Budget Birding Travel Planning Timeline

If you want to go birding overseas but you don’t have a lot of money, you need to put a lot of time and effort into the planning of the trip.  After all, more financially advantaged people could simply call a birding tour operator, pay the fee and have everything organized for them!  So here’s how I plan my trips.

ONE TO THREE YEARS IN ADVANCE

At this point I am in the miles-collecting stage.  I have a bucket list of trips I want to do and which airline’s programs will get us there.  It can take awhile to accumulate the miles as Australia is pretty far from everywhere!  I’ll be applying for credit cards and directing spend to credit cards that will get us to the planned destinations.  I’ll also be maximizing category spends (for example grocery stores with 3 x points per $) and trying for retention bonuses.

I will also be researching key bird species and where to find them, then working out the best place to see them and choosing spots that offer the best bang for my buck – meaning more species in addition to the key species.  I’ll be reading reviews of eco-lodges and working out how to book them.

TEN TO TWELVE MONTHS IN ADVANCE

Flights open up for booking around 11 months in advance so since I want to get the best flight with my miles I book as soon as I see them open for sale.  I’ll book seat assigments and if the only option involves a bank of 3, I will try to get a free middle seat.  I will also have made contact with some eco-lodges and probably made a soft booking with confirmation to come once I have the flights booked.  I give preference to lodges that make it easy for me and accept credit card or Paypal for the deposit.  I HATE wire transfers as they have every disadvantage you can think of.  They cost money in transfer fees, you have to have the cash on hand and you don’t earn miles for them.  If bird species can be seen in more than one country, all else being equal, I would choose the country that makes it easier for me to visit – no visa or visa on arrival.

FOUR TO TEN MONTHS IN ADVANCE

I’ll be booking accommodation using portals to maximize points and paying with miles earning credit cards.  I try to stagger them every couple weeks to spread out paying for them.  I’d be contacting guides for rough estimates on guiding fees and making any arrangements for permits or national park bookings.  If I have a self-drive birding excursion, I’d be booking car rentals around this time.

TWO TO FOUR MONTHS IN ADVANCE

I’ll be double-checking entry requirements to make sure they didn’t change visa requirements for Australians and applying for any required visas as they are usually only valid for 90-180 days.  I usually have all accommodation booked by now although some may be only under deposit.  I’ll also be checking eBird for recent bird sightings and making any adjustments necessary.

ONE TO TWO MONTHS IN ADVANCE

Final payments are usually due around this time for lodges that I have under deposit.  I will start lining up any guides that have to be booked in advance or letting the lodge know that we need one so they can arrange it.  I’m still checking eBird and keeping on top of weather issues such as rainy seasons or roads closed by flooding.  I’ll start organizing any foreign currency I need to arrive with for taxis and first day expenses.  I’ll also be monitoring my flight bookings for changes and checking seat charts to see that they haven’t been changed or no one has taken the middle seat.  Since I have pet birds, I will organize my birdsitter around this time.

LAST MONTH BEFORE TRAVEL

I’m basically just tying up loose ends by now as everything should be well organized.  More monitoring of flights, Trip Advisor, eBird, currency rates.  I make sure all my bills are pre-paid until at least the month we get back.  I notify banks/credit cards where we are going so we don’t get fraud notices.

TWO DAYS BEFORE TRAVEL

If my airline offers online check in, I will do this.  We will be packed by this time with all batteries charged and ready to go.  I double check the birdsitter and bank accounts to be sure there is enough to cover the cash withdrawals I will be making on the trip.  I’ll double check on how we are getting to the airport which is usually by bus unless it’s an early flight in which case we’d get Uber or taxi.  I’ll email the first few lodges to reconfirm and remind them we are coming.

All documents will be packed and triple checked as I am paranoid about forgetting something important.  We get the house in order and make sure everything is locked up.  I like to update any programs on my laptop and iPhone apps before we go and then turn off automatic updates as I don’t want a lengthy download happening someplace with slow internet.

