Angola: Africa’s Wonderful Wild West

Angola – one of Africa’s wildest remaining countries – is now not only accessible, but increasingly comfortable, with camping no-longer required on this strictly-hotels itinerary, and roads vastly better than they were ten years ago. Angola has habitats ranging from the arid-desert Namib right to Congolese rainforests, but we will spend most of our time on the fascinating Angola escarpment which holds more than 30 endemic and near-endemic specialty birds that are essentially restricted to this beautiful rugged country. The birds are gob-smackers, with stand-out delights such as Monteiro’s, Braun’s and Gabela Bush-shrikes, the dazzling White-headed Robin-chat, Red-crested Turaco, Black-collared Bulbul, Margaret’s Batis, Oustalet’s Sunbird, Dusky Twinspot, striking Angola Cave-chat and more. The habitat diversity from desert scrub, to endless broad-leaved miombo woodlands, to Afro-montane forest and patched of Guinea-congolian lowland forest is spell-binding. This means we are likely to see over 500 species on this trip! An amazing number total over 20% of Africa’s avifauna!

This country endured a long civil war that raged through the 80s and 90s, but it has been politically stable since 2004 and is perfectly safe.


Day 1: Luanda-Kwanza. After we pick you up in the capital city, we drive 1.5 hours south to the Kwanza area, right on the boundary of Quicama NP. This location supports some very interesting passerines including Orange Weaver,the rusty-necked variety of Village Weaver, the noisy Bubbling Cisticola, Mouse-brown Sunbird, Angolan Swallow, Long-legged Pipit and the stunning Blue-breasted Kingfisher and immense Palm-nut Vulture. There are many shorebirds and terns on the beaches of the Kwanza River and we will look for Caspian, Royal and Sandwich Terns, and loads of shorebirds including Curlew Sandpiper, Grey Plover and White-fronted Plover. We might also locate the odd ‘all-dark’ swifts which remain a bit of a taxonomic enigma. Overnight in Kwanza.

Day 2: Kwanza to Uige. After some early morning birding around Kwanza we make the long drive to Uige climbing the northern scarp to where the tongues of Guinea-Congo lowlands forest project to their southern-most limits. En-route we may encounter Blue-throated Roller, Great Blue Turaco, Black Bee-eater, Shining Blue Kingfisher, Chocolate-backed Kingfisher, the local form of Black-backed Barbet, Moustached Grass-warbler, Whistling Cisticola, Pale Wren-warbler, Salvadori’s Eremomela or Brown Twinspot. However, our main quarry here will be the rare endemic Braun’s Bush-shrike. If we arrive in time, we will make an attempt this afternoon. We have a two-night stay in Uige.

Black-collared Bulbul is another localized South-Central African specialty.
Black-collared Bulbul is another localized South-Central African specialty. (Sean Braine)

Day 3: Uige. The scarp here holds a wonderful mosaic of habitats making for a dizzying array of possible species. The combo of Congo-Guinea forests and forest edge making for a great birding experience. If we have not yet been lucky we will make this morning all about Braun’s Bush-Shrike, and we will listen carefully for their tell-tale croaking vocalizations. But while we are searching we are bound to bump into a slew of awesome typical central African forest birds such as Afep and Western Bronze-naped Pigeon, Great Blue Turaco, Black-casqued Wattled Hornbills, Chocolate-backed Kingfisher, Black Bee-eater, Blue-throated Roller, Dusky and Olive Long-tailed Cuckoos, Bristle-nosed Barbet, Red-rumped Tinkerbird, Bocage’s Bushshrike, Simple Greenbul, Banded Prinia, Masked Apalis, the strange Tit-Hylia, immense Red-headed Bluebill, Pink-footed Puffback, and several species of weaver, flycatcher and sunbirds. The potential for a rarity here is good as the area is diverse and under-birded.

Gabela Bush-Shrike is one of a pair of sought-after endemic stunners that are endemic to the Angolan scarp.
Gabela Bush-Shrike is one of a pair of sought-after endemic stunners that are endemic to the Angolan scarp. (Sean Braine)

Day 4: Uige to Calandula. Another morning at the scarp forests before traversing the Miombo en route to Calandula. We’ll check bridges for Red-throated Cliff Swallows. Arriving in Calandula we should have time to bird the gallery forest this afternoon. We have a two-night stay at Calandula. En-route we will bird the small patches of gallery forest and search for Grey-winged Robin-chat, Black-backed Barbet and other forest birds, this stretch has also delivered Congo Moor Chat in the past and we will keep a sharp eye out for these.

