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Drakensberg Mountains, South Africa


Stand by the edge of the 850-metre cliffs of the amphitheatre of the uKhahlamba-Drakensberg Park and you will be dwarfed. The cliffs are a massive horseshoe of rock, often filled with swirling clouds that appear to change their mood as you watch. Sometimes they fill the basin, making the view of a few seconds ago seem like a mirage. At other times they just disappear, revealing the valley below.


The cliffs of the amphitheatre drop vertically down to a green valley I and offer commanding views of the Devil's Tooth rock formation. Part of the way along the upper rim of the amphitheatre the 'bridal veil' Tugela Falls spills 850 metres over the edge to form the source of the Tugela River.


Drakensberg is Afrikaans for 'dragon mountain' and uKhahlamba is Zulu for 'barrier of spears' - fitting names for the 320 km escarpment of harsh and jutting rock that forms the border between Lesotho and the Republic of South Africa. At the top of the escarpment is a tableland plateau. In Lesotho, the 'Kingdom of the Sky', this is a unique and fragile habitat for wildlife and many rare plant species. In the beautiful alpine landscape of mountain streams and lush grasses are small wild flowers that have adapted to the climate, which can turn from fine and bright to cold and stormy in minutes. In fact, the plateau·s great height means that the temperature there can be freezing while the parklands at the bottom can be warm and sunny.


The best way to reach the plateau is to drive to the Golden Gate Highlands National Park [a park within the Drakensberg areal. From here there are two ways to reach the top of the escarpment: a two- to three-hour hike up a steep trail, or a climb up a notorious chain ladder. Whichever route you choose, it is wise to make a very early start as mists often sweep in during the Late morning and can completely obscure the view.


Tucked away in numerous caves around the Drakensberg are some of the finest examples of rock art in Africa. In the Drakensberg area alone there are hundreds of sites with thousands of rock paintings. They were painted by the San people who used to roam over much of southern Africa but are now confined to a few pockets around the Kalahari Desert in Botswana. Diminutive in stature, they are often (erroneously) known as the Bushmen of the Kalahari. Their rock paintings, which are usually found in shelters or overhangs, record the life and history of the San people but, more importantly, are thought to have a spiritual significance as openings to the spirit world. The oldest paintings are about 25,000 years old and the most recent may be just 200 years old. Pigments were ground from iron oxides for the reds and yellows, manganese oxide or burnt bone for black and fine clay for white. The artists often painted over earlier images or added to existing ones.


A variety of terrains in the park are worth exploring, and you could also visit the Cathedral Peak and the Giant's Castle, the latter involving a five-day trek along the escarpment, or a day's drive.


The Drakensberg escarpment is about two hours drive from Pietermaritzburg and a scenic five hours' drive from Johannesburg. The various locations and lodges along the escarpment are relatively close to one another as the crow flies but you should use the main roads. Do not be tempted to use more direct routes as these are rougher, carry very little traffic and have no services. The parks are administered by KwaZulu-Natal Wildlife, which runs a number of lodges and camps that make access to the various sections of the park easy. Getting to the top of the uKhahlamba escarpment involves an arduous hike from the Golden Gate Highlands National Park. You should make a very early start to avoid the late morning mists that often obscure the views.

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