 

 

 

2016 – Epic Journeys, Amazing Birds While The Dust Settles On Airline Programs

2015 has been a relatively quiet travel year as planned and we did need to take a break and get some things done around the house.  We have almost finished those projects so it’s time to look forward to an epic birding adventure around South America & the Caribbean!

sb hmbd

TRAVEL PLANS

After US Airways merged to American, I had enough miles to book the long haul parts of the Brisbane to Ecuador & return from the USA to BNE flights.  The rest of the trip has been pieced together from random accounts.  Unfortunately it is pretty much impossible to get J on either trans Pacific long haul and it’s not worth wasting miles on J for short haul flights so this trip will be all in economy albeit with carefully chosen seats!  Top birds will be parrots (as usual), hummingbirds (love these little guys), quetzals, tanagers and anyone else who flies by!

Trip #1

Brisbane – Sydney – Santiago – Guayquil on Qantas & Lan.  Planned birding in Cerro Blanco, then buses to Copalinga & Umbrellabird Lodge.

Guayaquil – San Cristobal, Galapagos – Quito.  Birding on the island and surrounds.  I had to get the LAN Visa card JUST for this ticket as I couldn’t get the seats otherwise and this is an expensive route!  From Quito either rented car or public transport to the Tandayapa/Sacahtamia/Mindo area.

Quito – Coca, then we have a 3 night Napo Wildlife Centre package.  Then we take buses to Wildsumaco, San Isidro & Guango Lodge before returning to Quito.

Quito – Bogota – Santa Marta.  We overnight in Santa Marta at a hotel I got for free on Orbitz, then we have a few days in El Dorado & Minca for birding.

Santa Marta – Medellin (the last 3 flights using Lifemiles).  Bus to Jardin to hopefully see Yellow-eared Parrots, then more buses to Manizales for Rio Blanco & Nevado for more birding.

Peireira – Bogota (cheapo Avianca flight), then day trip to Chingaza.

Bogota – Panama – Trinidad.  Planned birding in Nariva Swamp, Yerette, Caroni, Aripo & Asa Wright.

Trinidad – St Lucia (nice 5th freedom award on BA).  We’ll be looking for St Lucia Parrots and any other birds.

St Lucia – St Vincent – Dominica – San Juan.  Chasing more endemic Amazon Parrots through the Caribbean if Liat doesn’t make us crazy first!

San Juan – USA (various award flights to visit family).

LAX – Brisbane on Qantas.

money bird

Trip #2

A quick fly-self drive trip to Darwin, Kakadu & Katherine Gorge area.  I was going to use AA or BA for this but might just wait for a “happy hour” special deal to come along.

loyalty

MILES AND POINTS GOALS

Last year, I had some very specific goals to save up for and I had a certain order I wanted to do the trips.  However this past year has been a horror year for devaluations and Aussies now stand to lose our only method of collecting miles in the SPG partner programs which include AA, Flying Blue & Lan.  I am somewhat shielded by being a dual citizen who can also get USA cards but that is pretty much over as I have already had all the cards in the programs I can use.  All I can do is try to maximize 5x category bonuses to get as many miles as possible.

I think the next couple years, the major programs will sit tight and let the dust settle while they figure out what to do next with the programs.  United’s major devaluation came into effect in early 2014 and I feel reasonably safe it won’t devalue again before the end of 2016.  I don’t trust the current rates beyond 2017 though so I have decided to bring forward the “Godmother of All African Adventures” to 2017 replacing the Indonesia trip which can be done anytime using low-cost carriers such as Air Asia & Lion Air.  I should have enough United, Virgin, Singapore & Flying Blue to book the flights we need by the middle of the year.  I do need to concentrate on Ultimate Rewards, Thank You Points (for SQ) & Aussie Amex for Virgin so those cards get priority for spending.

American just devalued which takes effect March 2016.  I had to readjust the miles needed for 2018 trips to Mexico, Bolivia & Venezuela and I will probably be going to Loro Parque solo.  These trips will be booked in late 2017 and I don’t think AA will devalue again before that.  AA will probably stay the same until late 2018 while they crunch numbers on the new program.

end

RE-PRIORITIZING GOALS

The end of loyalty programs as we know them is not quite here but it’s coming.  The programs themselves won’t go away, they will just become less profitable for us to use.  Already Australians can use low-cost carriers such as Air Asia to get to most of Asia for around the same cost as big airlines like Qantas & Singapore charge for the fuel surcharge on award tickets.  There is still value in redeeming business class awards – that is if you can find one!  If you read last year’s Goal Post, then you can see how my bucket list has changed slightly due to these devaluations and the lower Aussie dollar.  That’s why I keep a bucket list & you should too in case you need to swap trips around.  I have posts on how to do that HERE & HERE.

