If there’s a single feature that dominates South Africa, it is the Drakensberg. It jumps out at you on any relief map, sprawls across most road maps and is prominent on the nightly weather reports on television.
Yet until quite recently I had no understanding of where its ends are and I am yet to meet a South African who could tell me this with any certainty.
My ignorance in part motivated me to cycle the range from top to bottom. People would ask me what I was doing. I would say that I was cycling the Drakensberg. The glazed look in their eyes told me that they had no clue where the two ends might be.
I asked them directly if they knew where the range started and stopped. I did this many times a day, but did not receive a single satisfactory reply.
Natalians are the exception. They generally are quick to trot out the answer that the Drakensberg starts in Underberg and ends at Royal Natal.
They are also the most wrong. A cyclist would cover this distance, about 250km, in just three days.
If you want to cycle the Drakensberg as it is shown on most of our maps, it will take you closer to 18 days to cover its 1800km.
So confused are we about the Drakensberg that the portion in KwaZulu-Natal is described and sign-posted as the southern, central and northern Berg. About 1000km north of this “northern” Berg, not too far from Polokwane, is the true northern part of the range, at least according to our maps.
Several hundred kilometres south of the “southern” Berg, the Drakensberg has an identifiable end point in the Eastern Cape. But even this point is contentious. Some will tell you that the Drakensberg really begins near Molteno or Hofmeyr, where the Stormberg, a sub-range of the main range, begins.
We have little overall concept of the Drakensberg, even though it plays and has played a pre-eminent role in our lives. It is the source of many of our rivers and most of our water. It defines the escarpment and where the rain falls. It determines where rivers are perennial and where they are not. It determines where people live and where they do not.
It hosts our most forested areas, some of our finest remaining wilderness areas and defines provincial boundaries. It has also been the site of defining battles in our history.
My ride started in the hamlet of Haenertsberg, a former gold rush town not far from Tzaneen in Limpopo province. I followed jeep tracks through the Wolkberg Wilderness Area and then down the Orrie Baragwanath Pass to the Oliphants River.
This area, Sekhukhuneland, surrounded by the Drakensberg to the north and east, is hot and dry. The earth is red and there is a preponderance of rocks, acacia thorn and succulents.
The Pedi culture dominates here. On day three I left Ohrigstad and cycled 30km to the Crystal Springs game reserve. The prevalent language spoken changed during this short cycle from isiPedi to siSwati.
This was to be a feature of my trip as I moved southwards, the dominant pre-settler language changing from Sepedi to Siswati, from isiZulu to Sesotho and from isiZulu to isiXhosa. In some cases you simply cross a spur leading up to the main range and find another language dominates.
I made a point of trying to find out what the Drakensberg was called before the Voortrekkers arrived. My impression is that there is only one language that describes the range in its entirety — Afrikaans.
The nature reserve areas in KwaZulu-Natal are known as the Ukhahlamba Drakensberg Park, but I was more than 1000km into my trip before I first heard the term Ukhahlamba (barrier of spears) to describe the range.
The plot thickens. Although the Drakensberg defines much of the north-south escarpment running, the southern and northern parts of the range are geologically quite different. One is very old: 3000-million years (for a point of comparison, remember that the Earth is 4500-million years old).
The other is a relative spring chicken at about 180-million years old, formed at the time of a big global shake-up as the mountains of the Rift Valley formed and Gondwanaland began to split up into the continents as we now know them.
As the range in KwaZulu-Natal reaches 3km in height and in the north it struggles to get above 2km, you’d be forgiven for thinking that the KwaZulu-Natal section is the older of the two — but not so. The northern Berg, with its peaks smoothed and softened with age, is the great-granddaddy here.
David Coulson and James Clarke say in Mountain Odyssey that “geographically it is a tidy arrangement. Geologically, it is just a coincidence. The Transvaal’s lichen-painted Drakensberg escarpment is sedimentary and ancient in the extreme.
“Natal’s Drakensberg escarpment is igneous, the product of a hellish age, far more recent.”
At least two points of difference result from this great age. One is that the northern part of the range is associated with endemism, the proliferation of plants that occur here and only here. In the Wolkberg, for instance, you will see plants you have never seen before and will not see again, unless you make a return visit.
The other difference is the way the rivers run. In KwaZulu-Natal the ridge acts as a watershed, the rivers flowing one way or the other. In the northern Berg the rivers run parallel to the mountain and, in cases, right through it from one side to the other.
The water story is not a good one. In the north, the Oliphants, which drains a massive area, has so much water taken out of it that it runs with lower and lower amounts of water.
In the south the rivers are also low, mainly because of poor snowfalls in recent years. The sources of many a mighty river were little more than a trickle when I cycled through.
At Dordrecht, where I finished, water restrictions were in place and the toilets at the petrol station were locked because there was not enough water to flush.
My trip covered much of the length of the country. As such I was also taking a reading of social and environmental conditions.
Sekhukhuneland has the biggest party. The region is mineral rich, so incomes are drawn from both mining and farming. The music blared from shebeen to shebeen.
In the Eastern Cape there was no party, just a group of men sitting around a shop that had sold all its cold drinks. But this was on a Sunday. With perhaps one exception I did not find groups of idle men sitting around.
In the Badplaas area the land-claims process has stalled and farmers have stopped farming. I rode through vast areas with tall grass where cattle had previously fed.
My general impression is that the rural areas are too denuded of people. This includes farmers, who have quit under the pressure of increasing costs. Only the big, who are getting bigger all the time, survive. One farmer, in a spacious valley, decried the fact that he now has no neighbours.
Agriculture has a massive fault line running through it. You can earn relatively little income even though the capital value of your farm is high. This is because farm prices are driven in part by rich urbanites who buy land for its recreational value.
With farm incomes low and land values high, farmers are cashing in and starting businesses in the towns. They also cannot get their children to stay on the land: the lure of professional lives in the cities is just too great.
Land and labour reform has encouraged farmers to move people off their land. The reconstruction and development programme (RDP) facilitated this by supplying homes in towns and urban areas. Minimum standards have added to job losses — one farmer told me that he paid off a gardener because he could not afford to pay him minimum wages.
The result is that the rural economy is not helping to soak up the unemployed. Land reform should be expedited so that strategies to boost rural jobs can be implemented.
Tourism appears to be doing nicely. Part of my trip was on a long weekend and the resorts were sold out.
But when most South Africans have no clue about the extent of the Drakensberg, we are doing at best half a job in marketing a prime tourist resource. I can see the role for SA Tourism, for starters, to produce a giant map of the Drakensberg, chock-full with information on places to stay and things to do.
We can put the map on our walls, look at it and begin to appreciate what is at once one of the real defining features of our country and our greatest resource.