Lesotho Highlands – Mafika Lisiu Pass/Bokong Nature Reserve/Katse Dam

About the Birding

Numerous streams may flow strongly following afternoon thunderstorms in summer; this is the best time to visit the area, both for birding and for scenery, and recommendations here relate to this time of year. Brief stops at lay-bys on the ascent to the summit of the Mafika Lisiu Pass provide opportunities for close-up views of Horus Swift, which breeds in the road cuttings. The vegetated slopes close to the road also produce Drakensberg Siskin, Cape Bunting, Cape Grassbird and Cape Rock Thrush, while Barratt’s Warbler may be heard calling from the lower slopes and watercourse Leucosidea thickets.

A parking area and view site at the summit of the Mafika Lisiu Pass (-29.064278, 28.405767), at an altitude of 3090 m, provide spectacular views west towards Pitseng. Be warned, however; even on a summer’s day, warm sunshine can change very quickly to thick mist and cold conditions; be prepared for all weather conditions! Bird species commonly encountered here include family groups of Drakensberg Rockjumper, Sickle-winged Chat, Sentinel Rock Thrush, small flocks of Drakensberg Siskin, Large-billed Lark, Cape Bunting and White-necked Raven. A pair of Bearded Vulture nests on nearby cliffs, and these majestic birds – often both adults and juveniles – should be seen during most visits. Cape Vultures are also frequently seen soaring close to the view site; Verreaux’s Eagle is less common in the area. Mountain Pipit is the commonest pipit here in summer, with African Pipit occurring in grassy areas lower down the mountain slopes and in the valleys. Lanner Falcon is also common, often seen perched on nearby electricity pylons, while Jackal Buzzard is the most numerous raptors at this altitude, their high numbers probably due to the super-abundance of prey in the form of endemic Sloggett’s ice rats in the spongy alpine meadows. Black Stork may also be seen in this area, and coveys of Grey-winged Francolin also occur, with their shrill, yet evocative calling adding to the wonderful atmosphere of the highlands.

The Bokong Nature Reserve visitor centre on the left of the A25 a short distance further on provides excellent views of swallows and swifts flying close to the cliffs below. On the grassy hillside slope opposite and directly south-east of the centre is an ossuary – an area of large slabs of flat rock – used by Bearded Vultures in flight to drop and break large bones, after which the birds land and feed on pieces of bone and on exposed bone marrow. It is fascinating to experience this behaviour, with birds often retrieving unbroken bones, soaring to a height and dropping these repeatedly over a period of time.

Continuing due south from the visitor centre and then east, the A25 soon drops steeply down to the village of Ha Lejone, overlooking the upper reaches of the Malibamatso section of the Katse Dam. Look out for Drakensberg Siskin and Grey Tit in streamside vegetation close to the road and dazzling Malachite Sunbirds at flowering patches of red-hot pokers (Kniphofia sp.) while taking a break on the way down the Pass. At Ha Lejone village, take the first gravel road to the left (-29.108975, 28.491378), which hugs the Malibamatso Valley of Katse Dam. Look out for Ground Woodpecker on the rocky slopes and road cuttings and scan the dam on the right for waterfowl (African Black Duck is quite common in open water close to the bases of cliffs) and cormorants. Rocky slopes may also produce Mountain Wheatear and African Rock Pipit, while hillside scrub may host Layard’s Tit-babbler (Warbler), Fairy Flycatcher and Cinnamon-breasted Bunting. Inspect overhead power lines in summer for groups of Common House Martin, with flocks of 300 and more birds seen in this area at times. Continue for a few kilometres to the bridge spanning a tributary of the Malibamatso River flowing in from a westerly direction (-29.083689, 28.503272) and scan the cliffs around the dam for Southern Bald Ibis, which may roost and nest here. Turn left after the bridge and travel a short distance upstream (a high clearance vehicle is recommended) to find a delightful spot for a lunch break next to the rapids of this clear mountain river. Various widowbirds (Long-tailed, Red-collared) as well as Southern Red- and Yellow Bishops display in the surrounding areas in summer.