On my planned future trips, it is virtually impossible to get business class between Australia & South America.  Africa is possible mostly in Ethiopian which doesn’t have lie-flat seats on these routes so I don’t think it’s worth it.  So here is what I have to do.

Prioritize trips to places that would otherwise be very expensive without miles such as Africa & South America.  These trips should be done as soon as the miles can be saved as they are vulnerable to devaluations.  Meanwhile, slot in a short haul trip during years we don’t have enough miles.

  1.   2017 Africa (Namibia, Zambia, Ethiopia, Uganda) – 80% OK, still need some UA & SQ.
  2.   2018 South America (Mexico, Venezuela, Bolivia) & Loro Parque – Have miles ready
  3.   TBD  South America (Brazil)  This trip is better for when AUD is low as we can avoid USD and use local currency.
  4.   TBD South America (Peru & Chile)  This trip requires a strong Aussie $ as birding packages are booked in USD.

Have a list of birding trips we can do using easy-to-get Velocity points or low-cost carriers.  These are completely flexible as to order and wouldn’t have to be booked 11 months in advance as the others would be. 

  1.  Indonesia 1 (Sulawesi, Talaud & Halmahera)
  2.  Indonesia 2 (Seram, Buru, Tanimbar & Bali)
  3.   Philippines
  4.   Pacific Islands (Rarotonga, Fiji, Samoa).  This one targeted for 2019, best done with Velocity & Qantas with any spare AA for Fiji flights.
  5.   Pacific Islands  (Solomons, Vanuatu & New Caledonia)
  6.   Papua New Guinea (might have to book an organized tour for safety).
  7.   New Zealand
  8.  Norfolk Island

Continue doing domestic Australian trips every year using “happy hour” deals, miles we don’t need for long hauls or road trips.

  1.  Darwin, Kakadu, Katherine
  2.  Uluru & Red Centre
  3.  Adelaide & Kangaroo Island
  4.  Gluepot, South Australia
  5.   Other NSW & Victoria TBD.
  6.   More Outback Queensland

CREDIT CARD GOALS

Last year I had to cancel a few cards due to annual fees and to free up “slots” to improve my chances for instant approvals.  Goodbye to Amex SPG, Chase Sapphire,  Citi AAdvantage, Club Carlson & Lifemiles Visa.  On a mini app-o-rama I said Hello to United Explorer (2nd time), Lan Visa (only way to get to Galapagos) & Citi Thank You Premier (For Flying Blue, Singapore, Qantas, Etihad & 3x on travel purchases.

This year I am not sure if I can get any more USA based cards considering all the cancelled cards plus I have 2 more on the chopping block.  I’d like to have the British Airways Visa again to get a nice stash of BA and a United business card but I don’t want to push Chase too far.  I do plan to maximize the 5x categories on the Ink & 3x on the Citi TYP.

We may go for some Aussie cards if the opportunity comes up.

Dream Travel

BLOG GOALS

I am finally all caught up on blogging trips we did since I started this blog in Nov 2012.  Of course we did lots of travel before that so I will be catching up on historical birding trips with current information on how to do them.  I also plan to merge Feathered and Free to this platform but before I can do that, I need to transfer over the historical travel posts.

First up for January – tomorrow – the fabulous Pantanal of Brazil!

Hyacinth Macaw (Anodorhyncus hyacinthius)

Hyacinth Macaw (Anodorhyncus hyacinthius)

 

How To Turn A Chance Encounter With Parrots In A Hotel Into An Educational Experience

Tis the season for family travel with school out and many businesses shut down over the Christmas & New Year’s holidays.  Hawaii is one of the most popular destinations with the island of Maui a top favourite.  We were here in Sept 2013 using Ultimate Reward points transferred to Hyatt to stay at the Hyatt Regency Maui.  This hotel, like many others in tropical locations has several captive parrots in cages and on stands, a few penguins and some flamingoes.  While this is no bona-fide eco-tourism experience, what you can do is use the opportunity to educate your children about the native habitat of the birds and get them interested in future travel where they can see the birds in the wild.

