Drakensberg Mountains Geography

Panoramic - Amphitheatre evening view

The Drakensberg Escarpment extends from the far north east of South Africa all the way down to the Stormberg in the Eastern Cape, and in very general terms marks the boundary between South Africa’s eastern coastal strip or lowveld, and the country’s interior plateau, called the highveld.  The highest and most dramatic section of this escarpment separates the eastern highlands of Lesotho from KwaZulu-Natal.  This spectacular section extends some 180km from the Amphitheatre in the north, to Sehlabathebe above Bushman’s Nek in the south, and is what most people picture when they refer to The Drakensberg.  The escarpment line forms the South African Watershed, and some of the country’s major rivers, have their source here – indeed, the water here is some of the purest on the continent!  Much of the escarpment and the highland plateau eastern Lesotho lies above 3000m, and there are 161 kulus, peaks above this threshold (rather like Scottish Munros, except that “feet” are replaced by “metres”) - these include Thaba Ntlenyana (3482m), the highest point in Southern Africa, and Mafadi (3450m), known in Zulu as Ntheledi, the highest point in South Africa.

Drakensberg Mountains Formation

In essence, the Drakensberg Mountains are a continuous and extremely vertiginous basalt escarpment which caps a softer layer of orange and blue-grey sandstones (the Karoo Supergroup of rocks which cover about 2/3rds of South Africa).  The dark basalt walls and spires of the High Berg, which are frequently over 1000 feet in height, are the remains of a catastrophic outpouring of lava which took place 182 million years ago, and which have since been gradually eroded back from the eastern edge of the continent to their current position on Lesotho’s Eastern flank, and suffered continental uplift.  Below the basalt cap lies the much older African Desert Sandstones, which has been eroded to form impressive orange and beige buttresses which typify the Little Berg, and stretch out on spurs towards the lowlands of KwaZulu-Natal. These are mostly situated between about 2000m and 2400m, separating the higher Afro-alpine flora (tussocky grasses, low heaths and small everlastings) from lower Afro-montane Protea-Savanna, interspersed with temperate yellowwood forests, dense bush and ravines.

Park Protection

The Drakensberg is an extensive wilderness area which has been protected by national parks; most notably the uKhahlamba-Drakensberg Park covers the southern and central Drakensberg, from Bushman’s Nek in the south to Cathedral Peak in the northern central area, and is a World Heritage Site. The Royal Natal National Park covers the Amphitheatre at the northern extremity. In between lie some of the remotest parts of the Drakensberg with only remote, difficult passes leading to the higher reaches – the lower territory is occupied by traditional tribal lands. Immediately south of the uKhahlamba-Drakensberg Park lies Sehlabathebe National Park, which falls within Lesotho and covers a remote and seldom-visited corner of the Drakensberg. The western flank of the watershed is comprised of the eastern highland plateau of Lesotho.  This is a wild, remote upland area, devoid of habitation, save for very occasional herders’ enclosures.