Key species:

Drakensberg Rockjumper, Drakensberg Siskin, Mountain Pipit, Bearded Vulture, Sickle-winged Chat, Sentinel Rock Thrush, Cape Vulture, Grey-winged Francolin, Large-billed Lark and Grey Tit

About the Birding Site

A great birding site in the Lesotho Highlands is the Mafika Lisiu Pass / Bokong Nature Reserve. The tarred Mafika Lisiu Pass is on the main northern access route from the western lowlands of Lesotho to the Katse Dam deep in the highlands of the Maluti Mountains. From the summit of this spectacular Pass, the road traverses the 1970 ha Bokong Nature Reserve before dropping steeply to the east to the village of Ha Lejone. At more than 3000 metres a.s.l., the Reserve is one of the highest in Africa.

An impressive visitor centre perches on the edge of the Lepoqua valley and offers spectacular views of the nearby Lepoqua Falls, and of the valley below all the way down to the Malibamatso River valley and the upper reaches of the Katse Dam in the distance.

Habitats near the summit include Afro-alpine grasslands, rocky cliffs and scree slopes, as well as spongy wetland catchments of the Bokong and Lepoqua rivers. Ascending the Pass, the road winds in and out of spectacular valleys with fynbos/macchia-type vegetation.

Key species:

Drakensberg Rockjumper, Drakensberg Siskin, Mountain Pipit, Bearded Vulture, Sickle-winged Chat, Sentinel Rock Thrush, Cape Vulture, Grey-winged Francolin, Large-billed Lark and Grey Tit

Other Related Information

Enter Lesotho at the Ficksburg/Maputsoe border post and proceed through Maputsoe to the T-junction at the A1. Turn left, heading to Hlotse/Leribe; after 15 km turn right onto the A25, signposted to Pitseng/Katse. The road meanders through rural villages and farmland before the start of the Mafika Lisiu Pass; thereafter the ascent is steep and the view site at the top of the Pass is reached after about 50 km. After a few kilometres at this high altitude, the road descends steeply to Ha Lejone village, from where it continues to Katse.

Other related information:

Alternatively, from Fouriesburg enter Lesotho at Caledonspoort border post and drive to Buthe-Buthe and then onto Leribe (Hlotse). In the town of Leribe (Hlotse) take the Katse Dam turnoff. Follow this tar road all the way past Lejone towards Katse (Fouriesburg to Katse Dam approx. 3-4 hrs).

GPS Coordinates:
Mafika Lisiu car park and view site: -29.064278, 28.405767
Ha Lejone village / turn-off to Malibamatso Valley: -29.108975, 28.491378
Bridge spanning a tributary of the Malibamatso River: -29.083689, 28.503272

Access and facilities:
A passport is required to enter Lesotho. It is possible to see most of the highland “specials” during a single day’s visit from an overnight base in neighbouring South Africa. For those wanting to extend their stay, good accommodation is however available at the Orion Katse Lodge, but take note that the 80km from the Bokong Nature Reserve to Katse takes considerable time, as the trip includes a number of steep and winding mountain passes! Some sound advice for driving these steep mountain passes: If you need to travel in 2nd gear on the way up, use the same gear on the way down!

Recommended accommodation nearby:
Orion Katse Dam Lodge, Katse Dam Self-Catering Guest Houses and Katse Dam Flatlets
Website: https://www.katse-accommodation.com/

The Katse Botanical Garden is only a few hundred metres from the Guest Houses and the Katse Dam Lodge. Minimal cost for a guided tour of Lesotho’s indigenous wildflowers. There is a superb picnic shelter with a magnificent view of the dam and the Garden.

Local guide information:
No BirdLife Recommended Tour Operators or local guides are currently available in the area.

Text prepared and edited by:
Rick Nuttall
Martin Benadie | Specialist Birding Guide

Key species:

Drakensberg Rockjumper, Drakensberg Siskin, Mountain Pipit, Bearded Vulture, Sickle-winged Chat, Sentinel Rock Thrush, Cape Vulture, Grey-winged Francolin, Large-billed Lark and Grey Tit

Contact details:

Orion Katse Dam Lodge
Website: https://www.katse-accommodation.com/katse-dam-lodge-ensuite-rooms