The Drakensberg

The Drakensberg or Dragon Mountain of South Africa

The Drakensberg ('Dragon Mountain') is part of the great escarpment of South Africa which separates the narrow coastal range from the plateau of the interior. This formidable range of mountains begins in gentle foothills in the Midlands and reaches ever higher to a final crescendo of soaring peaks and lofty buttresses.

The range is at it's highest in Lesotho, where it is known as the Maluti Mountains, but it is at it's most spectacular in the east where the heights fall practically sheer for a full 2000 meters (6600 feet) down to the green uplands of KwaZulu-Natal.

There are several theories about the source of the name 'Drakensberg'; one of the more popular ones was that it came from the San, the first habitants of the area whose mythology included giant serpent-like creatures. Their paintings of such creatures on rocky cave walls convinced other black tribes visiting the area of these beasts' existence and they in turn told the Boers about these 'dragons'.

The paintings from this tribe adorn rock shelters throughout the southern end of the African continent, however the Drakensberg is particularly rich. Archaeological evidence suggests that the San were living in the mountains for thousands of years before the arrival of the first Nguni people. (See more information about the San and Nguni people here). Excavations in south-eastern Lesotho have shown evidence on Middle Stone Age man as far back as 43,000 years. Later Stone Age material found dates back to 1420 BC.

The range is, geologically speaking, a fairly young one; formed about 150 million years ago by seismic convulsions that deposited stupendous quantities of basalt lava onto the sandstone plains. All this finally evolved into the sculpted cliffs, buttress' and 'dragon-toothed' ridges. The massifs and their peaks have evocative names: The Sentinel, The Amphitheatre, Mont-aux-Sources, The Organ Pipes, The Chessmen, etc.

The Amphitheatre is an imposing mass of solid basalt, guarded by the Sentinel (3165 meters / 10,385 feet) and the Eastern Buttress. This commanding wall of rock is about 5 kilometers (3.1 miles) long. Several rivers, including the Tugela, have their source high up in the mountains at (if you've been paying attention; you probably guessed it!) Mont-aux-Sources.

The climate is equable throughout except in the high Drakensberg, where climbers have to be wary of winter blizzards and sudden summer thunderstorms. In the escarpment's foothills the summer days are warm and nights cool; winter days are sunny and the nights crisp, sometimes even very cold. Average temperatures (minimum - maximum), based on the major city Pietermatitzburg: January: 16 - 27 Celsius / 61 - 81 Fahrenheit; and July: 6 - 21 Celsius / 43 - 70 Fahrenheit