As you wander through the lobby to the swimming pool, you will see these birds.  If you don’t have pet parrots, this may be the first time for your children to see live parrots and penguins up close.  The Hyatt Regency has provided signs that give more information about the birds and where they come from.  This is a good chance to show your children how far away the bird’s native land is and show them what the bird’s habitat really looks like.  Here on MTTW, I have bird profiles for many parrot species (adding new ones all the time) and many other birds in which I give links to other websites with scientific information and videos of the bird in the wild such as the African Grey profile.

Even better if they do a school science project about wild birds, they could get their whole class interested in eco-tourism!

Depending on the age of your children, a trip to Africa or South America may be a few years away but you can get them excited about the possibility and maybe get them to start saving up for such a trip!

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IMG_1860

IMG_1908 IMG_1902 IMG_1904 IMG_1906 IMG_1901 IMG_1894 IMG_1895 IMG_1897 IMG_1899 IMG_1885 IMG_1886 IMG_1887 IMG_1882 IMG_1888 IMG_1889 IMG_1890 IMG_1891 IMG_1893 IMG_1879 IMG_1862 IMG_1859

Planning Your Birding Adventure In South-east Queensland

Now that you know how to use miles to get to Australia and use Brisbane 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.

IMG_0166

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 Fairy-wrens 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.  Do an eBird search on the species to see where other people have reported them. Here’s an example of “eBird Major Mitchell Cockatoo“.  You can then click on the hotspot information to see what other species are found there.  This will help you allocate how many days you want to spend there. Spend more time if the destination has more of the species you are targeting.  From the above search, I zoomed in on Bowra Station and can see an impressive 224 species reported so I would want to spend at least a few days there!

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.  EBird is integrated with Google maps so you can click on the hotspot (using Bowra Station as an example) and find out how far it is from you.  In this case, it’s in the bush so Google maps can’t find it exactly so I used the nearest town which is Cunnamulla to learn that it would be over 9 hours drive from Brisbane.  I’ve done it in one day but it’s a VERY long day!  You also need to make sure you arrive well before dusk to avoid adding to the roo road kill on the roadside!

Bowra mapI recommend breaking the journey at Lake Coolmunda on the outbound and Stanthorpe on the return.  See my road trip post for more details.  As we go through the SEQ (South-east QLD series, I will give more details about each location.

So there is a very basic idea of how to plan your itinerary.  Next, you will need a car, accommodation and a budget so stay tuned!

Planning A Birding Trip To Peninsular Malaysia

I want to make the distinction between Peninsular Malaysia (PM) and the Borneo states of Sabah and Sarawak which would be a completely different experience.  PM can be a stand-alone birding destination or tagged onto a trip to Thailand and/or Singapore.  The main birding hotspots are easily reached from Kuala Lumpur by bus so we decided to go with public transport and not hire a car.  I was especially pleased with this decision when I saw how many toll booths there were on roads leading out of KL!

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 also look through trip reports by major birding companies such as Birdquest, VENT, Naturetrek, Rockjumper and more.  The itineraries can provide inspiration for your own or you may decide that it is easier to just join a tour.  They are not cheap but they do have excellent guides to help you find a lot more birds.

Independant birders have a lot of resources too.  Have a look at these websites.

Malaysia Birding

Bird Malaysia

Birding In Malaysia

HOW I CHOSE MY ITINERARY

I was prioritizing parrots, knowing that there would actually be lots of different bird species in the same habitats.  We didn’t have a lot of time – just 6 days.  Using the websites referenced above, I decided on these national parks, all of which make for fantastic birding.

Taiping – Long-tailed Parakeets are commonly found in Taiping Lake Gardens.

Cameron Highlands – Beautiful scenery and some cool birds midway between Taiping and Taman Negara.

Taman Negara – Blue-rumped Parrots, Blue-crowned Hanging Parrots and much much more!

These parks will be covered in detail as the report progresses.

HOW I BOOKED OUR FLIGHTS

United Airlines has a fantastic deal on awards between Australia and South-East Asia for 35,000 RT in economy.  Since I had burned so many miles on last year’s Africa trip, the best I could do was scrounge enough miles for economy but I did maximize the rules but having a stop-over and 2 open-jaws.

