Got another stamp in our passports today. Yep that's right, we day tripped to another country.
At 7:00am we met our two local guides for the day. We traded our VW minivan in for two Toyota Prados and set off to traverse the Drakensburg Mountains, ascending the Sani Pass into Lesotho, the Kingdom in the Sky. Lesotho (Le-soo-too) is entirely landlocked and has the highest average elevation of any country in the world at 1600m.
Underberg where we began sits at about 1700m. By the time we got to the top of the pass and Africa's highest pub we had reached 2874m.
The Drakensberg mountains were formed about 160 million years ago by lava flows when Australia broke away from Gondwanaland. The Sani Pass which climbs this mountain range is a narrow, unsealed road snaking along the edge of the mountain slopes.
Of course we birded along the way, finding Guerney's Sugarbird feeding on a protea, the only plant it feeds on.
The top section of the pass is the steepest, a series of inclines and hairpin turns. Snow lays beside the road in the shadows, and we even passed a frozen waterfall.
The boarder between the two countries is at the top of the pass, it is defined by watershed. Wherever the water flows east to the Indian Ocean, the land belongs to South Africa. Where it flows west to the Atlantic is Lesotho.
At the top of the pass we entered Lesotho. The wind was belting across the mountain tops so strongly it nearly blew us over but we did manage to spot a couple of Sloggett's Vlei Rats, hamster-like creatures, perched at the entrances to their burrows.
Our main target for this day was Drakensberg Rockjumper, the bird the tour company we are travelling with is named after. We checked around the pub for them but with the gale force wind we didn't have any luck.
We continued until we reached the top of the range, reaching a maximum altitude of 3240 metres, the highest I've ever been.
Up here we were well above the tree line, dark green, grey and gold heath vegetation covers the mountains, there was patchy snow on the ground, and dotted on the slopes are motebos, round stone huts with grass roofs.
Once we'd made it over the top of the range we headed down the western slopes to find some shelter from the wind and have some lunch. We ate quiche and samosas and bread with cheese whilst gazing up at the sheer, rocky peaks and clear blue sky.
The whole day we stopped off at various locations, scanning for rockjumpers, but the wind was making it almost impossible so we weren't having any luck. The guides were starting to get a little nervous, Rockjumper the tour company have a 100% success rate with finding this species, and as their logo it would have been pretty embarrassing to dip out. We headed back to the pub, hoping that the wind may have eased off or that the birds might be sheltering from it by the buildings.
Back through the border check point and down the Sani Pass again, stopping off to look at a few antelope; Mountain Reedbuck, Grey Rhebok and Eland.
Back in Underberg, our local guides had one last bird to show us; a roosting Spotted Eagle Owl.
Then we headed back out to our guesthouse, which is surrounded by fields, and saw our last new birds of the tour, a gathering of about 150 Grey Crowned-Cranes, dancing in the light of dusk. If there is one bird that is an iconic symbol of African birds, it's this one, and it's one I've wanted to see since before I can remember. Not a bad way to end an intense whirlwind birding tour of South Africa!