The Drakensberg (Afrikaans: Drakensberge “Dragon Mountains”; Zulu: uKhahlamba “Barrier of Spears”; Sotho: Maluti) is the highest mountain range in Southern Africa, rising to 3,482 metres (11,424 ft) in height. Its geological history lends it a distinctive character amongst the mountain ranges of the world. Geologically, the range resembles the Simien Mountains of Ethiopia. The Drakensberg mountains cover Eastern Cape, KwaZulu Natal, Lesotho, Swaziland, Mpumalanga and end in Tzaneen in Limpopo Province.
During the Pre-Cambrian Era, volcanic eruptions in the area resulted in lava covering large sections of the Southern African sub-continent. In the Palaeozoic Era, wind and water deposited thick layers of shale, mudstone and sandstone, now known as the Karoo Supergroup, over the ancient primary rock. When Gondwanaland began to break up 200 million years ago, the resultant forces caused the extrusion of magma, known as Drakensberg lava, through fissures and cracks in the Earth’s surface. In the Drakensberg region it capped the sedimentary rock formations with layers of solid basalt up to 1400 m thick. Weathering reduced the range’s size, and caused the plateau to recede. In modern times, continued erosion has exposed some of the underlying sediment.
The mountains are capped by a layer of basalt approximately 1,400 meters thick, with sandstone lower down, resulting in a combination of steep-sided blocks and pinnacles.
The majority of the range is basalt, as a result of continental upheaval and volcanic activity in the Pre-Cambrian era. Many of the lava flows are characterised by amygdaloidal zones. Many of the primary minerals within the basalts have been subjected to varying degrees of deuteric alteration which has led to the formation of clay, as well as chlorite and zeolite to a lesser extent. Some interstitial glass has also broken down to form clay. These secondary minerals, together with zeolites which occur notably as amygdaloidal fillings, mean that many of the basalts break down rapidly on exposure. The breakdown results from the expansion which occurs when the clay minerals swell on absorption of water.
The highest peak is Thabana Ntlenyana, at 3,482 metres (11,424 ft). Other notable peaks include Mafadi (3,450 m or 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.
The high treeless peaks of the Drakensberg (from 2,500 m 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 metres. 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 altitudes, which experience snowfall in winter.
Meanwhile the grassy lower slopes (from 1,800 to 2,500 m) of the Drakensberg in Swaziland, South Africa and Lesotho constitute the Drakensberg Montane Grassland, Woodland, and Forest.
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.
The Drakenberg area is “home to 299 recorded bird species”‘ making up “37% of all non-marine avian species in southern Africa.”
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 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), Re-edbuck (Redunca arundinum), Mountain Re-edbuck (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).
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 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.
The Maloti-Drakensberg Transfrontier Conservation Area was established to preserve some of the high mountain areas of the range.
Towns and cities in the Drakensberg area include: in KwaZulu-Natal South Africa; Ladysmith, the city of Newcastle, the former Zulu capital Ulundi, the coal-mining centre Dundee and Ixopo; and further south Matatiele and Barkly East in Eastern Cape Province, Tzaneen in Limpopo Province, plus all of Lesotho, whose capital is Maseru. The hilly landscape extends north from the Drakensberg as Swaziland, whose capital is Mbabane.
Bushmen Cave Paintings
Caves are frequent in the more easily eroded sandstone, and many have rock paintings by the Bushmen. The Drakensberg has between 35000 and 40000 works of bushmen art and is the largest collection of such work in the world. Some 20,000 individual rock paintings have been recorded at 500 different caves and overhanging sites between the Drakensberg Royal Natal National Park and Bushman’s Neck. Due to the materials used in their production, these paintings are difficult to date, but there is anthropological evidence, including many hunting implements, that the bushmen people existed in the Drakensberg at least 40,000 years ago, and possibly over 100,000 years ago. According to drakensbergmountains.co.za, “in Ndedema Gorge in the Central Drakensberg 3,900 paintings have been recorded at 17 sites. One of them, Sebaayeni Cave, contains 1 146 individual paintings.” Southafrica.info indicates that though “the oldest painting on a rock shelter wall in the Drakensberg dates back about 2400 years”, “paint chips at least a thousand years older have also been found.” The site also indicates that “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.”