This two-day return trip takes in the spectacular Sani Pass, which ranges in altitude from 1 600m to 2 800m. The accompanying change in vegetation along this altitudinal gradient provides a wide range of habitats, and the result is a superb species-list, particularly rich in endemics.
Head out early in the morning, around 05h30, to make the most of the day and to get to the border post shortly after it opens at 08h00. From Pietermaritzburg take the N3 towards Howick, taking the Howick South/Underberg off-ramp. Follow the R617 past Midmar Dam on your right, through the villages of Boston and Bulwer and in Underberg look for a right turn signed Himeville. Drive through Himeville, and after approximately two kilometres look for a signed left turn to Sani Pass (29°43’12.54”S, 29°31’17.53”E). Drive past the Sani Pass Hotel for approximately four kilometres before looking for a dense woodland of stunted trees on either side of the road, commonly known as Ouhout (Leucosidea sericea). This thicket is excellent for Bush Blackcap, Barratt’s Warbler, Swee Waxbill and Brown-backed Honeybird. Continue up the Pass and stop wherever you are able to find a suitable site to park off the road. From these points scan the boulder strewn Protea-grassland for Malachite Sunbird, Gurney’s Sugarbird, Ground Woodpecker, Cape Rock-thrush and Buff-streaked Chat. Red-winged Francolin also occupy these lower slopes but are replaced by their close relative, the Grey-winged Francolin, once you reach the top of the Pass.
At the South African border post (29°36’11.49”S, 29°20’22.24”E) Greater Double-collared Sunbirds frequent the red-hot pokers, while Barratt’s Warbler and Drakensberg Prinia are common in the riverside thicket a short distance beyond. In a similar situation to the Francolins, where one species replaces another at higher altitudes, the Drakensberg Prinia occurs in the lower reaches and is replaced by the Karoo Prinia further up. Keep an eye overhead, looking for Horus Swift, Bearded Vulture and Verreaux’s Eagle. Just before the top of the Pass on the steep, rocky roadside, look out for two more southern Africa endemics, the Drakensberg Rock-jumper and Drakensberg Siskin. Another endemic, one that nests in the sheer cliffs at the head of the pass, is the Cape Eagle-owl.
Once at the top and through the formalities of the border post, fairly common around the buildings of the Lesotho border post are Sentinel Rock-thrush and Drakensberg Siskin. The top of the Pass marks the limit of distribution of typical Karoo birds such as Sickle-winged Chat, Layard’s Titbabbler, Fairy Flycatcher, Yellow Canary, Grey Tit and Large-billed Lark and these species do not occur below the summit. Sani Pass is thus the closest location to see such Karoo specials from anywhere in KwaZulu-Natal.
From the border post, drive straight for a short distance before taking a right and heading to Sani Mountain Lodge. This place is well worth a stop, even if just to have a local beer or hot chocolate before heading on! The pub serves meals, so if you haven’t brought breakfast or lunch, then this is your chance to eat. Take a stroll to the west of the chalets and scan the boggy plains for Southern Bald Ibis, Sickle-winged Chat, Large-billed Lark and Mountain Pipit (summer). Drive back to the main gravel road and follow it into Lesotho, heading for Mokhotlong. If unsuccessful on the Pass, the Drakensberg Rock-jumper can be found in any suitable rocky habitat interspersed with low scrub along this road. Drive this road for approximately five kilometres, searching any karroid scrub for the karoo specials mentioned earlier. If you choose to return to Pietermaritzburg, be sure to give yourself sufficient time to get through the South Africa border post by 16h00. However, there are several accommodation options available in the area if you prefer to stay overnight.