BNE – BKK – CNX

Stopover

CNX – BKK – USM

Open jaw #1 which was filled by a super-cheap fare on Air Asia from Surat Thani to Kuala Lumpur.

KUL – BKK – PVG (8 hour layover) – AKL – RAR

Open jaw #2 ending in Oceania zone so added 5k to each person’s award.

Final cost was 80,000 United miles plus 47,800 Virgin Velocity miles for the final RAR – AKL – BNE to get us home.  The Rarotonga stop was for my husband to visit his friends and family.

LOGISTICS

Our budget was pretty well tapped out after last year so this trip had to be done as cheaply as possible.  The parks I was targeting are all easily reached by public transport and/or short walks from the accommodation.  We used the Starmart Express bus from KLIA to Taiping and regular buses from Taiping to Tanah Rata with a change of bus in Ipoh.  In Tanah Rata, we booked the minibus transfer from Father’s Guesthouse to Taman Negara which includes a boat ride from the jetty at Kuala Tembeling to Kuala Tahan just opposite the Mutiara Taman Negara hotel.  Finally we used a local bus from Kuala Tahan to Jerantut, then a larger bus to Kuala Lumpur.

Malaysia birding1

There are a few other birding hotspots we didn’t get to this time – Selangor, Fraser’s Hill and Genting Highlands.  All are very close to Kuala Lumpur and in a pinch could be a day trip.  I decided to save these parks for a future trip when we may be on a One-World ticket via KUL or using Air Asia to get somewhere else in Asia and able to stop over a couple days.

Malaysia birding2

WHEN TO GO

This was a delicate balance of avoiding the rainy season and allowing enough time after returning from Africa and allowing a full year until our big Ecuador/Colombia trip next year to replenish the coffers.

Weather2Travel is my go-to site for weather planning.  April was the last possible time to travel and avoid the rains but still save up for the trip.  March would have been better but wasn’t financially feasible for us at the time, waiting until Nov would be too close to the upcoming 2016 trip.  Always take your personal situation into consideration.

Kuala Tahan weather

VISAS

The citizens of most countries that are likely to be reading this blog can enter Malaysia for at least a month (or 3) visa free.  See details here.

ACCOMMODATION

I booked lodges in Taiping and Tanah Rata on Hotels.com because at the time they were a partner of Chase Ultimate Rewards and I was chasing the free night after 10 paid nights for next year’s trip.  The hotel in Kuala Lumpur was booked on Pointshound with me referring my husband so both he and I could get miles.  We booked the Mutiara Taman Negara on  Rocketmiles to maximize bonus miles and this hotel was the same price no matter where you booked it.  Each property will be reviewed in the appropriate section of the trip report.

Planning A Birding Trip To Thailand

Birders are spoilt for choice in Thailand!  From the parks in the north such as Doi Inthanon and Doi Ang Kang to the south such as Khao Sok there is a wide variety of bird species to be found throughout the country.  Unless you have lots of money and time (don’t we wish) you won’t get to them all on a typical trip so you have to choose the best places to go birding for your situation.  Some parks are easy to get to and the birds can be seen more easily but other parks are more challenging.  I found Doi Inthanon fairly easy and Mae Ping very challenging.

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 also look through trip reports by major birding companies such as Birdquest, VENT, Naturetrek, Rockjumper and more.  The itineraries can provide inspiration for your own or you may decide that it is easier to just join a tour.  They are not cheap but they do have excellent guides to help you find a lot more birds.

Independant birders have a lot of resources too.  Birding is very popular in Thailand and there are many websites dedicated to reports and bird sightings and to help you plan a birding trip.  Look for the most recent sightings such as this one.  Also pay attention to the time of year as some bird species are migratory.  You can also find locally based tours and guides here.

Thai Birding

North Thailand Birding

South Thailand Birding

 

HOW I CHOSE MY ITINERARY

I was prioritizing parrots, knowing that there would actually be lots of different bird species in the same habitats.  We didn’t have a lot of time, just 2 weeks and I wanted to slot in some R&R time in Chiang Mai and Koh Samui.  Using the websites referenced above, I decided on these national parks, all of which make for fantastic birding.

Doi Inthanon – Blossom-headed Parakeets, actually best seen just outside the park.

