July 23, 2015: Black Mountain, Lesotho — Landlocked within South Africa is Lesotho (pronounced Lesutu), a mountainous country smaller than Maryland. It is the only country in the world which lies entirely above 1,000 meters—in fact, Lesotho’s lowest point is above 1,400 meters (4,593 feet), giving it the nickname “The Kingdom in the Sky.” Much of the country is inaccessible except by foot or horse, and snow can fall on any day of the year. And if you’re looking for a Drakensberg Rockjumper, one of southern Africa’s most-wanted specialty birds, Lesotho is the place to find one.
I visited this Kingdom in the Sky today with a well-liked maverick of African birding named Adam Riley, who brought along two guides named Greg and Nelis. Seventeen years ago, Adam founded a tour company in South Africa and named it after one of his favorite birds. He has since built Rockjumper Birding Tours into the world’s largest birdwatching trip operator (with more than 250 tours each year in 100 countries), and the Drakensberg Rockjumper still holds a special place in Adam’s heart.
Lesotho’s border is reached by a 4x4 dirt road which climbs to a steep ridge called Sani Pass. Halfway up, you stop at a border station to get stamped out of South Africa; then you climb 9 kilometers of switchbacks in no-man’s-land before arriving at the pass and the official Lesotho border. The pass is nearly 9,500 feet above sea level; on clear days, Adam said you can see the ocean. At the top, there is an out-of-place restaurant which claims to be the “highest pub in Africa” in a sparse landscape of rocks and short grass. This is the realm of the Drakensberg Rockjumper.
The rockjumpers were easy to find today—they were hanging out next to the pub, so close that people inside were pointing at the birds through windows. Adam, Greg, Nelis and I continued several miles into Lesotho to ascend Black Mountain, where we spotted Cape Buntings, Lammergeier, Ground Woodpeckers, and Large-billed Larks before a snow squall set in. Greg checked the weather forecast and announced that a meter and a half of fresh snow was expected here tomorrow (that’s five feet!) with the arrival of a cold front. We stopped in the pub to warm up with some hot soup, carefully descended the switchbacks, checked back in to South Africa, and were back at Adam’s house in Pietermaritzburg by nightfall.
New birds today: 14
Year list: 3692