a shot, we decided.

 

I don't want to give away the story, but Kyle really did well in putting together a spur-of-the-moment game drive into Chiawa GMA, after our not needing as much time hunting the Pitta.   This hunting block, now photographic reserve, borders Lower Zambezi National Park to the southwest, has river frontage and provided excellent mammals and birding.  We were  across the Zambezi river from Mana Pools at certain points I believe.

 

I cannot say enough good things about Bedrock Africa and Kyle Branch of Tusk and Mane.  Highly skilled and attentive to detail, ultra-competent and know everybody.  Masuku Lodge is a joy to visit - I could stay there for months happily.  We had a great time on this safari - enjoyed more than one excellent night drive, a superb boat ride, and hardy slogs through dambos and mushitu thickets.  The Mutinondo Wilderness is an incredible place - multiple other parties we encountered were visiting both Mutinondo and Kasanka NP.  

 

We are already plotting our return to Zambia, at a different time of year to include the Mwinilunga area up in the northwest corner near the borders with Angola and DRC.  

 

Rob's summary of the itinerary was spot-on; here is a little bit more detail about the final part and what the actual-rather-than-planned itinerary became.

 

30th Nov Transfer to Zambezi Valley for pitta, afternoon pitta search.
1st Dec Early morning pitta search, midmorning-afternoon game drive in nearby Chiawa GMA.
2nd Dec Morning river cruise on the Zambezi, afternoon transfer to Lake Kariba Inn.
3rd Dec Morning birding down to the Zambezi at Tamarind  Camp, afternoon transfer to Cresta Golf View Hotel Lusaka
4th Dec Birding the grounds of the Cresta Golf View, afternoon departure Lusaka Airport.

 

Despite the often-cloudy conditions, we  were treated  to some exceptional scenery.  This is the view out the back of one of the bat hides at Kasanka.  

 

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But the journey to reach Zambia was a 48-hour ordeal...
 

Edited by offshorebirder

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Atravelynn

Will we learn of any forgotten items as the trip progresses?  Hope all uncertainties with getting there were not to stressful.  Looking forward to the "batmen" of Kasanka and the rest!

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offshorebirder

When Roger and I had made our travel plans, we had chosen South African Airways.  The only three 'jet airliner' options (with generous baggage allowances) into Livingstone airport are SAA, Kenya Airways, and British Airways.  We did not fancy London or Nairobi as an extra step between New York and Johannesburg, hence the choice of SAA.  Roger and I were due to fly Jetblue from Charleston to New York on Saturday, overnight, then Sunday morning fly from New York to Johannesburg on SAA.  Then from Joburg to Livingstone on a SAA flight with @inyathi

 

Little did we know that SAA employees would go on strike three days before our scheduled departure, causing the cancelation of our outbound flights.  

 

The travel agent I had used to book the airfares got in touch on Thursday.  He said he could rebook us on an Ethiopian Airlines flight from New York to Addis Ababa to Johannesburg in time for the flight to Livingstone.  Said that was the only option, so we said go ahead and do it.  Didn't think much at the time, but it was a while before he verified the rebooking - mentioned something about needing his travel desk's internal customer service to complete the rebooking.  

 

When Roger and I got to JFK on Saturday, we changed terminals on the way to the SAA ticket desk.  The lady there typed in our information but said we were not listed on the flight from Addis Ababa to Johannesburg and that now it was full.  She had a manager and their internal people look into it but apparently my travel agent had not completed his part of the process.  *Gulp*

 

At that point, she pivoted  to the attack and found a couple of seats on a Kenya Airways flight to Nairobi in two hours, followed by a Kenya Airways flight to Johannesburg in time to get on the BA / Comair flight to Livingstone.  Had that not worked out, she said there was also a Qatar Airways flight to Joburg via Doha.  Needless to say that by then I had lost confidence in my travel agent.  Next time I will book with the airlines myself and give them my email address, phone number, etc.

 

The Kenya Airways nonstop flight from New York to Nairobi was nice.  Food as good as Emirates' long-haul flights and better + more frequent than South African Airways which we did on the return flight.

 

So after a two hour flight to New York, a three hour layover, a twelve hour flight to Nairobi, a twelve hour layover in JKIA airport, we had a 4.5 hour flight to Johannesburg.  Then a seven hour layover before the final flight to Livingstone.  Somewhere around 44 hours door to door.  At least the benches in part of OR Tambo airport were padded and able to be slept upon.

