by Rob & Paige McLennan-Smith
On Friday 15th October 2021 Paige and I flew with our daughter Kirsty and her husband James Hendry (photo 3) from Johannesburg to Harare for a Covid delayed trip to Zimbabwe. Kirsty and James planned to do some wildlife videography for their YouTube programmes, and I have been keen to visit the land of my birth (Harare 1960) as I have only been back once many years ago since my family emigrated to Johannesburg when I was only 6 months old.
Preparation is essential for a trip to Zimbabwe and you to take all needed funds in US $ – you cannot draw from ATM’s or get cash at banks. Preferably book with a tour operator – getting your hired vehicles in Zimbabwe with their registrations makes things a lot easier. We had two fully equipped off-road vehicles with rooftop tents and had no problems with the numerous police road blocks – we were never stopped at any of them, all tourists are waved through and not fined for dubious reasons as was the norm in previous years. Generally Zimbabweans are a very friendly and helpful people and violent crime is apparently rare.
We stayed at a very pleasant B&B owned by our tour operator in Harare for two nights to get to see the Miombo woodland specials. A very knowledgable local guide took us for a long walk through the Mukivisi Woodlands which is 275 hectares in extent and completely surrounded by the city.(photo 4)
The Miombo woodlands are made up of several Brachystegia tree species and here we got to see many fantastic birds and lifers for me including: Whyte’s Barbet, Copper, Variable (photo 6) and Miombo Double-Collared Sunbird, Tropical Boubou, Green-backed Honeybird (photo 7), Southern Hyliota (photo 8), Green-capped Eremomela (photo 9), Grey-headed Kingfisher and Miombo Blue-Eared Starling.
My favourite was the African Spotted Creeper and we were lucky to see a pair of them building their nest in the fork of a tree (photo 11&12) ).
We then went on to visit the nearby Haka reserve of 2500 hectares on the outskirts of the city , which was also prolific with wonderful birding but no more lifers for the day. The total for the five hours was 96 species – many of which we didn’t see later up north at Mana Pools, so it is well worth spending at least a day birding in and around the city.
In the afternoon we went to stock up for our camping trip to Mana Pools. The supermarkets were well stocked but they are forced by government to charge the US $ : Zim $ rate currently at 1:86 but the unofficial rate at which your goods are priced is 1:175. Locals have a card system which gives them a much better rate so our operator paid for all our goods and we reimbursed him at half of what we would have paid! Nevertheless, be prepared, everything is very expensive in Zim.
The next day we did the 6 hour trip up north to the Zambezi Valley on decaying roads with some really bad patches and lots of heavy vehicles. Traffic lights usually don’t work – four way intersections are a free for all and you need to be brave, nobody stops for you so you have to force your way through. Leaving the sprawling Harare with its traffic can take quite a while.
The Zambezi Valley is at it’s hottest and driest in October before the rains start mid-November ( we arrived in 42 degrees C) but is best for game viewing as the animals are concentrated near water and many of the migrants are back.
Our first 2 nights were spent wild camping at Chitake Springs under trees with only a signpost to designate the camping site (photo 13 ). These famous permanent springs in a dry river bed provide the only water in the dry season for 10’s of kilometres so there is an intense concentration of bird and animal life (photo 14).
Most people come to see the three large herds of buffalo arriving daily down the steep banks in huge clouds of dust and making easy prey for the pride of resident lions – currently 22 in number. You are almost guaranteed to witness a kill or two most days. (photo 15).
The water attracts flocks of Lilian’s Lovebird (photo 16), Carmine (photo 17) and White-fronted Bee-eater amongst others while Broad-billed Roller and Mosque Swallow (photo 18) are constantly dipping into the water.
We were very excited to see our first Bohm’s Spinetail amongst the Baobabs on the banks – later we saw many more flying over the Zambezi. (photo 19)
At our camp in the riverine forest we encountered Eastern Nicator, Red-throated Twinspot and a pair of Livingstone’s Flycatchers.(photo 20)
The nights are very noisy with all the predators around and rooftop tents are definitely preferable to ground tents especially in the heat. We then travelled 60 km on very corrugated roads to Nyamepi, the main Mana Pools camp on the banks of the Zambezi River where you have ablutions and water taps.(photo 21) There are still very few campers and they are mainly Zimbabweans, with most foreigners staying at the private lodges in the area. There is a large colony of Carmine Bee-eater breeding in the Zambezi bank within the camp and we spent a lot of time watching their antics. (photo 22). Monkeys and baboons in the camps are a problem as they are very brazen food thieves and everything edible has to be kept in closed cars. (photo 23). All citrus is banned in Mana Pools as the elephants, which are generally very placid and approachable here, will do anything to get to tasty fruits. The elephants at Mana are famous for standing on their hind legs to get to high branches whilst feeding – notably one bull named Boswell. James was lucky to film this happening – so look out for his upcoming footage.
The birdlife along the river was a little disappointing with no expected African Skimmer and Rock Pratincole. There were few reed beds and not much on the sandbanks but we did manage to see Long-toed Lapwings (photo 24), numerous white-crowned Lapwings, Rufous-bellied Heron, White-browed and Senegal Coucals and Half-collared Kingfishers amongst the other waterbirds we usually get back home.
Driving away from the river we managed to see Arnot’s Chat (photo 25) and a Three-banded Courser (photo 26) amongst the prolific birdlife with huge flocks of Red-billed Queleas . Southern Grey-headed Sparrows and Red-billed Firefinches were also numerous – scratching around for seeds in the dry ground. We also had a good sighting of a Western Banded Snake Eagle ( photo 27)
A further three nights were then spent wild camping further up the river at Mucheni ,where the only luxury is a long drop toilet surrounded by sticks but this was our favourite camp as it was very scenic and isolated with lions, hyenas, vocal hippos and elephants all around us at night.
We ended our trip travelling the treacherous road back to Harare where we had to stay the night whilst awaiting our PCR Covid test results. The day of departure we had a few hours spare, so at 6 am a local birder took us to the hills just outside Harare for a 3 hour walk in the Miombo covered hillsides. What was astonishing was the number of artisanal gold miners digging incredibly deep holes into the earth. We were told by our guide that 2-300 of them die yearly in Zimbabwe when they get buried by collapsing pits. The miners are taking their toll on the Brachystegia (which are very slow growing) as they chop them down for various uses in the mines.
Our last minute outing was very fruitful with a further 6 lifers for me: Black-eared Seedeater, Cabanis’s Bunting (photo 28), Miombo Rock Thrush (photo 29), Red-faced Crombec, White-breasted Cuckooshrike (photo 30), and Lizard Buzzard.
We also saw Spotted Creeper, Green-capped Eremomela and Southern Hyliota again amongst many other species.
We returned to Johannesburg that afternoon after a very successful birding adventure with a total of 216 species atlassed and 28 lifers for me. Zimbabwe is well worth a visit despite its problems and next time I plan to visit the Eastern Highlands where many specials occur.
Keep an eye out for the upcoming You Tube series of our trip by James Hendry.