Sani Pass – our holiday begins

The Buckham family at Sani Pass hotel

Our September holidays are always a little sacred.  Last year we did our first official family road trip around the Northern Cape and it was a great way to spend time with just our family on our own.  It set off a bit of a tradition which I hope we will continue for many years.

We love sharing our holidays with cousins, aunts, uncles, grannies and grandpas, but just, once a year, we have decided to reserve a holiday for the inner circle.

We had numerous options this year ranging from a trip to Zimbabwe, Namibia, Kruger Park or Sun City but, for a variety of reasons, the vote went to a KZN road trip.  Our itinerary was quickly decided.

Three nights at Sani Pass, four at Umhlanga Sands (I am not allowed to let birding and herping completely dominate) and three nights in Zululand.  It would be a short holiday but given my available leave and the limited school holidays it was just perfect.

I have birded KZN on many occasions and lifer potential would be very scant.  My only target bird for the trip would be a Lesser Crested Tern, which, I am told by a good birding mate, is an embarrassing gap on my list for someone with a list over 800 species.  The same birding mate is well into his 800s and is missing a Red-chested Flufftail so I am not sure how much room he has for mud-slinging.

Anyway, the expansion of my list would be limited but it would be a great opportunity to get Tommy and Adam’s lists a little further along.  But, what was most appealing for me was the large number of lizards and especially frogs that we would be able to try for.  The Western Cape is pretty tough when it comes to amphibians and so I was quite keen to spend some time frogging in a place where there is more than one possible species on any given expedition.

The focus would not only be on birds and herps but also on good solid family time and, unlike last year’s trip, this time little Emma Chops would be joining us.  I doubt she would be much into the biodiversity portion of the trip but I am sure she would appreciate being with the rest of her family for the ten-day holiday.

The week leading up to the trip was a chaotic one.  We published the annual financial statements for the company I work for on Friday (my first day of leave) and I was busy signing financial statements late into the night on the Thursday before our departure.  I was frazzled by the time I got to pack my bags for our flight out and I can assure you I was not half as frazzled as Jeanie after a very busy time at work, and dealing with an exceptionally demanding third term at the school.  We needed a holiday and we needed it badly.

Our first day of holiday, as it turned out, was just an addition to all the stress we had put up with for the previous several weeks/months.  We arrived at the airport, in amongst thousands of others jetting off at the start of the school holidays, well in time for our 11:40 departure time on Mango airlines.  Herding a family of four kids is no mean feat and the mere fact that we got to the boarding gate in time was a miracle in itself.  Well, Mango airlines did not appreciate the effort we had made to get there and, as our boarding time approached, we were advised of an indefinite delay for our departure.  The little information that I was able to glean was that there was a faulty part that had to be delivered from Johannesburg before it could be installed on our plane.  Telling our four kids that we had no idea what time we would be leaving was not that easy.  I should have taken a leaf out of Mango’s book of “customer service” as they had no problem conveying the uncertainty of the news to us.  Perhaps I should have asked them to explain the delay to all our kids.  That may have made my life a little easier.

Airport entertainment

In the end our flight eventually left at 4:15pm, a delay of almost 6 hours.  Some might not think that was the worst eventuality but it was pretty soul destroying watching the 1:45pm Mango flight from Cape Town to Durban board and depart, with no delay whatsoever, when that was the flight we almost booked, but decided not to, as we had a long drive to Sani Pass Hotel to get under the belt before the sun set.

Our delayed departure meant cancelling our first night at Sani Pass and scrambling to find some family in Kloof who would be prepared to take on the Buckham family for a night.  It was almost like taking on a tour group given our numbers but we were very grateful to Jean’s cousins for taking us in.

One of the reasons we decided to spend our holiday in KZN was to get away from the miserable Cape winter, which we knew we would be sick of by the time September rolled along.  A week in sunny, balmy KZN was just what the doctor ordered.  Even better that when we left Cape Town it was the second time in the space of a month that Table Mountain had received a snowfall.  Definitely a great time to get out of town.  Pity that Durban was the recipient of the self-same cold front and when we landed in Durban it was more of the same.  We knew we had made the right decision to avoid a dark, wet and misty drive to Underberg and even the drive to Kloof was harrowing enough.

We had another minor set-back on Saturday morning with Adam waking up with a severe case of torticollis (essentially a spasming neck) which meant we would be further delayed getting to Sani whilst we spent some time in the very well appointed Hillcrest Private Hospital to get him sorted out before we headed west.  There was no rush, though, as the rain was coming down and I didn’t feel that we were missing much by delaying our departure.

Adam with a dodgy neck

We eventually hit the road and headed towards the ‘berg.  It had really taken a while for us to feel that holiday spirit.