 

It was such a relief to see the first of our bags appear at the luggage carousel in the Livingstone airport!  When we all three had them in hand, we relaxed and began transitioning to safari mode.

 

Somehow we had the energy to hit the Shoprite on the way to the Avani, check in, dump our bags and go birding and sightseeing at Mosi-oa-Tuna National Park.
 

Over to you @inyathi.

Edited by offshorebirder

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inyathi

Having been forewarned that Victoria Falls would be very dry, I’d decided not to opt for a window seat on the flight to Livingstone, besides the Falls being dry, I wasn’t sure if I’d even see the Falls and thought if I do change my seat to get a window, I’m bound to pick one on the wrong side of the plane.  I was actually quite surprised when I then did see the Falls and was that I was actually able to lean a cross and a take some photos which came out okay once I’d cropped them and made a few other adjustments.

 

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Victoria Falls

 

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The Zambezi

 

To have all of our bags arrive safely and then meet up with Kyle was a huge relief, knowing that the travel nightmare we’d all been through was hopefully over. We’d all opted to get our Zambian visas on arrival in Livingstone, this was easy and pretty quick and I would suggest the most convenient way to get a visa.  

Edited by inyathi

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wilddog

What a horrendous start to your trip. 

 

I went to Lochinvar years ago and Kasanka, but not in bat season . It will be great to hear about it and of course the rest of your trip, or should I say your 'mission'. 

 

Really looking forward to this. 

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Zubbie15

This really sounds like quite the adventure, hopefully the challenges in getting there were soon forgotten once the actual safari started. 

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janzin

Wow what a stressful start to the trip, incredible that it all worked out....and that your luggage made it!

 

Would really love to see African Pitta and am looking forward to your pitta search...which I gather was successful.  Also isn't Kasanka the place to see Shoebill? Another of the "top most wanted" African birds!

 

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Caracal

An awful start courtesy of the SAA strike (reminded me of when I got embroiled in an SAA strike back in 2005) - but thankfully you all eventually made it to Livingstone.

Have been looking forward to this report and will be really pleased to learn about your discoveries and impressions of lesser visited places such as Lochinvar, Mutinondo Wilderness.

 

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michael-ibk

Looking forward to this a lot. Very sorry to hear about the flight craziness, it´s just awful when that happens.

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offshorebirder

Thanks for your kind comments  @Atravelynn, @wilddog, @Zubbie15, @janzin, @Caracal and @michael-ibk.   We are happy to share off-the-beaten-track info with you after you have all done so much of the same.

 

The crazy air travel and stress levels were not too bad.  Things were briefly stressful during the initial re-booking  attempt and more during the 45 minutes Roger and I knew we were in "status limbo" at JFK airport, but after that when we had printed tickets in hand and were signed in & confirmed it was only physically tiring. 

 

And it was unexpected fun to have (more than 24 hours of) opportunities to practice my rudimentary Swahili this trip.  And I had an unexpected chance to pick up a Tusker T-shirt in a duty-free shop at JKIA.

 

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inyathi

@Atravelynn In Zambia, the place for shoebills is Bangweulu Wetlands managed by African Parks, this is next to Kasanka, we will say a lot more about Bangweulu later on.

 

 

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inyathi

The Avani Resort like I’m sure a few other big African tourist resorts, has a small team of traditional dancers stationed at the entrance ready to leap into action each time new guests arrive, I do like a bit of African music and dancing but not really like this, which is just a bit too contrived, and especially when you are tired as we were you have other things on your mind. I would perhaps be hard pushed to say that the Avani is a nice place just because it is huge, having said that, very few people visit Victoria Falls in November and most of those that do stay over in Zimbabwe, so the resort wasn’t packed with tourists as it would have been at different time. It does though have one advantage as a place to stay, it is literally right outside the entrance to the Zambian side of the Falls, it is thus just a few minutes’ walk through the garden and over to the Falls and the entrance is free, you just have to sign yourself in and out and show them your room key/card to prove that you are a guest at the Avani and you are in. I will say a bit more about the Avani Resort in another post. We may have all been somewhat tired when we arrived, but not too tired to go for a good bird walk around the Falls, to see what we could find,  as well as take a look at the Falls and their surrounds.  

