Die Drakensberge, or “Dragon Mountains”, is a very special South African region that’s suffused with ancient mythology, African history and dramatic geological activity. We took the new Mercedes-Benz ML400 on a spectacular mountain journey 150 millions years in the making.
The Zulu name for the Drakensberg mountains is uKhahlamba – The Barrier of Spears. It is a name that needs no explanation. With its frequent sharp peaks it does indeed look like a barrier of spears – an impenetrable wall that guards some mystical kingdom.
The origin of the Afrikaans name, Drakensberge, which means “dragon mountains” and is the name by which most people know the region, is less clear. Although the tips of the various mountains do look like the spiked back of a dragon, dragons aren’t often found in South African mythology. So who decided to name this range the Drakensberg mountains?
There seems to be no clear answer. The explanation proffered most often, though, is that the range received its name when an Afrikaans father and son reported seeing a dragon flying through the clouds above the mountains.
Now, if the region truly is home to a dragon, it is yet to make a second appearance. What is far more likely is that, as they gazed at the mountain range, the tips of some of the peaks pierced the clouds, creating a green dragon-like form above them.
Whatever the reason behind the Drakensberg name, there is no denying that it is a mystical place. When the clouds roll in, blocking out the sun and enveloping the mountaintops in a grey shroud, it isn’t hard to believe that a dragon really has made these mountains its home.
The Drakensberg mountains are some of the oldest in the world – having been created about 150 million years ago when the supercontinent Gondwanaland broke apart. As the newly created African continent was stretched and torn in the process, giant fissures opened up, spewing magma and creating the dramatic mountain range we know today.
Fast-forward to around 6000 BC, and we find the southern tip of Africa largely inhabited by the San. The mountains, though, with their harsh terrain and inclement weather, were uninhabited. But increasing pressure from Bantu tribes forced them into the mountains where they often found shelter in caves. The San are gone today – the last San people were spotted in the Drakensberg in the late 1870s – but their rock art can still be found here. In fact, the region boasts the greatest concentration of rock art in Africa.
As an interesting aside, there is a distinct possibility that the San were still active in the region as late as the 1920s. In 1925 a local farmer by the name of Anton Lombard discovered something very unusual in rock art-adorned shelter called the Eland Cave. Sitting on a ledge was a San bow and 22 arrows – the heads of the arrows still shiny with poison. Everything was wrapped in an animal skin that looked reasonably fresh.
Had Lombard stumbled upon evidence that the San hadn’t left the region after all? His discovery has never been satisfactorily explained. The bow and arrows can now be found at the KwaZulu-Natal Museum in Pietermaritzburg.
About 10 years after Lombard made his strange find in the Eland Cave, Albert van der Riet, a young farmer who had been raised in the region, convinced his father to purchase a piece of land at the foot of the Cathedral Peak. Izak Buys, the owner of the land didn’t have much use for the 1500 acres of land, since it was too difficult to farm on, so he sold it to the Van Der Riets for £1288 (R2576). It was Albert’s aim to build a hotel on this piece of land.
AT THE FOOT OF THE CATHEDRAL
The hotel that Albert eventually built, as many of you undoubtedly know, still stands today and is called the Cathedral Peak Hotel. It was here that we headed in the new Mercedes-Benz ML400.
Travelling to such a mesmerising and dramatic location in the ML400 is a slightly surreal experience. One can’t help but feel like a character from Star Trek or HG Wells’ The Time Machine. Your progress isn’t measured only in distance, but also in time. In a certain sense, you are given a unique opportunity to time-travel.
As you enter the Drakensberg region you see a younger, more primordial world. Not only can you seek out the San rock paintings that depict a very different life from our own technology-driven existence, but you are also faced with the fact that the ground beneath our feet is constantly changing. A human lifetime might provide only a snapshot of the geological changes that our planet is constantly undergoing, but a place such as the Drakensberg allows you to peer into the past and see how the Earth has evolved.
When lava ceased to flow about 140 million years ago in the area, erosion set in, which was the cause of the scraggly peaks and valleys we know today. Erosion took place at around 1,42mm a year. Over a period of 140 million years, that equates to 200km of erosion!
This dramatic geological activity has, of course, turned the Drakensberg mountains into a wonderful playground filled with steep and winding mountain bike trails, superb but tough hiking trails and lovely rock pools perfect for swimming and fishing.
For this reason, the region is a very popular holiday destination, especially for families who enjoy an active outdoor lifestyle.
The Cathedral Peak Hotel is one of the most popular venues in the area. 2014 marks its 75th year of existence, and predictably, it has changed a lot over the years. It started small, but now boasts no less than 104 rooms. Although it retains its Old World charm and sense of decorum (no shorts are allowed in the dining hall at dinnertime), it has become a very family-focused hotel. There are countless activities, such as hiking (obviously), golfing, horse riding, fishing, mountain biking, quad biking, swimming, rock climbing and even helicopter flips – all aimed at keeping families entertained.
