Wild Drakensberg: Giant's Castle

2013-08-19 08:53
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“In the end, our society will be defined not only by what we create, but what we refuse to destroy,” wrote conservationist John Sawhill.  I remembered these words just as a bearded vulture – one of Africa’s rarest birds – flew within metres of me.

I was sitting at the vulture hide at Giants’s Castle in the central uKhahlamba-Drakensberg World Heritage Site, trying to take a photo of these enigmatic acrobats of the upper atmosphere. As they sped past us, I clicked away on my camera.

The bearded vulture once ranged all over Africa’s mountains, as far north as Ethiopia, and all the way south to the Drakensberg. Originally called “lammergeiers” – German for “lamb-vulture” – they were poisoned, shot and destroyed for centuries by farmers, who wrongly believed that they killed their lambs. In fact, the bearded vulture only eats bones, and their talons are too weak to kill anything of a lamb’s size

Today, bearded vultures are threatened with extinction in South Africa, and just 350 individuals survive in the Drakensberg. The best place to see them is at Giant’s Castle, one of Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife’s larger camps in the Drakensberg, about an hour’s drive west of Mooi River.

While the chalets and restaurant have predictably brilliant views of the 3 314 metre-high mountain of the same name, the vulture hide makes this camp famous among wildlife connoisseurs.

Perched on top of sandstone cliffs about five kilometres from camp, the hide can be booked exclusively by four people for R620 per day, and you’ll get a bucket of cattle bones too, which you spread out in front of the hide. Then you wait.

In our case, we waited just a few minutes before several juvenile bearded vultures came swooping low to see what was for breakfast. As these photogenic birds flew past, I found it hard to understand why they were once so cruelly persecuted.

The bearded vultures we saw never landed on the cliffs (although sometimes they do), but we were treated to an equally impressive sight when a Cape Griffon Vulture touched down to inspect the buffet of bones.

Their wingspan of about 2,5 metres is one of the biggest of all birds, and they too – like the bearded – are threatened with extinction. Recently, according to the Endangered Wildlife Trust, 48 Cape Vultures were found poisoned on a farm in the nearby southern Drakensberg, the worst incident in a decade

The hide at Giant’s Castle has given both species a better chance for survival, providing food for these birds whose habitat and range has been restricted by farmland and development. And for visitors, the hide is the best place in Africa to see both these remarkable birds up close.

The vultures are clinging to survival in the Drakensberg, but the last Bushman probably left the area in the mid 1800s. By that stage, these original inhabitants of Southern Africa were either amalgamated into the local Zulus, or exterminated by colonial authorities.

Their spectacular rock art, however, still lives on, and Main Caves at Giant’s Castle is one of the best and most accessible sites in the Drakensberg, just a half-hour walk from camp.

My guide at Main Caves was Mncedisi Hadebe (cell number 072-630-5012), who explained that the 450-odd paintings on the sandstone walls are about 3 000 years of age. The exquisite figures of several eland are still in relatively excellent condition, given their age.

Mncedisi pointed out one sandstone wall of paintings that had been partly damaged by the bullets of British soldiers, who were stationed in this area in the 1800s.

“If only the British soldiers had realized how special these paintings were,” Mncedisi said. “Why would anyone want to destroy these masterpieces?”

More excellent rock art can be seen at Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife’s Kamberg camp, just to the south of Giant’s Castle. Here, a guide will accompany you to Game Pass Shelter, about an hour’s walk from the pretty little camp of five self-catering chalets.

Most impressive is a huge eland, whose tail is being held by a human-like figure. As guide Sibusiso Zuma explained, these particular paintings confirmed the theory that Bushmen art is highly symbolic – even spiritual in nature. They allude to the power that the Bushmen believed resided in the eland, and their attempt to harness that power, represented by the figure holding it’s tail.

“The Bushmen considered all animals as sacred,” said Sibusiso, especially the eland, which can still be seen at Kamberg wandering the velvet valleys of grass, along with other antelope like reedbuck and grey rhebok.  Once both lions and leopards would have also patrolled these mountains.

Today, these iconic predators no longer occur in the Drakensberg, killed off more than two centuries ago by man and his insatiable desire for land and domination over all. After walking back down from Game Pass Shelter, I wondered what the Bushmen would have thought of society’s modern ways.

Contact Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife on tel 033-845-1000. Or call Giant’s Castle Camp on tel 036-353-3718, and Kamberg Camp on tel 033-267-7251.
 Visit www.yearinthewild.com or www.facebook.com/yearinthewild for more.

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