Southern Africa is blessed with an extraordinary variety of climates, scenic diversity, and breathtaking beauty and thus hosts an incredible range of plant life renowned world wide for its abundance and splendour. We are privileged to be a part of this space. As we approach year end and the beginning of what is known as the peak flowering period of this botanical bonanza, perhaps some thought should be given to avail ourselves of the opportunity right here on our doorstep to venture out and enjoy some of nature’s offerings. Whether you are a photographer, artist, botanist, or just a flower-follower and lover of open spaces and mountain air, you will not be disappointed. It is an affordable extravaganza not to be missed!
The Maloti Drakensberg Route – the longest signed route in southern Africa comprising the high-lying regions of the Eastern Free State, Lesotho, the Eastern Cape Highlands and the Maloti Drakensberg (formerly the uKhahlamba Drakensberg Park in Kwa-Zulu Natal) is a spectacular kaleidoscope of superlatives – of breath-taking mountain scenery, World Heritage Sites, awesome waterways and natural splendours, and miles and miles of “big sky” country. Places of historical and cultural significance, a treasure house of unique and inspiring rock art, and 260 million years of life stored in the layers of stone in these mountains. It is not surprising therefore that the very nature of its geographical existence gives home to a kingdom of floral delights seldom surpassed in the world.
The forested valleys, grasslands, and high peaks of the Maloti Drakensberg harbour a veritable festival of floral splendour – 3000 species, more than 10 per cent of the plant diversity of southern Africa and more than the indigenous flora of Switzerland or Germany. Double that of Britain. 16 per cent of these plant species occur nowhere else in the world.
The diversity of this plant life is enormous, but perhaps it is those species of the remote higher altitudes that are the most interesting and unique. Although flowers may be seen throughout the year the peak flowering months are between November and February. The type of flowers that may be found depend on two basic things – the aspect (which is the direction the slope on which the plant is growing faces) and the altitude (the height above sea level). In ascending order, the three main altitude–linked floral zones are the montane zone between 1300 – 1800 m where the plentiful rainfall produces lush grasslands of Red Grass, a multitude of Protea trees and shrubs, and forests including age-old Yellowwood and other indigenous trees. The next zone is the sub-alpine zone from 1800 to 2800m which consists mainly of grasslands and is devoid of forests. Here the months of spring produce a stunning display of bulbous plants. The highest zone is the alpine zone between 2800 and 3482m - perhaps the most exciting zone of all. The low rainfall and the bitterly cold temperatures provide an ideal habitat for the beautiful Helichrysum and Erica species and numerous rare flowers. In this tree-less zone, devoid even of grasslands, the plants are adapted to survive in the winter’s snow and ice, the strong winds, and the heat of the summer.
There are many areas which may be visited to enjoy fully these floral delights. Sani Pass for example, at a leisurely pace will reward the visitor with a variety of species throughout the steep ascent to its summit at 2865 m above sea level. Four-wheel self drive or guided tours may be taken. Don’t forget your passport! More information may be had from the Underberg Tourism Office at 033 701 1471 or on their website. The highest dirt road (2623m) in the country is Naude’s Nek in the north-eastern Cape. A 4 x4 vehicle is recommended during wet weather so it is best to check road conditions before departing. A spectacular range of alpine and sub-alpine flowers may be seen. Joubert’s Pass, also in the north-eastern Cape and near Lady Grey is another worthwhile visit for a wide range of high altitude plant species. Another great spot worth noting is The Sentinel in the northern Drakensberg and quite an easy hike to reach. Approach this area by road from Harrismith and Phuthaditjhaba. Contact 058 713 5071 for information. Bokong Nature Reserve in northern Lesotho which rises to 3,090 m is one of the highest nature reserves in Africa, and has good examples of Afro-alpine wetlands and endemic species which thrive here. Contact Lesotho National Parks – 022 460 723
The Katse Botanical Gardens in Lesotho should not be missed. Here traditional and medicinal plants are propagated, and most of the country’s indigenous flora is represented here. Endangered species such as the beautiful Spiral Aloe and Berg Bamboo as well as many other fascinating and rare flowers can be seen. These gardens contribute to education, horticulture and income generation for local communities. Contact 022 910 311.
In South Africa, the conservation of the Drakensberg is entrusted to Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife and through their offices at 033 845 1000 an abundance of information may be gained as well as access to these Protected Areas for the purpose of overnight accommodation, holidays, hikes, or just day visits.
The Maloti Drakensberg Route is proud to incorporate such a wealth of world renowned botanical beauty into its portfolio.