The Drakensberg (Afrikaans: "Dragon's Mountain") mountains are the highest mountain range in Southern Africa, rising up to in height. In Zulu, they are referred to as uKhahlamba ("barrier of spears"), and in Sesotho as Maluti (also spelled Maloti ). Due to their geological formation they are exceptionally distinctive, and almost unique amongst the various mountain ranges of the world. Geologically, the range bears a strong resemblence to the Simien Mountains of Ethiopia.


The range is located in the eastern part of South Africa, running for some from south-west to north-east. The mountains are drained on the western slopes by the Orange and Vaal rivers, and on the east and south by a number of smaller rivers, the Tugela being the largest. The range thus separates KwaZulu-Natal Province from Free State Province, looming over the nearby coast of Natal.

A Guide to the Drakensberg describes the escarpment as lying "parallel to the south-eastern coast of South Africa from the Northern Province to the Eastern Cape." Thereafter, in the vicinity of Giant's Castle, it "swings to the south-west and enters the Eastern Cape", splitting there into the separate ranges of Stormberg, Bamboes, Suurberg, Nieuveld and Komsberg.

Geological origins

During the Pre-Cambrian era, volcanic eruptions in the area resulted in lava covering large sections of the Southern African sub-continent. In the Mesozoic era, approximately 180 to 200 million years ago, wind and water deposited thick layers of shale, mudstone and sandstone, now known as the Karoo Supergroup, over the ancient primary rock. When Gondwanaland began to break up 200 million years ago, the resultant forces caused the extrusion of magma, known as Drakensberg lava, through fissures and cracks in the earth's suface. In the Drakensberg region it capped the sedimentary rock formations with layers of solid basalt up to 1400 m thick. Weathering forced the range to reduce in height and size, and caused the plateau to receed. In modern times, continued erosion has exposed some of the underlying sediment.



The mountains are capped by a layer of basalt approximately 1,400 m thick, with sandstone lower down, resulting in a combination of steep-sided blocks and pinnacles.


The majority of the range is formed from basalt, as a rsult of continental upheval and volcanic activity in the Pre-Cambrian era. Many of the lava flows are characterized by amygdaloidal zones. Many of the primary minerals within the basalts have been subjected to varying degrees of deuteric alteration which has led to the formation of clay, as well as chlorite and zeolite to a lesser extent. Some interstitial glass has also broken down to form clay. These secondary minerals, together with zeolites which occur notably as amygdaloidal fillings, mean that many of the basalts break down rapidly on exposure. The breakdown results principally from the expansion which occurs when the clay minerals swell on absorption of water.

Highest peaks

The highest peak is Thabana Ntlenyana, at . It is also the highest peak of Lesotho. Other notable peaks include Mafadi at 3,450 m, Makoaneng at 3,416 m, Njesuthi at 3,408 m, Champagne Castle at 3,377 m, Giant's Castle at 3,315 m, and Ben Macdhui at 3,001 m. All of these are in the area bordering on Lesotho; north of Lesotho the range gradually becomes lower and less rugged until entering Mpumalanga where the quartzite mountains of the Transvaal Drakensberg are more broken. The Blyde River Canyon in Mpumalanga is technically within the Northern reaches of the Drakensberg, though its geology appears exceptionally different due to the lack of a Basalt cap which the High Drakensberg has.



Southafricainfo.net notes that the mountains are "home to aquatic, forest, scrub, fynbos, savannah, mountain grassland and heath plant families", including a large number of species listed in the Red Data Book of threatened plants, with 119 species listed as globally endangered." That site also says that: "of the 2 153 plant species in the park, a remarkable 98 are endemic or near-endemic."


According to southafrica.info, the area is "home to 299 recorded bird species", making up "37% of all non-marine avian species in southern Africa."

Caves and cave paintings

Caves are frequent in the more easily eroded sandstone, and many have rock paintings by the Bushmen. The Drakensberg has, collectively, between 35000 and 40000 works of bushman art and is the largest collection of such work in the world. Some 20 000 individual rock paintings have been recorded at 500 different cave and overhang sites between the Drakensberg Royal Natal National Park and Bushman's Neck. Due to the materials used in their production, these paintings are difficult to date, but there is anthropological evidence, including many hunting implements, that the bushman civilization existed in the Drakensberg at least 40 000 years ago, and possibly over 100 000 years ago. According to countryroads.co.za, "[i]n Ndedema Gorge in the Central Drakensberg 3 900 paintings have been recorded at 17 sites. One of them, Sebaayeni Cave, contains 1 146 individual paintings. Southafrica.info indicates that though "the oldest painting on a rock shelter wall in the Drakensberg dates back about 2400 years", "paint chips at least a thousand years older have also been found." The site also indicates that "[t]he rock art of the Drakensberg is the largest and most concentrated group of rock paintings in Africa south of the Sahara, and is outstanding both in quality and diversity of subject."


Tourism in the Drakensberg is developing, with a variety of hotels and resorts appearing on the slopes. Most of the higher South African parts of the range have been designated as game reserves or wilderness areas. The uKhahlamba or Drakensberg National Park, located in KwaZulu-Natal, near the border with Lesotho, was listed by UNESCO in 2000 as a World Heritage site. The park is also in the List of Wetlands of International Importance (under the Ramsar Convention).



  • Rozan, D.Z., Lewis, C.A. and Illgner, P.M., 1999. Transactions of the Royal Society of South Africa 54, pp. 311–321.

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