Day 5: Calandula. This region holds arguably the most sought-after bird in Angola. The stunning White-headed Robin-chat, a large and bold songster, but a skulker that will test us. We’ll put in the effort to lay eyes on this stunning beauty. Occasionally the scarce Brazza’s Martin can be found in this area too and we shall keep our eyes peeled, although we’d still need exceptional luck to find it. Other great gallery forest birds include Grey-winged Robin-Chat, African Broadbill, Brown-headed Apalis, Ross’s Turaco, Blue-headed Coucal, Narina Trogon, White-chinned Prinia, Brown Illadopsis and more. Adjacent the gallery forest is mature Brachystegia (Miombo) woodland, with many excellent species that are restricted to this habitat within Angola. Specifically, we search for Black-backed and Anchieta’s barbets and Anchieta’s Sunbird. Other Miombo-specialist birds we can find here include Pale-billed Hornbill, Sharp-tailed Starling, Miombo Wren-Warbler, Schalow’s Turaco, Miombo Scrub-Robin, Green-capped Eremomela, Yellow-bellied Hyliota, Rufous-bellied and White-winged Black Tits.

Schalow’s Turaco is one of several stunning turacos on this tour.
Schalow’s Turaco is one of several stunning turacos on this tour. (Sean Braine)

Day 6: Calandula to Ndalatando. Today is another travel day, but not without rewards as we visit the amazing Calandula Falls. These span over 400 m and drop over 100 m making them the second largest (by volume) falls in Africa after Victoria Falls. Eventually we reach the Ndalatando area and pay a visit to the remarkable Tombingo Forest. Here we will look for more birds shared with the Guinea-Congolian forests of central Africa including the localized Red-fronted Parrot in fruiting trees. Other cool birds include Great Blue Turaco, Piping, African Pied and Black-casqued Wattled Hornbills, Blue Malkoha, Blue-breasted Kingfisher, Yellow-billed Barbet, Brown-eared and Yellow-crested Woodpeckers, Bocage’s Bushshrike, Red-tailed Bristlebill, Honeyguide Greenbul, Yellow Longbill, African Shrike-Flycatcher, Gabon Coucal, Rufous-crowned Eremomela, Red-necked Buzzard, Chestnut Wattle-eye, Green Crombec, Yellow-throated Nicator, Splendid Glossy and Chestnut-winged Starling, Little, Plain, Falkenstein’s and Slender-billed Greenbul, Black Bee-eater, Brown Twinspot, Yellow-throated Leaflove, Cassin’s Hawk Eagle (more common in Uige area) and Red-backed Mousebird and many many more. We spend only one night at night at Ndalatando.

Day 7: Ndalatando to Muxima. We have another morning on the amazing scarp at Ndalatando before we head to Muxima and the drier thorn scrub of the coast for a two-night stay. Our journey today takes us through some of the most stunning Boabab-Euphorbia forests in Africa!

Day 8: Muxima. First thing in the morning we head into habitat amongst the odd cactus-like Candelabra trees we will target three special birds, the dapper White-fronted Wattle-eye and the skulking Grey-striped Francolin which will hopefully not play too hard-to-get. The toughest will be the Gabala (Angola) Helmet-shrike. Although this is not the only place to catch up with this great species, we need to try every opportunity to meet success. Other good localized species may include Montiero’s Bush-shrike, Angola Swallow, Narina Trogon, Pale-olive Greenbul or the black-rumped ‘Horus/Fernando Po’ Swifts that seem oddly localized around Luanda.

Day 9: Muxima to Kumbira Forest. We have another opportunity for any of the local specialties we may have missed before we head for Kumbira, where we have a lengthy 5-night stay.

