|The Sani2c is one of South Africa’s premier mountain biking races. But did you know that the race route passes through three Important Bird and Biodiversity Areas (IBAs) as well as a number of habitats and threatened ecosystems? IBAs are globally recognised due to their conservation value for birds, and birds are good indicators ofother forms of biodiversity, so it is no wonder that these areas are home to endangered orchids, frogs and mammals. This year’s Sani2c race takes place from 10-14 May, so in preparation, here is a bird’s-eye view of the race.|
Sani2C riders visit the BirdLife table, including Makhaya Ntini
The majestic Drakensberg needs no introduction and the first day of the race traverses the foothills of the Berg with the Drakensberg massif as a reminder of the challenge that awaits you. Besides a beautiful backdrop and the perfect way to start a race, the Drakensberg is known as an endemic bird area, which is a fancy way of saying that many of the bird species found here are found nowhere else in the world. Nearby Sani Pass (the race’s namesake) is internationally renowned and forms the focus of a thriving and very important birding tourism industry, which contributes to many jobs in the area. People from all over the world visit this area to see species with names like Mountain Pipit (a nondescript brown bird aptly called an LBJ or Little Brown Job), Drakensberg Rockjumper or Drakensberg Siskin (a Siskin is a type of finch). Still with me? The foothills of the Berg from Glencairn to the Pevensey table consist mostly of dairy farms and these farms support habitat for all three of South Africa’s crane species. Can you name them? Grey Crowned, Blue and Wattled! Nice, we will make birders of you yet. The Wattled Crane is the biggest, standing 1.5 metres tall, while the Grey Crowned is probably our prettiest with its distinctive white face and yellow crest. The Blue Crane is easy as it’s our national bird and the long feathers are worn by Zulu Kings as a sign of royalty.
Of Grasslands and forests
On to the Midlands! These grasslands are like KwaZulu-Natal’s Fynbos. Far from being drab and boring, the species diversity here is special. You may not have time to get down on your hands and knees (you have a race to finish) but the diversity of flowering plants is something to witness. In addition, the grasslands are guarded by forest patches with towering and ancient yellowwood trees that are present on steep slopes and ridges. You will get to know some of these steep slopes as you descend into the Umkomaas Valley. Some of the best examples of these grasslands and forests are found on Days 1 and 2, especially as you reach the BirdLife Sisonke water table at Belmont. The forests are home to the enigmatic Cape Parrot which you may hear squawking in the canopy as it feeds. The Cape Parrot is only found in South Africa in these mistbelt forests. When you leave the BirdLife Sisonke water table, you enter one-of-a-kind grasslands that are home to a very special bird, the Blue Swallow. Only 40 pairs remain in South Africa and you are now riding through an area where this little migrant arrives to breed each year. It is a small, metallic-blue bird with long tail streamers and it is an extreme athlete, flying over 3 000 km in the summer to breed in a hole in the ground. But what makes the holes in the ground here different from other holes in the ground? Well, it’s to do with the mist (it’s not called the mistbelt for nothing) and for some odd reason, Blue Swallows love mist. Unfortunately, so do plantations and much of the Blue Swallow’s habitat has been converted to forestry. The Blue Swallow is the focus of a project by BirdLife South Africa’s IBA Team which is working with farmers to secure the last patches of grassland where the species occurs.
To the sea!
The last leg of your journey crosses a range of habitat types including thickets, riverine vegetation along the Umkomaas valley, bushveld, coastal grasslands, and of course your destination, the sea. The habitat diversity as you travel down to the sea makes the race unique and it showcases the beauty of this province but habitat diversity is also what makes any bird (and birder) excited. The spectacular Narina Trogon (Trust me, just Google it.) can be found along the Umkomaas River, while you may happen across Southern Ground Hornbill in the communal areas around Jolivet and Highflats. These large black hornbills, with their distinctive red wattles and facial skin, are the largest of their kind and they live in family groups. As their name suggests, they stride through grasslands and open savannah in search of food such as snakes and insects. They are also happy around people and may be seen striding between huts as people go about their daily business. People hold them in high regard and killing the species is taboo due to its association with rain. As you enter the coastal plain, the grasslands at Vernon Crookes Nature Reserve are some of the last of their kind and they support a range of species you won’t find in the grasslands further inland. Appreciate this paradise, it’s one of the last! And as your epic journey comes to an end at Scottburgh, where Sanderlings (a 50 gram migrant that makes its way here each summer from the Arctic circle!) play and forage in the receding surf, take a moment to appreciate the fragile ecosystems you rode through and the crucial role farmers, communities and conservationists play in conserving these significant sites that help make the Sani2c so unique and beautiful.
To read more about the IBAs found along the Sani2c route visit:
https://www.birdlife.org.za/conservation/important-bird-areas/iba-directory/item/205-sa064-maloti-drakensberg-park https://www.birdlife.org.za/conservation/important-bird-areas/iba-directory/item/219-sa078-kwazulu-natal-mistbelt-grasslands https://www.birdlife.org.za/conservation/important-bird-areas/iba-directory/item/212-sa071-kwazulu-natal-mistbelt-forests
To read more about our work to conserve Blue Swallows visit: