Drakensberg: barrier of spears

The uKhahlamba Drakensberg Park has outstanding natural beauty, Africa’s highest mountain range south of Kilimanjaro, a fascinating and ancient geology, some of the rarest animals in the world – and the largest, richest and most concentrated series of rock art in Africa.

The uKhahlamba Drakensberg Park In 2000 it became the fourth site in South Africa to be granted World Heritage status by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (Unesco).

World Heritage in South Africa

Did you know that Table Mountain has more plant species than the British Isles? Or that the Vredefort Dome is the world’s largest and oldest meteor impact crater? SA is home to seven Unesco World Heritage sites, places of “outstanding value to humanity”.

Internationally, there are 812 World Heritage sites, in 137 countries. Africa has 65 sites and South Africa a total of seven. Three of these are cultural sites and three natural. The Drakensberg, because of its remarkable geology and unmatched wealth of San rock art, is a mixed cultural and natural World Heritage site.

The uKhahlamba Drakensberg Park lies in the west of KwaZulu-Natal on the Lesotho border. It is 243 000 hectares in size, stretching 150 kilometres from Royal Natal National Park in the north to Cobham Forest Station in the south.

Both the Zulu name uKhahlamba – barrier of spears – and the Afrikaans name Drakensberg – dragon mountains – fit the formidable horizon created by the range.

A massive basaltic cap set on a broad base of sedimentary rocks belonging to the Stormberg series of 150-million years ago, the mountains are South Africa’s main watershed.

For more than 4 000 years they were home to the indigenous San people, who created a vast body of rock art – the largest and most concentrated collection in Africa. There are some 600 sites and 35 000 individual images in the Drakensberg.

In describing the park’s natural heritage, Unesco notes its “exceptional natural beauty in its soaring basaltic buttresses, incisive dramatic cutbacks and golden sandstone ramparts. Rolling high altitude grasslands, the pristine steep-sided river valleys and rocky gorges also contribute to the beauty of the site.”

The giant lizard

The ox-wagons of Boer settlers had to negotiate the Drakensberg’s steep passes in 1837 during the Great Trek from the Cape Colony. The apocryphal tale goes that, 40 years later, the name Drakensberg was coined when a Boer father and son reported seeing a dragon, a giant lizard with wings and a tail, flying above the cloud-covered mountain peaks.

Tugela Falls, the second-highest waterfall in the world

The Tugela Falls in the Drakensberg is the second-highest waterfall in the world, with a total drop of 947 metres (Photo: John Hone, Art Publishers)

From the massive basalt cliffs of its northern reaches to the soaring sandstone buttresses in the south, the range is the highest in Africa south of Kilimanjaro. It is home to the world’s second-highest waterfall, the Tugela Falls, with a total drop of 947 metres. They are easily viewed after a heavy rain from the main road into the park. (The highest waterfall in the world is the 979-metre Salto Angel in Venezuela.)

The Drakensberg’s natural and cultural wealth has made it one of South Africa’s top tourist destinations. Accommodation caters for all tastes and budgets, from luxury resorts and hotels to guest-houses, bed-and-breakfast establishments, caravan parks and cabins.

Huts and listed caves are available for those who prefer to hike the mountains. Thousands of trails are marked across the Drakensberg, from short ambles through indigenous fern forests to more strenuous expeditions through the mountains’ hills and passes.

The park offers four golf courses, as well as horse trails, scenic self-drives, trout streams for fishing, and mountain climbing and abseiling activities.

Ancient rock art heritage

The uKhahlamba-Drakensberg Park is also a monument to the San hunter-gatherers, who lived there from the Stone Age until the late 19th century – a 4 000-year occupation.

Rock art in the Drakensberg

San artists used red, orange, yellow, black and white, derived from mixing clay, burnt wood and ochre oxides (Photo: South African Tourism)

Living in the sandstone caves and rock shelters of the Drakensberg’s valleys, the San made paintings that Unesco describes as “world famous and widely considered one of the supreme achievements of humankind . outstanding in quality and diversity of subject and in their depiction of animals and human beings . which throws much light on their way of life and their beliefs.

“The rock art of the Drakensberg is the largest and most concentrated group of rock paintings in Africa south of the Sahara, and is outstanding both in quality and diversity of subject.”

