A must for any tourist in Zambia is a sunset river cruise whether you are a birder or not. But birders can take full advantage of being in the middle of the river with excellent views over both Zambian and Zimbabwean sides of the river to spot some cool birds! There are several cruise boat operators in Livingstone, I suggest checking with the reception of your lodge for any current specials they may have. Fawlty Towers had a $10 off deal on the posh Lady Livingstone and we were able to book it with a few hours notice!
They picked us up about half an hour before the cruise and brought us to the luxury David Livingstone Lodge where we paid for the cruise and waited to board. This is where we made a mistake, you have to sign in before they let you board and we almost didn’t get seats on the top tier of the boat (best for birders) but luckily I managed to drag a chair over to the rear for stunning views.
Welcome aboard with wine.
Birders want to be on that 3rd deck at the rear. If you are lucky, one of the crew may know something about birds and join you but I am not sure of crew staffing. It’s not designed to be a birding cruise. It’s a sunset cruise with snacks and drinks included. There is live music on the bottom deck.
While waiting you can watch other tourists flying overhead in helicopters and light aircraft.
Off we go!
I will try to identify the birds we saw, I do have a check list but can’t match them all to the photos (my bad photography). I have tons of shots that are even blurrier than these, some of which were Hail Mary’s at the Grey-headed Parrots but no luck!
We saw lots of other boats passing by, none as nice as ours though! Drinks and snacks are brought around and you can have all you want. I stopped drinking when it began to affect my ability to hold the camera somewhat straight! These sunset cruises can also be referred to as “booze cruises” with good reason!
I did one of these ultralight trips back in the mid 90’s from the Zimbabwe side, they have gone way up in price since then!
Sun is beginning to set.
Musicians on the bottom deck, even this shot was blurry but I didn’t have the flash out.
After the cruise, they returned us to Fawlty Towers. Although it’s not a dinner cruise per se, I found the snacks were filling enough that we weren’t hungry and didn’t need to eat dinner afterwards, more savings!
The Blue Waxbill (Uraeginthus angolensis), also called Southern Blue Waxbill, Blue-breasted Waxbill, Southern Cordon-bleu, Blue-cheeked Cordon-bleu, Blue-breasted Cordon-bleu and Angola Cordon-bleu, is a common species of estrildid finch found in Southern Africa.
LEARN MORE ABOUT BLUE WAXBILLS
Getting up close and personal with this little cutie!
I don’t know if this one is tired or just bored.
Foraging on the ground.
You can choose to see the magnificent Victoria Falls from either Zambia, Zimbabwe or both. If you want to visit both sides, be sure to get the KAZA visa which is $50 at the point of entry. Most accommodations have shuttle buses to get you to the park entrance but in our case, we had to go to the National Art Gallery first to pay for our birding trip so we had to hire a taxi from Fawlty Towers to the gallery, then to the park. We settled a time for the driver to come back and pick us up again. I forget the actual cost but it was very reasonable.
There is a view point on the Mosi-oa-Tunya Road to see the mist rising above the falls.
You enter the grounds and the taxi will drop you at the place you pay your entrance fee, $10 USD or the equivalent in Kwacha.
You have been warned!
Car park and shopping area, some people choose to have their taxis wait here.
All the trails are very well marked. Most people will go direct to the falls, get drenched, then walk around the park while they dry off. That’s what we did!
The closer you get, the wetter you get. If you don’t have rain ponchos, you can rent or buy them at several kiosks.
The falls are very powerful from this angle. You can walk across the bridge but I only went as far as the entrance because I was worried about my camera gear. Even with the ponchos, we were hard pressed to protect the cameras……………and take pictures!
I think these are Egyptian Geese but I only saw them from the rear.
You have to look twice to see which restroom to use!
Signs point the way to the various trails.
Baboons are everywhere so don’t even carry food, they will steal it!
Helicopters were frequent, birds less frequent but we were there around mid-day so that was probably the reason.
This trail looked interesting but too steep for us.
Beaded bird, I already have one like this from a previous trip.
There are several souvenir shops near the entrance, good place to kill time while waiting for your taxi or shuttle back to town.
This was a pretty brief visit to the falls and there are so many other ways to experience Mosi-oa-Tunya NP such as helicopers, light aircraft, rafting and the traditional Zambezi River cruise………………more on that coming soon!
This was a lucky coincidence as I hadn’t been researching galleries or museums thinking we wouldn’t have time to visit either. But I needed to pay for the birding trip with Savannah Southern Safaris (wait for the separate post) and they happen to be located in the lobby of the National Art Gallery.
