The Dragons of Drakensberg

By Ilona Kauremszky
Special to The Toronto Sun
Weekend Travel Section January 29, 2006

NELSPRUIT, South Africa – The sign screams bold, “Do not go beyond this point!” In South Africa’s newest and fastest growing province of Mpumalanga which translates from Zulu as “place of the rising sun,” busloads of tourists are flocking to the foreboding cliffs of the Drakensberg Mountains.

Biting the bullet, I follow the horde and shuffle gingerly to the craggy edge of the escarpment where the canyon’s underbelly lay open replete in wide ribbons of wild grasses blanketing the banks of the Blyde River.

I’ve always feared heights so inching my way to the edge of this crater-marred abyss lined by sandstone ramparts would be no cakewalk. And not ever wishing to audition for TV’s “Fear Factor” my feet froze in my tracks. “This is it,” I thought, wrapping my fingers around the cold steel railing until my knuckles whitened. I ogled downward into the mouth of the Blyde River Canyon, the world’s biggest green canyon and the third largest in the world.

In the old days, the Zulus called this place uKhahlamba which means “barrier of spears.” It was their place of refuge where no harm would reach them. When gold diggers, Dutch settlers and Voortrekkers discovered this region in the 1830s, they blessed the rich mountain chain with its bumpy spine as Drakensberg, “dragon mountain” and that name has stuck.

I stared into the dragon’s gorge and was struck in awe by the sheer beauty and terrifying expanse. I felt as if I could have been swept off my feet and thrown into the mouth of the dragon 2600 feet below. Created by an ancient volcanic eruption, the Blyde River Canyon spans 33km and is one of the Mpumalanga’s natural wonders. It’s part of the Ukhahlamba-Drakensberg Park which in 2000 was deemed a UNESCO World Heritage Site, only the fourth of six sites in South Africa to receive the protected status.

Today, visitors arrive to this canyon paradise for panoramic views, soft adventure and off-roading into the unspoiled bushveld. Officially deemed a province in 1994 after the country’s first democratic elections, Mpumalanga many say is the roof of Africa and a drive through these parts reaffirms why.

Ukhahlamba-Drakensberg Park is shoehorned between Limpopo and Mpumalanga provinces on the fringe of Mozambique and bordered in the east by the largest piece of unspoiled wilderness in the subcontinent, Kruger National ParK. With soaring altitudes from 1280 to 3500 metres above sea level Drakensberg Park covers 150 km of gigantic peaks, verdant valleys, spiky koppies and grasses that shimmer in the lowveld. Dubbed Paradise Country the peaks along the Dragon’s spine have names like the Wonder View, Panorama Route, The River of Sorrow and Mountain of the Wind, all in an attempt to describe the indescribable enormity of this place. Some say on a clear day from atop Africa's highest mountain range south of Kilimanjaro, you can see the Indian Ocean.

According to the South African Tourism Office, the Drakensberg's natural and cultural wealth has made it one of South Africa's top tourist destinations. With a handful of drive routes from which to choose, you can discover the beauty of this part of the world solo but I recommend a guided tour along the Panorama Route where local lore unravels the minute you buckle your seatbelt. Spot a road sign or survey a map and there’s bound to be a tale or two as I learned from David Wilson my guide who motions to peer downward on the bakkie’s (lingo for SUV) left side where a frappé of whitewater threads the canyon floor.

The story behind the naming of this river is legend. “A Mr. P decided this wasn’t a great place to live. It was hot and humid so he moved his family. They camped along the banks of a river. He told them to stay behind and if he hadn’t returned after six weeks, then she was to assume her husband’s team had met their fate. The family waited and waited and grew so distraught they named that river the Treur River which means the ‘river of sorrow,’” David pauses then adds, “Devastated, they packed everything up and started to leave until a shot fired in the distance.” It turns out the guys waited at another river. Overjoyed, the neighboring river was named “Blyde” which means the “River of Joy.”

In this jewel box of biodiversity, tremulous Protea trees, the symbol of South Africa, sway between panicles of wildflowers that unfurl a rainbow of colors atop the soaring basaltic buttresses. Home to aquatic, forest, scrub, fynbos, savannah flora and lush meadows of mountain grassland, the park has over 2,000 species of plants and the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN) has identified hundreds of species on its endangered list, including 119 plant species as globally endangered. The park is also home to 299 recorded bird species with 10 of the species listed as important to world conservation. There’s the placid lonely Cape parrot you might find perched in a patch of yellowwood oblivious to the rambling bunch of birders, while the shy white-winged flufftail skedaddles from shutterbugs. If you’re really lucky, you can spot the rare corncrake, lesser kestrel, or the shifty-eyed Cape vulture feasting on carrion.

