Trip Report – Botswana and Zimbabwe
There are many reasons to visit Botswana but one of the most important is that the President, Ian Khama, is a conservationist and as a result wildlife is heavily protected, with a shoot to kill policy towards poachers enforced by a Division of the Army.
Therefore the wildlife is not afraid of humans and it is possible to approach within a few meters most species of birds and animals which go about their normal life totally ignoring the presence of vehicles or people. This results in making Botswana probably the best country in Africa for game and wildlife.
It is a stable democracy where corruption is minimal and the native tribes are not aggressive towards each other considering themselves first and foremost Botswanians.
In both countries we found everybody extremely friendly and helpful and most welcoming and it was pleasing to meet the anti-poaching patrols in Zimbabwe in action protecting White Rhinos. In fact they are making increasing efforts to protect their wildlife as tourism is a key source of income.
In the Parks we visited in both countries the landscape had been affected by recent climate changes. From the mid 50‘s to 1982 there was sufficient water from the Angolan mountains and local rainfall to create marshes and rivers, but from then until 2009 the water supply dried up creating vast plains in which fast growing trees flourished. Then in the winter of 09/10 a deluge occurred raising the water table and recreating the marshes and rivers. At this time thousands of trees perished due to root rot.
Since then the water supply has been reducing and now there is a severe drought resulting in golden plains dotted with dead tree trunks, low drought resistant bushes and trees, such as the Rain Tree and Baobab, and a few waterholes. The dead tree trunks provide excellent perches for all types of eagles, vultures and birds of prey. The bigger rivers, such as the Chobe, still run but at much reduced levels. Away from water there were great tracts of barren dry low bushes with very little wildlife.
The result was that all wildlife was concentrated in narrow corridors along the rivers, or within short distances of the few remaining waterholes.
It is against this background we spent 18 days on a birding and game safari.
Author: John Brooks – Participant of the 2016 Birding and Game viewing trip
Tour Leader: Pieter Verheij
Trip Report Author: John Brooks
Day 1 Nov 4th. Arrival in Maun. – Tamalakane River Lodge
Flying in from all over Europe we met at Johannesburg airport for the short flight to Maun where we were greeted and taken to Tamalakane River Lodge, a short drive from the airport. This Lodge is in an idyllic setting and we were taken to our Chalets which were overlooking and within 50mtrs of the river. From our Chalet terrace we started birding and immediately saw Coppery-tailed Coucal, Southern Black Flycatcher, Lilac-breasted Roller, Swamp Boubou, Magpie Shrike, Blacksmith Plover, and many more.
Later we went on a 2 hour cruise on the river which brought us our first sighting of Fish Eagles, Jacana and Lesser Jacana, White-fronted Whistling Duck, Pygmy Geese, White-breasted Cormorant, African Darter, Striated Heron as well as our first Hippo.
We arrived back having watched our first spectacular African sunset on the boat. Dinner was taken on the Lodge terrace by the river. The perfect setting to our first day.
Day 2 Nov 5th Tshimi Bush Camp – Komana
Leaving our overnight chalet in the morning birding was easy. It was not necessary to go more than a few meters to see Bearded Woodpecker, Meves’s and Burchell’s Starling, Golden Weaver and Pied Kingfisher so it was with difficulty we went for breakfast.
Afterwards we explored the local bush and riverbank finding Grey Go-away Bird, Black-backed Puffback, a resplendent Red-headed Weaver displaying and offering his partly made nests to any interested female, Red-billed Spurfowl, Groundscraper Thrush and Hautlaubs Babbler.
We then drove a short distance to our next location, where we stayed for two nights. Tshimi Bush Camp was located a few meters from a large nearly dried-up water channel which acted as a highway for animals going between waterholes. Our chalets were situated well apart from each other in the trees surrounding the main reception areas.
There was a small pool by reception and here we had excellent views of Yellow-breasted Apolis, Grey- backed Camoroptera, Brown-crowned and Black-crowned Tchagra, Purple-banded Sunbird, Jameson’s Firefinch, Marico Sunbird, and Blue Waxbill.
Later we went for a walk along the dry river bed and were pleased to see two waterholes still with sufficient water to attract wildlife. Here we saw Hamerkop, Water Thick-Knee, Three-banded Plover, Red-billed Wood Hoopoe, Open-billed Stork plus many European waders whilst overhead were Yellow-billed Kite.
Day 3 Nov 6th Tshimi Bush Camp – Komana
Around the camp we saw Southern Pied Babbler, Terrestrial Brownbul, and Green-winged Pytilia before we headed off to another camp site by the side of a river which had not dried up. Here the river was over 200mtr wide with reed beds surrounded by trees and bushes.