We had taken a taxi out there and the driver was waiting as I thought it would be a quick run in, put the credit card through the machine and back off to the Victoria Falls waterfall area. It actually took quite awhile as the girl tried again and again to process the credit card and couldn’t get a connection. This gave me plenty of time to look around the art gallery. They have an amazing variety of artwork for sale and I highly recommend coming out here both to see the art and book Savannah Southern Safaris!
Here’s some of what you can expect!
I was quite tempted by that one with the birds in the trees but it was over my budget and too big for the backpack.
Happily the credit card finally went through and I not only paid for my birding trip but bought these two bird drawings by Alec Lishandu which are now on my living room wall!
Although Fawlty Towers is better known as a backpackers lodge, they do have nice private rooms available and this is the product I will be reviewing. I chose to stay here because we basically only needed a place to lay our heads at night, the 2 full days we planned in Livingstone were jam-packed with activities so no time to enjoy luxury facilities. The location can’t be beat, right in the middle of town with a shopping centre across the street.
We arrived around 8am after the bus ride from Lusaka with a stop in Monze and as one would expect it was too early to check in. We went to the restaurant upstairs for breakfast (paid separately, not included in rate) and I checked my emails. The wifi is not great but not bad, it may be due to having several people on all at once, some of them were Skype-ing.
There is a security guard on duty round the clock which was really good for us as we had a 3am pick up for Machile IBA.
Taxis congregate just outside and the security guard will help you if needed.
Courtyard with places to sit and use wifi or eat & drink.
Breakfast is paid downstairs, they have a menu to choose from and they give you a ticket to bring to the kitchen. You can help yourself to coffee and tea.
The receptionist can book any tours you want and they have a wide variety of things to do. Everyone is catered for whether adrenaline enthusiasts or relaxing cruises down the Zambezi. Although I had originally inquired about the budget Booze Cruise, it wasn’t running and they booked us on the Lady Livingstone. This turned out to be a great cruise which will be covered in a separate post.
This section has the private rooms which are a fantastic deal, especially if you can get some portal points or airline miles or cashback. After using a coupon on Orbitz, I got it for around $36 a night!
Our room was on the end.
Very comfortable beds and plenty of room to spread out.
The shopping centre across the street has most of what travelers need – ATMs, souvenirs, a supermarket and a couple small restaurants & fast food places.
Hungry Lion is like a KFC, good for cheap fast food.
Honestly you can spend hundreds of $$ in Livingstone and stay at some stunning eco-lodges in the bush but if you aren’t going to be around during the day, why bother? There is just so much to do in Livingstone & Victoria Falls area that unless you have lots of time to spare, you won’t be at your accommodation all that much. Fawlty Towers was a great little budget place, very well-run and the staff are very nice and helpful.
While researching this trip, I had already determined that flying was going to be out of our budget and car hire also too expensive due to the high per kilometer fees (no unlimited rates). So it would have to be buses to get from Lusaka to Livingstone and Mfuwe. The flight was due to arrive around 12:30pm so theoretically we should have been able to get a bus that would reach Livingstone in the late evening or get an overnight bus so we wouldn’t waste too much time in transit.
The plan went all to hell even before we arrived. I had booked the flights with miles around May & June 2016. In Nov 2016, the Zambian gov’t banned buses from traveling at night hoping to prevent accidents. It seems the drivers were being careless and over-speeding and using their mobile phones while driving. One bus company which had been the favourite amongst travelers – Mazhandu Family buses had even been totally shut down leaving Shalom as the sole bus provider on the Lusaka-Livingstone route.
Our flight was an hour late getting in which ruined any plan of getting to Livingstone that same evening. We took a taxi from the airport to the Lusaka Intercity Bus Terminus with the plan to get the first available bus. The bus terminus is a huge place with individual kiosks for all the bus companies, food stalls, shops, a left luggage office and pay toilets.
Here is the Shalom ticket office with the bus timings to Livingstone posted outside. We barely missed the 14:30 bus, if the plane had been on time, we would have made it. SO we ended up on the 16:30 bus which we knew would make a stopover some place enroute for the mandatory off-road time between 9pm-5am. This did turn out to be good as it gave us time to buy tickets for the Lusaka-Mfuwe bus in advance so we would be assured of these seats. I should point out that there are no online tickets, you must book your bus tickets in person at the ticket office.
The fare was 140 Kwacha each.
Cargo awaiting the bus to be loaded on board.
The bus had a 2 x 3 configuration which when full makes most economy airline seats look luxurious. We had a 2 seat row. I should have booked 3 seats for the 2 of us to get us more room.
