Where is Drakensberg?

Resembling an impregnable fortress, sheer volcanic cliffs and craggy crests tower above the undulating coastal lowlands of southern Africa.

Fringing most of the coast of southern Africa is a narrow lowland plain that extends from its Atlantic shores around the Cape of Good Hope and north along the border of the Indian Ocean. And all along the southern perimeter of the continent, not far inland from this coastal plain, the terrain rises abruptly in a zone of cliffs and mountains that mark the edge of a broad, basinlike interior plateau.

The most impressive of all these mountainous barriers is the so-called Great Escarpment along the eastern edge of the plateau. Extending southward from Rhodesia more or less parallel to the coast of the Indian Ocean, the escarpment’s highest, most dramatic sector is known as the Drakensberg, the “Mountain of the Dragon.” According to several accounts, the mountains were named for legendary flying, fire-breathing lizards that once lurked among its peaks. Others claim the mountains were so named because their craggy summits resemble the profile of a dragon’s back.

The highest section of the Drakensberg is centered in Lesotho, an independent republic completely surrounded by South Africa. From South Africa’s Transvaal into Cape Province, the range runs northeast to southwest for 700 miles (1,125 kilometers).

The tallest peak in the range, Thabana Ntlenyana in Lesotho, is 11,425 feet (3,482 meters) high. (The native name of this, the highest peak in all of southern Africa, oddly enough simply means “Nice Little Mountain.”) Among the many other peaks exceeding 10,000 feet (3,000 meters) are Champagne Castle, Giant’s Castle, and Mont-aux-Sources (“Mountain of the Springs”). Other summits, not as high but with equally descriptive names, include Cathedral Peak, the Pyramid, the Bell, the Sentinel, and Rhino Horn, while another especially jagged ridge is known by a native term meaning “Place of the Little Horns.”

But altitude alone does not account for the dramatic beauty of the Drakensberg. What makes the range truly breathtaking is the way the high rim of the plateau drops off to the east in nearly vertical escarpments. In some places the mountain wall plunges directly down for about 1,000 feet (300 meters). Then it continues downward in a series of broken steps for another 3,000 feet (900 meters) or so before giving way to rolling grasslands that slope eastward to the coast.

As might be expected, these variations in topography result from differences in rock structure. The underlying foundation of the Drakensberg is a thick series of almost horizontal sandstones that were deposited between 180 and 260 million years ago. One member of the formation, known as the Cave Sandstone, is especially remarkable. Attacked by wind and water, it has been carved into a series of magnificent caves and rock shelters. And the caves are especially famous as one of the finest natural art galleries in the world: on their walls prehistoric Bushmen produced paintings by the thousands, all noted for their fine coloring and superb artistry.

The cliffs towering above this sandstone foundation, in contrast, are composed of basaltic lava flows. Beginning about 150 million years ago, lava began welling up through fissures in the rock and spreading out in horizontal layers over enormous areas. As one lava flow cooled, another fissure opened up and more molten material oozed up to the surface, sometimes forming beds as much as 165 feet (50 meters) thick. By the time this ancient series of fireworks came to an end, the sandstones were capped by a basalt plateau that in places is as much as 4,500 feet (1,370 meters) thick.

Then the weather took over and began carving its masterpiece. Even today fierce storms blowing in off the Indian Ocean drop about 80 inches (2,000 millimeters) of precipitation per year on the Drakensberg, the rocky spine of southern Africa. From the top of the plateau long rivers, especially the Orange, begin their leisurely flow westward to the Atlantic. But to the east much shorter rivers plunge rapidly downward to the Indian Ocean. Filled with rapids and waterfalls, they are the cutting tools that have dissected the volcanic rampart with the deep valleys and gorges that account for the magnificent scenery abounding along the full length of the Drakensberg Range. Anna loves travel and is just back from Prague, her latest trip away.