I had a few reasons for choosing to head to Sani Pass for a few nights of our holiday.  The pass is virtually world famous for its birding endemics and although I had seen them all they represented a bit of a hole in Tommy and Adam’s lists.  We had to make sure we added the big two, the Siskin and the Rockjumper.  There were a few other biodiversity pursuits, the most important for me being a bizarre creature called a Maluti River Frog.  Just the name tells you that it is a pretty restricted endemic and the pictures I had seen in books showed a weird river frog with huge bulgy eyes (more so than any other frogs), a broad, flat head and the amazing ability to live in ice cold conditions above 1800m.  It would be right at the top of my list of “must sees” for our time at Sani Pass.

The other non-biodiversity reason for me wanting to head to the pass is that I had always wanted to cycle up the full extent of the pass on a bicycle.  From the hotel it is a 23 km ride, gaining 1400m in altitude over some seemingly impossible terrain.  I knew it would be tough but it was something that I just had to do.

The drive through to Sani was absolutely diabolical.  Roadworks, trucks, manic taxis and the worst mist imaginable.  At times visibility was down to about 10 metres and our destination was reached whilst on completely shattered nerves.  I needed a drink or two to balance my psyche.

We spent the miserable afternoon playing a very competitive game of giant chess which Tommy eventually had to concede as the rain came down.

Chess in the rain

Sunday was the big day.  I would ascend the pass twice – the first time with Thaba Tours, together with the boys, for our birding and frog endemics and the second time would be on my own, on a bicycle.

The previous day had been as bad as you get on Sani Pass for this time of year but Sunday morning was the opposite – not a breath of wind, and, besides a few wisps of morning mist, the sky cleared to a perfect blue and we would be treated to unsurpassed views.

Sani Pass is the only road that connects the eastern border of Lesotho and the western border of Kwazulu Natal.  The pass itself, I suppose, starts down at the ruins of an old trading post about 2kms west of the Sani Pass Hotel.  The first 13kms of the pass are relatively sedate with the road ascending and sometimes descending gently up the valley through grassy hillsides and protea savannah.   These lower slopes had recently burnt in a fire during August and so the vegetation was not the best for birding.  We saw a few good species including Cape and Sentinel Rock Thrushes, Wailing Cisticola and one Gurney’s Sugarbird in that area.

The lower 13kms ends at the South African border post.  It is not the official borderline but I have heard that the decision was made to place the border post 8kms short of the official line to avoid the commute up to the remote landscape at the top for the South African officials.

Adam and Tommy on the lower slopes
Our group to the top
Stamping passports

Those next 8kms ascend from an altitude of approximately 1950m to 2900m at the top.  It is definitely one of the steepest roads you’ll ever drive.  The first 6kms are steep but those last 2 are impossibly steep.  The only way to get up the last section is via a snake-like succession of 13 switchbacks with corners that only have space for one car at a time causing some precarious moments of reversing when needing to get out of the way.

Almost at the top

With the miserable weather the day before there were patches of snow in all the shaded sections near the top.  After our disappointing failure to find snow in the Cape a few weeks before it was good fun for the boys to get into some real snow, although there was a tight time schedule and we had lots to see before heading back down.

Tommy with some snow
Adam with some snow

The prize bird on the pass is surely the Drakensberg Rockjumper.  There are no more charismatic birds in South Africa than the Rockjumpers and this range-restricted endemic is just as exciting to see as the one we see more regularly on Sir Lowry’s Pass.  Fortunately, Drakensberg Rockjumpers are pretty easy to find once in the right area and we had numerous pairs crossing the road in their typical bounding fashion on our way up and down the switchback section.  There are no guarantees in the world of birding but these Rockjumpers seem to find it hard to let one down.  We spent some time taking a few pics as well as adding Drakensberg Crag Lizard to our reptile list before taking the last 2kms to the top and stamping our passports at the Lesotho border office.

Drakensberg Rockjumper
Drakensberg Rockjumper

Our major objective up at the top was to find our frog.  Not far from the Sani Top Chalet we found a small little stream with some slow-moving pools and donned our wellies and started our search.  The pool we were wading through required a bit of ice breaking.  I broke a few small sheets of ice from the surface and I started to turn a few rocks over in the shallows.  This would be testing the physiology of this frog to its limit.  As I turned over my second rock two large frogs scuttled from under the rock and swam away.  I clutched at the first, smaller one and lifted it from the water.  I had a good look at it and at first glance I thought I had our target.  We gently put it on a rock on the edge of the river and as I started taking one or two pics I realized very quickly that this was not our target at all, but rather a Drakensberg River Frog.  A really nice find but I had heard that the taxonomy of the Ametia (river) frogs was in flux and this one had recently been lumped back with Common River Frog.  From thinking that we had found a most bizarre endemic I suddenly realized that all we had was probably South Africa’s most common frog.   Not exactly the plan.

Drakensberg River Frog

Well, we were not to be disappointed a second time.  I returned to the same spot and turned over another rock and a much larger frog swam out which I managed to catch quite easily and this time there was no doubt.  This was definitely a Maluti River Frog.  It was much bigger than the previous one, it had a smooth dorsal surface and those bulgy eyes were just so much more pronounced that the Common River Frog.

