Sani Pass and the Cobham Section of the uKhahlamba-Drakensburg Park

About the Birding

Sani Pass and the adjacent Lesotho Highlands must surely rank as one of the top birding sites in Southern Africa and are by far the easiest place to look for several of the region’s most sought-after near-endemic and endemic bird species. As the only road running from east to west over the Drakensburg Escarpment and into Lesotho, the Sani Pass further provides the unique opportunity to access a wide range of escarpment and alpine habitats within easy reach of both Durban and Pietermaritzburg.

Tours to Sani Pass are most rewarding in the summer months when the full assemblage of alpine species may be seen, and when the proteas and aloes come to flower attracting a plethora of interesting nectar feeding species. Some 200 species occur in the area, more than 40 of which are endemic to South Africa and Lesotho. A bonus is that two of the top specials of Sani Pass, the Gurney’s Sugarbird and Drakensburg Rockjumper, are members of the two endemic bird families to the region. Much of the birding on Sani Pass is done from the single road up and down the escarpment between the South African and Lesotho national border posts and visits to Sani Pass must therefore be aligned with border times and passports are necessary to visit the pass. An overnight stay in the vicinity of Sani Pass is also recommended, and 4×4 vehicles with high clearance are required to proceed up the pass.

Riverine habitats near the foot of the pass and closer to Himeville are rich in species. Search the dense wooded gullies near the Sani Pass hotel for the near-endemic Bush Blackcap. Cape Grassbird, another near-endemic species, is common throughout the area and is best detected by its high-pitched trill call. African Yellow Warbler and Drakensberg Prinia prefer flatter sections with lower vegetation. Note that Karoo Prinia occurs nearer the top of the pass and Drakensberg Prinia is best separated from this widespread species by the yellow wash to the underparts and the more diffuse streaking across the chest. Other notable species in this section include Bokmakierie, Cape Rock-thrush, Greater Striped Swallow, Rock Martin, Diederik Cuckoo, Common Waxbill, African Firefinch and Pin-tailed Whydah. Small dams and river crossing in the area may also yield the scarce Half-collared Kingfisher.

Further along, the topography becomes steeper and the grassy hillsides begin to support proteas. This is the area in which to search for the near-endemic Gurney’s Sugarbird, which often perches conspicuously atop protea flowers. The indescribable Malachite Sunbird is also common in the area, frequenting the flowering proteas and aloes. Rocky sections in this stretch of the pass regularly host both Ground Woodpecker and Buff-streaked Chat; the former regularly using the road cuttings to nest. African Rock and Nicholson’s Pipit may also be seen in this area and are usually found calling from prominent rocks. Roadside thickets nearer the South African boarder post support Barratt’s Warbler. This near-endemic species is common here, though is usually slightly easier to see higher-up where the vegetation becomes less dense. Knowledge of the call of this species is also essential to locating this shy and reclusive bird. Beyond the South African boarder post, 4×4 and high clearance are required until one reaches the Lesotho boarder post at the very top of the pass.

Approximately 2km beyond the South African boarder post, stop at one of two view sites situated on two successive corners. Here it is possible to scan the buttresses of the ‘Twelve Apostles’ where an interesting diversity of raptors may be seen. This includes the Jackal Buzzard, Lanner Flacon, and both Cape and Bearded Vultures. Mountain heath in this area supports Wailing Cisticola, Fairy Flycatcher, and both the Karoo and Drakensberg Prinias; though be cautioned of hybrids between the two latter species, showing intermediate features.

The switchbacks near the top of the pass support Drakensburg Rockjumper, Drakensburg Siskin, Cape Canary and Wailing Cisticola. Pull over in one of the wider sections and search for these species among the rock scree. Alternatively, crest the top of the pass and enter Lesotho. After checking through the boarder, turn towards the Sani Top Chalets and park. This is a fantastic site to have a mid-morning break and to do some birding. Drakensberg Siskin and Drakensburg Rockjumper are both resident around the chalets, alongside the common Cape Bunting, Cape Sparrow and Speckled Pigeon. Look too for the unusual Sloggert’s Ice Rat, an unusual alpine mammal. A short walk around the lodge should also yield Sentinel Rock Thrush, Sickle-winged Chat and Mountain Pipit (summer only) in short cropped grassy areas. The latter is best separated from the similar African Pipit by its larger overall size, darker appearance, buffy outer tail feathers, and different flight call; however most pipits in this alpine habitat can safely be assumed as Mountain Pipits.

Continue past Sani Top and through the village into the alpine heathland. Check the stone kraals here for Ground Woodpecker and African Rock Pipit. In the montane heath, look for Fairy Flycatcher, Grey-winged Francolin, Yellow Canary, Grey Tit, Layard’s Warbler, Black-headed Canary and Wailing Cisticola. Black Harrier is usually also seen quartering overhead, particularly in late-summer.

