After all the hiking of the past few days, it was great to drive up Mike’s Pass, a 4×4 track that winds its way up from Didima Camp to the top of the sandstone ridges. For those of you who are allergic to hiking boots (we all are, sometimes!), then this drive of a few kilometres is a great way to see some of the best scenery in the northern Drakensberg.
Anyone with a 4×4 or vehicle with diff-lock can drive it, and you can get a permit from the Didima camp reception. At the top are panoramic views of Cathkin Peak, Cathedral Peak and the Inner and Outer Horns, joined together by the phalanx of basalt cliffs. It really is a special sight.
It was built in 1938 by a team led, unsurprisingly, by research officer Mike de Villiers, who was appointed by the government to figure out whether exotic trees which had been planted in the mountains were causing rivers to run dry.
Today, this seems logical, but back then, little was known about the dangers of exotic vegetation. Mike and his team monitored several different sites, one of which remained grassland, while the others were planted with pines. The results were conclusive, and proved that exotic trees are genuinely thirsty bastards, and their presence can literally dry out rivers.
The grassland was proven to be a major source of fresh water, and today we know that the Drakensberg and its grasslands supply 30% of all South Africa’s fresh water. They act as marshes and sponges, absorbing water during the rainy season, and releasing it slowly throughout the year, ensuring a constant supply of water.
After Mike’s Pass, we visited the Didima Rock Art Centre, which provides a decent introduction to the incredible rock art of the Drakensberg and especially the Didima Valley area, where there are more than 100 sandstone shelters, containing thousands of rock paintings. Although visiting the centre is obviously not as impressive as actually standing in one of these shelters gazing at real art, the information does contextualize Bushman rock art very well.
The most important conclusion by experts such as David Lewis-Williams and Patricia Vinnicombe is that Bushman paintings are highly symbolic, and not literal depictions of everyday life. Instead, the paintings are metaphorical and full of hidden meaning, and probably highly “spiritual”. How else to explain the many strange figures and shapes, some of which are half-man, half-animal? Or the overwhelming number of paintings of the eland antelope, no two of which are exactly the same? (The eland was considered a particularly spiritual animal to the mountain Bushmen).
The Didima Valley itself is probably one of the last places where Mountain Bushmen lived. Today of course they no longer occur as a distinct people, and the remaining Bushmen of southern Africa live only in the Kgalagadi desert, and are probably very different in many ways anyway from the Bushmen who once lived in the Drakensberg.
For this reason Didima is a particularly poignant place. Several times now I have visited this forested valley of sandstone cliffs and sparkling rivers, and every time I am moved; maybe it’s the thin air and the virginal atmosphere of an untouched land, but I seem to sense an ancient spirit. It’s one of South Africa’s most important and special wild places.
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Conservation partners BirdLife South Africa, Botswana Department of Wildlife and National Parks, CapeNature, Eastern Cape Parks and Tourism, Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife, Gorongosa National Park, iSimangaliso Wetland Park, Namibia Wildlife Resorts, Parque Nacional do Limpopo, South African National Parks and Zimbabwe Parks and Wildlife Management Authority.