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Much like the feeling of hopeful possibility that I’d experienced when delving into the charmingly illustrated book titled “Big Panda and Tiny Dragon”, I felt like I’d been catapulted into a magical world when I visited the vast and layered landscapes below the majestic Northern Drakensberg mountains.
The Northern Drakensberg is home to the iconic Drakensberg Amphitheatre, a 5 km legendary wall of rock that frames the Bergville landscape below. This part of the mighty Drakensberg (“dragon mountain”) lies inland on the eastern edge of South Africa and encircles our landlocked neighbour of Lesotho. Like the symbolic dragon, the Drakensberg feels somewhat mythical in its presence.
Here, in the Berg, this place of open natural space and immense beauty holds a potent feeling of great potential waiting to be unleashed...
From Joburg, it’s a three-and-a-half hour drive to the Berg for a long weekend of adventure or relaxation. In the other direction, from Bergville to the coast – with a similar travel time – the route goes through Winterton and the Midlands Meander towards Durban.
The allure of visiting the rural Berg is strong. Natural splendours, adventure activities and accommodation options abound. Known as the gateway to the Northern Berg, Bergville is a small town and what people call the surrounding rural areas too. The area is scattered with sizeable holiday resorts with names like Alpine Heath and Champagne Sports. Plus, I’d heard about Champagne Castle, Cathedral Peak Hotel and Dragon Peak Mountain Resort. But for most people living in this landscape, daily life is centred on basic tasks.
The vast expanse of the Northern Drakensberg is one of our 22 strategic water source areas. These catchment areas collectively account for a small land area of only 10% of South Africa, Lesotho and Eswatini. Yet they provide half of our country’s surface water! These special water-intensive areas provide clean water for all users downstream. They are essential for the healthy functioning of nature, for citizens and the economy.
The Northern Drakensberg is the source of many great rivers, including the Tugela – or uThukela – home to the highest waterfall in Africa and the second highest in the world. “Thukela” in isiZulu means “something which startles”. This is fitting for the incredible 983 m Tugela Falls as it drops over the edge of the impressive Drakensberg Amphitheatre within the Royal Natal National Park.
On the upper reaches of the Tugela River, the Woodstock Dam looks like a silver snake slithering into the distance as we look down the valley. With its name reminiscent of the famous US music festival, this dam serves mostly municipal and industrial purposes and is used for the Thukela-Vaal Inter-Basin Transfer Scheme. On the other side of the town of Bergville is Spioenkop Dam, which impounds the Tugela River and is mostly used for irrigation in these parts.
These dams are important for the economy. But most people who live in these rural parts of Bergville don’t have access to the piped and tapped water fed from the dams below.
The most common water source on the fertile grass-rich slopes of the Berg is from the sporadic natural springs that bubble up from underground. While rivers are generally accessible at the lower points in a landscape, where the dams also tend to be, springs are found on the higher slopes.
This is also where many people build their homes, dotted across the plateaus where they can graze their livestock and collect water from a spring within manageable walking distance. But these springs are not always safe for human consumption as the cattle can muddy the water, and contaminants from dirty nappies and animal dung introduce harmful bacteria.
In the Berg landscape of the “big dragon”, through a WWF-funded project with an on-the-ground project partner, a glimmer of hope has arrived in the form of safeguarding a well-placed perennial spring. This one Bergville spring has been secured in a way that allows it to continue providing water for the environment, not blocking or damming the water’s flow to ensure there is adequate overflow for wildlife, livestock and other downstream users to get their fair share.
Since starting the work of securing many natural springs in the Eastern Cape Drakensberg, WWF funded the Mahlathini Development Foundation in early 2022 to safeguard a spring for a rural Bergville community in KwaZulu-Natal. With a fence to protect the upwelling source of the spring and a pipe to channel the spring water, residents can easily collect flowing water.
The “tiny panda” input – WWF-enabled, Pepsico-funded – contributes to an exciting water-focused partnership of multiple organisations working in the Berg. Together, the partners are developing a model for operationalising a partnership called the Northern Drakensberg Collaborative.
I can see the need – and the value – to unite the many organisations and NGOs who know the Berg’s potential, revel in its beauty and invest in its people and landscapes to ensure its longevity. Partners include various local and national representatives from government, academia, local communities and NGOs, and this disparate group is convened by the Institute of Natural Resources, Mahlathini Development Foundation, Wildlands Trust and WWF South Africa around a shared vision of securing this special landscape for generations to come.
In May 2023, we’d sat in a multistakeholder meeting in Bergville that was balanced in both English and isiZulu in its delivery – matching the mix of attendees. The passion and commitment from the questions confirmed the interest and excitement in ensuring that more can be done through collaboration to unite the energies, harness the potential and connect the dots of this broad and beautiful water-rich region of the Berg.
While I had wondered what the safeguarding of one spring means in a landscape as vast as the Berg, that May meeting and one of my favourite Big Dragon and Tiny Panda quotes reminds me:
“I can’t believe how far we’ve got to go,” said Tiny Dragon.
“I can’t believe how far we’ve come,” said Big Panda.
After experiencing this brief window into the beauty and potential of the mighty Drakensberg and the newly formed Northern Drakensberg Collaborative, I hope that it expands and grows through the seasons to protect more local springs, benefit more rural residents and ensure that the stunning landscapes are protected for more people to visit and marvel at their mythical wonder.
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