Zambezi River Sunset Cruise – Lady Livingstone

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!

Visiting Victoria Falls & Mosi-oa-Tunya NP, Zambia

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!

Nice butterflies!

Signs point the way to the various trails.

Baboons are everywhere so don’t even carry food, they will steal it!

Cordon-blue Waxbill

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!

Livingstone National Art Gallery

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!

Planning A Birding Safari To Zambia

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.

BOTTOM LINE

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!

Getting Lost Near Menagesha Forest & The Addis Ababa Merkato (Market)

This was a big miscalculation on my part.  I knew that many birders stay at the Ghion Hotel so I assumed they would have birding guides on call who would be able to take us out to Menagesha Forest.  They didn’t, or at least  the staff on duty the evening we arrived didn’t.  The manager did manage to line up a car and driver to take us out there and I knew roughly where it was from Google maps and eBird.

The driver showed up promptly in the early morning and off we went.  It took a while to escape Addis Ababa because of traffic but we finally got out into the countryside.  It was interesting to see some of the transport options the local people have!

An Ethiopian Airlines plane made into a restaurant.  I wish we would have had time to check it out!

Getting out into the forest areas, we started seeing baboons on the road.

This is where we turned and we did end up in a section of Menagesha Forest after a long drive but it wasn’t the main entrance.  We never did find that, a shame as we possibly could have found a guide there.

I heard something that sounded like parrot screeches so we stopped and went for a walk.

The driver (white shirt), my husband and a boy who just happened to be near the stream.

Yellow-fronted Parrots flying overhead

Blue-fronted Bee-eaters near a small stream

Speckled Mousebird

Common Waxbill

We happened to pass the Born Free Sanctuary so stopped in hoping that there would be people knowledgeable about birds.  There weren’t any birders but one of the guards showed us the lions for a small donation.

Heading back to Addis Ababa, we saw some roadside markets.

The last place I wanted to see was the Merkato, the largest market place in Africa.  I had heard it was full of pick-pockets and thieves and we had expensive cameras with us so we opted for a slow drive around the market with photos out the window.  It was still interesting to see people going about their daily business!

We had been in a minibus like this one for the trip from the Lake Langano turn-off to Ziway, where we changed to a normal bus.

There were some pretty traditional dresses.

Amazing what some people can carry!

All in all, it was a very interesting excursion, though I think we would have had more success with the birding if we had had a qualified birding guide.  I probably should have emailed the hotel and tried to set one up well in advance but I had gotten used to hotels popular with birders having guides on call.  I paid the driver around $70 in a combination of USD and Birr and it was worth it for a half day excursion.  He was a nice guy, I forgot his name but his photo is above.

Birding The Ghion Hotel’s Garden

I was really hoping this would be a better experience but the weather was against me for most of the afternoon I had free to explore the Ghion Hotel’s beautiful gardens.  Here is a glimpse of the birds I managed to find.

Tacazze Sunbird

Abyssinian Thrush

Abyssinian Slaty Fly-catcher

Speckled Mousebirds

Wattled Ibis in flight

Speckled Mousebird

Wedding party arrives for a photo shoot, they barely missed being rained out!

 

Bird Walk With Hakim At Hara Langano

For serious birders hoping to see as many species as possible, you really need to book Hara Langano’s resident bird guide, Hakim.  He is an expert on the the local birds and knows all the calls and can ID all the birds.  He helped me fill out my bird list, unfortunately my photos didn’t come out as well as I hoped.

We started quite early and headed out past a small village.  The weather was drizzly and gloomy and we were wearing rain ponchos.  We did attract a lot of attention and some kids kept following us around.

My husband, Ina meeting locals.

Hakim (red jacket), Ina and some locals.  We did cop some rain and were wearing ponchos to protect the cameras.

The tiny endemic Black-winged Lovebird came fairly close, just couldn’t get them in good light due to the weather.

Some of these photos are so dark I can’t identify the birds.  If you go, I hope you get better pics!

White-cheeked Turaco

Bare-faced Go-away Bird

Red-shouldered Cuckooshrike

Grey-headed Kingfisher

Von der Decken’s Hornbill

The next morning we had some time before we had to get the transport to the main road and hung out near the gate.  The weather was better and I was able to get some better pics, especially of the gorgeous little Black-cheeked Lovebirds!  Indulge me while I post some (finally) good pics!