 

The Victoria Falls as they were named by the explorer David Livingstone, after whom the nearby Zambian city was named, but are known locally as Mosi-oa-Tunya the smoke that thunders, with good reason because at least when the Zambezi is in full flow, the mist created rises like smoke above the Falls and can be seen from a huge distance away. This constant spray at least on the Zimbabwean has led to the formation of a small area of what is described as rainforest, of course it’s not true rainforest. The Zambian side is not subjected to constant spray in the same way, because the rock on Zambian side of Zambezi at the top of the Falls is just slightly higher, so that by the end of the dry season in November, the river level has dropped so much that the major part of the Falls on this side, known as the Eastern Cataract has all but dried up, indeed this year it was almost completely dry. International media reports that the Falls have dried up are somewhat exaggerated, as illustrated in this thread, Victoria Falls drying up, it's normal for the Eastern Cataract to be dry in November, this year was just extra dry. The riverine forest/woodland on the Zambian side doesn’t get the benefit of the mist throughout the year as may be the case over in Zimbabwe, however, that doesn’t stop it from being a great place to see birds. In fact I’d say it’s the chance to see some good birds that makes it still worth visiting Vic Falls in November when the Falls aren’t at their best, you can walk through the forest/woodland looking for birds without lots of other tourists getting in the way and you don’t get wet when doing so.     

 

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The Eastern Cataract or Victoria Walls as it is sometimes known at this time of year

 

It may have appeared initially that there was no water, but there certainly as I knew from the view of the Falls that I had seen from the air, you just had to walk to the end of trail to point where you are looking across at Zimbabwe, the cliff on the left side of the next panorama is in Zimbabwe. 

 

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Even if the walls are dry, there's plenty of water below

 

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And the view of the main falls which never dry up was still spectacular

 

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When the water level in the Zambezi has dropped low enough, the brave or insane depending on your viewpoint, can walk across Livingstone Island on the Zambian side, wading across a portion of the river to get to a point where they can jump into the river to get into the so called Devil's Pool, where you can sit in the water right on the Devil's Armchair a rock shelf right at very edge of the Falls, how much water there was in the Devil's Pool this November I'm not sure. While the tours that take people to the Devil's Pool operated by Tongabezi appear to be very dangerous, no one has ever been killed on these official tours, however a few people including a guide have been killed on unofficial tours to the edge of the Falls.  

 

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These tourists are presumably at the Devil's Pool

 

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The famous Victoria Falls Bridge

 

As part of his dream to build a railway line from the Cape to Cairo, Cecik Rhodes requested that a bridge should be built over the Zambezi River at a point just below the Falls, so that trains would catch the spray as they went across, construction of the bridge didn't in fact start until after Rhodes had died, it was completed in 1905, mad people can bungee jump of the middle of the bridge, on my previous visit to the Zambian when I saw this view, there was someone hanging on the end of a bungee having just jumped. I have walked across the bridge, I have no desire to jump off it anymore than I wish to swim in the Devil's Pool.   

 

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Palm forest

 

Here are some of the birds that I saw and photographed. 

 

The Falls must be one of the best places to see the beautiful Schalow's turaco, they are very common, however, while seeing them is easy photographing them is not.

 

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Schalow's turaco

 

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Grey-backed camaroptera

 

A pair of white-browed robin chats were nesting right beside one of the paths, despite being very tame I didn't manage to get a great photo of them, this was the best I could do 

 

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Black-collared barbet

 

Along with the cry of the fish eagle and the call of the African wood owl, the duetting call of the black called barbet is for me one of the most evocative calls of the African bush, for this reason this barbet has always been one of my favourite African birds.

 

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Red-chested cuckoo

 

The red-chested cuckoo is a very common bird throughout Sub-Saharan Africa, you hear its distinctive call "Piet my vrou" everywhere, I particularly remember hearing this cuckoo whilst walking in the rainforests of Gabon, it is however seldom seen, to see one as well as this was an unexpected treat, I've never had such a good view anywhere before. 

 

In my last two reports I included a fair bit of history, I wasn’t intending to do the same with this one at least I don’t intend to include a brief history of Zambia, but I thought at this point I would put in a tiny bit of history. Some readers may not be aware that between 1911 and 1960 as a British Protectorate Zambia was known as Northern Rhodesia, and its neighbour south of the Zambezi was Southern Rhodesia, but then from 1964 and 1979 Southern Rhodesia was known simply as Rhodesia and then became Zimbabwe-Rhodesia and in 1980 just Zimbabwe, as a consequence the fact that there were two Rhodesias tends to get forgotten.

