Birding in the Kingdom in the Sky

Lesotho is a small landlocked country completely surrounded by South Africa. The kingdom’s lowest point lies at 1,400 meters, making it the highest country in the world. The majority of Basotho people live in rural communities scattered across the empty plateaus and rugged mountains. Approaching the country from the east is difficult as only rough dirt roads torturously snake towards the top of the Drakensberg escarpment, but it also offers the quickest access to highland specialties.

the road to Sani Pass Photo Stephan Lorenz

Sani Pass is famous for packing highland endemics and spectacular scenery into one memorable 9 km stretch. Descriptions for tackling the road include “above average driving experience necessary”, “notoriously dangerous road”, and “4WD absolute minimum”. In fact the South African border post will not let anybody continue up the road that is not equipped with the proper vehicle. Since we had rented a tiny Hyundai Atos, with essentially toy tires and horsepower equivalent to a lawnmower, the decision was easy, hike it. Seven miles along a road, how hard could it be? Of course, in the back of our minds we were hoping to catch a ride.

Cape Sparrows Photo Stephan Lorenz

We rolled into the deserted border post around 7 am, already having tackled a stretch of road that tested the limits of the car. We scraped over jagged rocks and spun out of gravelly potholes, barely covering the few miles to the border. If this was the good part of the road there was certainly no going further. We checked in with the border guard, receiving our compulsory exit stamp. He agreed to keep an eye on the car and showed us where to park.

We loaded two full backpacks, down jackets, mittens, hats, water, and food for an entire day. Waving good-bye to the border guard we headed down the dirt road. The track roughly followed the bottom of the valley with steep slopes covered in sparse shrub rising on both sides. I tried to set a good pace, hoping to cover the distance. A few hundred yards into the hike the first vehicles passed, but the driver apparently didn’t understand our signal, arms out with thumbs up, or at least pretended not to.

on top of Sani Pass Lesotho Photo Stephan Lorenz

The road swung south, climbing into the foothills. The pass itself was visible in the distance, hemmed by gigantic sandstone cliffs. The road started to climb. Here and there sunbirds called from the bushes, but overall it was fairly quiet. It became clear quite quickly that the distance was formidable and we were a bit too slow to cover it. When I heard the unmistakable rumbling of an engine struggling uphill I was determined to catch a ride.

The large covered pickup pulled up slowly and I could see that it already contained four passengers. I stuck out my thumb and yelled into the rolled down window that I would squeeze into the trunk. Reluctantly the driver pulled over and assured his questioning passengers that two extra  would not weigh down the truck too much. I climbed into the back and wedged myself between camping gear, backpacks, and gas canisters. Claudia fit on the backseat with two women that turned out to be very friendly and they exchanged interesting stories all the way up.

Fortunately the driver had extensive experience driving up the pass and maneuvered past the final hairpin turns with skill. I watched the bottom of the valley recede in the distance and could feel the air chill as we gained elevation. Near the top we rolled past a waterfall that was frozen solid. A few bumpy turns later and the truck heaved over the lip of the pass and rolled towards the Lesotho border post. We stepped into the frigid air and bundled up against an icy wind whipping unhindered across the barren landscape. To the west stretched the high plateau of Lesotho, plains of dun colored grass and rock outcrops. The peaks of the Drakensberg broke the horizon to the north and south. After thanking the driver and other passengers and wishing them good luck we walked over to the border station, a concrete block with an open window covered with a metal screen.

Ice Rat Photo Stephan Lorenz

We told the border guard we would be staying only for the day. He stamped our passports and asked why we were visiting. We just blurted out that it was beautiful and special. For a minute he gazed down the valley that ends at the pass, with foothills disappearing into haze, creating a vague horizon in contrast to the sharp vertical walls of sandstone and then said, well we see it every day.

We walked past the small houses that appeared inadequate given the rough conditions that prevail during winter storms. Round huts of wood and mortar nearly blend with the hues of the plain. A few locals, wearing the typical Basotho blanket, stood in front of their homes. We wandered toward the Sani Pass Hotel, which has the distinction of being the highest pub in southern Africa. The first animal we noticed at this elevation were Ice Rats, which boldly sat atop flats rocks before dashing into earthen burrows. These small rodents seemed to be soaking in the weak sun. Flocks of Cape Sparrows foraged in open patches and whirled into flight when a Rock Kestrel flew over, which managed to catch an unfortunate bird.

I set out in a straight line, trying to make use of the limited time, hoping to find the two high elevation specials, Drakensberg Siskin and Drakensberg Rockjumper. Claudia walked slowly behind, bracing against the gusts of wind. It was hard to see ahead in the cold and eventually I turned around, walking toward rock outcrops and a creek bed, figuring birds would seek shelter from the wind there. Within seconds of each other I found both birds, two Drakensberg Siskins flushed from the mossy ground and suddenly a Rockjumper dashed from a pile of rocks. I observed both species for nearly thirty minutes. The rockjumper dashed across the low vegetation like a fast thrasher only to pop onto an exposed rock. It only flew short distances and was clearly most confortable near rocky crevices into which it would periodically disappear.

Drakensberg Rockjumper Sani Pass Photo Stephan Lorenz

Even with all clothes piled on, the cold was getting to us, and with the main birds in the bag, we headed back towards the hotel, seeing Large-billed Lark along the way. From the relative warmth of the restaurant I watched the feeder, which was mobbed by Cape Sparrows, a few Cape Buntings, and just a handful of Cape Siskins, easy to find here. We ordered soup and coffee enjoying the view in comfort. We both wished we could have spent the night, although it would have certainly been cold, but we had to head back down in order to arrive at the border post before closing. We knew it was going to be a long hike down.

We walked back to the border post and received our exit stamp for Lesotho and started the long trudge back. Right at the pass, I found a second rockjumper, also a female, foraging among boulders right along the road. I spent another few minutes watching these unique birds.

Drakensberg Siskin Photo Stephan Lorenz

It was impressive to get close views of what the truck had handled on the way up and we paused at the frozen waterfall to take pictures. We could see the end of the valley and somewhere down there was the border post and end of the hike. I gazed at the immense sandstone and spotted two or three Cape Vultures circling above, an endangered endemic whose population has declined dramatically. As we finished the last of the steep switchbacks, I heard a vehicle rumbling down the pass. I looked up to see the same truck that gave us a lift earlier in the day. Of course they stopped again and drove us all the way back down. Given the distance, we were extremely thankful for the help, as I remain unsure whether we could have tackled the entire track.

Tired, a bit stunned by the beauty of the place, and happy about the birds, we piled into our car. We slowly descended, scraping the bottom a bit more and wearing down the tires of course. Looking back we could see the outline of the mountains and the pass, fading in the failing light.

carrying wood up Sani Pass Photo Stephan Lorenz

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One response to this post.

  1. daring adventure. Good for Claudia! JoAnn

    Reply

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