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Sani Pass must rank as one of the top ten birding spots in Southern Africa. As the only road running from east to west over the Drakensberg escarpment and into Lesotho, it provides a unique opportunity for fantastic birding in a wide range of escarpment and alpine habitats, together with spectacular scenery. Almost every bird encountered is an endemic or a special, including four species not found elsewhere in southern Africa, namely the Drakensberg Rock-jumper, Drakensberg Siskin, Mountain Pipit and the Bearded Vulture. These are birds of limited distribution and this is the easiest place to find them. A bonus is that Gurney's Sugarbird and Drakensberg Rock-jumper represent two bird families that are endemic to the region, while a number of endemic western species normally associated with the drier karoo are also found in the karoo-like vegetation that occurs right to the top of the pass.

A trip up Sani Pass is most rewarding in summer, when the proteas, aloes and flowers are in flower, and the summer altitudinal migrants are present. Of the 200-odd species that occur in the area, about 40 are endemic, and a typical trip list is around 60 species.

Birding on Sani Pass is dictated by the border-gate times of 8am to 4pm, and one needs to be either at the bottom or top of the pass outside of these hours. An overnight stay in the vicinity of Sani Pass is recommended for an early start, while a night at the quaint Sani Top Chalet affords the opportunity of pristine early morning birding into Lesotho, and seeing the sun rise 'above the clouds'. For day trippers, the experience of lunch and a beer at Sani Top Chalet overlooking the escarpment is recommended. Note that a 4-wheel drive vehicle and passport are required to proceed up the pass, and that guided tours are available. Also note that both the pass and Sani Top Chalet can be extremely busy, especially around lunch time.

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Specials

From the foot of the pass, specials are Bush Blackcap, Cape Grassbird, Dark-capped Yellow Warbler, Drakensberg Prinia, Cape Rock-Thrush, Gurney's Sugarbird, Ground Woodpecker, Buff-streaked Chat, Red-winged Francolin, Barratt's Warbler, Wailing Cisticola, Drakensberg Rock-jumper, Drakensberg Siskin, Sentinel Rock-Thrush, Sickle-winged Chat, Large-billed Lark, Southern Bald Ibis, Mountain Pipit, African Rock Pipit, and Grey-winged Francolin. Karoo Prinia, Fairy Flycatcher, Yellow Canary and Grey Tit are regular, while Black-headed Canary and Layard's Tit-Babbler are occasional. Raptors include Bearded Vulture, Cape Vulture, Black Harrier, and Jackal Buzzard, while Cape Eagle-Owl is a rare sighting.

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Habitats

At the foot of the pass one encounters riverine thicket, grass-covered slopes, sandstone cliffs and the Mkomazana river. As one progresses up the pass, this changes to protea savanna on rocky grass-covered slopes. The gradient steepens past the border-post, the riverine gulleys are filled with leucosidia thicket, and the slopes covered in fynbos. Near the top there are rocky screes and massive cliffs. In Lesotho, the vegetation changes to heavily grazed alpine grassland and heath, with seasonal bogs and rocky mountainsides.

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Facilities

These include the single road from the foot of Sani Pass over the escarpment and into Lesotho, a range of accommodation at the bottom, and rustic accommodation at the top. Guided birding tours are available (see details below), as well as general tourist 4x4 trips that rush up and down the pass (not recommended).

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Birding

As noted above, birding Sani Pass requires that you take account of the border-gate times of 8am to 4pm. An overnight stay in the vicinity of Sani Pass is recommended, as this allows an early start for birding the lower reaches of the pass before reaching the border. Thereafter one can reach the top of the pass by mid-morning, and continue a further 20km into Lesotho to Black Mountain, before returning. A picnic breakfast and lunch is recommended for this trip. Be sure to leave Sani Top by 3pm to get to the lower border post before 4pm. For those overnighting at the top, more time can be spent birding on the way up, the Black Mountain leg left for the afternoon, and day two for birding the Sani plateau before returning down the pass.

All birding is conducted from the single road up and down the pass. The first 13km section past the Sani Pass Hotel is under reconstruction and not much good for birding. Zero your trip meter as you pass the hotel and continue past the old trading store buildings, now a bus stop, and over the hill and into the valley thicket.

1. From around 3km after passing the hotel, through to the border post at 14km, the valley thicket supports Bush Blackcap. Also listen for Cape Grassbird, Dark-capped Yellow Warbler and Drakensberg Prinia along this stretch. Note that Drakensberg Prinia is identified by it's clear unmarked throat and yellowish wash below, and should be carefully identified so as to avoid confusion with the very similar Karoo Prinia that occurs further up the pass. A short walk along the road will produce Bokmakierie, Cape Rock-Thrush, Greater Striped Swallow, Rock Martin, Diderick Cuckoo, Common Waxbill, and Pin-tailed Whydah amongst other common species.