 

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Flag of Northern Rhodesia (1939–1964) 
 

 

On the way in to the Falls, is a World War One memorial, that commemorates the 78 white Northern Rhodesian soldiers of the Northern Rhodesia Police, who died mainly in WWI. At the start of WWI Northern Rhodesia was bordered in the southwest by the Caprivi Strip part of German Southwest Africa (now Namibia) and in the northeast by German East Africa (now Tanzania), the Northern Rhodesia Police were tasked with defending both of these borders. The threat from the south was removed when German forces in Southwest Africa were defeated by South African troops in 1915, soldiers from the Northern Rhodesian Police fought alongside Belgian troops from the Congo to defend their northeastern border and then participated in the invasion of German East Africa or Tanganyika as it was also known. The German forces led by the remarkable Major General Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck weren’t aware that the war had ended until three days after the armistice in Europe, had been signed, so WWI didn’t in fact end on the 11th of November 1918 in France. On the 14th of November while he and his remaining  troops were on the north bank of the Chambeshi River in northern Zambia, von Lettow-Vorbeck finally received word from the British that the war had ended three days earlier, he was summoned north to the town of Abercorn now called Mbala, where he formally surrendered to the British on the 25th of November, this was the true end of WWI. Not all of those commemorated on the memorial died in Africa, some of these men died on the Western Front.

 

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World War One memorial

 

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There are another 40 names commemorated on the other side of the cenotaph.

 

The British policy at the time of World War One was that every soldier who died in the service of the Empire on the battlefields of Europe would be treated equally and be given an individual grave, regardless of race, creed or social status, in death a Sikh soldier in the Indian Army would be the equal of any British soldier be they an aristocrat officer, or a working class private. However, out in Africa regrettably the same principal did not apply, often times the black Africans who died in huge numbers, while serving as askaris and especially as porters in the Carrier Corps, were buried in unmarked graves, sometimes in mass graves, their names forgotten. The black askaris who served with the Northern Rhodesia Police are commemorated on a memorial in Livingstone, although I haven’t seen this monument.

 

An interesting piece of trivia that I just discovered, is that in 1964 Northern Rhodesia as it then was, sent a team to the Olympic Games during the opening ceremony they paraded as Northern Rhodesia, but then Zambia declared independence on the day of the closing ceremony, so at the closing ceremony they were representing Zambia. The only time the name of a country and team has changed during the Olympic Games.

 

Returning to the Avani Resort as the light was starting to fade we found an African goshawk in the garden

 

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Dinner at the Avani was to say the least interesting, Roger and I made the mistake of ordering kudu kebabs, the meat is farmed, so if you eat meat there's no reason not to eat kudu, or as we discovered there is a good reason not to. to say that it was overcooked would be a serious understatement, the chef had cooked them until they were well done and then cooked them some more for good measure, as a consequence the meat was very dry with a rather grainy liver like texture, an awful crime for such a beautiful animal. The evening was not exactly enlivened by some live music, which might have been quite pleasant had the musicians been a good deal further away and therefore much quieter just providing a little atmosphere, the singing really didn't help, a somewhat inebriated local woman seemed seemed to be indulging in some rather tuneless karaoke, by the time she got to "The Lion Sleeps" we'd had quite enough. While the food and the music might not have been great, at least the company made up for it, we were joined by Dori Glasspool, mother of Roy who primarily organised this safari and co-owner of Bedrock Africa Birding with her husband Rory McDougall. 

 

The day had been a long one given all our travels, but a good one in the end, we hoped that we would all catch up on some sleep, since we had a quite early start the next day.  

Edited by inyathi

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Caracal

Always enjoy the inclusion of history in your reports @inyathi .

I'm thinking that I might have stayed at Avani years back - if I'm right it was then called Zambezi Sun - your reference to the dancers, music etc has a familiar ring. 

The Falls provided a good start to your Birding. I'll have to pay more attention next time I'm there if the Falls aren't in full flight.

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Treepol

Sorry to hear of your travel travails getting to Zambia, however you made it and are on the way!

 

Thanks for the history lesson @inyathi, looking forward to more when you have time.

 

 

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BRACQUENE

@inyathi @offshorebirder

 

Just read your report and what an adventure it has been from the start ; apart from Liuwa plains which clearly will always be difficult to organise and I wanted so badly to add to  my Kafue trip ,  Kasanka and Bangweulu are high on a list of safari priorities even if  it is not easy for me to travel in november to see the bat migration ; looking forword to read the rest of your expedition !

