The Drakensberg Mountains had their onqm some 200 million years. ago when a vast landmass known as Gondwanaland existed. Through aeons of time, water streaming down from higher ground collected and formed a huge swamp where dinosaurs and other prehistoric creatures roamed. Then came a time of extreme aridity, dust storms and deserts, killing off all that had lived in these steaming swamplands.
About 160 million years ago Gondwana land ceased to exist – rent asunder by catastrophic eruptions: molten lava poured from fissures and across the wastelands to a height of 1500m and. gradually cooled. Then yet another cataclysm occurred and the continents of Africa, South America, Australia and Antarctica were created. In Africa, climate and erosion took its toll and about 145 million years of weathering has formed the Drakensberg of today. The Molteno and Red bed layers – the, bottom of the original swamp and the sands of the Desert era can be seen in many of the ‘Berg’s’ rock faces – together with the hard volcanic basalt on top.
Climate and Vegetation
The climate of the Drakensberg is predominantly one of warm to hot summer days with fairly regular afternoon thunderstorms and cool nights. Also spells of mist and drizzle can be experienced. Winter days are mainly mild to warm and dry, except during an occasional passing cold front which often brings snow to the peaks. Nights can be cold to very cold with frost.
Altitude and topography, together with changing pressure systems over the sub-continent play a significant climatic role. The high altitude of the Drakensberg areas (1 500 – 3 OOOm) will determine the lower temperatures and humidity – in comparison to those of the coastal plains.
Height and relative position influence vegetation. At higher levels there are heaths and grasses – whilst in the valleys and lower foothills one sees dense indigenous forests and grasslands. South facing slopes by limiting sunshine enable moisture to be retained, thus producing greater and lush plant growth.
A chain of nature reserves with camps and resort hotels run along the escarpment, the south• western boundary of the region which extends from the Royal Natal National Park in the north to Giants Castle in the South.
Bushman Rock Art
The Bushman (San) inhabited southern Africa for thousands of years before the settlers from Europe arrived. Archaeological research in Natal and particularly the Thukela Basin during the last few years has given new insights into their way of life. The men hunted with bone or stone tipped poisoned arrows and they also trapped wild game and caught fish in the rivers. The women collected wild plant foods, especially berries, in the wooded areas and bulbs in the grasslands towards the Drakensberg.
They lived in small groups of a few dozen people and were nomadic, moving seasonally from place to place around the group’s territory, taking advantage of different food resources. They lived in caves and rock overhangs where these were available, for example among the sandstone outcrops of the Biggarsberg and Drakensberg Cave Sandstone. In the more open country they probably built temporary huts of branches and thatch, like those made by the surviving Kalahari Bushman today.
The Natal Drakensberg has long been famous for the wealth of rock paintings that can still be seen in caves that the San occupied. The tradition of painting is an ancient one in southern Africa, extending back as far as 27000 years. Most of the Natal art is much younger and the latest style, which includes figures of horses and white settlers, dates between about 1830 and 1870. The fine shaded polychrome figures of eland and other buck, which are such a feature of the Drakensberg art, are somewhat older but not yet precisely dated.
Recent research has shown that, far from just illustrating scenes of everyday life, the paintings reflect the religious beliefs of these hunter-gatherer people. Central to their religion was the performance of music and dance ceremonies during which certain gifted individuals were able to attain the altered state of consciousness called trance. They believed that these individuals (shaman or medicine men and women) could, during a trance, intercede with the spiritual world to heal the sick, bring rain and hunting success as well as communicate with far away people. They believed that the eland and certain other animals held a mystical power, which the shaman needed to achieve trance. So the paintings of eland, for example, reflect the religious importance of this animal not its potential as a source of meat.
The hunter-gatherer way of life in the Thukela Basin was first challenged by the arrival of the first black farming communities, with their iron technology, about 1 500 years ago. These people chose to settle in bush veld country in the lower valleys and along the coast. They interacted peacefully with the hunter-gatherers, setting up an active trade with them. This can be reconstructed from the ostrich eggshell beads, stone tools and bone arrowheads found on the sites of these early farmers’ villages, as well as the iron tools found traded to rock shelters in the higher lying areas of the Basin.
As the farming communities expanded into the grassland areas of the Basin, from about 1200 AD, less and less space remained for the hunter-gatherer way of life. However, Bushman groups along the Drakensberg escarpment and foothills retained a cultural and social identity separate from the Black farmers down to the nineteenth century when expansion of White colonial settlements brought inevitable conflict. A bitter struggle developed between the Bushman and the settlers from the 1840s to the 1860s ending in the extinction of the last hunter-gatherer groups in Natal.
Today we can still get a glimpse of this long-lost way of life by visiting one of the caves with well-preserved paintings. One of the best and most accessible is the superb Main Caves in Giant’s Castle – where there are 546 paintings. Another cave in the area, Battle Cave, has
750 paintings. The life-size Bushman display at the Main Caves is of particular interest. Two other areas of particular interest for rock art enthusiasts are Kamberg Nature reserve, and Didima gorge. These sites have active interpretive centres and are well worth a visit. All rock art is protected by the National Monuments Council Act.
The Drakensberg Boys Choir School
The hills around Winterton are truly ‘alive with the sound of music’. On a farm close to the little town, the Drakensberg Boys Choir School provides a comprehensive combination of musical and academic education for boys between the ages of nine and fifteen of all racial and cultural backgrounds. The school has been in existence for 25 years and is the only school in Africa to offer this curriculum. Its mission is to prepare its pupils for life and leadership through excellent musical and academic education. Few schools rival the success of the Drakensberg Boys Choir. The International Choir has toured extensively, establishing an enviable reputation before audiences in the United States, Europe, Israel and the Far East. It is also proud to have been the first South African group to perform behind the Iron Curtain.