Once considered a good bus company, Mazhandu has been shut down due to poor driver behaviour causing accidents.
On the way out, we saw these smaller buses. I was told they leave when full and don’t have fixed times.
Scenes of Lusaka as we were leaving.
The countryside was more interesting.
The bus made slow progress southwards. I had been hoping to reach Choma that night as there were good birding areas nearby but we only made it as far as Monze. The bus parked outside this small restaurant.
Some people spent the night on the bus, a few others camped on the sidewalk outside the restaurant.
A few of us including the driver, some German tourists and Ina & me made a beeline to this small hotel. At least we would have a safe, comfortable place to stretch out for the night. It was really cheap, something like 200 kwacha for a double room.
Gaudy decor but who cares, we slept well!
The next morning we were up at 4:30 am to re-board the bus for a 5am departure. I used my iPhone alarm.
We made a few stops along the way, one at this lay-by where a beautful Lilac-breasted Roller greeted us.
Arriving at Livingstone bus station where we got a taxi to Fawlty Towers, around 50 Kwacha-ish.
This is the Shalom bus office in Livingstone where we bought tickets for a 10:30am bus. We hadn’t booked in advance, in retrospect we should have as the 9:30 bus was fully booked. Below you can see the full timetable from Livingstone to Lusaka and the fares.
We got some breakfast here, just sandwiches and fruit.
This time the bus was a more comfortable 2 x 2 configuration. I had been prepared to pay 3 seats but it wasn’t necessary.
The journey back to Lusaka was pretty normal, took around 7 hours-ish. We arrived around 5:30pm. The Shalom people helped us find a good taxi driver to take us to the nearby hotel.
I must admit I was a bit nervous about taking buses in Zambia as Trip Advisor had several people say how they would never use them and how dangerous it was. However we felt safe on the Shalom bus, if somewhat annoyed at the 9pm stop but it did all work out in the end!
It seems every time I turn around this bird has a new taxonomy, my head is spinning! The Brown-necked Parrot (Poicephalus fuscicollis) is a large Poicephalus parrot species endemic to Africa consisting of the savanna-dwelling brown-necked parrot (P. fuscicollis fuscicollis) and grey-headed parrot (P. f. suahelicus) subspecies. It formerly included the Cape parrot (now Poicephalus robustus) as a subspecies before the Cape parrot was re-classified as a distinct species. Birdlife has the most recent explanation.
These guys are hard to find but if you are lucky you may get a glimpse of them flying overhead to their roosting sites on a Zambezi River cruise. I did see a couple in the distance but didn’t get a photo so here’s Wikipedia’s pic.
The Birdlife distribution map has all 3 Poicephalus species – Cape, Brown-necked and Grey-headed Parrots. The Grey-headed Parrots (suahelicus) are in the yellow shaded area with the Zambezi River indicated by the dot. The easiest access is from Livingstone, Zambia. We did the Lady Livingstone cruise and birders tend to congregate in the top level near the rear. One of the staff is an experienced birder (I didn’t get his name but he will notice your camera and binoculars and offer to help) so just ask him to help you find these parrots. He knows them by their calls.
LEARN MORE ABOUT GREY-HEADED PARROTS
The Flacks Photography (nice photos of wild birds)
You think it’s hard to get a photo of these guys in the wild, try looking for videos!
Zambia is one of the fastest growing destinations for Africa safaris. The parks here are much less crowded than those in surrounding countries and the Big 5 can be easily seen. Birders can look forward to seeking 779 species of which one is endemic.
Zambia’s airports are smaller and they don’t have as many airlines as other safari destinations but careful planners can still use their miles to get here. Star Alliance and SkyTeam have the most options via Addis Ababa, Johannesburg and Nairobi. If you have limited time and finances you will really have to make some tough decisions on how many parks to visit. It really helps if you know what species are your priority. For some people this may be raptors or trying to check off all the endemics. For me it’s always parrots first, then songbirds, then other birds and mammals.
Lillian’s Lovebirds at South Luangwa NP
DO YOUR HOMEWORK
With so much on offer, you have to do lots of research online to find out your best chances of seeing the species you really want to see. I always check trip reports on Surfbirds and more recently added Cloudbirders to that. Xeno-canto has mapped locations where birders took sound clips of many species so that can pinpoint them even more.
I always check bird sightings on eBird, you can see my full guide on locating bird species .