While birding the Sani Pass, always keep a watchful eye overhead for the Bearded Vulture as several pairs of these impressive birds are known to nest nearby. Should you not see them riding updrafts nearer the top of the pass, continue beyond the Lesotho boarder and over Kotisephole Pass for 20km to where there is a cleared entrance to a quarry site on the left. The cliffs of Black Mountain, to your right, support a resident pair of Bearded Vulture and the birds are often sighted overhead even when not breeding.

Key species:

Drakensburg Rockjumper, Drakensburg Siskin, Gurney’s Sugarbird, Bearded Vulture, Mountain Pipit, Sentinel Rock Thrush, Barratt’s Warbler, Bush Blackcap

About the Birding Site

The Lower Drakensberg Foothills Birding Route lies inland and to the south-west of the Southern KwaZulu-Natal Birding Route and is easily accessible from both Durban and Pietermaritzburg, the two nearest points of entry. The source of this route is found in the Ukhahlamba Drakensberg World Heritage Site at the majestic Sani Pass where birders get the unique opportunity to view birds in a rugged and stunningly beautiful environment, consisting of five different habitats and ranging in height from 1600m to 3200m.

However, the heart of this route lies in the lowlands below the Sani Pass where numerous beautiful nature reserves and large tracts of pristine mist belt forest and grassland are to be found supporting a plethora of interesting species including several of South Africa’s most sought-after birds. Top specials within this birding route include the critically endangered Blue Swallow, Drakensburg Rockjumper, Cape Parrot, Drakensburg Siskin, Bearded and Cape Vultures, Orange Ground Thrush and Gurney’s Sugarbird among others. Several days are recommended in the area to do the route proper justice and summer visits (September-April) are optimal to ensure that all target species are present and that all sites will be accessible.

Key species:

Drakensburg Rockjumper, Drakensburg Siskin, Gurney’s Sugarbird, Bearded Vulture, Mountain Pipit, Sentinel Rock Thrush, Barratt’s Warbler, Bush Blackcap

Other Related Information

Directions:
Travel from Howick and Kokstad on the R617. Turn north at Underberg to Himeville. The Sani road lies 2km beyond this picturesque village.

Notable points of interest include the:
South African boarder post: -29.6029, 29.3392
Lesotho boarder post: -29.5844, 29.2855
Sani Top hotel: -29.5845, 29.2880
Black Mountain view-point (Bearded Vulture): -29.4785, 29.1612

Other related information:

The nearest towns to Sani Pass (measured from the Sani Pass Hotel) are:
Himeville: 15km
Underberg: 20km

Access and facilities:
Although two-wheel drives are permitted up to the lower S.A.P.S border control post, some skill and caution is required especially if the road is wet. This section of the road is in the process of being tarred. Four wheel-drive only is permitted to the top of the Sani Pass, which varies in condition from month to month. A road tax is payable at the upper Lesotho border control post. The pass is open at 8am daily. Please check on the closing times of both border posts. The pass can be closed due to heavy snow falls. Vehicles can be safely left within the confines of the S.A.P.S border post. Toilet facilities are only available at service stations in Himeville, at the S.A.P.S border post and at Sani Top Chalet. There are restaurants in Himeville and Underberg and at Sani Top. Guided trail hikes can be arranged through Stuart McLean (see below) and a number of other tour operators in the area. A map of Lesotho is available at the Sani Top Chalet and at the Sani Tours office in the clock tower centre in Underberg. These maps can also be found at the new Underberg mall.

Sani Mountain Lodge
Tel: +27 (0)78 634 7496
Email: res@sanimountain.co.za
Website: www.sanimountain.co.za

Recommended accommodation nearby:
The nearest Birder Friendly Accommodation is in the nearby village of Himeville. For more information, please visit:
http://www.birdlife.org.za/go-birding/bird-friendly-establishments/kwazulu-natal/

Other notable accommodation in the area includes the:
Sani Pass Hotel
Tel: +27 (0)33 702 1320
Fax: +27 (0)33 702 0220
Website: www.premierhotels.co.za/hotels/kwazulu-natal/sani-pass/

Sani Mountain Lodge
Tel: +27 (0)78 634 7496
Email: res@sanimountain.co.za
Website: www.sanimountain.co.za

Local guide information:
For guided tours up Sani Pass, contact:
Button Birding Tours: +27 (0)39 833 1029
Major Adventures: +27 (0)33 701 1628
Thabo Tours: +27 (0)33 701 2888
Steven Pipier tours: +27 (0)33 701 1741
Stuart McLean: +27(0)33 702 0203

Text prepared by:
Daniel Keith Danckwerts (Rockjumper Worldwide Birding Tours)

Key species:

Drakensburg Rockjumper, Drakensburg Siskin, Gurney’s Sugarbird, Bearded Vulture, Mountain Pipit, Sentinel Rock Thrush, Barratt’s Warbler, Bush Blackcap

Contact details:

For more information, contact:

Sani Pass Hotel
Tel: +27 (0)33 702 1320
Fax: +27 (0)33 702 0220
Website: www.premierhotels.co.za/hotels/kwazulu-natal/sani-pass/

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