The following information has been drawn from David Britow's Best Walks of the Drakensberg, 2003, Struik Publishers, Cape Town (by kind permission of the author and publishers). This is tremendous and highly useful reading for any avid Drakensberg hiker and can be found in bookstores, ordered from Getaway magazine or www.struik.co.za (this opens in a new window).


The first animals of the Drakensberg were mammal-like reptiles, creatures that predated the true dinosaurs by tens of millions of years, like the massive, lumbering Melanosaurus or the eet-footed sharp-toothed Massospondylus found in the Red Bed deposits. Often when I'm arriving across the Karoo and day-dreaming I fancy there's a six-metre-tall Massospondylus reared up on its hind legs and then belting along the veld next to the car. Imagine coming across one in a forest of the Little Berg! Increasingly dry conditionsdrove these animals away, but dassie-size primitive mammals survived, probably because they were burrowing animals, and dassies are the evolutionary result of their tenacity.

Some of these creatures did leave their footprints for us to see, near Leribe in Lesotho and Giant's Castle reserve. More important, they left their skeletons in the soft Stormberg rocks. Geologist and conservationist Gideon Groenewald has made a profession out of finding them and conducting 'dinosaur tours' in the Golden Gate area.

Mountains are by their nature highly stressed environments and any organisms that exist in them have to become specially adapted. Jackals and baboons do it by being supremely versatile and opportunistic feeders. Reptiles beat the harsh winter by going underground and hibernating. Others, such as the lammergeier and grey rhebuck (Click here to see pics of the rhebuck - opens in a new window) are specifically adapted physiologically and are highly specialised feeders. The problem with this group is: squeezing of their habitat (overgrazing, hunting, fencing) and they have nowhere else to go.

Some animals, such as baboons, jackals and grey rhebuck, are found at all altitudes in the berg, and it's a thrilling wilderness feeling when you're wakened by the cry of a jackal in the morning in a valley on the summit. Others have more specific habitat preferences. For example, lammergeiers nest in and cruise only above the highest crags and summit plateaux, dropping down to the Little Berg to look for carcasses. Eland tend to stick to the grassy plateaux of the Little Berg, descending to the outer reaches of the foothills along the river valleys in winter, where they browse on Buddleja leaves. Oribi (Click here to see pics of the oribi - opens in a new window) are synonymous with tall grassland where they will lie hidden till you are almost on top of them before they break cover in sometimes startling fashion.

Bushbuck - as their name implies - stick to the dense riverine bush and forest. You would expect klipspringerto be fairly conspicuous in the sub-alpine and alpine zones, but in my experience they are scarce (Click here to see pics of the bushbuck and klipspringer - opens in a new window). Who knows what animals might have roamed the Berg summit in days gone by, but today the most frequently seen (in areas where herders don't live permanently) are grey rhebuck. I've watched them doing territorial battle. Two males will dash about the hillsides and valleys at top speed, covering up to five kilometres in the 10 minutes or so it has taken me to get my breath back after cresting a steep ridge. Truly humbling athleticism - and on top of it they never seem to have to look where they're going over the broken ground.

Most guide books will tell you that leopards occur in the Berg, and they certainly did once, but I've yet to see any sign of them, or hear of anyone else who has. What I have seen is the scat of large cats, or cat-like things. Big enough for a small leopard, but more likely a caracal or a serval. You'll see plenty of small cat scat - mongooses, genets, African wild cat, African weasels and zorillas (striped polecat). Along the rivers there are plenty of scattered remains of crab shells, sign that otters are about, as well as the large and somewhat
scruffy water mongoose.

We all have our phobias, and most hikers seem to have an irrational fear of snakes (Click here to see pics of snakes - opens in a new window). The thing with snakes, as indeed just about all animals, is that they're far more scared of big lumbering you than you are of them. The chances of seeing a snake are really very small. The chances of seeing a poisonous snake remote, and the chances of being bitten by one are microscopic. Sure, they are there (and I seem to come across far; far more than my share) but wear a decent pair of boots and you reduce the chances of a bite to close to zero. But still people do get bitten.
Click here for additional information on snake bites and how to deal with them while hiking - opens in a new window.

But forget about the things that grovel on the ground and lift your eyes to the heavens, from whence
cometh the most beautiful sights of the mountains - the birds. The lammergeier must be seen in flight to appreciate them. While juveniles have dark, mottled plumage, adults have almost black wings and tails, with striking golden brown bodies. If you see one up close the face is remarkable too: pale gold with a bright red ring around the eyes and a black mask, with the tell-tale 'beard' feathers hanging down from a stout, curved beak. Legend has it that the Greek poet Aeschylus died when a lammergeier dropped a tortoise, to try to crack it open, and it landed on the unfortunate man's head. The birds have favourite rocks called ossiaries (place of bones) which they use for dropping bones onto, to break open to get at the marrow. In the Bible the birds are referred to as ossifrages (bone-eaters). Some bird books say the golden body colour of adults comes from rubbing against their sandstone roosts, but I cannot believe this. The colour is just too uniform,and many of them roost on basalt ledges anyway. When in flight the diagnostic features (apart from very large size and colouring) are fast, falcon-like flight and a diamond-shaped tail. The more common Cape vulture has a stumpy, fan-shaped tail. But don't ignore the vultures, for they are masters of the air; catching thermals with an aerial efficiency that makes every paraglider pilot drool with envy. The black eagle, with its distinctive white back cross is, however, the definitive bird of the southern African mountains, being found just about wherever there are crags and dassies, its principle food. In fact the distributions of these two
species overlap almost exactly. If you go down the raptor hierarchy, the next most impressive bird is the jackal buzzard, so named because of its jackal-like cry, usually issued while the bird is circling high up in the sky. Thereafter come the falcons, mainly the swift and handsome lanner, and then the hawks - African goshawk, marsh harriers and black sparrowhawk particularly. I've been lucky to see wattled cranes in the moist grasslands of Mkhomazi, bald ibises on the Little Berg of Giant's Castle, as well as marsh owls on the summit.

Grey-winged francolins, which local people variously call 'partridges' and 'pheasants', are pretty common throughout the grasslands. About half their size is the shy common quail which bursts up almost at your feet in a whirr of wings and 'skree' alarm call, only to disappear into cover a short way off. Possibly the most conspicuous grassland bird is the orange-throated longclaw, a pipit-like species that favours tufty grass areas; it scratches around on the ground for insects, uses tufts as a perch to look around, and when alarmed first crouches then flies off with a flap-glide-flap pattern. Rockjumpers are often mistaken for robins, but are more robust and often found rock hopping right on the summit.

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