I also look through trip reports by major birding companies such as Birdquest, VENT, Naturetrek, Rockjumper and more. The trip reports will show you which parks you need to concentrate on. Once you have this, you can start contacting birding tour operators or safari companies that are well-recommended for quotes. If you are traveling on your own, it’s worthwhile to note when the birding groups will be in the area as they will have the best guides already reserved and you may not even find accommodation.
HOW I CHOSE MY ITINERARY
I had 2 definite target birds (Black-cheeked Lovebirds and Lillian’s Lovebirds) and a third maybe target (Grey-headed Parrot). My research revealed that the Black-cheeked Lovebirds had a stronghold in the Machile area, Lillian’s Lovebirds were regularly seen in South Luangwa National Park and Grey-headed parrots had been reported from the Zambezi River cruises. Meyers Parrots are seen all over Zambia. I was prioritizing parrots knowing that plenty of other bird species would be in the same habitats so chose these locations:
LIVINGSTONE: ZAMBEZI RIVER CRUISE, VICTORIA FALLS WALK & DAY TRIP TO MACHILE IBA
Grey-headed parrot, Poicephalus suahelicus
Meyers Parrot, Poicephalus meyeri
Black-cheeked lovebird, Agapornis nigrigenis
SOUTH LUANGWA NP/MFUWE
Lillian’s lovebird, Agapornis lilianae
Here is a map showing the locations.
HOW TO ORGANIZE YOUR OWN BIRDING SAFARI
In Zambia, it’s very rare for tourists to self-drive cars and the rates are very high as they all have a per kilometre charge and Zambia involves great distances. Domestic flights are operated by Proflight Zambia and they are not cheap but could be a good option if your time is limited. They do not partner with any airline alliances so you would be up for the cash.
Buses between major cities are very cheap and reasonably comfortable. If the bus has a 2 x 3 configuration, I recommend buying 3 seats so you can be more comfortable and keep your bags with you. I will have a separate post on the Zambia bus experience. We used buses for all travel between Lusaka, Livingstone and Mfuwe.
For the day trip to Machile IBA, I was recommended to Savannah Southern Safaris and the excellent birding guide Chiinga. They organized the 4×4 to Machile IBA as well.
South Luangwa NP has many options for all budgets which usually include the accommodation, food and game drives into the park. We went for a backpacker package with the beautiful Marula Lodge.
VISA FOR ZAMBIA
Visas are issued on arrival to most nationalities on payment of a $50 fee in cash or credit card. It was very straightforward and smooth, didn’t take long at all.
BEST SEASON TO TRAVEL
There’s a couple things to consider, the weather and potential crowds. I always check the weather on Weather2Travel. Zambian weather was a priority as I knew the places we were visiting would be difficult to reach if it were raining. May is in the dry season and we enjoyed good weather throughout the trip.
If you have “must-see” bird species, always check eBird to make sure the birds are being seen that time of year by other birders.
Zambia is by far the best safari experience we have had in Africa and I have been going to Africa since the mid ’80’s! The game drives (which will be covered in detail) were amazing, the best I had ever been on!
The only thing that would have made the experience better would have been to self drive between major cities and then use the guides/drivers we already did. The buses just took forever and we spent way too much time on them. Most Zambians seem to speak English, some more fluent than others and we had no trouble communicating. The tourist infrastructure is very good. Guides are very well trained and I was amazed at how well they spot birds and animals even in dense bush!
As this report progresses, you will see just how amazing Zambia is, and if you can only afford to visit one country in Africa and want an all-round birding and Top 5 animal experience, you can’t go wrong in Zambia!
Most frequent flier programs place Zambia into the Africa zone. You can find some generic recommendations on how to get to East Africa here. You can also fly to South Africa and then get a flight from JNB to LUN. I already have a blog with my recommendations for which programs to join if you are new to the world of miles and points.
The major gateway city for Zambia is Lusaka (LUN). There are also international flights to Livingstone (LVI). Once you have been in the miles and points game for awhile, you will get a feel for which airline to use where but if you are just starting out Wikipedia will show you all the airlines that fly into Lusaka and Livingstone.
LUSAKA: No One World airlines fly here.
LIVINGSTONE: Comair (British Airways subsidiary) flies from JNB.
LUSAKA: Ethiopian flies from Addis Ababa and South African flies from JNB.
LIVINGSTONE: Ethiopian flies from Addis Ababa and South African flies from JNB.
LUSAKA & LIVINGSTONE: Kenya Airways serves both airports from Nairobi.
Emirates serves LUSAKA from their hub in Dubai with connections world wide.
HOW MANY MILES WILL IT COST?
Every airline member of the 3 main alliances has it’s own frequent flier program. Examples are in my East Africa post.