Eastern Cape Drakensberg | 320km

Eastern Cape Drakensberg.

BARKLY EAST

Nestling in the foothills of the Cape Drakensberg at 1813 m, Barkly East is one of the highest, coldest South African holiday towns in the country. In winter, the high mountain peaks are often snowcapped, while snow sometimes blankets the town and surrounding grasslands, creating scenes more reminiscent of Europe than of the northeastern Cape - hence the town's claim to being the Switzerland of South Africa. Barkly East was established in 1874 and named after Sir Henry Barkly, Governor of the Cape from 1870 to 1877.

It is the commercial centre for the surrounding merino sheep farms, and the district is also well known for its cattle studs, dairy produce, grain and potatoes. The town cemetery contains the grave of Lord Kitchener's horse, which was buried during the South African War. There are several beautiful sandstone buildings, among them the Dutch Reformed Church and the local museum, which focuses on early forms of transportation and the town's history. Also of interest is the unique railway linking Barkly East with Lady Grey to the northwest.

Owing to the mountainous terrain, a system of eight 'reverses' was incorporated into the line, which has a gradient of 1 in 36,  one of only two such systems in the world. The Class 19D steam locomotive that stands in the town's square is a reminder of the early days of rail transport.

RHODES

...lies in the tranquil South African holiday valley of the Bell River, dominated by the high peaks of the Drakensberg. Founded in 1893, the settlement was originally named Rossville after Reverend David Ross, the Dutch Reformed minister of Lady Grey. In 1900, it was renamed after Cecil John Rhodes, Prime Minister of the Cape, who, as a gesture of appreciation, sent a wagon-load of stone pine trees, which still dominate the village centre. The Rhodes Hotel, with its Victorian architecture and small-town charm, was originally known as The Horseshoe.

The old stone-built school and hostel were designed by the renowned architect Sir Herbert Baker, and accommodated 250 children during the village's heyday. Over the years, though, the population of this once-thriving farming community dwindled; the school was closed in the 1970s when there were only 11 pupils.
Today, Rhodes is a popular winter destination when the slopes of 3 001-m-high Ben MacDhui (the Eastern Cape Drakensberg's highest point) are covered in snow, creating ideal skiing conditions.

At Tiffindell, 25 km north of Rhodes, winter snowfalls are supplemented by snow-making machines. In summer, the mountain streams offer fine trout angling opportunities. Other popular activities are horse-riding, hiking and birding.

NAUDÉSNEK PASS

At the foot of the Naudésnek Pass (1 920 m), the road passes a monument to the intrepid Naudé brothers, who built a rough track across the mountains in 1896. Using picks, shovels and a horse cart, they followed the route that their horses instinctively took when they were driven up the mountain. Following much of the original route, road engineer George Mandy constructed a military road linking Maclear with Lundin's Nek in 1911.

From the foot of the pass, the road climbs steeply out of the Bell River valley in a series of switchbacks to the 2 500-m-high summit of the pass, from where there are spectacular views over the undulating countryside to the south.

OAKLEIGH FARM DINOSAUR TRACKS

Imprinted in the rock along the banks of the Pot River are the tracks of a large, four-footed dinosaur and a smaller, two-legged one. Although southern Africa has an abundance of dinosaur fossils, these tracks are of particular interest as they are preserved in the Molteno Formation, the lowest formation of the Stormberg Series. This places the tracks among the earliest evidence of dinosaurs in the subcontinent, dating back some 180 million years.

The four-footed dinosaur, which also left behind the mark of its dragging tail, was probably a member of the Prosauropoda, one of the most primitive groups of plant-eating dinosaurs. The two-legged tracks were made by a small theropod, a fast carnivorous dinosaur that moved on its hind legs and appears to have hunted in packs.

There are tracks of at least seven theropods, formed when these primitive reptiles walked across the muddy bed of an ancient river. As the water subsided, the mud dried out, preserving the tracks and forming mud cracks - still visible on the surface.

MACLEAR

...lies in the valley of the Mooi River amid white sandstone outcrops, rolling grasslands where sheep graze, and maize fields. This South African holiday town grew up around the military camp established in 1876 for troops travelling to Matatiele and was named after Sir Thomas Maclear, the Astronomer Royal at the Cape from 1833 to 1870. As the terminal of the branch railway line from Sterkstroom, the town serves the district's sheep and cattle farms, while dairy products, wheat and maize are also produced.

Places of interest include the historic dressed-stone Sivewright Bridge, built in 1890 and named after the first member elected to represent the area in the House of Assembly in 1888. Also worth visiting is the 26-m-high Tsitsa Falls, situated a few kilometres outside the town. The clear mountain streams around Maclear are a popular drawcard with trout anglers.

UGIE

...developed around the mission station established in 1863 on the banks of the Inxu River by the Reverend William Murray. The mission was named after a river of the same name in Aberdeenshire, Scotland, near Murray's place of birth. The town was founded in 1885 when land was sold, and it remains an agricultural centre today. An extensive collection of agricultural implements and equipment can be seen in the town's Tractor Museum. To the northwest of Ugie lies the picturesque Prentjiesberg ('picture mountain'), with its interesting crenellated spires and rocky turrets. The mountain was named after the numerous rock paintings (attributed to the San) found in the caves and overhangs. The streams in the area are well stocked with trout.

ELLIOT

Laid out in a valley of the Slang River, the farming town of Elliot is set against a backdrop of rugged mountains with magnificent sandstone formations. The town was established in 1885, and its name honours Sir Henry George Elliot, Chief Magistrate of the Transkeian territories from 1891 to 1902. Its Xhosa name, Ekowa, means 'mushroom', a reference to the fungi growing in the area in summer. To the northeast of Elliot, the scenery is dominated by the Gatberg, which rises 440 m above the valley below. This landmark owes its Afrikaans name (meaning 'hole mountain') to the hole that has been eroded through the softer strata near its summit. The Xhosa name, uNtunjinkala, means 'crab's opening'. The majestic 80-m-high Gillie Cullem Waterfall lies 18 km south of the town.

BARKLY PASS

...meanders for 10 km from Elliot over the southern Drakensberg on your South African holiday. From the 2 012-m-high summit there are magnificent vistas of the rolling grasslands, deep ravines and valleys lying more than 600 m below, and on a clear day the Indian Ocean can be seen some 80 km away. Interesting natural rock sculptures, such as Camel Rock, Vulture's Roost and the Castle, can be viewed from several vantage points to the west of the summit.

DINORBIN ROCK PAINTINGS

Although many of the caves and overhangs in the Eastern Cape Drakensberg are adorned with beautiful rock paintings, the Dinorbin site features one of the longest known galleries in South Africa. Stretching over a distance of 32 m, the paintings (attributed to the San) include rhebok, human figures in various postures, therianthropes (partly animal, partly human forms) and large eland.

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