The Zambian Bus Experience Part 1 – Lusaka To Livingstone

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.

Market

Arriving at Livingstone bus station where we got a taxi to Fawlty Towers, around 50 Kwacha-ish.

RETURN TRIP

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!

Warradjan Aboriginal Cultural Centre, Cooinda, Kakadu

Located only a few minutes from Gagudju Lodge, Cooinda is the Warradjan Cultural Centre which is well worth a visit to see the Aboriginal art and culture exhibits.  It is open from 9-5 daily and is free to visit.  This is an excellent way to while away a hot afternoon in Kakadu!

They don’t allow photos inside so I only have a few exteriors.

You can find both souvenirs and Aboriginal art in the gift shop.

Electronic Device Restriction On Flights To USA & UK

It’s all over the news so most people will have heard of the restrictions on electronic devices which includes laptops, tablets and even cameras on flights departing 10 airports headed for the USA and a variety of airports headed to the UK.

Flights departing for the USA: Cairo, Egypt; Dubai and Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates; Istanbul, Turkey; Doha, Qatar; Amman, Jordan; Kuwait City; Casablanca, Morocco; and Jeddah and Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.

The U.K. list is shorter. It covers all inbound flights from Turkey, Lebanon, Egypt, Tunisia and Saudi Arabia but omits airports such as Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Doha.

Although most of the publicity has been about laptops, birders will be more worried about being forced to check expensive and delicate camera gear.  It is well known that baggage handlers are not gentle and many items do get stolen out of checked bags.  This is why many people, including myself will do anything to avoid checking a bag.

To me, this whole thing is ridiculous and I really hope the insanity doesn’t spread any further.  If it’s a true threat, why just these specific countries?  Do they think terrorists can’t book connecting flights via Europe to avoid the direct flights?  Do they think that laptops in cargo holds are safer, an alleged bomb can’t be set on a timer?  Why would terrorists even be bothering with bringing laptop sized bombs on a plane when they can fix them to a drone, easily purchased by anyone.

The most logical explanation is that the US administration is trying to stick it to the ME3 (Emirates, Etihad & Qatar) which are competing with their own airlines in certain markets.  The UK ban doesn’t affect the ME3 so this supports the theory.

ECO-TOURISTS MOST LIKELY TO BE AFFECTED

Since this blog targets people using miles and points to facilitate eco-tourism:

  • People using Star Alliance awards on Turkish Airlines, Egypt Air between the USA or UK and Africa, Asia or Australia.
  • People using One World Alliance awards on Qatar Airways (USA only) or Royal Jordanian between the USA or UK and Africa, Asia or Australia.
  • People using Emirates on any of the afore mentioned routes.

WHAT YOU CAN DO TO PROTECT YOURSELF

  • If you are forced to check your laptop or camera, make sure they are very securely wrapped to protect against baggage handlers.  Use layers of whatever you have-clothes, bubble-wrap, crumpled newspapers to cushion cameras.
  • Carry on the lenses separately if allowed.
  • Back up your photos and personal documents to a usb drive and carry on board, also bring the camera’s SD cards with you.
  • Put them inside a box securely wrapped and taped up, then put the box inside a suitcase with a TSA approved lock (if you have one) or another box.  Double boxes.

Can anyone think of anything else?  I haven’t been in this position and I hope I won’t be (if Australia doesn’t join the insanity)!

 

Preparing For A Northern Territory Road Trip

Once you leave the main city of Darwin, prices go up the further you go into the bush for petrol and groceries.  Katherine has a couple supermarkets and some fast food places and small cafes and the petrol there is only a little bit more than Darwin.

We discovered a great place after leaving Howard Springs, the Palmerston Shopping Centre.  It’s about a 10 minute drive and the Coles has everything you need at normal prices.

Since we only had a small collapseable cooler, we bought some hamburgers, steaks and sausages for BBQing and sandwich meat, cheese, bread, ramen noodles and snacks for the inevitable picnics in the bush while birding.  Soft drinks and large water bottles are cheap here so stock up as it gets hot out there and you need to stay hydrated!  Don’t forget the sunscreen and mosquito repellent!

Heading south towards Pine Creek there are some nice places to stop, stretch and use the conveniences.  Adelaide River has some nice birding spots but it was around 1pm by the time we got there and any birds were sensibly taking a siesta.

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Possible overnight stop if you can make it out of Darwin by 4pm so you get here before dusk.DSCN5602

Throughout the Territory you will find all-purpose stores like this one.  The selection won’t be great and the prices higher than the city to reflect the costs of transport.DSCN5603

There were a few birds taking shelter in these trees behind the rest rooms.DSCN5604

We only stayed here for around 15 minutes because there were no birds at that time of day so we continued on to Pine Creek.

