February 2012 - Southern Tanzania Birding

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The drive to Mbeya is long and arduous, over 1500 kms of tarmac with many beauty spots but endless sections of trucks and busses, speed bumps at every village and speed traps in the most unexpected places. You just have to go for it. Departing Arusha at dawn for the long haul to Iringa nearly 1000 kms away is the goal on the first day. Initially I’m filled with awe, as the section out of Arusha to Moshi is delightful. Silvery-cheeked hornbills are crossing the main road en-route to fruiting trees around Arusha and Usa River and I counted over 60 gliding and flapping their way out of forest stands as dawn broke and Mounts Meru and Kilimanjaro caught the first rays of sunlight.

Traffic numbers are low and the drive is seemingly full of promise. Then as you enter Moshi the traffic builds the delays increase and that sense of the hard and frustrating drive lying ahead sets in.  Then as you turn along the Pare and Usmabara ranges and the drier bush land takes over the open road ahead is once again uplifting. This feeling of space is shattered as you feel the busses wiz past at death defying speeds. Then the first police check of the day, then speed bumps take over, the landscape is less dry, everywhere seems cultivated and people dominate.

Village after village halts your progress and having just covered the first 300 kms of your journey quite quickly a slower more frustrating, stop start pace has to be accepted. This goes on all the way until beyond Morogoro. It is exhausting! Drained and frustrated, tired and ready to stop for the night the sight of Mikumi National Park refreshes and inspires once again. A different bush-land takes over and you suddenly realize that you are closer to Southern Tanzania and although tired you start to think that you can get to Iringa after all. Entering the town of Mikumi and refilling your vehicle with diesel once again, you look westwards to the incredible Udzungwa massif and recall the road that winds through it. It is not a road to be attempted when tired or at 5 pm in the afternoon. 

Do the sensible thing you tell yourself. Get some rest, have a beer and food, check your e-mails and get away before 7 am the next morning. Do this and you will love the drive into the Udzungwa and up to the Iringa highlands.

Locals walk past my car in the Mufindi forests

Up and breakfast by 7am and as you drive out of your lodging, through the already busy town of Mikumi, a buzz sets in, you know that by lunch time you will be in the delightful highland town of Iringa and meeting friends. No need to rush, take chances or get frustrated. The South beckons, the promise of new bird species, the warmth of old friends. This sense of being more relaxed is broken by the first suicidal bus driver. This section is so dramatic, thick forest landscapes and tumbling river gorges surrounded by mountains and

deep valleys of real beauty. You just have to slow down, be more careful but try not to let the dangers of this highway reduce the enjoyment. The Ruaha River is nearly always on view, the trees seduce and your mind drifts towards all the unique life forms that have evolved here in isolation. Once again you respect the efforts of Tanzania National Parks.  Tourism is in its infancy here and you plan explorative returns wanting desperately to know it better.

Udzungwa red colobus

Iringa comes eventually after one of Tanzania’s most dangerous sections of highway.  This relaxed town set high on a rocky hill is like going back in time somewhat. The shops are full of merchandise these days, people are busy, just like in Arusha, but the overall feeling is of a slower pace of life, a politeness and a less aggressive approach to co02erce and daily toil.  Parking is a doddle, drivers let you in and suddenly you are greeting good friends and catching up. Finally you relax! On the next day I had decided not to carry on to Mbeya but join friends on a day trip to a bird study site a few hours out and south of Iringa. A new location and a chance to see my first “lifer’ of this trip.

A lifer, an African Grass Owl

And here it is, an African grass owl.  I was overjoyed. We counted blue swallows, listened to the students and researchers and returned to Iringa at dusk. I felt that I had finally arrived in the South. 


The next morning drive to Mbeya was a pleasure. The scenery seemed to lift me and as I arrived at the Mbeya airport to wait for my guests to arrive. I continued to study the maps and field guides of the South.  Today there are many more quality field guides and the tireless work of a few individuals is to be applauded.

Udzungwa Kite orb web spider

Over the next 10 days we drove to Lake Rukwa, The Kitulo plateau, the Mufindi highlands and locations around The Udzungwa National Park including Ifakara and the Kilombero swamp valley. Finally I dropped my guests off in Mikumi where they caught a flight to the Serengeti. We had seen so very much of interest, many lifers and many miles of Southern Tanzania. To go into details here would be like writing a book. To display the many hundreds of worthwhile photographs silly!

Kisolanza Farm House near Iringa

Mufindi Highlands Sunbird, Lillies and Tea

A selection of 39 can be viewed at my Face Book page as below- Please ‘like’ it or the Paul Oliver Safari and Sanjan Photography page or both perhaps?

Also check out my previous write ups Parts 1-3 of a safari to the Southern Highlands in Feb/March 2011

Happy birding and travels to all.  Southern Tanzania is worth the effort!