Mae Ping – Grey-headed Parakeets

Khao Yai – Red-breasted Parakeets (aka Moustache Parrots), Vernal Hanging Parrots

These parks will be covered in detail as the report progresses.

HOW I BOOKED OUR FLIGHTS

United Airlines has a fantastic deal on awards between Australia and South-East Asia for 35,000 RT in economy.  Since I had burned so many miles on last year’s Africa trip, the best I could do was scrounge enough miles for economy but I did maximize the rules but having a stop-over and 2 open-jaws.

BNE – BKK – CNX

Stopover

CNX – BKK – USM

Open jaw #1

KUL – BKK – PVG (8 hour layover) – AKL – RAR

Open jaw #2 ending in Oceania zone so added 5k to each person’s award.

Final cost was 80,000 United miles plus 47,800 Virgin Velocity miles for the final RAR – AKL – BNE to get us home.  The Rarotonga stop was for my husband to visit his friends and family.

LOGISTICS

Our budget was pretty well tapped out after last year so this trip had to be done as cheaply as possible.  I figured out that driving ourselves would be cheaper than using public transport and then using taxis or guided tours.  We had two cars, one ex-Chiang Mai and one ex-Bangkok.

Thai map

WHEN TO GO

This was a delicate balance of avoiding the rainy season and allowing enough time after returning from Africa and allowing a full year until our big Ecuador/Colombia trip next year to replenish the coffers.

Weather2Travel has changed their layout since I last used it (I liked the old one better) but you can still get the same information.  The beginning of April was the last possible time to travel and avoid the rains but still save up for the trip.  March would have been better but wasn’t financially feasible, waiting until Nov would be too close to the 2016 trip.

Thai weather

VISAS

The VISA EXEMPTION RULE allows tourists from 52 countries to enter without a visa. They are granted a stay of maximum 30 days but only if entering Thailand via an international airport. However, persons, entering through a land border checkpoint from neighboring countries will be granted a maximum stay of 15 days.

ACCOMMODATION

I booked almost all accommodation on Hotels.com because at the time they were a partner of Chase Ultimate Rewards and I was chasing the free night after 10 paid nights for next year’s trip.  Some hotels were booked on Pointshound as well.  Rocketmiles had nice properties but we were on a tight budget this time.  Mae Ping was unreserved, we just found something when we arrived, details will be in that blog post.

A “Godmother” Of All African Adventures?

Now that the Mother of all African Adventures is behind us, it seems my fascination with Africa isn’t over yet!  So what would I do for an encore?  If you’ve been reading this blog for the past several months, hopefully you enjoyed hearing how I planned the travel to South Africa, Mauritius, Madagascar, Ghana & Tanzania and saw most of my target birds.  But there is still so much more to see!

So what would be on my list if I do a “Godmother” of all African Adventures?  Here are a few places on my radar.

  1. Namibia – Peach-faced Lovebirds, Ruppells Parrots & more.  This would be a self-drive trip.
  2. Zambia/Botswana/Zimbabwe/Malawi – would choose the best of these for Brown-necked Parrots, Lillian’s Lovebirds, Black-cheeked Lovebirds, Meyers Parrots & more.  Most of these places might require using the car/driver option which is not my preferred method so I would be looking hard for national parks I can get to with public transport & taxis.  So far, these are looking like the most expensive for lodges so I need to do the most research here.
  3. Ethiopia – the layover wasn’t enough, I’d like to get to Menagesha NP for Yellow-faced Parrots, Black-winged Lovebirds & more.  Easy day trip from Addis Ababa or spend one night there.
  4. Uganda – I think my odds for African Grey Parrots are better here than in Ghana.  I’d use public transport to Fort Portal, then a taxi to Kibale.

IMG_3193WHAT DO I NEED?

Short answer – United miles as Star Alliance is by far the best alliance for Africa.  I could supplement with some Avios to get from Namibia to Livingstone, Zambia via JNB.  So looks like Chase will be my best friend for a while longer!

Planning A Birding Trip To Ghana

The first thing you need to do when planning a birding trip to Ghana or anywhere is to identify your main goals.  Since I am a parrot nut, I was targeting habitats where I was likely to see parrots that are known to live in Ghana and of course any birds that also live in the same habitats.  Ghana has an extremely impressive bird list!