Planning A Birding Adventure To Australia’s Northern Territory (Top End)

Now that you know how to use miles to get to Australia and use Darwin as a gateway city, what you really want to know is how to get out in the bush where the birds are!  Fortunately, Australia is an amazingly easy country to travel around in.  It’s safe, everyone speaks English and the tourism infrastructure is excellent!  All you need is a well-researched plan and a car to get there.

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MAKE YOUR PLAN

1. Determine what species of birds you want to see. Bear in mind that no matter what species you are targeting, you will find many other species in the same location. In my case, although I was really keen to see wild Parrots, I was very happy to see that other species such as Rainbow Pittas, Gouldian Finches and Bowerbirds were also within reach.

2. Use guide books such as “Parrots of the World” by Joseph Forshaw and “The Field Guide to the Birds of Australia” by Graham Pizzey & Frank Knight to determine where these species can most easily be found. These books have maps to help you formulate an itinerary. Although I prefer Kindle/eBooks for casual reading, with a field guide you really need the hard copy to be able to compare the birds you see to the images in the book. Don’t worry if you don’t know all the species. As long as you get a decent photo, you can always look them up! You can buy these books on Amazon.com if you don’t have them already.

3. Use other internet resources to find out where the birds have been seen most recently. These may be Facebook or Twitter contacts, blogs like Miles to the Wild or trip reports on Surfbirds. Google the scientific name of the bird + “report”. For example if you Google “Lophochroa leadbeateri sightings” you get this. If you have destinations in mind from researching the field guides, you can get better results by Googling “Lophochroa leadbeateri Bowra” such as this.

4. Use eBird searches on the species to see where other people have reported them.  I now have a full tutorial on how to use eBird to plan a trip.   Spend more time if the destination has more of the species you are targeting.

This step can be very time consuming as you need to research each species you want to see individually but it is well worth it as you will save lots of time once you are traveling and you can travel independently which saves you lots of money and gives you more choices as to when, where & how you want your birding adventure to happen!

5.  Visit some local birding websites.  The Northern Territory ones are especially helpful and I can recommend:

Experience the Wild

NT Bird Specialists

Book:  Top End Birdwatching written by Mike Reed.  I found it for sale at the Katherine Museum or contact NT Bird Specialists.  Wonderful book and helped me find lots of birds and identify them from the photos.  Plus it doesn’t weigh much!

Laurie Ross

Once I did all the research, this is the itinerary I put together which gave a fair shot at all my target birds.  I will go into depth on each hotspot in turn throughout this series.

NT Birding

LOGISTICS

You will definitely need a car, as this is a huge chunk of territory to cover and public transport is very sparse.  One thing to note about the Northern Territory is that cars don’t have unlimited kilometers like in most other Aussie cities and the per kilometer cost will probably double your rental car budget.  For this trip, since I happen to be a member of RACQ (the local auto club) I got 15% discount on Thrifty Car Hire-including the rental, the kilometers and insurance.  My own GPS covers all of Australia so I brought it along.  The itinerary above is all on tarred roads so a 2WD car is fine but if you want to include places like the Marrikai Track you will need a 4WD.  Always get quotes from several car companies and use whatever discounts you qualify for!  Refueling is cheaper in Darwin and Katherine so always top up before heading into the Outback.

A good plan is to bird early in the morning, use the afternoon to either siesta by the pool or drive to the next destination, then more birding in the afternoon.  The Territory is HOT, even in September which is when we did our trip!

Accommodation ranges from typical Aussie caravan parks (that also have self-catering cabins) to Outback style B&B’s.  You only chance to use hotel points will be in Darwin and Katherine but in this case I recommend choosing a property based on location and convenience within your price range.  We were low-budget and our accommodation averaged around $100 AUD per night.  Plan on picnic breakfasts and lunches while birding or driving between locations, then either BBQ or hit up a pub for dinner.

Stock up on groceries before leaving Darwin or Katherine for a better selection and cheaper prices.  We have a cooler that we keep the meat in and the drinks for the day.  Most accommodations will have a fridge and microwave, even a small kitchenette.  Having said that, by the time the trip was finished, we couldn’t look at another sandwich for weeks!

Bring lots of sunscreen and mosquito repellent, especially for Howard Springs!  If you are using carry-on only, you can easily buy it in Darwin at any supermarket.

Merry Christmas & Happy Holidays To All

I wish everyone a happy and peaceful Christmas, Chanukah, Kwanzaa and hope everyone is enjoying the holidays!

My personal tradition is collecting Christmas tree ornaments while traveling and sometimes I adapt key rings as ornaments.  These ornaments are a great way to remember our trips and the special birds we saw, also a great way to support the crafts people who make the ornaments!

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But no matter how many bird ornaments I buy, I have never had LIVE birds take up residence in my Christmas tree!