Here we sat on decking meters from the river, under trees, or strolled the riverbank. It was if we were in an aviary with a constantly changing variety of birds. Without great effort we managed to record 68 species. A superb lunch added to the enjoyment.
The star was a Black Crake parading only a few meters away. African Sacred Ibis, Red-knobbed Coot, Red-billed Teal, Black-faced Waxbill, and Squacco Heron. Yellow-billed Kites and Fish Eagles were everywhere. Moving through the reeds in small flocks were Red-billed Quelea and we continued to see them throughout the tour. They were everywhere.
Throughout the tour we saw Mourning, Collared, Red-eyed, Laughing, Emerald-spotted Wood, Cape Turtle and Namaqua Doves.
Day 4 Nov 7th Moremi Game Reserve – Luxury Tenting Camp
Moremi covers much of the eastern flank of the Okavanga Delta and is just under 5000 sq kms which we reached after several hours driving . Just after we entered the Moremi Game Reserve en-route for our camp site at Maxwegama we saw elephants, but little else until we approached the pools and marshes where wildlife suddenly exploded.
From a Water Thick-Knee attacking a large Water Monitor Lizard to Open-billed, Saddle-billed, Yellow-billed and Marabou Storks hunting in the ever shrinking pools. They were joined by Black-crowned Night, Black and Grey Herons, Hadada Ibis, African Spoonbill, Intermediate and Great Egrets.
Overhead flew Marshall and Tawny Eagles, African Marsh Harrier, and we were lucky to get a good view of a rare Dickinson’s Kestral initially perched and then flying over the bush.
Driving through the dry bush to our campsite which was located by the side of a large pool, we saw Burchell’s Sandgrouse, Red-faced Mousebird, Southern White-Crowned Shrike, White-browed Sparrow- Weaver, Red-billed Buffalo-Weaver, and Southern Yellow-billed and the magnificent Ground Hornbills.
The pool housed large crocodiles which came out at night together with Hippos but none ventured into our camp.
Day 5 Nov 8th Moremi Game Reserve
Starting at dawn we headed out into the bush but there was little avian activity so we decided to concentrate on game. We immediately were successful getting within 10mtrs of two male lions lying in the open in the shade of bushes.
Later we stopped to look at Impala when out of the bush emerged a pack of Wild Dogs who we managed to follow as they crossed the open plains. However they were faster than us and we lost them in dense cover.
Almost immediately we found a Cheetah lying on a termite mound where again we got within 10mtrs which made our photographers very happy.
In the afternoon we found Pearl-spotted Owlet, Egyptian Goose, Kittlitz Plover, and Wattled Cranes in the ponds, and White-backed and Hooded Vultures, Magpie Shrike, Red-faced Cisticola and Southern Black-Tit in the bush along with a large African Rock Python.
On our way back to camp we saw Zebras taking it in turns to roll in the road taking dust baths. Later we watched a herd of Elephants also dusting themselves all over.
Day 6 Nov 9th Khwai Reserve – Okavanga Delta
Scanning the lake before we left we found a Goliath Heron then we headed out to the Okavanga Delta where we embarked on a 3hr boatride around the marshes and reed beds. Surprisingly the water levels were high so we were able to penetrate deep into the Delta. Here we saw White-throated Swallows, Reed Cormorant, Slaty Egret, Malachite Kingfisher and Black-winged Pratincole, but surprisingly overall there were fewer birds than we had anticipated.
Whilst driving to our picnic site we saw Shaft-tailed Whydah, Crested Barbet and Red-billed and Yellow-billed Oxpeckers on the back of a Zebra.
The picnic was taken at Paradise Pool, an open area of trees, pools and marsh which was rich in wildlife. Woodland Kingfisher, Broad-billed Roller, and Black-backed Puffback added to the enjoyment.
In the afternoon we visited a hide overlooking a large lake with many Hippo’s and Crocodiles. Avoiding them were African Skimmer’s, Hottentot Teal, Ruff, Little Stint, Yellow-billed Duck and many more species.
As in most other locations Giraffe, Impala, Waterbuck, Tsessebe, Warthogs and Wildebeest were constantly wandering in and out of sight.
Driving the short distance to our new campsite we watched a herd of Elephants emerge from the bush and stride into a lake about 75mtrs away, where they drank, played and covered themselves in mud.
A truly unforgettable sight.
Day 7 Nov 10th Khwai Reserve – Game Drive
The highlight of the morning was to see a female Leopard slowly walk out of the grasses, cross in front of us about 15mtrs away, and go to rest on a termite mound under a tree.
