If any landscape lives up to its airbrushed, publicity-shot alter ego, it is the jagged, green sweep of the Drakensberg Range’s tabletop peaks. This forms the boundary between South Africa and the mountain kingdom of Lesotho, and offers some of the country’s most awe-inspiring landscapes. It provided the backdrop for the films Zulu (1964) and Yesterday (2004) and the setting for Alan Paton’s novel Cry, the Beloved Country, and is the inspiration for a million picture postcards.
Within the area is a vast 243,000-hectare sweep of basalt summits and buttresses; this section was formally granted World Heritage status in November 2000, and was renamed uKhahlamba-Drakensberg Park. The park is part of the wider Drakensberg region, extending from Royal Natal National Park in the north to Kokstad in the south, the region and battlefields around Estcourt and Ladysmith, and the southern Midlands. Today, some of the vistas are recognisably South African, particularly the unforgettable curve of the Amphitheatre in Royal Natal National Park. Prominent peaks include Mont-aux-Sources, the Sentinel, Eastern Buttress and Devil’s Tooth.
Drakensberg means ‘Dragon Mountains’; the Zulu named it Quathlamba, meaning ‘Battlement of Spears’. The Zulu word is a more accurate description of the sheer escarpment but the Afrikaans name captures something of the Drakensberg’s otherworldly atmosphere. People have lived here for thousands of years – this is evidenced by the many San rock-art sites (visit Didima, Cathedral Peak, Kamberg and Injisuthi).
The San, already under pressure from the tribes that had moved into the Drakensberg foothills, were finally destroyed with the coming of white settlers. Some moved to Lesotho, where they were absorbed into the Basotho population, but many were killed or simply starved when their hunting grounds were occupied by others. Khoe-San cattle raids annoyed the white settlers to the extent that the settlers forced several black tribes to relocate into the Drakensberg foothills to act as a buffer between the whites and the Khoe-San. These early ‘Bantu locations’ meant there was little development in the area, which later allowed the creation of a chain of parks and reserves.