Red-crested Turaco is stunning but common and endemic to the scarp of Angola.
Red-crested Turaco is stunning but common and endemic to the scarp of Angola. (Dayne Braine)

Days 10-13: Kumbira or forest near Gabela and Namba. This site holds the core of the range of the majority of Angola’s most special birds and it is appropriate that we invest a considerable amount of time here. Our main targets will include: the dowdy but very local Gabela Akalat; strange Pulitzer’s Longbill; common Hartert’s Camaroptera; and Monteiro’s and Gabela Bush-shrikes. Within the camp grounds you will wake up with the calls of Red-crested Turaco, Crowned Hornbill and Grey-striped Francolin (a very early morning wake-up will be necessary for this species which calls until first light), Falkenstein’s Greenbul, Forest Scrub Robin and African Broadbill occur on the periphery of the camp. Other very interesting and globally local birds include Pale-olive Greenbul Angolan Batis, and isolated and potential splits of Dusky Tit, Brown-chested Alethe, and Hairy-breasted Barbets. We’ll also keep our eyes peeled for Elliot’s and Buff-spotted Woodpeckers, Petit’s Cuckooshrike, Black-throated and Buff-throated Apalises, Gorgeous (Perrin’s), Bush-shrike, Mackinnon’s Shrike, Yellow-bellied Wattle-eye, Brown-capped Weaver,Red-headed Malimbe, Green Twinspot, Red-faced Crimsonwing, Black-tailed Waxbill, Pale-throated Barbet and Black-faced Canary. We will also visit the Namba area which has a slew of different birds that we can target including the Bocage’s trio: akalat, sunbird and weaver, Carmelite and the rare Bocage’s Sunbird Black-backed and Anchieta’s Barbets, Black-collared Bulbul, Margaret’s Batis, Finsch’s and the rare and delightful Sweirstra’s Francolin, Bar-tailed Trogon, Angola Slaty-Flycatcher, Ludwig’s Double-collared and Oustalet’s sunbirds, Dusky Twinspot, scarce Laura’s Woodland Warbler and Black-collared Eremomela. Red-necked Buzzards and Crowned Eagles also occur here. On our return from Namba we will visit some prime Miombo where we have the opportunity for Black-backed Barbet, Moustached Grass-warbler, Whistling Cisticola, Pale Wren-warbler, Salvadori’s and Black-necked eremomelas, Spotted Creeper, an odd race of Arrow-marked babbler, Anchieta’s Sunbird and other Miombo specials. The area is good for Huambo and Shortwing Cisticolas as well as Moustached and Broad-tailed Warblers, and Anchieta’s Tchagra.

Yellow-bellied Wattle-eye is another stunner of lowland forests we hope to encounter early on in the trip.
Yellow-bellied Wattle-eye is another stunner of lowland forests we hope to encounter early on in the trip. (Sean Braine)

Angola offers you the best shot of catching up with the local Anchieta’s Barbet.
Angola offers you the best shot of catching up with the local Anchieta’s Barbet. (Sean Braine)

Day 14: Kumbira to Huambo. After our wonderful 5-night stay we have to get on the move again, and after another morning in the Kumbira area we head south to Huambo. There will be opportunistic stops en-route when we see new birds. The road has several bridges along the way where Red-rumped Swallow, Brazza’s Martin and other good birds can be found we will spend time at these!

Day 15: Huambo to Lubango. We have another long day in the car, and it’s a 6-hr drive to the southern scarp at Lubango. However, there will be birding en-route and as we get to Lubango can expect some different and interesting birds.

Day 16: Tundavala Escarpment. Some of Africa’s finest scenery is on offer with massive cliffs that drop nearly 1-km to the stony-plains below. The grassland habitat is interspersed with forest patches and outcrops. One of the main reasons for visiting here is the snazzy Angola Cave-chat, a smart bird in a stunning landscape. Also Swierstra’s Francolin remains here (but is rare) if we have missed it earlier in the trip. Other specialties include Ludwig’s Double-collared Sunbird and Angolan Slaty-Flycatcher, Freckled Nightjar, Bradfield’s and Alpine Swift, Hartlaub’s Babbler, Miombo Rock-Thrush, Salvadori’s Eremomela, and the landae form of African Firefinch and the stunning Angolan Waxbill, the second main reason to scour the escarpment.