However earlier we saw two Lions resting in the open being watched by two Hyenas and at a greater distance by Lechwee, Reedbuck and 7 Kudu bulls. Later we saw Hyenas stalking a herd of Impalas trying to find the weakest.
Whilst all of this was happening we also saw African Quail-Finch, Swallow-tailed and Little Bee-Eaters with every specie of Egret along the sides of the streams.
These streams had a belt of grass from 20-70 mtrs wide in which most wildlife was concentrated. Outside of these belts were a few shallow lagoons, but mostly vast areas of dry arid plains surrounded by drought resistant low bushes. Dotted about these plains were the remains of many fallen trees and a few dead tree trunks, on whose branches we saw Lanner Falcon, Lesser Grey Shrike and many Eagles and Vultures.
In the evening we saw Fawn-coloured Larks but the outstanding highlight was to find ‘our Leopard’ and watch her slowly wake up, watch the nearby Impala, and then prepare to go out hunting. All from a few meters. Outstanding.
Day 8 Nov 11th Savuti – Chobe National Park
Today we transited from Moremi to Savuti via the Mababe Reserve, but initially we went hunting ‘our Leopard’ but without success. Instead we found a group of 7 Hyenas and for the first time Roan Antelopes, Elands and a Dwarf Mongoose.
An Osprey was perched eating a fish on one of the dead trees and near-by we saw Bradfield’s Hornbill and Senegal Coucal. A White-winged Tern flew over a small lake, but when we left the Park we had a long dusty drive through flat lands with dense low vegetation and virtually no wildlife, being too far from water.
As we were driving through the Mababe Depression we chanced upon 4 lions grouped together sheltering under an Umbrella Tree. Driving to within a few meters none of them took any interest in us, but our photographers were able to get excellent shots.
We also stopped under an Umbrella Tree for a picnic and to stretch our legs and not far away we were lucky enough to see a juvenile Eagle Owl in its nest.
On our final drive to our camp we added White-browed Scrub Robin, Double-banded Sandgrouse and Arrow-marked Babbler.
Going out in the evening along a dry river bed we found a pride of 12 sleeping Lions, lying all together. No activity but an incredible sight.
Day 9 Nov 12th Savuti
This morning we went hunting these Lions and found 2 males, 4 females and later 2 cubs. The males were reluctant to move but the females and cubs slowly woke up and started to play, before they began to move off. However an inquisitive Black-backed Jackal approached cautiously as there may have been some of the lion’s kill left, but a few threatening looks from the slowly awakening males saw him retreat.
We then went looking for birds in the bush and found Black-bellied Korhaan, and then the courtship display of a male Kori Bustard strutting to impress a female. Truly magnificent.
African Pipit, Black-winged Kite and Rattling Cisticola , Marico Flycatcher, Crested Francolin and Helmeted Guineafowl were seen but generally the bush was quiet.
We spent most of the evening drive at a waterhole watching herds of 20 or more Elephants coming to drink, play a little and cover themselves with mud. Here hundreds of Double-banded Sandgrouse kept the Elephants company and with many species of Dove. There was always constant movement and something to fascinate.
Day 10 Nov 13th Savuti to Chobe
We started the day by going back to the waterhole which was crowded with Elephants. Suddenly out of the bush appeared a lone Lion walking purposefully towards the water. The elephants made way and retreated to one side of the water and then came lion after lion, in single file. They all drank but stayed together by the water until we heard a roar from the neighbouring pride. It seems that they had been driven out by this pride who had been forced to move as their marsh had dried up.
Immediately the pride leader set off in the direction of the roar intending to re-exert his authority. We tried to follow and were able to keep up for a kilometre but then the bush held us back. A fascinating insight into the struggle between prides for water.
Then followed a 5 hour drive over tracks until we joined a tarmac road which took us to Chobe National Park where we had a picnic by the river. A Greater Blue-eared Starling and Shrika joined us.
Then onto the Chobe Enclave where in one location we saw over 120 Elephants walking to and from the river, all within meters of our vehicle.
Due to the prolonged drought there were many stressed animals, and we saw two who were lying down but unable to stand up. Other Elephants tried to help but to no avail.
On the river banks were hundreds of Pink-backed and Great White Pelicans, all grouped together, with over 50 Marabou Storks just standing nearby.
Driving along one of the tributaries we drove between a pride of Lions made up of a male, 5 females and 4 cubs Lions, with a lone male further on. All were in shade trying to stay cool as the temperature was nearing 40c. Fortunately for us the humidity was very low and was not discomforting, and we had a plentiful supply of cold drinks in the vehicle.
Tawny Eagles flew overhead and Tropical Boubou and White-bellied Sunbirds were in the Wooly-Caper bushes.
