December 2011 / The Drakensberg Range / KwaZulu-Natal / South Africa
History: The Drakensberg Range
The Drakensberg Range has a long and violent history: as Gondwana land separated into the modern continents of Africa, South America, India, Australia, and Antarctica, molten rock erupted from of Earth’s interior, capping the sedimentary base of the Drakensberg with basalt. In the 200 million years that have passed, Earth’s destructive forces have carved the Drakensberg into one of its most unique and sublime landscapes. Flat-topped buttresses and craggy spires rise nearly vertically above rolling green hills; waterfalls cascade for hundreds of meters from their precipitous sources. The Zulu name for the Drakensberg Range – uKhahlamba, the Battlement of Spears – recalls its many jagged peaks. The area is marked by incredible biodiversity: of 200 known orders of plants, 120 can be found in these mountains.
The human history of the Drakensberg also runs deep. South Africa’s first people, the San hunter-gatherers, occupied the fertile slopes of the range for tens of thousands of years before conflicts with incoming African and European settlers reduced and scattered their population. Their rock paintings record the coming of the Bantu pastoralists with their cattle and later the coming of the Afrikaans-speaking farmers with their guns. In the 19th century, as the feisty Pedi and even the mighty Zulu fell to British imperialism, the Sotho retreated high within the Drakensberg and tumbled boulders down on any that dare claim the high country. The British decided they had better things to do, set up the borders of their empire around the Sotho kingdom, and set off to fight the Afrikaners in the Boer Wars.
Today, the Zulu herd their goats and cattle on the lush slopes below the Drakensberg and the Sotho negotiate the high, rugged plateau above on their sure-footed ponies, while backpackers like our group explore the national parks.
Travel Notes: Ampitheatre
At Ampitheatre Backpackers, the eager receptionist tried to convince us to drop R500 on an “authentic village tour.” We explained we just wanted to go hiking.
“But you can see the women cooking mealie pap in the three-legged pots over a wood fire!” she protested.
We patiently explained our schools make lunch in this fashion everyday.
“But there’s a sangoma,” she insisted, “You must meet the traditional healer!”
“Ma’am,” I said in exasperation, “The sangoma lives around the corner from me. I can get my fortune told for R50.”
“But our sangoma on the tour is better!” she insisted.
We ignored the absurdity of this claim and reiterated our desire to go for a hike. She relented and arranged the hostel’s khombi to Royal Natal & Royal Glen Park. We spent the following day hiking up the Thukela Gorge trail, into the Ampitheatre, a semicircular escarpment of basalt and sandstone towering over the Thukela River valley. This trail does not reach the high country above, but it does provide excellent views of Tugela Falls – the world’s second-highest waterfall – and the peaks of the Ampitheatre. A group of average fitness and backcountry skills can successfully complete the hike without a professional guide.
Travel Notes: Champagne Valley
Our next stop took us to Champagne Valley, set in the verdant valleys beneath the craggy Cathkin Peak. Our lodging was Inkosana Lodge, a delightful backpackers with a plum orchard, a freshwater pool, and clean, neat rooms. The whole affair is run by an old hippie name Edmond and his pack of fat, blonde German Shepherds. Edmond, a former climber himself, provided helpful insight on exploring the rugged backcountry.
Summiting a peak in the Drakensberg is a highly technical affair. Trails in the high country are poorly marked and often obscured by clouds and rain. To negotiate the rugged terrain, we hired a Zulu guide, an incredibly knowledgable and articulate young man named Cedric. With his assistance we hiked the Sterkhorn, arriving just short of the peak before foul weather drove us down. Along the way Cedric explained the human history of the Drakensberg in terms of its natural history, identifying herb species recognized by the Zulu for their medicinal value and timber species recognized by early Afrikaans settlers for their economic value. The following day Cedric led us on a walk through the rolling pasturelands to view a group of San rock paintings, depicting the ritually important eland and other antelope species, as well as the Bantu cattle. These paintings, made with ochre, ash, blood, and other natural dyes, have lasted for 800 years or more.
Though we managed to travel by bus and khombi, renting a car would have been much more practical given the scarcity of public transit in the area.
Contact Ampitheatre Backpackers at: 036.438.6675/www.amphibackpackers.co.za.
Contact Inkosana Lodge at: 036.468.1202/www.inkosana.co.za.
We found Cedric, our Zulu guide, to be very helpful. Contact him at 082.216.9974.