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World Heritage Site

for World Heritage Travellers

Blog: WHS #618: Drakensberg

The Maloti Drakensberg Transboundary World Heritage Site covers hundreds of km’s of a mountain range on the border between South Africa and Lesotho, with protected areas on both sides. The whole region is known for its beautiful mountain landscape and abundant rock art. It’s especially popular with South Africans (pensioners mostly) for weekend getaways.

Looking down into the Sani Pass

Traditionally, the South African Drakensberg mountains are divided into 3 parts: southern, central and northern. I started my visit from the south, with the quaint English-style town of Himeville as my base. From the neighbouring town of Underberg daily 4x4 tours leave to travel the Sani Pass. This is a steep gravel mountain road that ends in Lesotho at an altitude of 2876 m. This may be one of the last years to experience this soft adventure, as the South Africans are planning to pave the road up to the top (the Lesotho side is already paved). This would deprive the tourist operators in Underberg from their steady income. But it may have a positive side also, opening up more creative tours besides just driving up and down.

Touristy as it might be, I still enjoyed the trip up the Sani Pass. It has the great vistas that the Drakensberg mountains are known for, with rolling green(ish) hills and a heavy-looking basaltic top layer. It will give you a ‘country tick’ as well as it ends up in Lesotho – but we did not see more of it than the border post and the inside of a ‘traditional’ hut. On the way back we did encounter several Basotho herdsmen and their longhaired sheep on their weekly trip to the market in neighbouring South Africa.

San Rock Art at Main Caves, Giant's Castle

European tour groups and individual tourists generally only spend 1 full day in these mountains, but I had planned for 3. On my second day I focused on the Rock Art. The Central Drakensberg area has the best locations for that. I drove northwards on the N3, and took the turn-off to Giant’s Castle near Mooirivier. Not far from the turn-off you can also follow a road to Kamberg, home to the Game Pass Shelter (possibly the best example of San Rock Art). I was a bit pressed for time and worried about the road conditions though, and choose the safe option of Giant’s Castle. This still is a 56km drive, mostly paved but not all. Giant’s Castle now is a resort/lodge, where you can turn up as a day visitor and visit the Main Caves.

Guided tours are available here every hour, a ticket has to be bought beforehand at the reception of the lodge. You’re then supposed to walk to the caves by yourself (some 35 minutes). I enjoyed this little hike, it goes through a very pretty canyon with a river. Many more trails are available for people staying overnight at the lodge. Near the caves you have to wait at a fence until the tour starts right on the hour. Only one other visitor showed up beside me, and we were taken along the 2 main caves by a guide. The rock art is painted in different colours here (yellow, red, white, black) and shows many elands. Depicted also are people hunting and dancing, and shamans watching. It includes an example of Contact Rock Art, in the form of two British military men with a gun. The British fought fierce battles here with the San people, eventually leading to the expulsion of the latter.

Northern Drakensberg Mountains

During my final 2 nights in the Drakensbergen I stayed at the Greenfire Drakensberg Lodge, just outside the Royal Natal National Park – in the far north of the WH area. This is a lovely area to relax and do some leisurely hikes. I saw more primitive rock art here, and enjoyed the encounters with fierce-looking elands. 

Published 22 October 2016

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