The special place that is the uKhahlamba Drakensberg Park

“The uKhahlamba Drakensberg Park, situated in KwaZulu-Natal and bordering the mountain kingdom of Lesotho, is renowned for its spectacular landscape, as a haven for many threatened and endemic species, and its wealth of rock paintings done by the San people over a period of 4 000 years. It covers an area of 242 813 hectares, making it the largest protected area along the Great Escarpment of southern Africa.”

*The following article was published in The Witness on the 23rd of September 2013.

In recognition of Heritage Day tomorrow, NIKKI TILLEY takes us on a journey along the Maloti Drakensberg Route, where two World Heritage sites can be found.

THE Maloti Drakensberg Route is the longest designated tourism route in southern Africa, embracing northern Lesotho and eastern Free State, the Lesotho eastern highlands and KwaZulu-Natal, west and central Lesotho, southern Lesotho and the Eastern Cape highlands.

It encompasses some of the most awe-inspiring high altitude scenery in Africa and not surprisingly, within its region is found two World Heritage Sites.

The uKhahlamba Drakensberg Park, situated in KwaZulu-Natal and bordering Lesotho, is renowned for its spectacular landscape, as a haven for many threatened and endemic species, and its wealth of rock paintings done by the San people over a period of 4 000 years.

It covers an area of 242 813 hectares, making it the largest protected area along the Great Escarpment of southern Africa. Within its pristine steep-sided river valleys and rocky gorges are numerous caves and rock shelters, containing an estimated 600 rock-art sites and in excess of 35 000 individual images depicting animals and human beings, and the spiritual life of the long-gone San people. It contains almost all of the remaining subalpine and alpine vegetation in KwaZulu-Natal, and it has been identified as an important bird area, forming part of the Lesotho Highlands Endemic Bird Area.

Listed in 2000 as a World Heritage Site, the park qualifies in several distinct categories required for this status: its wealth of rock art (the largest and most concentrated group of paintings south of the Sahara), the cultural history of the once-resident San people found in this art form, its exceptional natural beauty, and its diversity of habitats that support a variety of endemic bird and floral species.

Of great interest, too, is the unique relationship between the San and the eland. This, over the years, has been heightened by rock-art research in Lesotho, with many of the paintings and images being of the eland. Although the eland was hunted by the San, it was also of major spiritual importance to them. In interpreting therianthropic figures in ancient San rock art (e.g. humans with antelope ears or hooves), David Lewis-Williams suggests that they represent healers in trance. Accordingly, the San healer, possessing eland medicine may feel him or herself take on the form of that antelope, and retain that form throughout the journey into the spirit world. Taking on the form of an animal involves a radical shift in self-image, which includes brain chemistry, energy structures in the body and consciousness itself, which are transformed through dance, and the San encapsulate their inner understanding of these shifts by linking them to their observation of the animals that sustain them. And so the bonds between the San and the eland are brought to life through intricate natural symbolism. This alone is a beckoning call to visit the ancient sites.

The conservation management of the uKhahlamba Drakensberg Park is entrusted to Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife, which also provides a range of accommodation types and tourist attractions within its boundaries. Accessibility is via a number of national roads, with towns such as Winterton, Bergville and Underberg along the way. Domestic and international tourism brings economic benefits that are enjoyed by the neighbouring communities, as well as by the stakeholders.

Situated on the southeastern border of Lesotho, Sehlabathebe National Park was proclaimed as a World Heritage Site in 2013. It is recognised as an extension to the Ukhahlamba Drakensberg Park, which is now to be named the Maloti Drakensberg Transboundary World Heritage Site. Members of Unesco praise the “spectacularly beautiful watershed area” that hosts flora and fauna of scientific importance.

It is home to three endangered species, the Maloti Minnow, a species of fish found only in the park, and the Cape and Bearded vultures.

Home to striking biological diversity as well as important cultural heritage, the park comprises 6 500 hectares at an average elevation of 2 400 metres, and is the only designated park, established in 1969, in Lesotho.

The landscape is dominated by grassland of various types and the larger ecosystem as a whole performs invaluable functions, including providing fresh water to Lesotho, South Africa and Namibia.

Sehlabathebe means Shield of the Plateau.

The many small lakes, dams and rivers are a fisher’s paradise and the park may owe its existence to the fact that the prime minister of Lesotho at the time, Leabua Jonathan,was keen on trout fishing. The park lodge where the prime minister used to stay is called Jonathan’s Lodge.

The remoteness of the park accounts for the difficulty in accessing it, but from the Bushman’s Nek Pass near Underberg, a commercial tour operator provides this service on horseback.

Accommodation is available in or near the park at a number of locations, and in the nearby settlements of Sehlabathebe and Mavuka.