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TonyQ

@offshorebirder @inyathi

I have been looking forward to your report since you were planning this trip. I have always enjoyed your individual reports and this one is off to a great start.

Your own start to the trip sound very stressful and exhausting, but your enthusiasm and positivity for the country you are visiting shine though

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janzin

brings back great memories of our visit to Victoria Falls. And I'm not sure I'm brave nor insane but I did do the Devil's Pool! Proof :)  Its actually not very scary at all. The full adventure story is in my trip report.

 

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We stayed at the Avani too and I don't recall any dancing or singing, but that may be because there was a big convention there at the time so maybe the dancers were entertaining them and not us ;) Did love the convenience of being right at the gate and walking distance to the falls, and also to the Royal Livingstone.

Edited by janzin

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offshorebirder

I do not have much to add about the afternoon outing we had on November 18.  It was threatening rain so I left my cameras in the room at the Avani and just used iPhone and binoculars.  It was liberating and fun not to have a camera.

 

Of course a Red-chested  Cuckoo and some Schalow's Turacos taunted me for being 'unarmed'.  

 

Here are a few photos of the cliffs and a little bit of Victoria Falls making "smoke".

 

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The next day was due to be a quest for Black-cheeked Lovebirds with plenty of birding and naturalizing along the way.   We were prepped and ready for some bad roads.   Those we got, as well as an interesting adventure and sociological experience that in retrospect seemed kind of cool and I for one would not have missed.  Valuable lesson and all that.

 

@inyathi - do lead off, as I imagine you got more photos on November 19 - particularly of roads - than I managed.

 

 

 

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Galago

Enjoying this and looking forward to more. What a nightmare with the flights - glad you made it!

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JohnR

Great start to your joint trip report. Arriving on the same flight as your luggage was not guaranteed with SAA so perhaps having to fly on other airlines could be regarded as a bonus :unsure:.

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Zim Girl

Very much looking forward to this trip report.  So glad you all made it over there after such a nightmare with the flights.

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inyathi

@JohnR That’s probably true, although flying BA I had to use a fully automated check-in at Heathrow for the first time, even though the instructions are very simple, I was still a bit worried I wouldn’t see my bag again, just because I hadn’t done it before, next time if I have to do it all myself I won’t be bothered.  

 

@offshorebirder Thanks, I didn’t actually take that many shots, I don’t have any of the really bad bit of road, I hope that you will add some of your recollections of the Machile trip and any thoughts on the Avani Resort that you might. I will hand the baton on to you after this post, so that you can write about Masuku and Nkanga etc or at least kick off that section.

 

During the planning of the trip Roy had suggested that we do a day trip to the Machile Important Bird Area to look for the black-cheeked lovebird, this little parrot is endemic to a very small area of southwest Zambia, it was and is still by some considered to be a subspecies of Lilian’s lovebird. Occasional birds were in the past recorded near Vic Falls in Zimbabwe, but it is thought that these birds were escapees from the pet trade and none have been seen recently. After the Chaplin’s or Zambian barbet, the black-cheeked lovebird is Zambia’s only other endemic bird. Having visited Zambia before and all but two of Zambia’s neighbours, I had unlike Nate and Roger seen almost all of the common Zambian birds before, at least the easy to see species, so I was quite keen to try and find this lovebird as it would be a lifer for me and lovebirds are beautiful little birds, however, I knew finding it might prove to be a longshot, but if we didn’t we would I hoped at least have a good adventure looking for it.  

 

I thought I would put a map in to give a rough idea of where Machile is, during the planning stages our destination on this day trip was referred to as Mulobezi, since this came up on Google Earth, I marked it on the map. I presume that Mulobezi is where we ended up although I’m not 100% certain, the map on the Birdlife International website shows the IBA as being east of Mulobezi, but we certainly drove through the IBA as it was signposted.

 

Machile IBA

 

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We had a long drive ahead of us to get to Machile IBA, so we needed to get up in time to leave at 05:00, taking packed breakfast and lunch with us. The first section of road going west through Mosi-oa-Tunya National Park, was very good and the drive got of to a great start when four elephant bulls emerged from the mopane woodland and crossed the road in front of us. It was still slightly dark so taking photos wasn’t too easy, one of the bulls was wearing a tracking collar, to keep tabs on their movements, these elephants move between Zambia and Zimbabwe crossing the Zambezi upstream of the Falls.

