The Dragon Mountains—Beautiful but Dangerous
By Awake! correspondent in South Africa
THE hiker walks slowly, as it has been a tiring day. But soon he forgets his weariness. With a growing sense of danger, he notes that there has been a dramatic change in the sky, followed by a different smell in the air and a deathly silence. Clouds gather and it grows darker. Suddenly, there is a deafening clap of thunder in the sky!
The hiker heads quickly for shelter. But he does not run—that would produce static electricity, which attracts lightning like a magnet. The rain comes; then hail, stinging his face. He finally reaches the shelter, regains his breath, and stares out at the spectacle.
The sound of thunder crashing and reverberating through the surrounding peaks is frightening. And the darkness is relieved only by the lightning that illuminates the opposite mountain face. For an hour the storm rages. But as quickly as it came, it subsides, and the hiker makes his way to the cave that is his temporary home.
Such scenes are common in the so-called Dragon Mountains—the famous Drakensberg range of South Africa. One of its peaks is actually named Indumeni, which in Zulu means “the place of thunder.” White settlers gave this huge range its name because of the legend that dragons once lived here. Indeed, the range sprawls like a lazy dragon some 650 miles [1,050 km] through South Africa. However, the section forming a natural border between Natal and Lesotho is by far the most spectacular part of the range. It is often called the Switzerland of South Africa. This name is fitting, especially when the heights are blanketed with snow.
The fierce summer storms in the Dragon Mountains enhance their reputation for being beautiful but dangerous. Yet, it has not been the ravages of nature alone that have earned them this reputation.
Man—The Greatest Danger
The story of man in the Drakensberg is often more violent than the summer storms that strike here. In 1818 a period of bitter tribal warfare among the blacks began, and the beautiful Drakensberg became the backdrop for many terrible acts of man against fellowman. By 1823 the population of Natal had shrunk from possibly a million to a few thousand. Remnants of scattered tribes sought refuge in the mountains.
Before the black man arrived, though, another race had lived in the shadow of the Drakensberg. For how long the so-called Bushmen were sole inhabitants of the area, we do not know; neither is it certain where they came from.* They had light, yellowish-brown, wrinkled skin and were of short stature.
The Bushman’s ways were strange to the white man. The Bushmen were skilled hunters but hunted only for food, never for sport. They had a sound knowledge of plants and were careful not to upset the balance of nature. Some were accomplished poets, others were artists. The mountain caves were their homes, and they decorated the walls with the now famous Bushman paintings. Visitors to the Drakensberg can still enjoy some of this beautiful rock art. How the Bushmen mixed their durable paints is still a mystery.
When in 1837 the first white men started to settle in the area, a clash of interests became inevitable. The Bushmen did not keep cattle. In fact, they viewed all animals as there to be used by all men. But they did recognize territorial hunting rights. For strangers to hunt in their area was thus a declaration of war. The white man hunted for sport, killing off the game that was the Bushmen’s food. They retaliated by stealing the white man’s cattle. The white man responded by hunting down and destroying the Bushmen. The little men were also attacked by black tribes. As a result, the Bushmen became extinct in this region.
The Dragon Mountains no longer lure hunters, as hunting is now prohibited in the Drakensberg. The mountains, nevertheless, still beckon another kind of adventurer—the nature seeker.
Men and Animals—Watching and Listening
While the Drakensberg can be a dangerous place for unprepared visitors, with proper precautions one can enjoy scenes of stunning beauty! Africa is renowned for its variety of plants, and this area is richly endowed. Especially after good rains, the flower lover will be delighted to discover wildflowers like the bottlebrush, red-hot pokers, and ground orchids, to name just a few. The diversity of wild animals is impressive. You will not see all of them, but you will hear many if you are alert to their distinctive calls. You may be startled by the eerie howl of a black-backed jackal or the bark of a baboon, and with practice you can distinguish the sounds of many birds. Hundreds of eyes will be watching you, although you may not see them.
Many kinds of antelope reside here. Among them are the tiny gray duiker, which is usually active at night; the larger bushbuck; and the majestic eland, the largest of all. The beautiful oribi, with its reddish coloring and white markings, is rare, but you will find it at the Giant’s Castle Nature Reserve. Sometimes, as you look at a slope, it appears as if the grass were moving, but then you realize that it is some well-camouflaged antelope grazing!
Not to be overlooked is the giant, soaring lammergeier, also called the bearded vulture. It has the eating habits of the vulture, but in flight it resembles the eagle. The chest is off-white, the throat and neck are an orange color, and the head is white. This contrasts with the black feathers on the wings and tail. A tuft of black bristles forms a “beard” around the beak, and a mask of black feathers around the eyes adds to the bird’s fearsome appearance. But it is a shy bird that lives mainly on carrion.
The lammergeier has the habit of dropping bones from a great height to shatter them on rocks. It then swoops down to scoop the marrow out with its tongue.* The black eagle and the Cape vulture also reside here, but the lammergeier, with a wingspan of nearly nine feet, [3 m] is king. Unfortunately, it is an endangered species; very few are left. A lookout blind is provided at Giant’s Castle Nature Reserve where it may be observed.
The challenging summits of the Dragon Mountains—peaks like the massive Sentinel, 10,384 feet; [3,165 m] the smooth, dangerous Monk’s Cowl, 10,610 feet; [3,234 m] and the treacherous Devil’s Tooth with its 656-foot [200 m] sheer sides—also beckon to the adventurous mountaineer. But such climbing is dangerous. The composition of the rock itself adds to the danger. This basalt is quite crumbly.
A number of passes to the escarpment, though, are steep but safe and do not require special climbing equipment. Of course, it is essential to obey the rules of the mountains. Warm clothing, a tent, and a reserve of food are vital. The escarpment can be bitterly cold, with fierce winds at night. “I remember one night,” said a hiker, “with the wind tearing at our tent and the cold so severe we could not sleep. The next morning our water bottles were frozen although they were inside the tent. I vowed I would not subject myself to this torture again. But the following year I was back! This time I was better prepared for the elements.”
Each year many thousands of hikers, campers, and mountaineers of all races leave behind the stress and pollution of cities and come here for the fresh mountain air, the thrill of a dip in an icy pool, the tingling sweetness of mountain water, and the grandeur of the majestic heights. At night they can see a blanket of brilliant stars crowding the sky. Some are thus moved to revere the Maker of all these delights and look forward to the time when the whole earth will be converted to a paradise.—Luke 23:43.
See the article “The Bushman—Africa’s Master of Survival” in the August 22, 1985, issue of Awake!
Leviticus 11:13 and Deuteronomy 14:12 mention the osprey, a bird of prey with the Hebrew name peʹres, meaning “the breaker.” The King James Version renders this as “ossifrage,” meaning “bonebreaker.” Quite possibly, then, these verses refer to the lammergeier.
[Map/Picture on page 24]
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[Pictures on page 25]
Malachite sunbird on bottlebrush flower in Drakensberg
[Pictures on page 26]
Far left: Sebayeni Rock Art Gallery in the Drakensberg
Left: The majestic eland
Bottom: Bushman paintings from the Sebayeni cave