Swierstra’s Francolin is possibly the trickiest endemic to see, but we’ll keep plugging away to find this handsome gamebird.
Swierstra’s Francolin is possibly the trickiest endemic to see, but we’ll keep plugging away to find this handsome gamebird. (Dayne Braine)

Day 17: Namibe. From Lubango it’s about a 2-hr drive down into the barren flats of the Namib, where we will go birding on the fringes of the Namibe NP. Our first stop however will be the Leba escarpment, which is not only gorgeous, but it holds the very localized Cinderella Waxbill, Fülleborn’s Longclaw and Rockrunner. Further towards the coast we hit the true Namib and can expect many of the specialty birds more associated with Namibia, including Ludwig’s Bustard, Bare-cheeked Babbler, Rosy-faced Lovebird, Monteiro’s and Damara Red-billed Hornbills, Gray’s, Stark’s, Benguela Long-billed and Sabota Larks, Karoo and Tractrac Chats, Kalahari Scrub Robin, Chat Flycatcher, Ground Batis, Carp’s Tit, Pale-winged and Meves’s Starlings (sometimes split as Kunene Long-tailed Starling), Dusky Sunbird, and Lark-like Bunting. After a long day in the field we return to Lubango to overnight.

Angola scenery.
Angola scenery. (Sean Braine)

Day 18: Departure. Today after breakfast we head to Lubango airport where you can take your connecting flight to Windhoek or Luanda. A 2-day extension is offered for those who have not had enough and would like some time in the Namib-desert.

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TRIP CONSIDERATIONS

PACE: Intense. This tour will require long days in the fields and early starts on most days, around 5:00-05:30am, often returning at or just after dusk. On some portions of the trip, especially those spent in the hot lowlands, we will have some time off in the middle of the day. At higher elevations, in the mountains, the birding can stay active all day, and we will attempt to make the most of it. There are some long drives on tough roads including the following: Day 2 Kwanza to Uige (7 hours); Day 4 Uige to Calandula (4 hours); Day 9 Muxima to Kumbira (6 hours); Day 14 Kumbira to Huambo (5 hours) and Day 15 Huambo to Lubango (6 hours).

PHYSICAL DIFFICULTY:  Easy to moderate. A lot of the birding is from roadsides or accomplished with short walks through relatively easy terrain. There are some short walks into the forest to get to territories for secretive or displaying birds at various locations. The general birding is pretty easy, but obviously some of the tougher forest birds require a little more effort to coax out.

CLIMATE: Luanda, Lubango, Muxima and Kumbira have a moderate temperature at this time of year 66-77°F (19-25°C), Uige is warm and muggy reaching 70-90°F (21-32°C) with high humidity.

ACCOMMODATION: Good hotel near Luanda, moderate to good hotels at Uige and Fazenda Rio Uiri. Fairly basic elsewhere but most have electricity and hot water and private bathrooms.

SPECIAL NOTE: This trip requires participants with an adventurous spirit. We are visiting some of the most remote parts of one of the trickiest parts of Africa where tourism infrastructure is in its infancy. Things are much better than they were a decade ago. But it’s still simple and things happen slowly. Although physically things may be relatively easy, there may well be surprises during the travel and we will need to understand that things work differently in Angola to practically anywhere else on the planet. The accommodation is moderate-style hotels. But the places we visit are wild, pristine and very seldom seen by anyone, including dedicated adventure naturalists.

OTHER INFO:

TRAVEL REQUIREMENTS: A valid passport is required; the passport must be valid for at least six months past your intended stay. Visas are required for almost all visitors, but can be obtained as E-visas or on arrival. Travel requirements are subject to change, and it is ESSENTIAL to double-check your entry requirements at least six weeks before you travel; contact the nearest embassy or consulate, or ask our office staff for help.

WHAT’S INCLUDED?: Tips to drivers, local guides, and lodge staff; accommodation from night of day 1 through to night of day 17; meals from dinner on day 1 through to breakfast on day 18; safe drinking water throughout; Tropical Birding tour leader with scope and audio gear from the morning of day 1 to the afternoon of day 17; one arrival and one departure airport transfer per person (transfers may be shared with other participants of the same tour if they are on the same flight); ground transport for the group to all sites in the itinerary; entrance fees to all birding sites mentioned in the itinerary; a printed and bound checklist to keep track of your sightings (given to you at the start of the tour – only electronic copies can be provided in advance).

WHAT’S NOT INCLUDED?: Any International or domestic flights; optional tips to the tour leaders; tips for optional luggage porters in city hotels; international flights; snacks; additional drinks apart from those included; alcoholic beverages; visa fees; departure tax if applicable; travel insurance; excursions not included in the tour itinerary; extras in hotels such as laundry service, minibar, room service, telephone calls, and personal items; medical fees; other items or services not specifically mentioned as being included.