Drakensberg

The Drakensberg is the name given to the eastern portion of the Great Escarpment, which encloses the central Southern African plateau. The Great Escarpment reaches its greatest elevation in this region – 2,000 to 3,482 metres (6,562 to 11,424 feet). It is located in South Africa. The name by which it is now known is Drakens Mountain, or Mountain of the Dragons.

A map of South Africa showing the central plateau edged by the Great Escarpment and its relationship to the Cape Fold Mountains to the south. The portion of the Great Escarpment shown in red is known as the Drakensberg.

The Drakensberg escarpment stretches for over 1,000 kilometres (600 miles) from the Eastern Cape Province in the South, then successively forms, in order from south to north, the border between Lesotho and the Eastern Cape and the border between Lesotho and KwaZulu-Natal Province. Thereafter it forms the border between KwaZulu-Natal and the Free State, and next as the border between KwaZulu-Natal and Mpumalanga Province. It winds north, through Mpumalanga, where it includes features such as the Blyde River Canyon, Three Rondavels and God’s Window. It moves north again above Tzaneen in Limpopo Province, where it includes the Wolkberg Mountains and Iron Crown Mountain, at 2,200 m (7,200 ft) above sea level, the Wolkberg being the highest mountain range in Limpopo. It veers west again and at Mokopane it is known as the Strydpoort Mountains.

Highest peaks

The highest peak is Thabana Ntlenyana, at 3,482 m (11,424 ft). Other notable peaks include Mafadi (3,450 m (11,319 ft)), Makoaneng at 3,416 m, Njesuthi at 3,408 m, Champagne Castle at 3,377 m, Giant’s Castle at 3,315 m, Ben Macdhui at 3,001 m, and Popple Peak at 3331m, all of these are in the area bordering on Lesotho. Another popular area for hikers is Cathedral Peak. North of Lesotho the range becomes lower and less rugged until entering Mpumalanga where the quartzite mountains of the Transvaal Drakensberg are loftier and more broken and form the eastern rim of the Transvaal Basin, the Blyde River Canyon lying within this stretch. The geology of this section is the same as and continuous with that of the Magaliesberg.

Ecology

The high treeless peaks of the Drakensberg (from 2,500 m (8,200 ft) upwards) have been described by the World Wildlife Fund as the Drakensberg alti-montane grasslands and woodlands ecoregion. These steep slopes are the most southerly high mountains in Africa, and being further from the equator provide cooler habitats at lower elevations than most mountain ranges on the continent. The high rainfall generates many mountain streams and rivers, including the sources of the Orange River, southern Africa’s longest, and the Tugela River. These mountains also have the world’s second-highest waterfall, the Tugela Falls (Thukela Falls), which has a total drop of 947 m (3,107 ft). The rivers that run from the Drakensberg are an essential resource for South Africa’s economy, providing water for the industrial provinces of Mpumalanga and Gauteng, which contains the city of Johannesburg. The climate is wet and cool at the high elevations, which experience snowfall in winter.

Meanwhile, the grassy lower slopes (from 1,800 to 2,500 m (5,900 to 8,200 ft)) of the Drakensberg in Swaziland, South Africa and Lesotho constitute the Drakensberg Montane Grassland, Woodland, and Forest.

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Flora

The mountains are rich in plant life, including a large number of species listed in the Red Data Book of threatened plants, with 119 species listed as globally endangered and “of the 2 153 plant species in the park, a remarkable 98 are endemic or near-endemic”.

The flora of the high alti-montane grasslands is mainly tussock grass, creeping plants, and small shrubs such as ericas. These include the rare Spiral Aloe (Aloe polyphylla), which as its name suggests has leaves with a spiral shape.

Meanwhile, the lower slopes are mainly grassland but are also home to conifers, which are rare in Africa, the species of conifer found in the Drakensberg is Podocarpus. The grassland itself is of interest as it contains a great number of endemic plants. Grasses found here include oat grass Monocymbium ceresiiforme, Diheteropogon filifolius, Sporobolus centrifugus, caterpillar grass (Harpochloa falx), Cymbopogon dieterlenii, and Eulalia villosa.

