Monday, April 21, 2008

Another UNESCO Site

uKhahlamba, the "Barrier of Spears", is the Zulu description of what the European settlers called Drakensberg ("Dragon Mountains"). Part of this mountainous wonderland was also awarded World Heritage status by UNESCO, meeting the criteria for both Natural and Cultural listings. The park covers an area of 240 000ha and also falls in the province of KwaZulu-Natal (like St Lucia), along South Africa's border with Lesotho. The uKhahlamba Drakensberg Park is a prime ecotourist destination.

Best known is probably the Amphitheatre with its 1000m sheer basalt cliffs, which forms the backdrop of Royal Natal - so named after the visit of Britain's King George VI and his family in 1947. The Amphitheatre was named Mont-aux-Sources by two French missionaries in 1836, which literally describes this source of 5 rivers, of which the Thukela (or Tugela) is one, plunging 850m in five vertical drops into the gorge below.

Cathedral Peak (3004m) is a dominant feature in the Drakensberg range and is the large, free-standing peak on the right in this photo, with the aptly-named "Bell" to its left. The two peaks on the left of the photo are called "The Twins". The Zulu call Cathedral Peak "Zikhali's Horn", after the son of a chief, who fled from bloodshed in the area to Swaziland. Zikhali eventually returned with one of the Swazi king's daughters as wife, and under him his tribe reunited in the Cathedral Peak area.

Cathkin Peak (3149m) is the imposing, sheer-faced and flat-topped "block" peeping out in the centre of the photo, flanked by Monk's Cowl. Cathkin Peak was only "conquered" by a party of experienced rock climbers in 1912, although various attempts were made since the 1880's to reach the summit.

Snow is known to have fallen every month of the year (!!) in the Drakensberg region, although it's more usual during winter (May-September in the southern hemisphere). For long it was thought that Champagne Castle (3377m) was the highest peak in the mountain range, but that "honour" goes to Thabana Ntlenyana (3482m) in the Sani Pass area.

Giant's Castle (3314m) was already proclaimed a protected region in 1904. The peak that gave the area its name is one of the most recognisable within this World Heritage Site. The region has witnessed many stirring events in the annals of history: retaliatory skirmishes between the San (Bushmen) and settlers; Amahlubi warriors under chief Langalibalele rebelling against colonial forces; and in 1874, soldiers from the 75th Regiment camped beneath the famous "Main Cave" to prevent cattle raiders from escaping over the escarpment.

The Drakensberg region is rich in cultural heritage - home to 35% of South Africa's rock sites (or 35 000 images!!). The San inhabited the Drakensberg from the late Stone Age until the end of the 19th century, and left magnificent rock art. Because of this unmatched wealth of rock art, the Drakensberg was declared a mixed cultural and natural World Heritage Site. Featuring on the photo are ancient San paintings in an open-air cave - a realistic museum - at Giant's Castle.

The area known as Sani Pass has a rugged beauty, but also a very steep and winding road, representing the ONLY access (eastern road) from KwaZulu-Natal to the country of Lesotho ("land-locked" by South Africa). Visitors traveling up the pass actually need to have their passports with them, because there's a border post along the way (just before reaching the top of the pass). Carbon-dating processes done at a rock shelter in this area have proven that there were cave dwellers, who painted their rock art about 7600 years ago!

The biological diversity of the uKhahlamba-Drakensberg Park is exceptional. The Park is extraordinarily rich in plant, bird, mammal, reptile and frog species, whilst this abundance also includes many invertebrate groups and insects. Over a hundred of the plant and animal species occurring in the Park are threatened and therefore listed in the international Red Data Books. These include the Drakensberg cycad, some lilies and orchids, but also the magnificent bearded vulture, only found in this mountainous region of South Africa.

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