MY TARGETS

African Grey Parrot – best chance was Kakum National Park.

Brown-necked Parrot – has been reported in Kakum.

Senegal Parrot – good population in Shai Hills Reserve.

Red-headed Lovebird – can be found anywhere along the east coast of Ghana or in the north.

Red-fronted Parrot (Jardines) – has been seen in Kakum and in villages north of Kakum.

Black-collared Lovebird – seen in the far west of Ghana.

Ghana ParksVISAS

Everyone needs a tourist visa to Ghana and you cannot get it on arrival.  You will have to get it in advance from the Ghanaian Consulate in your country.

Australia

UK

USA

THE PLAN

Since we were on a tight budget and needed to go to places accessible by public transport with taxis to exact locations I chose two of Ghana’s national parks – Kakum and Shai Hills.  Group birding tours will usually hit all of the parks highlighted on the map above but organize tours were way out of our budget.

I kept costs down by using IHG Rewards points to stay at the Holiday Inn, Accra.  From there, we took a taxi out to Shai Hills for a day trip.  We used local minibuses called “Tro-tros” to get from Accra to Cape Coast and another one that took us to Kakum where I had booked the Rainforest Lodge on Booking.com using the American AAdvantage portal.  We used public transport to get from the lodge to the park each day.  At both parks, we hired official guides from the ticket office.

During our stay at Kakum, I met a guide from Ashanti African Tours who was very helpful even though he was escorting an organized birding group.  He gave me the best tip on where to see African Grey Parrots.  I went to their office in Cape Coast hoping to use them for the day trip to Shai Hills but they don’t keep guides in Accra, they base themselves in Cape Coast.  They also gave me a good tip on where to find the Red-headed Lovebirds near Accra (although the birds proved to be very shy).   I do recommend them if you want to be more organized than we were!

Ashanti African Tours – Birdwatching

Ghana is a great place to SEE birds but not so great for photography.  The birds are more timid than in South Africa or even Madagascar and the terrain is much more jungly so most of the time we just got fleeting glimpses of the birds.  I couldn’t get a parrot perched to save my soul!  Plenty of “Video game birds” which is what I call those birds who fly swiftly overhead and I have to try to shoot quickly with my camera.  It’s like playing “Space Invaders”, hence the name!

 

Planning A Visit To Madagascar

Madagascar is one of the most fascinating countries on earth with its unique culture and wildlife found nowhere else on earth.  You could spend months here and not see it all.  Unfortunately, very few of us have unlimited time and money to spend as much time here as we would like so we need to prioritize and plan very carefully to make the most of our visit to Madagascar.  Here’s some things to consider.

VISAS

Madagascar gives a free visa on arrival to the citizens of most countries.  This is where it is essential to book your airplane seat wisely as you want to be first off the plane and first in line at the visa desk.  It’s like a rugby scrum and very disorganized.  People crowd around the desk, most don’t stand in a line and everyone is shoving their passports at the officer who puts them on a desk where other officers grab a passport off the desk, input the data into a computer and issue the visa.  Then he holds up the passport and calls out the name of the owner who will be somewhere in the rugby scrum!  We were one of the first off the plane and it still took about 10 minutes, I wouldn’t want to be last off the plane!  You can also expect to be heat-screened for Ebola as you enter the airport.  You walk slowly past a machine that is able to detect if you have a fever.

FINANCES

Once you get here, if you travel like the locals do, Madagascar can be very cheap.  You will need lots of cash no matter what.  I cannot emphasize this enough as I am very plastic-orientated.  And in Madagascar when I say LOTS of cash, I mean literally.  If you change even $200 you will end up with a very thick stack of Ariary the size of War & Peace!  The bank in the airport is good enough to change cash, there isn’t much difference between them.  Even the tour operator went there to change the Euros I gave her as payment to Ariary and she would know the best place to exchange money.

Only a few hotels around the country and some souvenir shops in Antananarivo accept credit cards and then it’s only Visa or Mastercard, not Amex.  ATMs are widespread but not all banks accept foreign ATM cards.  I totally underestimated this and got into strife in Ankarafantsika as there was no place near by to get cash so we had to seriously curtail what we wanted to do and we could only eat one meal a day in addition to breakfast provided by the hotel.  BNI branches are good for foreign cards, Bank of Africa didn’t accept my debit card or my Visa card.