Nearing our camp we saw a Red-breasted Korhaan parading and calling. Then much to our amazement it made its courtship flight. It climbed nearly vertically to about 10mtrs then it folded its wings, turned over onto its back, and plunged vertically towards the ground.
Then when seemingly about to crash it turned upright and landed. Absolutely extraordinary.
Day 11 Nov 14th Chobe National Park
Chobe NP is the third largest in Botswana, established in 1967 and covering 11,700sq kms it has one of the highest concentrations of wildlife in Africa so it was no surprise when within minutes of leaving the camp we came upon a newborn Elephant calf, less than 24 hours old, being helped by its mother to learn to walk. A heart warming sight.
We left them after a few minutes so as not to disturb them and continued through Leadwood Trees which were reduced to a few meters in height by the elephants. But we did manage to see Red-backed Shrike, Green-winged Pytilia and Spotted Thick-Knee.
Reaching the Chobe river we drove along its bank founding Whiskered Terns, White-browed Coucal, Golden-breasted Bunting, Lappet-faced Vulture, Knob-billed Duck, and a magnificent Red-necked Falcon.
We were also kept entertained by Jackal cubs trying to catch a Crested Francolin, but without success.
Driving back we were stunned to see a super-herd of over 1000 Buffalo peacefully and quietly grazing the flood plain. Another sight never to be forgotten. We found out that several such super-herds exist in the surrounding Parks.
We then passed one of the elephants which was ill the previous night. It had died and was surrounded by White-backed Vultures and Maribou Storks waiting for the skin to be broken. A very sad sight.
Day 12 Nov 15th Transfer to Victoria Falls
We had been living for the past eight days in a well equipped tent with toilet and shower attached. Our tents were well spaced and they circled the dining tent where we had all our meals. Nearby was always a fire around which we sat in the evenings listening to the sounds of Africa. Idyllic.
We were all very sorry when it came time to say ‘Goodbye’ to the people from ‘Drum Beat’ who had looked after us so well. Our guide took us from the reserve to near the border with Zimbabwe before he also departed.
However just after leaving the camp we met the super-herd of Buffalo. In fact we couldn’t avoid them as they straddled our track for hundreds of meters either side. Whilst watching them a pride of 5 Lions walking slowly in a line came from the Plains and walked along the side of the herd nearest us. Watching the interaction between these two species was riveting.The Lions pretended to attack, but when confronted by a wall of Buffalo they backed off, only to be chased by them themselves. The stand-off lasted for quite some time but slowly the Lions walked off into the bush, leaving us to force our way through this immense herd. Stunning to be in the middle of so many wild animals.
On the way to the border we also saw Greenbul, Tawny-flanked Prinia, Southern Brown-throated Weaver and Bearded Scrub Robin.
Going through the border at Botswana was easy, but Zimbabwe was much slower. Fortunately we did not have many crossing at the same time otherwise it could have been frustrating. We were then met and driven to our hotel at Victoria Falls.
We spent the afternoon exploring the Falls which were still a magnificent sight despite the drought which had reduced the Zambezi River. Its local name is ‘The smoke that Thunders’.
Day 13 Nov 16th Victoria Falls to Hwange National Park
We drove for several hours to Hwange NP, in Matabeleland, which is claimed to be the largest park in the world, at 14,651 sq kms – half the size of Belgium – and formed in 1928. Poaching has taken toll of the larger wildlife, and corrupt local and national figures have benefitted. However there does now seem to be a stricter control than previously but it will take many years before the wildlife recuperates sufficiently to challenge Botswana.
Our Lodge ‘Khulu Lodge’ comprised a few well appointed chalets, strung out in a line, either side of the main dining hall, with all facing a reasonably sized waterhole.
This waterhole was visited by many herds of Elephant, Kudu, Warthogs, Impala, Baboons and Velvet Monkeys.
In the evening we went for a drive and like all other evenings we ended up having our ‘Sundowners’ out in the bush. We were fortunate enough to have a puncture which meant we were free to explore the vicinity. In so doing we had superb close-up views of Verreaux’s Eagle Owls.
But before that we had added Yellow-throated Petronia, White-crowned Shrike, Arnot’s Chat and both European and Purple Rollers.
Day 14 Nov 17th Hwange National Park
Starting early we went into the bush but due to the drought wildlife was hard to find outside a few small waterholes, but we did manage to see our first Steenbok.
