Southern Drakensburg – Matatiele Nature Reserve

About the Birding

Matatiele town is situated in the north of the Eastern Cape, close to the border with KwaZulu-Natal. A notable feature of the landscape is the wide valley, the Cedarville Flats, that runs from east to west. It is flanked to the north by the Drakensberg and to the south by high-lying ground, which rises above 2 000 m a.s.l. Matatiele Nature Reserve lies due south of the town and abuts directly onto it. The landscape is steeply to gently undulating and ranges in altitude from 1 500 to 2 066 m a.s.l.

In places the soil is shallow, and there are some rock outcrops and pavements that consist primarily of the Upper Beaufort Series. The climate is cool-temperate, with frequent frosts in winter. Rainfall averages 713 mm p.a. and falls mostly in summer. Most of the site is pure grassland, although a sparse protea woodland occurs on some of the higher ridges and spurs, and scrub grows in sheltered drainage lines and rocky areas that are protected from fire.

Matatiele Mountain holds some extremely interesting and rare high-altitude grassland birds. The critically endangered Rudd’s Lark is present in small numbers. The beautiful Yellow-breasted Pipit is the commonest bird in the grasslands on top of the mountain. Other notable grassland species include the Short-tailed, African Rock and Mountain Pipits. Some of the rocky gorges in the vicinity hold Cape Eagle-Owl and Buff-streaked Chat, while Drakensberg Rockjumper occur above 2 000 m a.s.l. Stands of proteas here and on the edge of the mountain hold Gurney’s Sugarbird.

Other species to look out for in the grasslands include both the Grey-winged and Red-winged Francolins, Blue Crane, Denham’s Bustard, Black-winged Lapwing and Black Harrier. Sentinel Rock Thrush occurs around rocky outcrops in the grassland. The Black and Rufous-breasted Sparrowhawks breeds in introduced stands of bluegums and other Eucalyptus species. Cape Vulture and Bearded Vulture regularly fly over the mountain and the latter is thought to have a nest nearby.

Key species:

Rudd’s Lark, Yellow-breasted Pipit, Red-winged and Grey-winged Francolins, Bearded Vulture

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:

Rudd’s Lark, Yellow-breasted Pipit, Red-winged and Grey-winged Francolins, Bearded Vulture

Other Related Information

Mountain Lake Nature Reserve is located 12km from town, on a plateau of rolling grasslands and wetlands.
The Wilfred Bauer Nature Reserve is situated 5Km to the west of town on the Lesotho Road and offers picnic facilities, fishing, walking and game viewing.

Recommended accommodation nearby:
The nearest Birder Friendly Establishment is in the small village of Cedarville, on the Cedarberg Guest Farm. The farm itself is situated midway between Kokstad and Matatiele, making it the perfect base from which to explore this rich area.

Other related information:

The farm supports a number of self-catering cottages, complete with braai facilities. More than 90 species are possible on the farm itself including Wattled Cranes and regular sightings of Bearded Vulture. The critically endangered Rudd’s Lark has also been seen the farm itself.

For more information or to reserve accommodation, contact:
Physical address: Cedarberg Guest Farm between Cedarville and Matatiele
Cell: 083 262 5464

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:

Rudd’s Lark, Yellow-breasted Pipit, Red-winged and Grey-winged Francolins, Bearded Vulture

Contact details:

For more information, visit Matatiele tourism at: