Ukhahlamba is a stunningly beautiful 200 kilometre-long mountain reserve, a World Heritage Site and perhaps the finest of its kind in Southern Africa. Despite the popularity of its foothills as a holiday destination, much of the middle and upper reaches remain untrammelled and pristine. The most well-preserved and intricate examples of San rock art in South Africa decorate hundreds of caves and rock-faces. Icy cold in winter with heavy snow, the region transforms itself into an emerald blanket of mountain grasslands in summer when thunderstorms occur. Size: 243 000 hectares. Situated in the south-eastern interior of South Africa.
There's a great quote that goes something like this:
"These days, people know the price of everything, but the value of nothing."
From my point of view, I guess the quote highlights the commercial interests which seem to permeate everything in our lives. And I guess it's also relevant to the way modern humans - in general - see the natural world around us. Nature is seen as something to be exploited and sold for our own interests, forgetting that in fact we owe our very existence to the Earth and it's community of ten million species (of which we are just one).
Okay, enough serious talk. The quote is also very relevant to camera gear! Last year I invested in a Canon 1Dx DSLR camera, the top of the range camera whose price I prefer to forget, but whose value I am appreciating more Read more »
A week or so ago we visited Game Pass Shelter at Kamberg. Here's a little video report of mine in one of the most important rock art sites in the world - and why I think it's one of the "wildest" places I've visited. It's open to the public, and is just a 90-minute slow walk from Kamberg. I highly recommend it to everyone!
If you can't see the video, click here to view it.
For the past five days, I've been exploring the Mnweni area of the northern Drakensberg. The Mnweni is actually not part of the protected area of uKhahlamba-Drakensberg World Heritage Site; instead, it's tribal land belonging to the Amangwane people, lying between Royal Natal National Park and Cathedral Peak.
But Mnweni is certainly worthy of formal protection (should the communities desire this, of course). Many Drakensberg afficionados - the local photographers, hikers, climbers and researchers who know it best - consider the Mnweni to be the most photogenic and wildest part of South Africa's biggest mountains. It remains the least visited and least well-known part.
If you read the classic books - like Barrier of Spears by R.O. Pearse, or Encounters with the Dragon by John Hone, Read more »
I'm heading off tomorrow to Mnweni, between Royal Natal National Park and Cathedral Peak, to go hiking on the summits of the Berg for five days. The cold front has finally arrived here, and the temperatures have dropped dramatically. The warm winter weather has come to an end! I'm hoping for some dramatic skies for my photos at Mnweni.
Today we visited Kamberg's special rock art site, called Game Pass Shelter. This is one of the Drakensberg's most famous rock art sites, because it was here that rock art researcher David Lewis-Williams first confirmed his theory that Bushmen paintings are highly symbolic, and not just a depiction of everyday life. In fact, the paintings are considered religious in nature, or spiritual.
Among the many beautiful paintings at Game Pass Shelter (about Read more »
There are two things that every visitor should do at Giant's Castle camp in the Central Drakensberg. (Admiring the epic scenery is a given - like all parts of uKhahlamba-Drakensberg). The guided tour of Main Caves, with some very impressive rock paintings, is worth while, but what makes Giant's Castle exceptional is it's vulture hide.
The vulture hide is a few kilometres from camp, on top of a ridge of sandstone cliffs. It's perhaps one of the best wildlife viewing spots in the country, because it gives you one of the best chances in Africa to see the Bearded Vulture and the Cape Griffon Vulture.
The Bearded Vulture actually resembles an eagle more than a vulture, but no matter: they are very rare and very beautiful. Just 300 to 350 birds remain in the mountainous areas of Lesotho Read more »
From the relative luxury of Didima Camp, we made our way to the remote camp of Injisuthi in the central Drakensberg. This little camp is a favourite of ‘Berg locals, and tends to draw a mountain connoisseur crowd.
I love it, because although the cabins are simple and a bit run down, the emphasis is on the surrounding mountains, rather than the accommodation and services. Also, there is no electricity, and no cell phone reception, which in this day and age is a miracle and wonder, don't you think?
The first night we slept in our cabin at Injisuthi itself in comfy beds, and did a bit of much-needed laundry. But the next night we found ourselves sleeping in the middle of nowhere on a slab of stone alongside a river called Poacher’s Stream, a tributary of the Injisuthi River.
I had Read more »
After all the hiking of the past few days, it was great to drive up Mike’s Pass, a 4x4 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 4x4 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 Read more »
Although the Cathedral Peak area of the Drakensberg is very, very beautiful, it is probably more famous for it’s spectacular rock art paintings. The uKhahlamba-Drakensberg mountains are a world heritage site, both for it’s natural diversity and beauty, and also because it is home to one of the largest collections of rock art in the world.
There are more than 30 000 individual paintings in these mountains, across more than 600 sandstone shelters and caves. And the Didima valley in the Cathedral Peak area hosts the most concentrated collection of rock art in the Drakensberg. There are thousands of paintings in this one valley!
Visitors should definitely visit the Didima Rock Art Centre for an excellent introduction to rock art in southern Africa, and its meaning and importance. Most Read more »
From Royal Natal National Park in the furthest north of the Drakensberg mountains, the next stop to the south is Didima, also known as Cathedral Peak.
The Cathedral Peak area of uKhahlamba-Drakensberg World Heritage Site is as beautiful as Royal Natal (I think), with incredible views from the valley below.
This area is also home to some of the most impressive rock art in Southern Africa. And in the past few days, we’ve experienced the best of both scenery and rock paintings.
In terms of scenery, the 9 to 10-hour day hike to the top of Cathedral Peak itself is a rite of passage for Drakensberg visitors, and offers up some of the best views in these mountains.
I’ve always thought that the word “cathedral” is an apt term for the Drakensberg mountain chain, because of the huge Read more »
This morning I met up with conservation manager Stephen Richert, who manages the team at Royal Natal in uKhahlamba-Drakenbserg World Heritage site. I wanted to ask him which his favourite hikes were, because he knows this area better than anyone, having walked every single kilometre of about 350kms of hiking trails. His three favourite are Thukela Gorge, "Crack and Mud Slides" (which is just behind Thendele camp), and the Sentinel Peak walk.
I'd always heard about the walk to the top of Sentinel Peak. This is the huge buttress on the western side of the Amphitheatre. Although it's just a few kilometres from Thendele, to get to the start of the trail you have to drive for an hour-and-a-half round the back of the Amphitheatre, through the town of Phuthaditjhaba in the Free State Read more »
Well, today my legs were sore! I'm definitely not "hiking-fit", and after yesterday's hike up the Thukela Gorge, I was feeling a bit lazy this morning. But the view of the Amphitheatre from my cabin at Thendele camp inspired me to jump out of bed, and head to Sigubudu Shelter, one of the rock painting sites that are open to the public.
The uKhahlamba-Drakensberg mountains are a World Heritage Site, because they contain the greatest concentration of rock paintings in Africa, and perhaps the world; there are more than 40 000 paintings spread across 1 200 sites, caves and shelters. Some paintings date back 8 000 years, but most are between 4 000 and 1 000 years old. Who painted them? The Bushmen, or San people, who were the original inhabitants of Southern Africa, their heritage extending Read more »
The 14km walk up the Thukela Gorge is one of the most scenic in South Africa, that's for sure. (It used to be spelt Tugela, but that's the English corruption of the isiZulu spelling, which is Thukela).
Starting from Thendele Camp in Royal Natal National Park, you can easily spend a whole day walking the gorge. In fact, you MUST not rush this walk...it's like rushing through a really good piece of chocolate cake. Don't do it, I tell you, don't do it! Rather slow down, savour the experience, let your mind empty out and simply let yourself become one with the scene: the river, the forests, the grassy slopes, the sandstone cliffs of the lower Berg and the everpresent and unmissable Amphitheatre of basalt cliffs that lord over the entire wonderland from above.
In winter, the Thukela Read more »
I'm spending my first night of Year in the Wild 2013-14 in the Royal Natal National Park in uKhahlamba-Drakensberg World Heritage Site! I've got another 15 months of travel ahead of me, exploring about 50 of South Africa's most special protected areas, as well as the transfrontier parks on the borders of the country.
It's the middle of winter here, but it feels like summer! The Drakensberg mountains are often covered in snow at this time of year, but the sky is blue, the sun is out and the only indication of winter is the golden grass and the reduced flow of water in the rivers. (This part of the country has dry winters, and rain falls in summer).
The Royal Natal National Park isn't a national park, despite its name. It just one of several Read more »
I'm starting my next Year in the Wild on Monday! From next week until end of October 2014, I'll be exploring many of South Africa's protected areas.
On Monday I'll be heading into uKhahlamba-Drakensberg mountains in the middle of the southern hemisphere winter. The Zulu name uKhahlamba means "Barrier of Spears", while the Afrikaans name Drakensberg means "Dragon Mountains". Both are appropriate and evocative of the scenery.
I grew up in Cape Town, far from the 'Berg (as locals call it), so I never explored properly the province of KwaZulu-Natal where the largest and highest of South Africa's mountains are located. But when I did eventually first go, I was hooked, and have been back several times. Last year, I visited during summer, but now I can't wait to go back in Read more »
One of Ukhahlamba's most famous rock art sites is situated near the hutted camp of Kamberg. The sandstone shelter - termed Game Pass Shelter - is a two hour walk from the camp, and visitors must be guided by one of the local AMAFA custodians (AMAFA is the organisation responsible for looking after and managing uKhahlamba's world famous rock art collection - AMAFA means "inheritance" in Zulu). I was taken to Game Pass Shelter by Raymond Mweni, one of two locals who have been trained by AMAFA, and who are paid by visitors to go to the sites.
(You may ask why you have to be guided - well, according to Celeste Rossouw at AMAFA, there is still a disconcerting tendency among visitors to damage the rock art. It's worth emphasising that even just visiting the site can have adverse affects on Read more »
I've spent the last few days at Giant's Castle, which is one of the sections of uKhahlamba Drakensberg Park, in the central region of the mountains. It's a beautiful camp situated at the top of a valley with superb views (like all the camps in the 'Berg!).
Besides the scenery, there is a fantastic vulture hide at the top of one of the ridges (accessible only with a 4x4), which has been in operation for several years. It gives visitors a chance to see some of the impressive raptors that patrol the skies here. The most rare of all is the Bearded Vulture, once known as Lammergeier, a moniker which was wrongly attributed by farmers who thought that these birds caught lambs, and therefore did their best to poison these birds. Subsequent research has shown that these impressive vultures are Read more »
Oscar Mthimkhulu probably has one of the tougher jobs in conservation in South Africa. As co-ordinator of uKhahlamba Drakensberg Park, the 38 year-old Zulu from Makhosini near Ulundi is responsible for ensuring the conservation and commercial success of this unique mountainous area.
The 242 000 hectare reserve, running 200 kilometres north to south and about 50 kilometres west to east, is one of the country’s biggest conservation areas, and covers Southern Africa’s most inaccessible terrain. The average altitude of its basalt peaks is above 3 000 metres, and elsewhere it consists of innumerable gorges, valleys, high plateaus, sandstone caves and towering cliffs. ("Ukhahlamba" means "Barrier of Spears" in Zulu, while Read more »
I've spent the last few days at the beautiful Didima Camp in the Cathedral Peak area of the Drakenbserg. Like at Royal Natal, the views of the mountains are breathtaking.
One of the reasons for coming here was to see some of the famous rock art. And I was fortunate to be taken by field rangers Andreas Dlamini and Philani Kunene to Elands Cave in the Ndedema Gorge, one of the most famous sites in Africa. It is a tough three hour hike along a mostly indistinct path, including several river crossings and a steep hour's hike up the mountainside to the plateau. But it's so worth it. The cave itself is spectacularly located, and is huge - at least fifty metres long and a few metres deep. A waterfall cascades Read more »
Mountains do good things to me. My first few days in the uKhahlamba Drakensberg in KwaZulu Natal have helped me, I am sure of it. Sometimes when I struggle to make sense of my place in the world, or when my depression does its best to drag me down, I just know that it’s time to climb a mountain.
So I put on my boots, with my camera bag on my back, and I look skywards. I choose a route, and I start at the beginning. I put one foot in front of the other, and I make slow progress. At first, thoughts race through my head. Why, how, what, where? Questions without answers bombard my brain. My cold body, still chilled from the night, adapts slowly to the gradient. My legs ache and my heart beats rapidly.
Then my eyes and ears and nose take Read more »