Thursday, January 31, 2019

The Amphitheatre from Thendele

The Drakensberg is a spectacular escarpment that runs for about 1000 kilometres along the eastern side of South Africa. The name was coined by early Dutch settlers as Dragon mountains, and from below it does look like an impressive mountains range guarding the interior. Indeed, the Zulu people call it Khahlamba – barrier of up-pointed spears. In fact, it isn’t a mountain range; it’s the dramatic drop from the high country (Highveld) of South Africa down to the lower regions.

Cross section of southern Africa
The creation of the escarpment dates back some 200 million years to when the tectonic plates cracked and separated, splitting the super continent of Gondwana into what would become the new continents of the world. Huge eruptions created a massive basalt layer over the much older sedimentary rocks and thrust the whole of southern Africa higher. Erosion moved the escarpment back more than 100 kilometers from the original fault line.

During the past 20 million years there has been further lifting of southern Africa, pushing the east higher with less elevation taking place in the south and west. This led to the central-eastern high country with elevations around 2,000 meters. The highest area is over 3,000 meters on the eastern side along the border of what is now the Kingdom of Lesotho.

One of the Cascades
The geological structure of the Drakensberg is unusual and unusually beautiful. Huge cliffs face the east and crevices and caves are common. These contain the rock art of the San people of the mountains, some over 50,000 years old.   The area was protected as a national park in 1916 and declared a World Heritage Site in 2000.

The highest mountain, Thabane Ntlenyene, towers at 3500 metres. Two French missionaries reached it in 1836 and called it Mont Aux Sources, the mountain of sources, because the massive Orange River and Vaal Rivers rise here and make their way to the west, while the Tugela and other smaller rivers head down the escarpment to the east with impressive waterfalls along the way.

A visitor at the Cascades

Guinea Fowls with seven shillings
Olive Woodpecker - new bird for me
Perhaps the most beautiful of all the wonderful scenic attractions of the Drakensberg is the Amphitheatre, a huge concave ridge surrounding the upper Tugela River. The river descends over a waterfall which is one of the highest in the world.

Tugela Falls 
We were able to spend a few days there on the route between Knysna and our bushveld place at Olifants River Game Reserve. First we climbed to the Highveld over the more gentle passes of the Cape, and then descended again into KwaZulu-Natal. The gods were kind and we had gorgeous clear weather in which to appreciate the sight from Thendele camp which faces into the Amphitheatre itself. It’s a hikers’ paradise, and even the least challenging walks provide beautiful views and interesting bird life along the small streams. I saw two species that I’d never seen before in the wild.

Afterwards, we climbed the escarpment again to the Highveld before descending through passes to the Lowveld of Mpumalanga and the African bush. I think the Royal Natal National Park may become a regular stop between Knysna at the Cape coast and Olifants River game reserve in the bushveld.


  1. Knowing Michael's love of exercising, I suspect 'climbed the escarpment' didn't include sweat!

  2. That's another place on my bucket list.
    Our plate is tilting also. London is sinking and Caithness is rising. I'll refrain from further comment.

  3. I don't get quite those sorts of views on my travels from Manhattan to Northwest New Jersey...though I do pass by Paterson, home to a celebrated Africa lover.

  4. Up and down the escarpment included diesel only!