THE TIME MACHINE
Now that the scene has been set, let’s discuss our choice of transport for a moment. Like any respectable “time machine”, the ML400 wed rove was kitted to the hilt with the latest vehicle technology. Mercedes-Benz, after all, is renowned for its electronic wizardry.
Unsurprisingly, the ML400 boasted standard features such as active park assist, cruise control, automatic start/stop and climate control. The model we tested was also equipped with optional extras such as Merc’s lane tracking package, a reversing camera, panoramic sliding roof, intelligent light system and temperature controlled cup holders.
Arguably the most impressive bit of kit, though, was Merc’s R23 500 Comand online package, which added all sorts of features to the vehicle’s infotainment system. Some of them were predictable and pretty standard, such as an auxiliary jack and USB connection, as well as hands-free Bluetooth and an SD card slot. A standout feature, though, was the Linguatronic voice control system that allows you to manage the infotainment system with your voice. This sort of thing has the potential to be frustrating and inept, but Mercedes-Benz’s system actually worked very well for us. Another good feature was the satellite navigation system. It was easy to select a destination with the help of the voice command system, and we were offered real-time traffic reports. If the system detected a traffic jam ahead, it automatically adjusted the route.
Apart form the comfort and entertainment extras, the ML400 also had the company’s R23 100 on- and off-road package, which equips the M-Class with low-range gearing and multiple drive programs that can adapt it for optimal off-road performance. While this add-on can be useful, and can allow the ML to venture surprisingly far off the beaten path, it has to be said that the latest M-Class does its best work on tar.
This is especially true of the latest addition to the M-Class range – the ML400. Now, while its badge might read “400”, a three-litre V6 petrol mill actually lurks beneath the bonnet, but it nevertheless delivers very impressive performance. It generates 245 kW of power and 480 Nm of torque, and is mated to Mercedes-Benz’s 7G-Tronic automatic transmission.
With that engine/gearbox combo working away, the ML400 is an absolute joy to drive. This is a large and heavy SUV, but that bulk isn’t apparent when you’re seated behind the steering wheel. The vehicle has a tremendous amount of oomph, accelerating the moment you put your foot down. The auto ’box is also silky smooth, delivering linear power and nearly imperceptible gear shifts.
On a twisty road, the ML hugs the tarmac with aplomb. Body roll is at a minimum and the vehicle seems very surefooted. The steering wheel also offers wonderful feedback, allowing you to feel what’s happening on the road beneath you. None of these things, however, came as much of a surprise. Stepping into a Mercedes-Benz, one generally knows what to expect, and the latest M-Class doesn’t disappoint. It delivers the smooth and effortless sort of performance you expect from the marque.
Despite uneven road surfaces and the occasional pothole, the M-Class remained nimble and confident as we approached Cathedral Peak. Thanks to that burly powerplant, the steep inclines did nothing to slow its pace either.
And heading to a luxurious retreat nestled in the magical Drakensberg mountains, it was tough to imagine a vehicle better suited to the task – powerful, fun to drive, well equipped, spacious, comfortable and, should it be necessary, enough off-road ability to tackle a rocky road.
The Cathedral Peak Hotel is a strange mix of primeval landscapes and contemporary luxuries. The hotel offers all the amenities one could ask for, but is located in an untouched corner of southern Africa, amidst some of the oldest mountains in the world. So travelling in an M-Class is a rather apt way to get there. The vehicle is modern in every sense of the word, but it remains a vehicle designed to explore destinations off the beaten path. Yes, it does its best work on tar, but it can go far enough off road not to seem out of place in Africa.
As we traversed the last twisty bit of tarmac that led to the Cathedral Peak Hotel, the view in front of us very reminiscent of a scene set in the Alps, the M-Class seemed to suit its surroundings perfectly.
In that vehicle on that road amidst those surroundings, the moment was perfect. Magical. Timeless.
Engine: Three-litre, V6 , twin-turbo, petrol
Power: 245 kW @ 5500 r/min
Torque: 480 Nm @ 1400 r/min
Transmission: 7G-Tronic seven-speed automatic
Fuel consumption: 9,3 litres per 100km (claimed)
Retail price: R807 000
Price as tested: R932 010
CATHEDRAL PEAK HOTEL
Located in the unspoiled surroundings of the Drakensberg mountain range (a World Heritage Site) is the Cathedral Peak Hotel, one of South Africa’s most famous resort hotels.
Just 250km from Durban and 400km from Johannesburg, the Cathedral Peak Hotel is easily accessible. Because of this it is one of the ’Berg’s most popular destinations, especially amongst families. There is no shortage of activities for the whole family, including hiking, horse riding, golfing, rock climbing, swimming, quad biking and mountain biking.
Since the hotel first opened to guests in 1939, the Van Der Riet family has succeeded in offering warm hospitality, combined with exceptional service and value for money. At the moment, the hotel has 104 rooms, including superior rooms, suites and family rooms. Rates include breakfast and dinner, which are served in the hotel’s lovel dining room.
For more information, visit www.cathedralpeak.co.za; or phone 036 488-1888. You can also send an e-mail to [email protected]