The first stop along the Panorama Route is the Three Rondavels or Three Sisters. In summer, the canyon floor is rife with adventurer travelers, steering their rafts against the white water, biking the overgrown trails, hiking where hippos are known to wander or hot air ballooning between the canyon wedges.

The pancake flat green top of the rondavel resembles the traditional African hut of mud walls and grass rooftops. Ironically, a tribe of maPulana lived next door to the Blyde River in the 1800s and for respite from the heat they trekked to the top of these cool rondavels. That changed when the Mswati’s armies destroyed their homes while the tribe took refuge. The maPulana named the mountain Mogologolo meaning, “mountain of the wind.”

“Whatever you do at our next stop, do not fall in. There are no railings there,” warns David, “No joke!”

The escarpment houses more waterfalls than anywhere in South Africa and luckily you can’t miss them. As we veer along the edge of the escarpment, the thrashing din of rushing water breaks the cocooned calm in the bakkie. Whitewater pounds over the sharp basalt rock. I have made it to Lisbon Falls.

I inched my way to the slick polished worn edge of the look-out sans guardrail where many have met their maker. Plunging 90 metres, the Lisbon River splices into two cascading veils of water flowing over the brink of a horseshoe rock face. You can slink to the base of the falls for a really spectacular view, following a 200 metre footpath which begins at the parking lot or you can sit like a queen on what is known as the Queen’s Throne, a naturally carved chair overlooking the falls.

From the Queen’s Throne, we ventured southward to God’s Window. Psyched and ready to go, we motored into the palm of Mother Nature’s hand and as David described it, “This area is a favorite among hippos, leopards and other wild cats.” I tried to envision what God’s Window would look like and quickly flashed a vision of an improbable glass cage enclosing the mentioned menagerie all posing for a photo-op.

As magic hour painted the Dark Continent’s sky in magentas and honeyed ochre, God’s Window came into full view, hurling bulbous shadows from patches of cumulus clouds over the endless sea of green lowveld that seemed to stretch to eternity. Feeling fearless now, I leaned brazenly towards the abyss in search of wild beasts frolicking in the silky tall grasses beneath my feet. No doubt, they were there incognito roaming the untamed koppie where the Big Five ramble in Kruger National Park seen in the distance like an opened treasure chest. I finally faced the dragons of Drakensberg and God’s window opened.

-30-

Photography: Stephen Smith


If You Go:

How to fly: I flew South African Airways to Johannesburg then transferred to a smaller SAA plane for Nelspruit at the new Kruger Mpumalanga International Airport where car rentals are available. For flight and reservations log onto www.saa.com

For more travel information on South Africa visit www.southafrica.net and for a list of tour operators in Canada visit www.topac.org
For travel information on Drakensberg, visit Drakensberg Tourism at www.drakensberg-tourism.com
For more information on Mpumalanga province visit www.mpumalanga.com/

Where to Stay:

http://www.bluemountainlodge.co.za/html/recreation.htm
tel: +27 (0) 13 737 8446
e: bluemtnres@icon.co.za
830 – 2070 R per person including dinner, breakfast.
The 5-star 17-roomed Blue Mountain Lodge is close to Kruger National Park, the Blyde River Canyon and you can make reservations at the lodge for private drive tours including mountain biking, ballooning, bush excursions and rafting.

What to See:

Ukhahlamba Drakensberg Park
Three Randavals
Lisbon Falls
God’s Window
Panorama Route - For more information on activities visit http://www.thepanorama.co.za/ The Panorama region is famous for pancakes. Visit Harrie's Original Pancake Restaurant in Graskop. Open daily tel. 013/254-0801

Local Terms:

Koppie - Colloquial term for the thousands of small rocky hillocks that dot South Africa's hinterland, and Mpumalanga's lowveld region.

Lekker: Afrikaans term meaning 'great', or 'very good' or tasty.

Other info: For a full list of endangered species check the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources Red List of Threatened Species at www.redlist.org/


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