Drakensberg: Exploring the barrier of spears

2013-07-29 08:08
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Drakensberg: Barrier of spears

Scott Ramsay captures the beautiful scenery of the northern Drakensberg as part of his Year in the Wild 2013 adventures.

“Mountains are the beginning and end of all natural scenery,” once wrote philosopher John Ruskin, and for many visitors the northern Drakensberg is among the most beautiful – and adventurous - of the country’s wild wonders.

The local Zulu people call these basalt peaks uKhahlamba, which means “Barrier of Spears”, an appropriate moniker for the rugged escarpment which reaches over 3 000 metres high and stretches more than 200 kilometres in a crescent shape along the border of Lesotho and South Africa.

The Drakensberg is protected by provincial authority KZN Wildlife, and is a World Heritage Site, one of only a few worldwide that were proclaimed for both cultural and natural reasons.

Besides being superbly photogenic, these mountains contain a high diversity of plants and are also home to the largest and most concentrated number of rock paintings south of the Sahara.

There are more than 30 000 individual figures painted on about 600 caves and shelters.

Visitors to the northern Drakensberg should visit both the self-catering Thendele Camp in Royal Natal National Park in the far north, and Didima Camp in the Cathedral Peak area just to the south.

These make ideal weekend getaways for Joburgers or Durbanites.

Royal Natal National Park is not actually national park, but takes its name from the days of an independent Natal, as well as a visit from the British royal family in 1947.

Nevertheless, it probably should be a national park, because Thendele Camp offers one of the finest views in the country. The 4 kilometre-long basalt Amphitheatre stands several hundred metres high, lording over the Thukela Gorge. At the western end is Sentinel Peak, reaching to 3 165 metres, while the Eastern Buttress stands 3 047 metres high.

You can lie in your bed at Thendele and gaze all day at the changing light on the basalt cliffs, watching clouds come and go, but this is hiking country. The day walk up the gorge is one of the finest in South Africa.

The hike up from Thendele to the top of the gorge near the base of the falls takes about four hours, and is not overly strenuous if you walk slowly. During the rainy summer, the Thukela River tumbles 614 metres over the Amphitheatre, forming one of the highest cascading waterfalls in the world (during the dry winter, the falls are just a trickle).

Royal Natal is also the only place in the Drakensberg’s protected area that offers horse rides, from 30 minutes to 6 hours for both children and adults.

If you’re interested in rock art, then take the excellent guided tour to Sigubudu Shelter, a 20-minute walk near the entrance to Thendele. Here you will see several exquisitely painted eland antelope in good condition. Call guides Mathiba Mncube on 072-975-6539 or Elijah Mbonane on 073-137-4690.

To the south of the Amphitheatre is the unmistakable silhouette of Cathedral Peak, flanked by the Inner and Outer Horns. For me, this is typical Drakensberg terrain.

Like Royal Natal, the Cathedral Peak area is a magnet for walkers or weekenders who want to escape the smog of the city and savour the sweet air of high elevations.

Although the hotel of the same name is famous for it’s photogenic location and hospitality, the semi-luxury Didima Camp managed by Ezemvelo arguably has better views.

There are numerous walks for both the lazy and fit hiker. The former should try the 11-kilometre Rainbow Gorge, which takes about 4 hours, and is easy enough for small children.

The latter should hike the top of the 3 004-metre Cathedral Peak itself. It’s a classic 9-hour day-hike, but remember to leave at sunrise, take plenty of food, drink and warm clothing, and your cellphone in case of emergency (there is reception almost all the way along the trail).

The last hour involves steep scrambling up a loose rocky slope, so you can stop just below the top and enjoy your packed lunch, while gazing at the panoramic views of the basalt cliffs, all the way to Cathkin Peak in the south-west.

If you want to spoil a loved one, then fly to the top with Westline Aviation (tel 036-488-2055), which has a helicopter based at Cathedral Peak Hotel. Prices start at about R800 per person for a 20-minute flight.

Save some energy for visiting the special rock art sites in the Didima Valley, where thousands of Bushmen paintings adorn several hundred caves and shelters. This is one of the most important rock art areas in the world, and you have to be guided by an accredited guide. Ask at Didima Camp’s reception for a guide.

On my recent visit to the Didima valley, I was guided by Wiseman Mdluli (cell number 076-089-4307) to one of the most special of all shelters, where more than 1 600 individual paintings adorn the sandstone walls.

Like the other Drakensberg paintings, these artworks are several millennia old, some dating back 8 000 years. To me, their paintings are more impressive than any Renaissance masterwork in a European gallery.

It was here in the Didima Valley too that in 1926 a farmer found an intact Bushmen hunting kit, including several arrows with poison encrusted on their tips. Of course, the Bushmen of these mountains no longer occur. These original inhabitants of Southern Africa were either amalgamated into the local Zulus, or exterminated or pushed out by colonial powers.

You can also visit the Didima Rock Art Centre, which gives an excellent introduction to Bushmen art in the Drakensberg.

Contact www.kznwildlife.com to book, or call Thendele Camp, Royal Natal National Park on tel 036-438-6411, or Didima Camp, Cathedral Peak on tel 036-488-8000.


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