Southern Drakensburg – Elliot and surrounds

About the Birding

The highland town of Khowa, formerly known as Elliot, lies roughly 80Km south-west of Maclear and 65km south-east of Barkly East. The foothills of the Drakensburg surrounding these small villages hosts surprisingly high diversity of bird species including several notable endemics and other threatened species. Visits to the area are best combined with a trip to Rhodes and the Naude’s Nek mountain pass, where the full complement of Drankensburg specials can be seen, though these sites are only accessible in 4×4 vehicles with high clearance.

Much of the region is blanketed in upland sourveld grassland and, though vast areas have been transformed by intensive forestry practices, several iconic grassland species persist in the area in healthy numbers. Three pairs of Wattled Crane are known to breed in the general area – the last known breeding pairs of this species in the Eastern Cape – while both the Grey Crowned and Blue Cranes are both common. Search for all three cranes in recently cultivated fields near wetlands and farm dams with extensive reedbeds. Other notable large birds include the Secretarybird, Blue Korhaan and Denham’s Bustard. In rocky areas, look for the endemic Buff-streaked Chat and Ground Woodpecker. Other grassland species include both the Yellow-breasted, Plain-backed and African Pipits, African Stonechat, Cape Longclaw, and Grey-winged Francolin. Mountain Pipit is possible during the winter months, when the birds migrate to lower altitudes from montane heath on the Lesotho plateau, and Rudd’s Lark are thought to occur in small numbers. An isolated population of Swainson’s Spurfowl occur near Dordrecht; an extremely difficult species in the Eastern Cape. Small numbers of the endangered Southern Bald Ibis inhabit the area, particularly within the Barkly East area. Pine and Eucalytpus plantations support breeding Forest Buzzard, Long-crested Eagle and both Rufous-chested and Black Sparrowhawks. Cape and Bearded Vultures sometimes forage over this area.

Key species:

Wattled Crane, Blue Crane, Grey Crowned Crane, Blue Kohaan, Buff-streaked Chat

About the Birding Site

The dramatic Drakensburg Mountain range consists of a continuous, abrupt and rugged scarp or mountain wall along the national boundary between South Africa and Lesotho. Lesotho’s Thaba Ntlenyana (3 484 m a.s.l.), the highest peak in Africa south of Kilimanjaro, lies along this scarp. There are a number of other outstanding topographical features in this formidable barrier of cliffs and peaks, including, from north to south, the Amphitheatre, a semi-circle of high cliffs with a sheer drop of 613 m; Mont-aux-Sources (3 282 m a.s.l.), Cathedral Peak (3 004 m a.s.l.), Cathkin Peak, …

… Champagne Castle, Giant’s Castle (3 314 m a.s.l.), Injusuti Dome (3 409 m a.s.l.), Sani Pass and Hodson’s Peak (3 244 m a.s.l.), Rhino Horn (3 051 m a.s.l.) and Wilson’s Peak (3 210 m a.s.l.). Together, they define the characteristic shape of the Drakensberg skyline.

The cliffs forming the escarpment are capped by extensive, horizontally bedded basalt lava slabs that create a high-altitude plateau lying between 1 830 and 2 440 m a.s.l. The basalt is deeply incised by the tributaries of the several major rivers that flow through the Eastern Cape and KwaZulu-Natal into the Indian Ocean. These river catchments hold many sheer cliffs, with near-vertical walls more than 500 m high. At lower altitudes, these steep basalt cliffs give way to slopes that form a large grassy terrace of variable width, interspersed with bands of exposed basalt. Lower still, the grassy terrace falls away as cave sandstone cliffs are dissected by rivers and streams to form valleys, gorges and inselbergs. As a whole – the region is dominated by ferriferous soils, which are characteristic of well-drained uplands with high rainfall and relatively low temperatures. Leaching has been severe and fertility is therefore low. Temperatures are extreme and, on the high-altitude slopes, can drop below -15 °C, although the maximum annual average reaches 15–35 °C, depending on altitude. Annual average rainfall is 800 mm, falling mostly in summer (October–April).

The altitudinal zonation of vegetation is characteristic of most mountains of sufficient height. In the Drakensberg, three primary altitudinal zones occur: the montane zone (1 280–1 830 m a.s.l.), the sub-alpine zone (1 830–2 865 m a.s.l.) and the alpine zone (2 865–3 500 m a.s.l.). The montane belt extends from the lowermost basalt cliffs to the valley floors. Grasslands dominate, while protea parkland is found on most spurs and crests. The vegetation of the alpine belt consists of climax heath interspersed with alpine grassland genera. Woody communities flourish in rocky enclaves. Associated karroid shrubs occur in overgrazed areas and in fire-protected gullies. The summits are generally rocky with bare patches of shallow soil and rock sheets near the escarpment. On the lower slopes, scrub develops on the rock and cliffs, including small trees and shrubs. Several woody communities are confined to the sheltered gorges and kloofs in the sub-Alpine zone. The climax community of the montane belt is tall evergreen forest, which occurs on mesic streambanks and in deep kloofs where fire is excluded.

In terms of avian diversity – some 200 species occur throughout the Drakensburg Mountain range, roughly 40 of which are endemic to South Africa and neighbouring Lesotho. Though the neighbouring province of KwaZulu-Natal is perhaps better known as a birding hotspot, all key regional endemics can be found along the Southern Drakensburg route through the Eastern Cape. Top among the list of most-desirable species are the Mountain Pipit, Drakensburg Rockjumper, Bearded and Cape Vultures, and Drakensburg Siskin. Other notable mentions include the critically endangered Rudd’s Lark, Bush Blackcap, Short-tailed and Yellow-breasted Pipits, and Striped Flufftail.

Key species:

Wattled Crane, Blue Crane, Grey Crowned Crane, Blue Kohaan, Buff-streaked Chat

Other Related Information

From East London – travel north along the N6, before turning east along the R410 in the direction of Elliot. Barkly East is north of Elliot along the R58, and Maclear to the east along the R56.

Access and facilities:
Note that much of the area is privately owned and trespassing on private property is strictly prohibited. Birding should be done off the many public roads through the area. Fuel stations, limited shopping facilities and banks are all available in the villages of Barkly East, Maclear and Khowa.

Other related information:

Recommended accommodation nearby:
The nearest Birder Friendly Establishment is the 3-star rated Walkerbouts Inn, situated within the highland town of Rhodes. Situated on an elevated position on the western side of town, this quaint retreat offers sublime views of Rhodes and the southern peaks of the Drakensburg. Some 230 species have been seen in the surrounding areas including the Drakensburg Rockjumper, Beaded Vulture and Mountain Pipit.

For more information or to make a reservation, contact:
Physical address: 1 Vorster Street, Rhodes, Eastern Cape
Tel: +27 (0)45 974 9290
Fax: +27 (0)45 974 9306 or +27 (0)86 750 5759

Local guide information:
No Birder Friendly Tour Operators or local guides are currently available for the wider Matatiele area, though farmers are well-informed about the local birdlife and can provide assistance where necessary.

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

Key species:

Wattled Crane, Blue Crane, Grey Crowned Crane, Blue Kohaan, Buff-streaked Chat

Contact details: