THE LONG AND WINDING ROAD UP AND OVER NAUDE’S NEK


There is a long and winding country road that meanders steadily eastwards and upwards along the southern flanks of the Drakensberg Mountain range. Naude’s Nek at its apex represents the highest navigable pass in South Africa for a standard saloon car, and then only in fair weather conditions, with heavy snowfalls a constant threat to mountain travel in the winter months.

For many it is simply a lost and forgotten corner of South Africa, well off the main tourist routes, holding little of interest for the general tourist seeking the surf zone and the glitz of the many colorful coastal resorts to the south.

Yet, for those with a passion for the outdoor and a love of wide open spaces, this hardly referenced spot on a road map is a very special corner rich in a diversity of outdoor opportunity and specialist interest.

Indeed the landscape is a delight to the eye with willow lined mountain streams wending their way along ancient river valleys below towering sandstone cliffs surrounded by rolling hillsides dotted with sheep. It is a tapestry of soft and verdant beauty below the awe inspiring heights of the Kingdom of Lesotho.

It is here ardent fly-fisherman congregate in spring and autumn to enjoy the quiet tranquility and crystal clear rivers and streams that represent solitude without loneliness in a pristine environment of spectacular beauty.

Here too skiing enthusiasts take advantage of seasonal snow falls to indulge their passion for as long as the snow lasts on the uppermost slopes of the surrounding mountains.

But for lovers of rock art and birders in particular the surrounding landscape is a year round haven of delightful opportunity linked to a suite of high altitude species of special significance due to their unique choice of mountainous terrain.

Central to such activity is the sleepy hamlet of Rhodes offering a variety of cottage and hotel accommodation options in the Victorian style in the village itself and nearby on surrounding sheep farms. In itself as a village it has been pleasantly lost in time and lives on as an anachronism rich in the quality of a lifestyle long gone and now eagerly sought after by lovers of the outdoor life wishing to escape the frenetic urban world of today.

Dawn invariably breaks with the raucous cries of Hadada Ibis and the burbling and cawing of Cape Rooks high up in the towering pine trees lining the old dust road that meanders through the heart of the village. Black-shouldered Kite, Black-headed Oriole, Red-eyed Doves , Cape Canary are resident while African Hoopoe regularly frequent the lawns and open patches of lawn around the village hotel. Red-eyed Bulbul, a typical Karoo species, take responsibility for getting the dawn chorus off to an early start, as they babble away in concert with Red-winged Starling and Olive Thrush in the berry rich hedgerows throughout the village.

Yet it is the spectacular drive upwards and outwards that holds the greatest appeal as the signs of civilization recede into obscurity as one ascends the tortuous track that weaves backwards and forwards in serpentine ascent towards the heights of Naude’s Nek.

Pausing on the basalt strewn lip of the escarpment and looking down from the heights one can only admire the dedication and tenacity exhibited by the Naude family for taking up the challenge of building a serviceable wagon road with nothing more than pick and shovel, up and over the escarpment of the Southern Drakensberg into Natal at the turn of the 19th century.

As the unpaved track spirals upwards across a lattice work of alpine grasslands one becomes aware of life around one in various forms that have adapted successfully to an evolutionary existence within this high altitude and seemingly inhospitable alpine environment.

A scan with binoculars could well reveal Secretarybirds strolling nonchalantly along, while Cape Vulture and Jackal Buzzard circle lazily overhead and White-necked Ravens croak laconically as they spiral high above the guardian peaks.

A bit of patience while scanning the sky is bound to reveal the almost ethereal presence of a Bearded Vulture soaring in effortless flight on the updrafts along the escarpment or angling in towards one out of sheer curiosity as a very special highlight.

Yet it is not all about the larger birds that inhabit the higher elevations. Here a leisurely stroll across the open grassland will produce Wailing Cisticola, Grey-winged Francolin and Mountain Pipit in summer, while the scattered rocky outcrops support Ground Woodpecker, Sentinel Rock Thrush and the ever so endearing and charismatic Drakensberg Rockjumper. Patches of wild rose hip hold Karoo Prinia and feeding flocks of Drakensberg Siskin along with Cape Bunting for most months of the year.

Not often seen but certainly about are Cape Eagle Owl in the vicinity of clefts and overhangs along the deep cut valleys that criss-cross the rugged terrain.  Add to this the chance of Bald Ibis, Booted and Black Eagle on the wing and you some idea of why this remote part of the country is so special.

For those with an interest beyond just birds the botany is special in the wet summer months, while Crag Lizards and Sloggett’s Ice Rat are ever present observers as one walks along any of the rocky ridges above the pass. With luck one may even come across a group of Grey Rhebuck bounding away with their white cotton tails flared for maximum visual effect…

Add all these observations together and you will realize that this pristine corner of the country is indeed a very special place and certainly one of its best kept secrets…

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