 

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The elephants were followed by a western banded snake eagle a great bird to see, my photo of this eagle isn't great because the birds head is obscured by a branch, Nate managed to find a better angle so this next photo was taken by @offshorebirder

 

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Western Banded Snake-Eagle by offshorebirder2, on Flickr 

 

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Southern ground hornbill, a good bird to see as they are often killed by poachers outside protected areas.

 

Unfortunately, the good tarmac was very short-lived soon we found ourselves on what could well be the worst road in Zambia, in general the roads in Zambia are very good because as in many African countries now, the Chinese have come in and build great new roads across Zambia. The Chinese had not yet found this road, to begin with we were on the Sesheke Road which ultimately goes to the town of Sesheke which is on the border opposite Katima Mulilo in Namibia. We had turned off heading north long before then, but we did encounter a few Namibian trucks on the road, an excess of heavy trucks along with the climate accounted for the road being so terrible, the tarmac was in such a poor state that at times it was simply easier and more comfortable for Kyle to get down off the actual road and drive along the road side, eventually when the tarmac ran out and we end up just on a wide dirt road. What made this journey especially punishing was that the shock absorbers on the car, a Toyota Prado that had been hired for the trip were very quickly completely knackered, such that even the smallest bump resulted in loud jarring crash as we went over it, apparently Kyle had been assured that the shocks were new, so we could only conclude that either that simply wasn't true or he had used extremely cheap sub-standard shocks. The condition of the road meant that it took us a long time to get into the Machile Important Bird Area where we might see the lovebird. For most of the journey we passed through mopane woodland, not all of it was in great condition, and sadly in more than a few places, we saw the evidence of logging, large felled squared-off tree trunks waiting for someone to come and pick them up, the Chinese road builders may not have found the roads we were on, but unfortunately the Chinese seem to have a nose for finding valuable hardwood timber, at least I assumed that it was likely the Chinese. At certain points along the way we stopped to look for at various birds. At one point, we are pretty sure that we heard lovebirds, but we weren’t able to get a view of them and decided to press on as we hadn’t got to our final destination yet.

 

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Not a great shot, this was the one photo I took of the dirt road.

 

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Smith's bush squirrel

 

It had clearly rained a certain amount in the area, there were puddles of water on the side of the road, these would attract various birds down to drink, we hoped that where we were going we would be able to find some waterholes in the bush which would attract the lovebirds down to drink during the heat of the day.  We eventually reached the Machile River at about 12:30 stopping by a causeway across what at this point appeared to be a quite wide sand river, we got out to have a look around for birds and see if we could see any water. While there didn’t seem to be any visible water, we did encounter a herd of cattle, since cows have to drink every day, we surmised that there must be some waterholes in the river somewhere not too far away.

 

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We thought we should try driving along the river and see if we could see any sign of water, we passed through a little village on our way, our attempts to find water proved fruitless, realising that to just continue driving around would likely prove to be a waste of precious time, Kyle decided that the time had come to ask someone. We went back to the village, Kyle then spoke to a nice gentleman who it transpired lived in another village several miles away, he explained that we were looking for a small green bird, showing him a photo from the Birds of Zambia app and then enquired as to where the local people were taking their livestock to drink, a young local man was then consulted. He explained that yes there was some water nearby and he could take us there, he led us off through the bush to a small sand river, where we could see that people had dug some wells.

 

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Kyle thanked him, handed him some kwacha and told him that we intended to just walk around the area looking at birds. At various points along the river people had dug shallow wells as there was water not far below the sand, these little waterholes were generally surrounded by cut thorn branches, intended to keep livestock out, if cattle were allowed to get in, they would just make a mess of it.

