The soaring peaks of South Africa's Drakensberg mountain range run in a ragged sickle shape along the eastern part of the country. Their highest summits stand shoulder to shoulder with Lesotho's Maloti mountains, intercepting any clouds dragging rain up from the subtropical Indian Ocean coastline.
Together they create the largest water factory in Africa. Safeguarding this critical water catchment area is the Maloti-Drakensberg Transfrontier Project. The towering castles of basalt and pristine grassy uplands funnel the rain steadily downwards in a series of clear streams feeding the east-flowing Tugela and Umzimvubu rivers, as well as South Africa's mother river, the Orange, which flows west.
Peer upwards at the Drakensberg's massive Amphitheatre on South Africa's side of the Transfrontier Project and you will see the thin thread of the Tugela River tumbling off the edge - the second highest waterfall in the world.
The craggy basalt montains, flanked by sandstone foothills, are the last remnants of lava that poured out the ground as Gondwana split apart 180 million years ago. These sensitive highlands are also home to some of southern Africa's rarest birds - the wattled crane, bald ibis and the bone-eating bearded vulture.
The alpine vegetation of the Drakensberg transfrontier nature reserves is very sensitive to disturbance (by overgrazing or trampling). This is also a sanctuary for various wetland springs, mires, seeps and bogs that are a crucial part of the 'water factory'.
One of the best times to visit the Maloti-Drakensberg Transfrontier Project is between November and February, when the grasslands are often ablaze with flowers - unusual fynbos proteas, orange African gladioli, red river lilies, the aptly named red-hot pokers (kniphofia), and the more subtle ground orchids.
On the Lesotho side, you may even be lucky enough to spot the very rare spiral aloe, endemic to the region.
Travel tips & Planning info
Who to contact
KZN Wildlife Reservations
Tel: +27 (0) 33 845 1000
Maloti-Drakensberg Project in Lesotho
Tel: +266 (22) 312 662
How to get here
The Drakensberg mountains are a few hours inland from Durban (which has an airport). You could also drive from Johannesburg or Pretoria, crossing into Lesotho through the spectacular Sani Pass. It's only suitable for 4x4 vehicles, but there are plans to tar the road for ordinary sedans soon.
Best time to visit
Every season has its delights, and there are times you'll experience all 4 in one day. You'll often see snow in winter, and spectacular thunderstorms in summer. Autumn and spring are particularly pleasant. Winters are icy, so come prepared. In summer, bring a light raincoat. Don't forget hat and sunscreen, and, of course, your camera.
Having your own hired vehicle - preferably a 4X4 - will give you the most options.
Length of stay
One of the great delights of these mountains is being able to go for long rambles (keeping an eye on the changeable weather, of course). To really soak in the atmosphere, go for 3 nights or more.
Where to stay
On the South African side, you can choose between camping or self-catering chalets all the way up to luxury guesthouses and hotels. Lesotho's accommodation is comfortable, but usually more rustic.