The Drakensberg is the highest mountain range in Southern Africa, rising to 3,482 metres (11,424 ft) in height. In Zulu, it is referred to as uKhahlamba ("barrier of spears"), and in Sesotho as Maluti (also spelled Maloti).
Its geological history lends it a distinctive character amongst the mountain ranges of the world. Geologically, the range resembles the Simien Mountains of Ethiopia.The Drakensberg mountains cover Eastern Cape, KwaZulu Natal, Lesotho, Swaziland, Mpumalanga and end in Tzaneen in Limpopo Province.
The highest peak is Thabana Ntlenyana, at 3,482 metres (11,424 ft). Other notable peaks include Mafadi at 3,450 m, Makoaneng at 3,416 m, Njesuthi at 3,408 m, Champagne Castle at 3,377 m, Giant's Castle at 3,315 m, Ben Macdhui at 3,001 m, and Popple Peak at 3331m, all of these are in the area bordering on Lesotho. Another popular area for hikers is Cathedral Peak.
North of Lesotho the range becomes lower and less rugged until entering Mpumalanga where the quartzite mountains of the Transvaal Drakensberg are loftier and more broken and form the eastern rim of the Transvaal Basin, the Blyde River Canyon lying within this stretch. The geology of this section is the same as and continuous with that of the Magaliesberg.
The high treeless peaks of the Drakensberg (from 2,500 m upwards) have been described by the World Wildlife Fund as the Drakensberg alti-montane grasslands and woodlands ecoregion.These steep slopes are the most southerly high mountains in Africa, and being further from the equator provide cooler habitats at lower elevations than most mountain ranges on the continent. The high rainfall generates many mountain streams and rivers, including the sources of the Orange River, southern Africa's longest, and the Tugela River.
The mountains are rich in plant life, including a large number of species listed in the Red Data Book of threatened plants, with 119 species listed as globally endangered" and "of the 2 153 plant species in the park, a remarkable 98 are endemic or near-endemic".The flora of the high alti-montane grasslands is mainly tussock grass, creeping plants, and small shrubs such as ericas. These include the rare Spiral Aloe (Aloe polyphylla), which as its name suggests has leaves with a spiral shape.
Meanwhile the lower slopes are mainly grassland but are also home to conifers, which are rare in Africa, the species of conifer found in the Drakensberg is Podocarpus.The grassland itself is of interest as it contains a great number of endemic plants. Grasses found here include oat grass Monocymbium ceresiiforme, Diheteropogon filifolius, Sporobolus centrifugus, caterpillar grass (Harpochloa falx), Cymbopogon dieterlenii, and Eulalia villosa.
The Drakenberg area is "home to 299 recorded bird species"' making up "37% of all non-marine avian species in southern Africa."
The high slopes are hard to reach so the environment is fairly undamaged. However, tourism in the Drakensberg is developing, with a variety of hiking trails, hotels and resorts appearing on the slopes. Most of the higher South African parts of the range have been designated as game reserves or wilderness areas. Of these the UKhahlamba / Drakensberg Park was listed by UNESCO in 2000 as a World Heritage site. The park is also in the List of Wetlands of International Importance (under the Ramsar Convention).
Towns and cities in the Drakensberg area include: in KwaZulu-Natal South Africa; Ladysmith, the large town Newcastle, the former Zulu capital Ulundi, the coal-mining centre Dundee and Ixopo; and further south Matatiele and Barkly East in Eastern Cape Province, Tzaneen in Limpopo Province, plus all of Lesotho, whose capital is Maseru. The hilly landscape extends north from the Drakensberg as Swaziland, whose capital is Mbabane.