 

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At some points people had planted little plots of maize or other crops, next to their wells so they could keep them watered, this was all quite interesting, but not what we had come all this way to see. There were a few common birds around, but the lovebirds were proving elusive, we neither saw nor heard any, we were already thinking about heading back to the car, as we feared it was about to rain, when some local people arrived heading in our direction. One of them who identified himself as the village headman proceeded to interrogate us, demanding to know why four strange white men were walking around on their land. Whilst Kyle very diplomatically explained, that we had come to look for this little green bird and that there was a business opportunity for them in being able to show tourists this bird, he told us off for thinking that we that could just walk around on their land without asking permission. One of his companions who was definitely not sober joined in, he was carrying an axe, this could have been cause for concern, but he just happened to have it for collecting firewood, not to intentionally scare us. It seemed to me at least, that slightly angry or annoyed tone that the headman was taking was purely to make a point, they were really just trying it on, we apologised for trespassing and made it clear that we had not intended to offend anyone. Had Kyle not been there, we might have felt rather more intimidated by the situation, but, he’d lived in Zambia for eight years and his whole life in Africa, so he knew that the situation was nothing serious, that once they’d made their point and he’d handed over a few kwacha all would be well and they would be happy.

 

Once this situation had been resolved we decided we wouldn’t find the lovebirds and should start to head home as it was a long way back to the Avani Resort, our encounter with the villagers at least gave us something to laugh about on our return journey back along Zambia’s worst road. We did stop very briefly at one point, where we thought we heard some lovebirds and went for a short walk into some woodland to look for them, but we had no luck.  We could see thunderstorms and plenty of rain in the distance as we headed back, heading back through Mosi-oa-tunya National Park just after dark, we were delighted to see the same four bull elephants we’d seen in the morning, crossing the road in the opposite direction, we’d evidently caught them at both ends of their daily commute. It was too dark for photos but a nice scene, with lightning flickering in the background on beyond them.  

 

Since the car hire company was in Livingstone Kyle had phoned them on the drive back to demand that they provide some replacement shocks, we were after all still at the start of our journey and he was rightly damned if he was going to drive around the rest of Zambia with completely useless shocks. For our onward journey we would have new shocks, at least we hoped they would be new and not just more cheap substandard ones.

 

Thankfully at dinner we were spared the music and in particular the singing, I decided that beef steak would be a safer bet than game, it took some time explaining to the waitress that I wanted it rare, so I was somewhat dubious as to how it would be cooked, but in fact it was fine, at least it tasted good, I couldn’t see in the dark whether it was cooked just as I’d asked, but it wasn’t cooked to death like the previous night’s kudu.   

 

Although it was a shame not to have seen any lovebirds, we’d still had a great adventure, seen some other good birds and had an interesting experience.

 

The drive to our next destination Masuku Lodge near Choma, would not be on good roads so would not take too long, the lodge is in the Nkanga Conservation Area a conservancy created from a  number of private farms, one of these farms, the Bruce Miller Game Farm came up on Google Earth, so I marked it on the map I posted above.

 

Since we had time enough, we decided to go on an early bird walk around the garden, followed by another walk around the Falls.

 

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The garden is home to introduced impalas and Grant's zebras

 

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Village weavers

 

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Brown-hooded kingfisher

 

Don't believe all of those silly media stories about Victoria Falls having dried up, look there's still plenty of water:lol:

 

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Victoria Falls

 

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Fig tree

 

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Jameson's firefinches

 

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African five-lined skink

 

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Terrestrial brownbul

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Knife Edge Bridge

 

 

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Visit the Falls in April/May time and you will not be able to walk across this bridge without getting completely drenched by spray and you won't likely see anything as you do so, the cliff on the left which is where the Falls are will be totally obscured, a fun time to visit I'm sure but maybe not so good for taking photos, either earlier when this section of the Falls has just started flowing properly again or later in the year when the water is dropping again would be better times to see the Zambian side of the Falls.

 

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The view down below

 

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David Livingstone, the first tourist to visit the Falls

 

 

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This gives some idea of the size of the Avani Resort

 

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The buffet breakfast laid on by the Avani was very good, since they had an omelette/egg station I opted for a cheese omelette which was excellent, as always with buffets it was hard not to eat too much, as they had a selection of good Danish pastries to choose from,  we wouldn’t be too worried if our lunch was a little late.

 

Overall, while I don't think I'd want to stay at the Avani at a very busy time of year, I thought that it really wasn't a bad place to stay and its convenient location right next to the Falls more than made up for any shortcomings. 

 

I shall now handover to @offshorebirder 

 

Edited by inyathi

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Caracal

Yes definitely stayed at Avani once years back when it was Zambezi Sun.

I've always seen black-cheeked lovebirds when staying at Nanzhila - looks like Mulobezi is south west of the southern section of Kafue NP.

I can well imagine those roads! Interesting to read about your contact with the local villagers and pleasing to learn that you enjoyed the whole experience even though you didn't achieve the sought after sighting.

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