Flight has always fascinated man through the ages. Indeed marveling at the aerodynamic capabilities of Cape Vultures soaring in effortless flight on the thermals above their roosting cliffs of the Sani Valley holds an enduring and awe-inspiring fascination for most visitors to the Drakensberg.
Add to this the grandeur of the towering basalt ramparts set against an azure sky on a clear day and you have the perfect setting for another memorable four-wheel drive excursion up Sani Pass and beyond to the Highlands of Lesotho.
Yet, the experience is not all about birding, even though sightings are many and varied, that collectively make a private birding day tour on the Sani Pass one of the birding highlights in South Africa, a ‘must-do’ …
It is all about the high montane ambiance made up of crystal clear mountain streams, distant eland and rhebok grazing on far off slopes, jackal buzzards circling lazily above pale sandstone cliffs, flowering watsonias in profusion, exquisite blue orchids and red hot pokers lining the gravel track and the many sheltered overhangs preserving the remnants of the San bushman way of life as it once was.
Indeed the ‘Barrier of Spears’, as the rugged ramparts of the Drakensberg were so appropriately described by the first Zulus to settle in the area, is a special place that was the ancestral home to the free-spirited San bushman for thousands of years.
Sadly, the San bushman have long gone leaving only delicately portrayed artistic renditions of life in the valley as well preserved reminders of their unique and exquisite talent for depicting wildlife and the many traditional rituals associated with trance dance that were integral to their nomadic way of life.
In fact the last recorded San bushman was befriended in 1920 by Mr.A. McLean, one of the first settlers in the Berg area, who farmed in the nearby Loteni valley. It is therefore seemingly fitting that Stuart McLean, (www.birdsandbeyond.co.za), an outstanding professional field guide of many talents and a direct family descendant, is today actively involved in introducing visitors to all aspects of the Sani Pass from its early geological emergence to the present time.
A full day starts with a birding stop in the lower valley before meandering slowly upwards through the latticework of sandstone outcrops and Protea studded hill tops and dense stands of ubiquitous ‘ou bos’ (Leucosidea ) beyond the border control post.
This lower section is good for Half-collared Kingfisher on the Umkomazana stream, Southern Boubou, Fork-tailed Drongo, Drakensberg Prinia, Cape Batis, Bush Blackcap, Cape White-eye, Common Bulbul, Red-throated Wryneck, Red-winged Starling, Cape Rock Thrush, Buff-streaked Chat, Wailing Cisticola, Brown-backed Honeybird, Barrett’s Warbler, Red-chested and Black Cuckoo in summer.
With luck the resident Cape Eagle Owl may well be present on its occasional day roost above the road.
Beyond the lower border post the serpentine track winds its tortuous way along the boulder strewn contours and across crystal clear mountain streams to the base of the basalt cliffs below the final ragged ascent to the top of the pass.
A conveniently located pull-off demands a tea and photographic stop to take in the scenic splendor in every direction.
Directly above the two sentinel peaks named after Thomas Hodgson, who perished tragically in pursuit of cattle rustlers over a century ago, stand guardian over the final tortuous approach as the road winds up and over the lip of the plateau into Lesotho.
Here the silence of clear rarified air is largely unbroken, aside from the far carrying ‘croak’ of a White-necked Raven, silhouetted starkly against an azure sky as it spirals and wheels about in apparent ecstasy on the many up draughts sweeping along the escarpment edge.
Yet one is not entirely alone at the very top of the pass. Charasmatic Drakensberg Rockjumpers bound about along the boulder strewn slopes ahead of the vehicle and brightly coloured crag lizards survey the scene. Cape Buntings and loose flocks of Drakensberg Siskins feed alongside herbivorous ‘ice rats’ in the heavily grazed areas while Sentinel Rock Thrushes and Sickle-winged Chats bound about the alpine flats around the border post.
Indeed it is a peaceful scene sipping ones favourite beverage while gazing down the pass from the comfort of the ski chalet perched on the very edge of the eastern escarpment.
Beyond to the west lies the Black Mountain range, and the village of Mokhotlong, named after the many Bald Ibis that frequent the high lying plateau.
Here, on the open moorland, one can expect to see Mountain Pipit in summer, Lanner Falcon, Jackal Buzzard, Pale Chanting Goshawk, Large-billed Lark, Yellow Canary, Grey-winged Francolin, Ground Woodpecker, Southern Grey Tit, Fairy Flycatcher, Mountain Wheatear, Karoo Prinia and other Karoo specials on the eastern extremity of their range.
No trip up Sani Pass to the highest point beyond at 3300m contour in Lesotho would be complete without the awe inspiring sight of an almost ethereal Bearded Vulture sheering in albatross like flight across the inaccessible face of a towering buttress on long tapering wings with its distinctive diamond shaped tail fully extended for added aerodynamic effect.
This avian highlight and iconic raptor of the Lesotho Highlands is unquestionably the grand finale that makes for a perfect day of close on a 100 bird sightings spread across a wide variety of species, rock art in various delightful forms, flowers and butterflies of many descriptions in profusion within an exquisitely awesome and largely unspoiled environment of enduring beauty.
Indeed Sani Pass is truly one of the South Africa’s ‘top five’ birding destinations and a private birding tour up Sani Pass is a ‘must do’ for any birding enthusiast.
If you’re planning a birding or photographic safari to the Sani Pass area in the Drakensberg: for more info on Sani Pass and specialist field guides and accommodation options in the Himeville/Underberg area contact Avian Leisure www.avianleisure.com for travel advice and planning assistance.
Ph: +27 21 7861414 mobile: 083 272 2455 or 083 560 5510.