Fauna

The Drakensberg area is “home to 299 recorded bird species”‘ making up “37% of all non-marine avian species in southern Africa.”

There are 24 species of snakes in the Drakensbergs 2 of which are highly venomous.

Fauna of the high peaks

There is one bird that is endemic to the high peaks, the mountain pipit (Anthus hoeschi), while another six are found mainly here: Bush blackcap (Lioptilus nigricapillus), buff-streaked chat (Oenanthe bifasciata), Rudd’s lark (Heteromirafra ruddi), Drakensberg rockjumper (Chaetops aurantius), yellow-breasted pipit (Anthus chloris), and Drakensberg siskin (Serinus symonsi). The endangered Cape vulture and lesser kestrel are two of the birds of prey that hunt in the mountains. Mammals include klipspringer (Oreotragus oreotragus), eland (Taurotragus oryx) and mountain reedbuck (Redunca fulvorufula). Other endemic species include three frogs found in the mountain streams, Drakensberg river frog, (Amietia dracomontana), Phofung river frog (Amietia vertebralis) and Maluti river frog (Amietia umbraculata). Fish are found in the many rivers and streams including the Maluti redfin (Pseudobarbus quathlambae), which was thought to be extinct but has been found in the Senqunyane River in Lesotho.

Fauna of the lower slopes

The lower slopes of the Drakensberg support much wildlife, perhaps most importantly the rare southern white rhinoceros (which was nurtured here when facing extinction) and the black wildebeest (Connochaetes gnou, which as of 2011 only thrives in protected areas and game reserves). The area is home to large herds of grazing and antelopes such as eland (Taurotragus oryx), reedbuck (Redunca arundinum), mountain reedbuck (Redunca fulvorufula), grey rhebok (Pelea capreolus), and even some oribi (Ourebia ourebi). Chacma baboons are also present. Endemic species include a large number of chameleons and other reptiles. There is one endemic frog, forest rain frog (Breviceps sylvestris), and four more that are found mainly in these mountains; long-toed tree frog (Leptopelis xenodactylus), plaintive rain frog (Breviceps maculatus), rough rain frog (Breviceps verrucosus), and Poynton’s caco (Cacosternum poyntoni).

Conservation

The high slopes are hard to reach so the environment is fairly undamaged. However, tourism in the Drakensberg is developing, with a variety of hiking trails, hotels and resorts appearing on the slopes. Most of the higher South African parts of the range have been designated as game reserves or wilderness areas. Of these the uKhahlamba Drakensberg Park was listed by UNESCO in 2000 as a World Heritage site. The park is also in the List of Wetlands of International Importance (under the Ramsar Convention). The Royal Natal National Park, which contains some of the higher peaks, is part of this large park complex. Adjacent to the Ukhahlamba Drakensberg World Heritage Site is the 1900 ha Allendale Mountain Reserve which is the largest private reserve adjoining the World Heritage Site and is found in the accessible Kamberg area, the heart of the historic San (Bushman) painting region of the Ukhahlamba.

The grassland of the lower slopes meanwhile has been greatly affected by agriculture, especially overgrazing. Original grassland and forest has nearly all disappeared and more protection is needed, though the Giant’s Castle reserve is a haven for the eland and also is a breeding ground for the bearded vulture.

San cave paintings

There are numerous caves in the easily eroded sandstone of Clarens Formation, the layer below the thick, hard basalt layer on the KwaZulu Natal-Lesotho border. Many of these caves have rock paintings by the San (Bushmen). This portion of the Drakensberg has between 35,000 and 40,000 works of San rock art and is the largest collection of such work in the world.

In popular culture

The Drakensberg was featured in the 2009 American science fiction film 2012. It was mentioned in the last scene of the movie, where after twenty-seven days of a great flood which people tried to survive by building arks, the waters began receding. The arks approach the Cape of Good Hope, where the Drakensberg (now the tallest mountain range on Earth) emerges.

Websitedrakensberg.org.za