When the choirs are not otherwise engaged, visitors to the Drakensberg are able to enjoy concerts on Wednesdays and Saturdays.
The Thukela River is the principal river of KwaZulu-Natal. Its meandering journey to the sea begins close to the summit of Mont-aux-Sources, named ‘mount of sources’ by the early missionaries because of the many rivers that begin life there.
Known to the Zulu as Thukela – “something that startles” – the infant river flows to the edge of the Amphitheatre and then plunges 948m in five vertical drops to the gorge below, making it the highest waterfall in South Africa and the second highest in the world. The total drop of the Angel Falls in Venezuela is 979m. In winter the top part of the waterfall freezes over into jagged pinnacles of ice.
Through the millennia, the river has carved through the mountain to create a spectacular scene with the Amphitheatre as a dramatic backdrop. Due to the high rainfall the flora is lush with many trees, plants and grasses. Continuing between the vertical sandstone· cliffs of a majestic gorge, the river gradually widens and grows as other streams and tributaries on its 322km march to the Indian Ocean join it.
The Thukela River marks the end of the north coast of Natal, with KwaZulu on its northern side. It is spanned by a 450m long bridge named after John Ross, a 15 year old boy who in 1827 walked the 900km return journey from Durban to Lourenco Marques to obtain medicines needed by traders and hunters. The round trip took 40 days.
At the lower Thukela Drift is Fort Pearson, built in 1878 by the British when they were preparing for the invasion of Zululand. It was named after Col. Pearson, commander of the invasion force that had to cross the Thukela at this point.
One and a half kilometre from the fort is a wild fig tree known as the Ultimatum Tree under which the British presented an ultimatum to a Zulu delegation on 11 December 1878. The terms of this ultimatum made the Anglo-Zulu War inevitable.
Fort Tenedos is and was built in 1879 on the left bank of the Thukela River, opposite Fort Pearson. These forts guarded the Pont over the river and are situated in a historic neighbourhood. It was here that in 1838 Robert Biggar, Cane and Stubbs with 1500 Bantu volunteers were almost annihilated by Zulu impis when they tried to go to the aid of the Voortrekkers after the death of Piet Retief alJ.djhe murders at the Bloukrans River.
The great battle of Ndondakusuka took place in this area between Cetshwayo and his brother Mbulazi in 1856.
Tugela-Vaal Drakensberg Hydro-Electric Power Scheme
The Drakensberg is home to a fascinating engineering achievement, which has resulted in successful use of its surplus water resources to the benefit of the country as a whole. The Vaal River, which supplies water to the industrial and populous heart of South Africa on the Witwatersrand, is under constant pressure to supply in this ever-increasing demand.
With an inadequate supply of water in the Vaal, additional resources were needed which lead to the Tugela-Vaal scheme. Water is pumped through various phases and channelled from the Spioenkop dam via the Woodstock dam to the Kilburn dam. From here the water is raised 500m over the escarpment from where it flows into the Driekloof dam. From there the water flows naturally into the Sterkfontein Dam and into the Vaal system via the Nuwejaarspruit. This water increases the reliable yield of the Vaal system by about 800million m3 per annum. This extra supply of water allows the Department of water affairs to operate the dams on the Vaal system at much lower levels. Evaporation loss is thus reduced, as the dams in the Vaal system are fairly shallow with large surface areas, and also leaves room for possible summer floods that would otherwise have run into the Atlantic.
The four pumps have a secondary function as hydro electrical generators. Water is pumped over the escarpment at periods of low electrical demand and thus utilises excess electricity supply, but during peak demand hours, water is released from the Driekloof dam back into the Kilburn dam through the same pumps that then generate hydro electricity. This happens at a rate of 312m3 per second. The change over takes place very rapidly whereas it takes a coal-powered station 8hrs to come into production.
The Lesotho Highland Water Scheme is another system to replenish the Vaal and make Lesotho self reliant with regard to its electricity needs.
The Lammergeyer (Bearded Vulture) a rare vulture-like eagle and a master glider; has almost disappeared with the advance of civilisation. It is fast becoming the rarest bird of prey, as there are less than a hundred breeding pairs left. Inconsistency between this sentence and the next one. They are also found in the Himalayas and in north Africa. The two hundred surviving pairs in South Africa are only found in the Natal Drakensberg and the neighbouring Lesotho, where there is a nesting pair approximately every 5km. The majestic Lammergeyer spends 90% of its daylight hours in the air and can cover up to 700km in a day. They eat mainly carrion, particularly bones which are dropped from a height until they are broken and the merrow is eaten. If the bones are too hard they are swallowed whole and digested. They also prey on mammals such as dassies (rock hyraxes).
The 8 OOOha at the foot of Mont-aux-Sources was proclaimed a national park in 1906 and in
1950 the 794ha Rugged Glen Nature Reserve was added to it. The ‘Royal’ part of the name was tacked on in 1947 when the British Royal family stayed there during their visit to South Africa. The Royal Natal National Park is one of the great scenic showpieces of southern Africa.
Accommodation in the park ranges from hotel to bungalows, caravan parks and camping grounds. Climbing in the area is challenging and the Sentinel and Devil’s Tooth are two complex climbs, while the main wall of the Amphitheatre and the Eastern Buttress have precipitous rock faces.