Our first good sighting was when we stopped to see Grey Crowned Cranes then a Lion appeared and half-heartedly chased two Giraffe. Another Lion appeared but was only interested in drinking. Here we also saw Red-breasted Swallows and Secretary Birds
At a hide overlooking a waterhole we had breakfast watching a lone Hippo wallowing in the mud. We had been there over half an hour when we suddenly spotted a lone Lion lying near to a rock no more than 150mtrs away. The Lioness was obviously in discomfort, seemingly having been injured in a fight or an attempted kill.
Driving back through the Teak and Acacia woods we spotted Violet-eared Waxbill, Steppe Eagle and amazingly a Lesser Grey Shrike attacking, and hitting, a perched Tawny Eagle, which totally ignored it.
In the afternoon we watched five Lions stalking a herd of about 20 old Buffalo bulls until they disappeared into the bushes. Later we had excellent views of Black-chested Snake Eagle and Ovambo Sparrowhawk. Back at the Lodge had Long-tailed Paradise Whydah.
Dinner was taken overlooking the illuminated waterhole, but on this occasion very few animals appeared.
Day 15 Nov 18th Hwange National Park
Today we drove into the far reaches of the Park but whilst we saw many animals there were few new species. Lion, Giraffe, Zebra, Wildebeest, many different antelopes, and several herds of Elephants roamed the bush. We witnessed how destructive elephants can be, when we found one by the tract, knocking a small Prince of Wales tree over and then digging with his front feet to get at the roots which he then ate. It seems that the root had medicinal properties as well as a high content of water.
Most of the birds we had seen previously but Rufous-naped Lark, Steppe Buzzard, Coqui Francolin and Yellow-fronted Canary were new.
At the Lodge during the afternoon and evening well over 100 elephants came to drink, not only from the waterhole, but also from a plunge pool built into the Lodge’s terrace. This brought them to within 7 mtrs of us and it was a truely amazing sight to see both old bulls and year old babies drinking so quietly only a few meters away. A scene never to be forgotten.
Day 16 Nov 19th Hwange to Matobo National Park
Today we started later than usual drive to Matobo NP where we reached our Camp in time for an excellent lunch.
The Matobo NP contains the Matopos Hills, a 3000 million year old granite range which has been carved into the most outstandingly rugged formations by the weather, with unbelievable sights of rocks seemingly perched without support on the top of pillars of rock. Established in 1953 and covering 44500 hectares it was totally different from the landscapes we had been travelling through.
This was heightened when we arrived at Amalinda Camp where we were to stay our last two nights. Most of the bedrooms and en-suite facilities were carved out of the rock faces with the front facing over the plains. Truly outstanding and original.
In the hills are many rock paintings hidden away in caves, with most of them closed to the public. However we were taken to one which was open and after a stiff climb saw humans and animals painted up to 13000 years ago by the bushmen.
During the day’s drives and at the Camp we saw Red-winged Starling, Chin-spot Batis, Lesser Striped Swallow, Crested Barbet, Purple-crested Turaco, Common Myna, Black Eagle and Verreaux’s Eagle.
Day 17 Nov 20th Mobotos Hills
The morning proved very exciting. Entering the Hills we drove for many kilometres through a burnt landscape. Only the previous week 80% of the Park was destroyed by fire. However the higher we climbed the less the devastation until we came out into the natural vegetation, with a valley floor covered in two meter high grasses and the sides with low bushes. We stopped on a track and walked through the valley to the opposite hillside. Here, walking slowly and quietly we slowly approached a female and a young White Rhino.We got to within about 15mtrs and after a time they both lay down in the shade without showing any signs of being disturbed by us.
Walking back through the high grasses we found three armed Rangers waiting for us to check our credentials. We found that they lived in the park specifically to protect the Rhino which have recently reintroduced.
Later we drove near to the top of a hill and then walked the last few hundred meters to the summit to where the country’s founder, Cecil Rhodes was buried. The views over the Matobos Hills were stunning as far as the eye could see in every direction.
Whilst we were in the Park we still kept looking for new species and apart from Reedbuck and Rhino we saw Black-chested Prinia, Sabota Lark, White-necked Raven, Black-headed Oriole, Red-billed Helmut Shrike and Miombo Double Collared Sunbird. Violet-backed Starling, Red-billed Helmut Shrike and Yellow-backed Whydah.
Unfortunately we were kept in the camp after lunch as the long overdue rains started with some spectacular thunder storms.
Day 18 Nov 21st Drive to Bulawayo Airport
We left at 10.00 for the hours drive to the airport. Here we sadly said Goodbye to our friends and departed to various parts of the world.
Looking back the standard of widely varying accommodation could not have been bettered, neither could the vast variety of bird and animals. Never had any of us been so close, so often to such a range of wildlife. An unforgettable safari.
Travelling together as friends