Maluti River Frog
Maluti River Frog

We managed to include our guide, Peter, in the process as he shepherded the frog into the right spot for the photos whilst we snapped away.  It was fascinating to have Peter there with us who probably drives up the pass 3 or 4 times a week, yet was totally oblivious to the existence of this amazing endemic.

Peter helping with the frog

After getting our pics we headed to the Sani Top Chalet for the obligatory hot chocolates at the pub and we also made sure we got our pics of the Drakensberg Siskin and the Slogget’s Ice Rats that are pretty ubiquitous.  I will mention that my same mate that is in his 800s, who is yet to see a Red-chested Flufftail, has also not seen a Drakensberg Siskin so I hope he feasts his eyes on these pics.

Sani Top Chalet
Tommy and Adam at the chalet
Drakensberg Siskin
Drakensberg Siskin
Slogget’s Ice Rat
Hot chocolate time

We had limited time at the top and aside from a quick, unsuccessful, foray to find a Bald Ibis for the boys’ lists we soon headed down the pass to get back in time to ensure I had enough daylight to achieve my “bucket-list” objective of cycling up the pass.

There is not much to say about the ride up the pass other than that it is possibly the toughest 2 hours of riding I have ever done.  Sure, I have had dark moments in races when not feeling so good, but in terms of a sheer gravity-defying task, nothing I have ever done comes close to that.  We cycle up to the Constantiaberg mast at least once a week and that is considered to be a serious ride, but the Sani Pass is equivalent to about two and half of those.  The road surface is also far worse and the altitude at 2,500m does not help.

It took me 2h15 to ride from the hotel to the Lesotho border post and on such a beautiful evening the rewards were well worth it.  I stopped for a quick coke at the chalet and then headed down for the well-earned descent.

At the top after my ride

Our time at Sani was way too short and although I had heard reports over the last few months that the hotel was not in great shape, we found it to be excellent value for money with great, honest service from the people running it.  Our kids had a blast and we regretted the night that we had lost as a result of our flight delay.  We will definitely be back, armed with our cameras and binoculars, as well as our bikes – after a few years I am sure to forget how tough that ride really was.

Jelly and custard for Jacky
Adam with a plateful

The day we left Sani Pass Hotel was the day of Adam’s 8th birthday.  We spent the earliest part of the day unwrapping presents, one of which was a small portable braai that Jeanie had insisted we lug all the way from Cape Town in our suitcase.  I had had my reservations about the merit of a braai as a present, particularly when it has to be carried in a bag all the way across the country, but I have to acknowledge that it was a bit of genius.  It would add another dimension to the trip and Adam was delighted at the thought of treating us to a lunchtime braai on our travels.

We stopped in Underberg for some boerewors from the local butcher and bought a small bag of charcoal at the Spar and headed for Marutswa Nature Reserve in Bulwer.

Marutswa is well known for its early morning Cape Parrots (need I mention that my accomplished birding mate hasn’t seen one of these either?), and although we would be too late in the day for the parrots I expected it would be the ideal locality for our birthday braai.

The nature reserve is pretty run down, which is sad, as it is a beautiful reserve, but they were quite happy for us to set up our braai and enjoy the view as our coals settled.  Tommy, Adam and I took a walk into the forest and despite it being the middle of the day we saw some great birds.  A good view of an Orange Thrush was a lifer for Tommy and Adam and we also managed to tick a Drakensberg Prinia before we left the Drakensberg proper.  A friendly Yellow-throated Woodland-warbler was far more obliging than the ones we see in the Southern Cape Forests but the bird we tried to find for the umpteenth time, Bush Blackcap, remained elusive.  It seemed as if we had missed our opportunity for that one.

Drakensberg Prinia
Yellow-throated Woodland-warbler

After enjoying arguably the greatest Boerewors roll in the history of the world, we doused the coals, packed the braai back into the already bulging bags and hit the road for the second phase of our trip at Umhlanga.

Adam’s birthday braai

Our time in Sani had been brief but I was delighted that Jeanie had enjoyed it as much as she had.  It bodes well for a future visit in the near future.

5 comments on “Sani Pass – our holiday begins

  • When Jean was about 3 months old we went to Sani Pass Hotel for 4 days and had a lovely time. we went up the pass and while we did not look for frogs, we did see snow and beautiful views. it is a stunningly beautiful part of SA and we found lovely places within walking distance of the hotel to swim in the pools and enjoy the scenery. I am so pleased that you loved it too.

  • Loved reading this Mike and seeing the pics especially (of the kids that is – the frogs not so much)!! And I can’t believe that Tommy is almost as tall as Jeanie – when did that happen????!!!!!

  • Stan Madden says:

    Must have been a great family experience. I have had the privilege of two trips up the pass and across Lesotho, wonderful birding memories, in particular the large Lammergeiers and the beautiful little Fairy Fly catchers stand out for me. Thanks Mike. PS: Next time round I might consider cycling one way!!!

  • Johan Slabbert says:

    Great report Mike. Pleasant reading indeed. Sounds like a great trip. Glad you got some of the specials for the boys. And your devotion to your family is great to see & a lesson to us all.


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