How To Inspect A Rental Car Upon Pick-up

Sometimes I manage to get discounted rates that include collision damage waiver on a rental car but Hertz in Trinidad wasn’t one of these times.  I was relying on my credit card’s insurance by paying for the car with the card.  However I really didn’t want to have to stress over nicks and dings and go back and forth with Hertz and the credit card insurer so I always take a few precautions when picking up the car.  I am not picking on Hertz and we didn’t have any problems with this rental but I am illustrating what everyone should do when they pick up a rental car from any company to avoid hassle.

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I take photos of the car from every angle both on pick up and return.  dscn3557

Get a photo of the fuel gauge so you can prove you returned it with the correct amount.  In some places it won’t always be on full so you have to match whatever it was when you picked it up.dscn3558

Get close-ups of any nicks and dings.  Usually a smartphone camera is fine.  dscn3559 dscn3560

Check the tires (tyres) and make sure they are in good condition.dscn3561 dscn3562

I have read a lot of horror stories about people getting blamed for small damages that were already on the car because they didn’t take a few precautions.  Don’t forget to take the same photos on the return.  Try to avoid returning a car after hours.  When the employees see you being extremely cautions they are less likely to try to pin something on you and will move on to someone who seems to be an easier mark.  Hopefully most car hire companies are honest but there are bad apples in every bunch so better safe than sorry.

Goodbye South America & Hello Caribbean

Over the last few months, I have taken you on a journey through Ecuador & Colombia and showed you how you can plan a similar trip for yourself.  Before I begin the Caribbean series, I wanted to reflect on Ecuador & Colombia and some things I learned.

  1.  Do your homework!  We had a decent success rate for seeing target birds, most of which were parrot species.  Researching on eBird, Cloudbirders, Surfbirds and some private blogs was the key to knowing where to look for the birds.
  2. You will see a lot more birds with a local guide.  It is not necessary to do a group tour, you can often book a guide on the spot through your accommodation.
  3. Having said that, you get a better choice of guides if you are on a tour as they snap up the best guides months in advance.
  4. Don’t worry if your guide doesn’t speak English as long as they know the birds.  They will be able to identify the birds from a book or a local checklist printed in Spanish and English.
  5. If you can’t find a birding guide, hire a car & driver for a day trip.
  6. Use miles to reach otherwise expensive places like the Galapagos.
  7. Be prepared for anything!  I thought I had done a decent job of preparing but the earthquake in Ecuador could have been a disaster if it had struck when we were in Guayaquil or even between Mindo and the coastal area.
  8. Birding in cloud forests is FRUSTRATING!  I don’t know how many times I saw birds flitting through trees only to disappear into a sea of clouds.  The visibility was terrible and the photography even worse.  In these cases, I did much better with binoculars or a scope if my guide had one.  to track the birds rather than trying to focus a red dot on a fast-flying bird.
  9. High elevation cloud forests are even worse!  Not only do you have the weather conditions, you also have to contend with altitude sickness!
  10. Take time out to relax, get a massage or soak in a hot spa.  Even dedicated birders need to recharge their batteries-human as well as camera!

We did have an amazing time and saw some pretty amazing birds including the Antpitta family which I hadn’t been familiar with but we (especially my husband) were looking forward to getting back to sea level and sunny weather.

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Next cab off the rank is amazing, colourful Trinidad!

Birding At High Elevations & Altitude Sickness

I’m sure most people have heard of altitude sickness and probably associate it with mountain climbers.  We’ve all seen tv shows about people getting sick when trying to climb Mt Everest.  But one thing you may not know is that some birding hotspots are located at high elevations and birders do need to take precautions for altitude sickness when traveling to these spots.

List of Highest Large Cities in the World

List of Highest Cities in the World

If you check out some of these cities, you will notice a few that you may visit or transit while headed to birding hotspots.

SYMPTOMS OF ALTITUDE SICKNESS

Everyone handles altitude differently so you need to know at what point you will start feeling symptoms of altitude sickness such as:

  • Loss of appetite, nausea, or vomiting, excessive flatulation.
  • Fatigue or weakness headache with or without dizziness or lightheadedness, insomnia
  • Peripheral edema (swelling of hands, feet, and face)
  • Nose bleeding, shortness of breath upon exertion
  • Persistent rapid pulse
  • Pins and needles, general malaise

You should consult with a doctor about potential effects of altitude sickness and inquire about appropriate precautions.

From previous travels, I know that I get a bit lightheaded, lose my appetite and sometimes experience nausea or vomiting when I was in Lhasa & Cuzco.  Both cities are over 11,151 feet (3,399 m).  During our most recent trip to Colombia, I noticed fatigue and shortness of breath when we were in the Paramo.  My husband got especially woozy-enough so I felt we had to go back down a bit lower.  We had previously been to Quito at 9,350 feet (2,850 m)with no ill-effects, maybe just a bit of fatigue.  So now we have an idea that around 2800 meters is where we have to be extra careful.  I would actually prefer to avoid going above this elevation altogether, or at least not having Ina go that high since I was able to tolerate 3400 meters in the Paramo.