Originally roaming freely throughout southern Africa, the San were forced to take refuge in the mountains with the 13th-century migration of Bantu-speaking people into the region and, later, European colonisation. San culture disappeared from the Drakensberg at the end of the 19th century.

The artists used red, orange, yellow, black and white, derived from mixing clay, burnt wood and ochre oxides. The paintings have a documentary aspect, showing the San interacting with one other and their environment. Hunting scenes are common. The subject-matter changed with the arrival of the settlers from the north and the colonisers from Europe.

The oldest painting on a rock shelter wall in the Drakensberg dates back about 2 400 years, but paint chips at least a thousand years older have also been found.

Rich natural heritage

“Rolling high altitude grasslands, the pristine steep-sided river valleys and rocky gorges contribute to the beauty of the site,” Unesco writes of the Drakensberg. “The site’s diversity of habitats protects a high level of endemic and globally threatened species, especially birds and plants.”

Protea nubigena

Protea nubigena is found nowhere on earth except on a high ridge in the Royal Natal section of the Drakensberg (Photo: Ruhr University)

Of the 2 153 plant species in the park, a remarkable 98 are endemic or near-endemic. These include the extremely rare Protea nubigena, a plant found nowhere on earth except on a high ridge in the Royal Natal section of the park.

Part of the reason for the Drakensberg’s rich biodiversity is its exremes of altitude, from 1 000 metres above sea level to 3 500 metres. It is home to aquatic, forest, scrub, fynbos, savannah, mountain grassland and heath plant families, including a large number of species listed in the Red Data Book of threatened plants, with 119 species listed as globally endangered.

For the birds

The park is also home to 299 recorded bird species – an astonishing 37% of all non-marine avian species in southern Africa. Ten of the park’s bird species are listed as important to world conservation. These include the globally endangered Cape parrot and white-winged flufftail, and the globally threatened corncrake, lesser kestral and yellow-breasted pipit. The blue crane, Cape vulture and bald ibis are counted as globally vulnerable, while the pallid harrier and black harrier are on the near-threatened list.

Among the park’s 48 species of mammal are the threatened eland and endemic grey rhebuck, which each currently number around 2 000 – the highest population nationally. Its colonies of clawless and spotted neck otters are also the largest in South Africa.

An ancient geology

The imposing Drakensberg escarpment is the product of millions of years of sculpting by the elements, with its foundations formed over billions of years.

A satellite image of the most elevated stretch of the Drakensberg

A satellite image of the most elevated stretch of the Drakensberg, composed of severely eroded basalt capping a sandstone base (Photo: Radar Remote Sensing Group, University of Cape Town)

Eons ago, the place was an enormous inland lake, lying on the ancient supercontinent of Gondwanaland. Sediments carried into the lake were deposited on granite foundations, which formed almost three billion years ago. Today, in areas such as Wit Umfolozi, Old Baldy in the Valley of a Thousand Hills, and Kloof Gorge, small portions of these grandfather granites are exposed and visible.

The sediments of mud and sand were deposited for millions of years into the vast central swamp, home to dinosaurs. Compacted by the immense pressure of the overlying layers, they built up about 490 million years ago. Today the resultant sandstone can be seen in the typical table-top shapes of the Valley of a Thousand Hills and Oribi Gorge.

The next layer of sediments deposited over the Beaufort sandstones built up the blue and grey Molteno and red Elliot formations about 200 million years ago. These form the small cliffs in the Drakensberg foothills. The layer is easily recognised from the tiny quartz crystals that make it sparkle in the sun. Millennia later, the San used the even Molteno layers as a canvas for their art.

Some 160 million years ago, enormous internal pressures caused the supercontinent of Gondwanaland to crack and drift apart, forming the different continents we have today. Enormous cracks in the crust of the African continent caused massive lava flows, which were to create the Drakensberg.

The thick lavas flowed and cooled, flowed and cooled, adding up to 50 metres of lava at a time. Over 20-million years these flows built up a deposit of basaltic rock over 1.5 kilometres thick in some places, covering an area from Lesotho to most of KwaZulu-Natal and as far as Mozambique and the Indian Ocean.

The lava stopped flowing about 140-million years ago. Since then, erosion has been the dominant force in the mountains, forming the imposing peaks and steep-sided valleys we know today.

Through the centuries, the slow build-up of soil on the steep slopes has provided a base for vegetation, food for the vast herds of game that once roamed the grasslands.

SAinfo reporter

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