DRAKENSBERG/UKHAHLAMBA DRAKENSBERG PARK:
Recognised by the ancient mystics of our land as breathing new life into the human spirit, the inescapable allure of this 200- kilometre- long wonderland owes much to its intense relationship with people...the million-plus years of Stone Age occupation in particular. This culminated in the tragic disappearance, during the late 19th century, of the San hunter-gatherers colloquially referred to as Bushmen. Migrating chiefdoms from the Great Lakes of Central Africa had in the 13th century been humbled by the sheer magnitude of this uKhahlamba - Barrier of Spears - destined to become the western extreme of their Zulu Kingdom. The ox-wagons of Boer settlers negotiated its precipitous passes in 1837 on the Great Trek from British dominion in the Cape Colony to a 'Promised Land'. The name Drakensberg was coined forty years later when a Boer father and son reported seeing a dragon - a giant lizard with wings and a tail - flying high above the cloud-shrouded mountain peaks.
The inscription in late 2000 of uKhahlamba-Drakensberg Park as a World Heritage Site brought long-overdue recognition of its universal value to mankind. Meeting the criteria for both Natural and Cultural listings, the site can now officially boast 'superlative natural phenomena and beauty, unique richness of biological diversity, the conservation of all-important endemic and threatened species plus masterpieces of human creative genius in the form of 35 000 'San rock art images'. Many people have known this for a long time!
From the massive basalt cliffs of its northern reaches to the soaring sandstone buttresses in the south, the Berg - as it's popularly known - offers a myriad delights to anyone of any age who needs to 'get away from it all'. Peace and quiet is the catchphrase amid this unsurpassed grandeur where the world's second- highest waterfall tumbles down a series of breathtaking cascades.
Best known of all the Berg sectors is arguably the northernmost Royal Natal and adjacent summit area its regal prefix bestowed after the 1947 visit of Britain's King George VI and Queen Elizabeth. Blessed with some of the most spectacular scenery in all of Africa, Royal Natal's backdrop is the world-famous, much photographed and painted Amphitheatre - a crescent of 1 000m sheer basalt cliffs. This massive wall stretches 4 kilometres between the Sentinel (3 165m) and Eastern Buttress (3 047m), with a number of domes rising from its relatively flat summit plateau. In 1836, the French missionaries Arbousset and Daumas named the largest of these domes Mont-aux-Sources - a literal description of this source of five rivers. Of these, the Thukela plummets 948m in five clear leaps, making it the world's second highest waterfall. The Thukela Falls' upper reaches occasionally freeze in winter to create dazzling columns of ice. And just to confound weather experts it is not unheard of for the Berg to turn on a White Christmas in the middle of our sub-tropical summer! Royal Natal is ideal for hiking, with a superb network of graded walks catering for all levels of fitness and agility. And while the summit of Mont-aux-Sources can be reached by walking from the summit plateau and scaling a 100-rung chain ladder, if this seems like child's play you're always invited to join the annual Mont-aux- Sources Challenge, when men and women of iron turn the mountain into a cross-country steeple-chase of epic proportions!
Accommodation caters for all tastes and budgets... from luxury resorts and hotels with ultra-modern conference facilities to guest- houses, B&B establishments, caravan parks and cabins. Out in 'the wild', huts and listed caves await weary hikers.Thousands of trails are marked across the Berg - from short ambles through indigenous fern forests to more strenuous day-long traversing of river and hillside to full-on adventuring in the face of nature. Although accidents are rare, planned walks of more than a few hours require prior completion of the Mountain Rescue Register. Part of each entry fee to a KZN Wildlife protected area goes towards the invaluable emergency service provided by volunteers of the Mountain Club of South Africa.
You may not want to venture further than one of the four stunningly- situated golf courses, however, or your artistic talents may be so inspired that days spent blissfully capturing the surrounding magic on canvas are more than satisfying. Horse trails and scenic self-drives offer respite for aching feet without missing the unforgettable experience of, say, watching rare birds of prey settling down to dine at a 'Vulture Restaurant'. Or you could cast a line in one of the trout streams and more than likely catch your own lunch...
For treasured memories of a lifetime it's not entirely necessary, then, to be a rugged mountaineer or abseiler - although these daredevils quite obviously do derive an enormous buzz from the Berg's natural challenges. Either way, it's a guarantee you'll return to the world 'down there' richly rewarded and rejuvenated. So welcome to the Berg... breathing new life into the human spirit!