On the eastern side of the Drakensberg Escarpment, facing away from the Blyde River Canyon, is the Mariepskop complex, a mountain enclave and centre of endemism of unsurpassed beauty. You can ascend to the top where, at 1,945m above sea level, you can see the Indian Ocean and Maputo on a clear day. Mariepskop is the higest peak in the northern Drakensberg Escarpment. The view is fantastic.
Ironically, its height has led to the presence of the military radar equipment on the top of the mountain that has caused its preservation. Development has been restricted and a natural wilderness has resulted. This lump of hardware (along with its attendant masts) is visible from the local area, and will help you to identify the location of the mountain.
Mariepskop Mountain is unique in its floral diversity. The foothills are in the Savannah. It is the source of the Klaserie River. On the slopes and in the kloofs and crags, montane forest species can be found. The semi-detached grassland hilltops are poorly studied, but are represented by grassland species and highly protected cycads species. The top of the mountain is a combination of tropical mist forest and capensis 'fynbos' species.
Mariepskop contains well over 2,000 plant species, greater than the whole of Kruger Park and far exceeding Table Mountain's plant diversity. There are over 1,400 floral species.
For example, there are 900 species of Psychotria in the world, 200 in Africa, and only two in South Africa- both are found on Mariepskop Mountain. They are Psychotria capensis (Black bird-berry) and Psychotria zombamontana (Red bird-berry).
The diverse conditions also give rise to 905 vertebrate species including 58 faunal endemics and 109 faunal red data book species. Both the Mariepskop Dwarf Chameleon (Bradypodion spp. Indet.) and Three Rondawels Flat Gecko (Afrodeura sp Indet.) appear to have been isolated locally through natural island biogeography. Unusual local mammals include the Samango monkey.
The botanical wonders of these high altitude afromontane forests can be witnessed while walking some unforgettable trails laid out under the forest canopy.
This is a place of wonderful solitude. It is more than likely that you will have the spectacular indigenous forest to yourself. To make the most of this opportunity, it is worth considering staying overnight at the basic facilities offered by the Department of Water Affairs and Forestry.
ACCOMMODATION AND ACTIVITIES
The most basic overnight options are to camp or occupy one of two 5-bed chalets with electricity, stove, crockery, pots and pans, a microwave oven, braai area and wood. Recently, the Mapulaneng Log Cabins have been added, offering more intimate units with higher levels of creature comfort. In either case, you will need to bring your own basic supplies.
Mountain biking is currently permitted (please check at the time of booking). Note that some trails are only available to overnight visitors. Rock climbing is similarly limited to visitors who stay.
Note that you will need a ** PERMIT ** to undertake any of the activities at Mariepskop from visiting the falls (left) to staying at the chalets. To book camping, the chalets or log cabins, telephone/fax DWAF at their local office at Mariepskop Forestry Station on +27 (0)15 793 2581/3.
Check locally for current availability of Guides. The Bushpig, Loerie and Magi Day Trails normally cost R50 with a Guide.
SABirding recommends a full day's exploration of the Mariepskop forests, which they describe as "an essential part of a [birding] visit to this area".
A number of highly localised Mpumalanga birds can be found here, including Black-fronted Bush-Shrike, Southern Tchagra, Bush Blackcap, Square-tailed Drongo and Brown Scrub-Robin.
There have also been tantalizing reports of Eastern Bronze-naped Pigeon being seen. Spend a few hours in the morning on the forest trail, scanning the undergrowth for Lemon Dove, Terrestrial Brownbul, Orange Ground-Thrush, Chorister Robin-Chat, White-starred Robin and Brown Scrub-Robin.
Mixed feeding parties usually hold Cape Batis, Yellow-streaked Greenbul, Yellow-throated Woodland-Warbler, Cape White-eye and Olive Bush-Shrike, and keep an eye on the forest canopy for Grey Cuckooshrike, Narina Trogon and the much sought after Black-fronted Bush-Shrike.
Dense Curry-bush thickets closer to the summit are excellent habitat for Barratt's Warbler, and the odd Bush Blackcap. African Crowned Eagle breed here and can regularly be seen over the forest. Check forest verges and clearings for Red-necked Spurfowl, Swee Waxbill, Green Twinspot and Forest Canary.