SOME ACTIONS BIRDERS MAY NEED TO TAKE

Avoid the higher elevations.  We plan to visit Bolivia in 2018 and most people fly into La Paz which is at 3640 metres with the airport even higher at 4150 metres.  We will avoid La Paz and fly into Santa Cruz.  We won’t be going higher than Cochabamba at 2570 metres.

Take medications.  The drug acetazolamide (trade name Diamox) may help some people making a rapid ascent to sleeping altitude above 2,700 metres (9,000 ft).  It requires a doctor’s prescription.

Ascend more slowly/Get back down to lower altitudes.  One example I came across was traveling from Cuzco to the Cock-of-the-Rock Lodge.  The actual lodge is fairly low, under 2000 metres but you have to go over a pass that’s over 4000 metres enroute!  We would be doing this in a minibus and hopefully they take the pass slowly but at least we can descend by nightfall.

Just one more thing birders need to be aware of!

Experiencing The Big Earthquake In Ecuador

I am actually writing this post 4 months after the actual earthquake which happened on 16 April 2016 but I remember it so vividly.  We were staying at the beautiful Cabanas San Isidro.  It was around 7pm and we had just sat down to dinner.  We had been joined by the very friendly manager, Alejandro and were talking about birds.  The cook had just brought our the first course, the soup and placed it in front of us.  Spoons in hand we were about to dig in when we felt the earth move.  The soup was sloshing around in the bowl and I was wondering what the hell was going on.  Alejandro said, “Earthquake”.  He was outwardly calm but I could tell he was nervous.  The kitchen staff were also putting on a brave face but they were also very nervous.  We all desperately wanted to know what was happening, where the earthquake was centered, how bad it was and if we were in danger but there was no wifi, tv or cell phone signal.

I was extremely nervous as we were on top of a mountain, it had been raining and I was afraid of mudslides.  Finally Alejandro got through to someone and told us the earthquake was in a small town (Pedernales) near the coast which I was not familiar with.  He no longer seemed nervous so I also relaxed a bit and we continued with dinner.  The staff had also relaxed and no longer seemed nervous.  We finished or dinner with no further news, the tv still wasn’t working.  After dinner, one of the staff walked us back to the cabin and stopped along the way to show us the owl.  It took me a while to get to sleep that night as I was afraid of aftershocks.

The next morning, the guide showed up early as agreed to take us birding and everything seemed normal so I kind of “forgot” there had been an earthquake.  The rest of the day was exactly as planned – birding, breakfast, ride to bus stop, bus to Guango Lodge, see hummingbirds, bus to Quito Airport and check in for flight.  The roads were all normal, no traffic jams and most flights were running on schedule.  We used Priority Pass to enter the lounge and get access to wifi.  Only then did I learn what a devastating earthquake it had been!  I Googled “Ecuador earthquake” and read in stunned disbelief of the horror and devastation it had wreaked upon the small towns near the epicenter.  It was a 7.8 magnitude on the Richter scale and 661 people were killed and 27,732 people injured.  Here are some links to details and news coverage of the earthquake.

Wikipedia Article

CNN #1

CNN #2

This map shows where we were (purple dot), and the epicenter of the earthquake is highlighted.  I also showed the closest we had been to the epicenter when we were in Mindo.  I am not sure how bad it was there but if the earthquake had been a week earlier, we could have been caught a lot worse than we were.

earthquake map

Sitting there in the Quito airport lounge, I silently said some prayers for the people who had been killed, injured or lost their homes in the earthquake.  Guayaquil had felt it very badly and even had a bridge collapse.  We didn’t have long before the flight left so it took me awhile to get all the details.  I wouldn’t have wifi again until the hotel in Santa Marta, Colombia.

It’s a scary thing to think that we could get caught up in a natural disaster like an earthquake or hurricane while traveling.  At least with hurricanes you can avoid the season but earthquakes are completely unpredictable.  You are  more vulnerable when you are traveling too.  You don’t know the area, where to go for help and other people around will have their own families to worry about.  Since I got lucky this time, I can’t speak from experience what to do if you are caught in an earthquake while traveling but I did find a couple articles with some good advice.  If you will be traveling to a country that has a history of earthquakes, it’s a good idea to print them or save a copy to your hard drive as you may not have internet after an earthquake strikes.

BBC Travel

Peter Greenberg

The other thing I noticed is when I finally did get online, Facebook detected that I had logged in from a disaster area and had a button I could click to let friends and family know we were ok.