Hakim had been booked by others in the lodge for a village walk but he came and sat with us while waiting for them to finish breakfast.  We set out on a short walk in the same direction as the day before.  Hakim soon caught up with his group in tow and was happy to point out some birds to all of us.

Bruce’s Green Pigeon

Not sure about this little guy

Hoopoe

Blue-breasted Bee-eater

Silvery-cheeked Hornbill

Violet-backed Starling

 

I saw a LOT more birds than I got photos of, my full list is on eBird.  I do highly recommend Hakim as a guide, I wouldn’t have seen half those birds without him!

Birds, Hippos & Monkeys At Hara Langano Lodge

You don’t have to go far to start seeing birds and even the elegant Colobus Monkey, a walk around the Hara Langano Lodge grounds or even just sitting by the lake will do!

Weaverbird nests are everywhere!

Those are flamingoes beyond the horses.

Egyptian Geese are common.

This Bare-faced Go-away Bird didn’t tell us to go away, the slacker!

These hippos stayed in the lake but they are known to come into the lodge grounds.

The beautiful Colobus Monkeys stayed in the trees, they don’t try to steal food like other monkeys I have seen around the world.

Planning A Birding Safari In Ethiopia

I have to admit that when “birding” and even “safari” is mentioned, Ethiopia is not the first African country to come to mind.  Most tourists come here for the ancient churches and culture.  However to those in the know, Ethiopia has 924 species of birds, 23 of which are endemic.

Ethiopia is the hub of one of Africa’s largest airlines and is very easy to get to with airline miles, especially for Star Alliance members.   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.

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 was a bit nervous about visiting Ethiopia as there were some riots in Oct 2016 and the lodge I was planning to stay at, Bishangari had been burned to the ground.  I decided to keep the visit to the minimum I would need to see my two target parrots, the Yellow-fronted Parrot and Black-winged Lovebird.  Both were usually seen at Bishangari and hopefully also at the nearby lodge which we booked called Hara Langano.  Then I wanted to make a day trip to Menagesha Forest for another chance at the same two parrots and also have time to explore the gardens of the Ghion Hotel where most birders stay in Addis Ababa.  I was prioritizing parrots knowing that plenty of other bird species would be in the same habitats so chose these locations:

HARA LANGANO LODGE

Yellow-fronted parrot, Poicephalus flavifrons

Black-winged lovebird, Agapornis taranta

GHION HOTEL

Black-winged lovebird, Agapornis taranta plus many other endemics.

MENAGESHA FOREST

Same as Hara Langano.

Here is a map showing the locations.

 

HOW TO ORGANIZE YOUR OWN BIRDING SAFARI

In Ethiopia, it’s very rare for tourists to self-drive cars and you will have to use some kind of transport with a driver included. These drivers probably won’t know anything about birds so you will also need a guide at each park/reserve you visit. There are usually guides hanging around national parks waiting for customers so this won’t be a problem. You may decide that it’s more convenient to just join an organized tour such as those whom I mentioned above if you can afford it.

When I booked Hara Langano Lodge, they offered minibus transport for $50 per person shared among whoever was traveling that day.  It turned out that we were the only ones.  For the return I planned to save money by using public transportation.

For the day trip to Menagesha, I planned to use a hired car and driver from the hotel and find a guide at the park.  This didn’t work out quite so well as we got lost trying to find the entrance to the park and ended up on the wrong side.  We did find some birds but not as many as if we had entered the park proper.

VISA FOR ETHIOPIA

Visas are issued on arrival to most nationalities on payment of a $50 fee in cash.  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. In my case, since we were going to other places in Africa we went in the moderate rainy season (April/May 2017) but it wasn’t too bad.  Hara Langano was nice and we got a few evening showers in Addis Ababa.

 

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.

BOTTOM LINE

Although Ethiopia isn’t the top birding destination in Africa, it is growing in popularity and becoming easier to access.  We had no major problems when we were there other than attracting some curious teenagers at the bus stop on the road to Addis.  This was the most challenging country to “wing it”  as outside the hotels hardly anyone spoke English and they aren’t used to seeing tourists not in groups.  We did get the target birds although the Yellow-fronted Parrot didn’t come out in the open to be photographed which was disappointing.  The Black-winged Lovebirds did make a few quality showings!