Petrol (gas) stations do not accept credit cards!  Not even the big ones like Shell, Total, Jovenna and Galana.  This was the main reason I ran low on cash.  I knew I had to pay cash for food, guides, park entries and lodges but I had expected to use a credit card to fill the car.  Unless you are using public transport such as taxi-brousse, you will have to pay the fuel for your rental car so be prepared!

GETTING AROUND

Getting around Madagascar isn’t as simple as South Africa where you can simply drive off in your own rental car on your own.  Car hire companies in Madagascar only hire cars with their own driver.  The rate quoted to you will include the daily rate for the vehicle and the driver’s expenses such as food and accommodation and the car insurance.  You can either book a full tour package which includes your accommodation, sightseeing and the transport or just book the car & driver.  If you book a full package, you will probably have to pay some portion of it in advance by bank transfer as the tour operator has to pay the accommodation.  If you book only the car & driver, you can usually negotiate to pay cash on arrival.  No tour operator in Madagascar that I could find (and I did look extensively) accepts credit cards or even Paypal.

The above is of particular interest to travel hackers as paying by bank transfer is the worst possible scenario.  You have to part with the cash immediately (no 30 days interest free), no miles by using the right credit card and you have to pay bank fees to transfer the money!  There is also some risk if the tour operator doesn’t show up or goes out of business, you won’t get your money back.  Needless to say, I will bend over backwards to avoid bank transfers!

I have to admit that I don’t prefer this type of travel.  I much prefer to drive my own car or take public transport.  I am just not comfortable being in the role of “boss of a personal chauffeur” even just for a few days.  However with a tight schedule and the need to see two specific national parks, we didn’t have time to mess around with public transportation.  If I could have added a couple days on to the week we spent in Madagascar, we could have done the itinerary using public transport (buses & taxi-brousse).

CHOOSING WHICH NATIONAL PARKS TO VISIT

How much time do you have?  What animals and birds do you want to see?  This is where you really have to do your homework.  Even us hard-core birders want to see lemurs as well as birds.  The good news is that pretty much all national parks have different species of lemurs and birds.  If you are after specific species, you need to read trip reports on Surfbirds and see what species are commonly seen where.  Also read up on Madagascar’s National Parks.  Be realistic in how many you can visit in the amount of time available to you.  If you only have a week, choose the two most likely parks to have your target species.  Avoid trusting Air Madagascar to get you anywhere on time, you need a day or so as a buffer just in case they cancel or are very late.  If one of the parks you want is only reachable by plane, do that one first and save the easier-to-reach park for last.

I was targeting the 3 parrot species in Madagascar – Greater Vasa Parrots, Lesser Vasa Parrots and Grey-headed Lovebirds.  After that, I wanted to see as many lemurs and other birds as possible.  I only had a week and didn’t want to mess with Air Madagascar so after many hours of research, I chose two parks that were both reachable from Antananarivo easily by road, even by sedan car so we didn’t need a 4WD.  I chose Andasibe-Mantadia as a good all-rounder that had two of my target birds and Ankarafantsika that had all 3 species.

Mada ParksIn posts to follow, I will go into detail about these two parks, how to get there, where to stay and what to see.

Because I can’t emphasize it enough I will repeat:  when in Madagascar, make sure you have plenty of cash!

 

How To Find Birder-Friendly Accomodation In South Africa

I stumbled on this website while searching for something else.  Since I didn’t go everywhere in South Africa to give personal recommendations it’s a nice little resource to keep on hand.  Kurisa Moya is listed under Limpopo.  The other lodge we stayed at – 2 Oaks in King William’s Town isn’t on the list but they really should be as they are definitely birder-friendly.

“Birder Friendly Establishments” are registered with BirdLife South Africa. They are committed to supporting BirdLife South Africa’s vision, which is to conserve South Africa’s birdlife and their habitats by promoting Avitourism.

These establishments will do their utmost to ensure that birding guests have the best possible “birder friendly” experience. They offer flexible meal times or packed meals when requested, information on birds in their area, and advice on where to pick up local bird guides.

There are certainly a number of other establishments in each area which offer excellent birding, but this section shows specifically those establishments registered with BirdLife South Africa.