2. At around 8 kms the road ascends steeply into the protea savanna and rocky grassland hillsides for the next 5km. Gurney's Sugarbird and Malachite Sunbird occur around the flowering proteas in summer. Ground Woodpecker reveal their presence with holes excavated into the roadside cuttings, and Buff-streaked Chat are found in the more open grassland with large boulders. Yellow Bishop occur in the rank grass and marshy areas, while Red-winged Francolin call from the grassy slopes.

3. From 13km, through the border post to about 15km, the roadside thicket is particularly thick, and Barratt's Warbler occurs commonly along this section. Although one of the most difficult birds to see in southern Africa, it's song is loud and distinctive, and judicious use of playback can sometimes coax him into view. Further up the pass, the thicket is sometimes less thick, and the bird can sometimes be easier to see.

4. At about 17km there are two view sites situated on two successive corners. Stop at the second one of these for a view down the pass. Scan the buttresses of the Twelve Apostles for raptors, including Jackal Buzzard, Lanner Falcon, Cape Vulture and Bearded Vulture. In fact, these species are possible anywhere along the route. In this area Wailing Cisticola, Fairy Flycatcher and Karoo Prinia occur in the mountainside heath. Note that Karoo Prinia has a marked throat and lacks the yellow wash below.

5. At 19km one reaches the switchbacks, a section of short steep climbs and tight corners as the road passes through the rocky screes to the neck of the pass and into Lesotho. Near the top, pull over in a wider section of road and look for Drakensberg Rock-jumper, Drakensberg Siskin, Cape Canary and Wailing Cisticola. African Black Swift and the larger Alpine Swift swoop past at close quarters.

6. At 22km the road crests the top of the pass and enters Lesotho. After checking through the border control, turn right and take a break at the Sani Top Chalet, where at mid-morning the place is relatively quiet enough to do some birding. The lodge puts out birdseed at the front, and Drakensberg Siskin is virtually guaranteed. Other species feeding here include Cape Sparrow, Cape Bunting, Speckled Pigeon and Sloggert's Ice Rat, a rodent species endemic to Lesotho. From the deck in front of the lodge, Drakensberg Rock-jumper are commonly sighted, while the aloes in the garden support Malachite Sunbird. In summer, Greater Striped Swallow breed under the eaves. A short walk around the lodge will produce Sentinel Rock-Thrush, Sickle-winged Chat and White-necked Raven.

7. Set out from the chalet and head into Lesotho. The roadside birding is productive and most of the species are encountered frequently. Patches of short green grass are frequented by many species, including Sentinel Rock-Thrush, Mountain Pipit, Sickle-winged Chat, Cape Bunting, Cape Sparrow, Large-billed Lark, and Red-capped Lark. Flocks of Southern Bald Ibis forage across the grasslands, as do White Stork in summer. Ground Woodpecker frequent the old stone kraals, Grey-winged Francolin occur in the heath, and Jackal Buzzard hunt the hillsides.

8. At 27km the grassy plains to the right are a good locality for a summer migrant to the Lesotho highlands, the Mountain Pipit. Listen out for the display song, which is a deeper slower note than that of African Pipit. When in view, the Mountain Pipit has a well-marked breast, buffy outer tail feathers, and a pinkish base to the bill.

9. Proceed along the road, crossing over the Sani river, and continue past the village and shearing sheds. The road now climbs steeply over Kotisephole Pass. Keep a look-out for for Ground Woodpecker, Fairy Flycatcher, Wailing Cisticola, and Grey-winged Francolin, while Yellow Canary, Grey Tit, Layard's Tit-Babbler and Black-headed Canary are all sighted occasionally. African Rock Pipit can sometimes be heard calling in the distance.

10. Continue down the other side of the pass to about 42km (20km from Sani Top) where there is an entrance to a quarry site on the left, and the cliffs of Black Mountain are on the right. Stop here and check the area for Bearded Vulture. From here head back to Sani Top, keeping a look-out for Black Harrier at the top of Kotisephole Pass.

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General

There is a wide variety of accommodation available in the Sani Pass area, including hotels, self-catering, bed and breakfast, and backpacker. The nearby towns of Himeville and Underberg also have a wide range of accommodation, and are just a few minutes from the Sani Pass road.

Guided birding tours in 4x4 vehicles are a fun way to experience Sani Pass.

Note: Border gate times are 6am to 6pm. A passport and 4x4 vehicle are required to ascend the pass.

Directions
Sani Pass is accessed from Underberg and Himeville in Southern KZN. From the N3 at Howick, take exit 99 onto the R617 to Boston, Bulwer, and Underberg (110km about 1hr30). Be on the lookout for animals on the road, especially at night. In the centre of Underberg turn right at the Shell garage to Himeville (5km). Pass through Himeville and after 2km cross a river (Pohlela) and turn left to Sani Pass. You are effectively entering IBA-SA064 at this turn.

Guy Gibbon 2008

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