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Africa’s Dragon Mountain

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Close to where Africa tapers toward the Antarctic Ocean, a massive mountain divides and dominates the continent. Its rugged spine reminded early settlers of a dragon. It’s easy to see why their imagination saw a fire-spitting monster in the Drakensberg. The lush upper reaches of these mountain rivers are a favourite range of the world's biggest antelope.

Writer & Director: Lynne & Philip Richardson
Camera: Philip Richardson
Edit: Jörg Achatz, Dave Dickie
Sound Edit: Cornelius Wildner, Florian Camerer
Dubbing Mixer: Cornelius Wildner
Choir: Insingizi
Music: Kurt Adametz

A Production of ORF and Africa Wildlife Films in association with thirteen, WDR and BBC

The Drakensberg is a monument to one of the most dramatic upheavals in the life of our planet - the breaking-up of the continent of Gondwana. In the Jurassic era, the earth rent open, splitting Gondwana into Africa, South America and Antarctica.Gigantic outpours of molten rock flooded the ancient sandstone surface, building layer upon layer.

Even after 170 million years of changing climates, grinding glaciers and tropical torrents working away at these mountains, the enormous mass of basalt rock still towers nearly a mile high. Relentless erosion has sculpted shapes that inspired the name the native Zulus gave the Drakensberg: The Rank of Upright Spears.

On a continent where humankind keeps closing in on wildlife, the high grasslands of the Drakensberg remain a precious refuge for the eland. Eland are almost as big as oxen. Bulls stand nearly six feet tall and can boast a bulk of more than 700 kilos. They are not natural climbers like ibex or chamoix. Now, in early summer, the eland can graze contentedly in the gentle grasslands of the lower valleys.

The mighty basalt bastions are literally built on sand. The smooth, protected sandstone cliffs at the base of the Drakensberg are an open-air gallery of primeval rock art. The artists who recorded such superb observations of wildlife might well be called the forefathers of natural history documentarists. The hunter-gatherer clans who painted these images have long disappeared, but the eland are still around.

The grassy base of the Drakensberg’s rocky ramparts is the home range of a clan of climbers. The Chacma baboons that are born here never roam far from the cliffs that offer protection against predators and the Drakensberg’s sometimes extreme weather. It’s good to relax in a peaceful place where you can enjoy the sun and quickly scramble to safety in case an enemy should appear. Chacma or Savannah baboons, like eland, are usually associated with Africa’s savannah plains, but a few groups have found that the high terrain has its advantages, especially when bringing up offspring.

In summer - December to February in the southern hemisphere - easterly winds prevail. These winds bring masses of moisture from the Indian Ocean which is only some 150 kilometres away. For the residents, this can mean a cold, wet snap at the very outset of the warm season. The changeable weather is another reason why the baboons appreciate their cliff-base. Even when the rain pours down for an entire week, many overhangs provide a roof over their heads.

There’s no such luck for the eland. Their only protection are their smooth, water-repellent coats and their huge bodies. But young calves, with their relatively tiny body mass, are vulnerable to such exposure, so now the mothers have to keep them moving. When the skies open up again, the herds will soon recover and be rewarded for their endurance by fresh, green grass.

At this season and in this weather, the nursing herd hardly ever stops. Eland are nomads, and their range is enormous. It’s time for the mothers to take their calves to higher ground where the mountain pastures are just beginning to green.

There’s only one thing that can draw a crowd like that from the sky. After the Cape vultures have crowded in, the bearded vulture - the majesty among the scavengers - is the last to descend from the blue. The strain of the past few weeks has been too much for one of the younger calves. Resting in peace is not the way to go in this harsh landscape. In a few hours, every trace of the little tragedy will be gone. The bearded vulture will even clear away the bones.

Bearded vultures are huge, with a wing-span of nearly three metres. These big birds are master gliders. With hardly a wing-beat, they surf the thermal up-winds along the Drakensberg’s sun-baked cliffs.This one is carrying a load of several kilos in its claws. The huge bone precisely hit its target - a flat rock - and broke into manageable pieces. This is how bearded vultures get to the marrow. Bearded vultures can completely digest bone. Next morning, all that will be left of these bones will be a bright white splash of chalk below the vulture’s roost.

After a steady climb, the eland have reached the lofty summer pastures of the Middle Drakensberg. Here, the grass is getting greener by the day. This rich and colourful beauty holds a paradox: The Drakensberg’s range of wildflowers reflects the mountain’s harsh climate.

Most of them are perennials the same, deeply-rooted plants will blossom year after year. Plants that die each year and depend on seeds to germinate in the next have little chance up here because in a bad year, unreliable weather will frustrate germination and flowering.

Unlike the roaming eland, the Chacma baboons are sedentary and never venture far from the safety of the rocky terrain. In good weather, when there are no predators around, they roam nearby mountain meadows to harvest herbs, insects and small rodents. Not all meadows are the same. Vast green areas are covered with grass that’s hardly edible for baboons or eland. Overgrazing has favoured grasses that are avoided by the herds. Although such meadows may look lush, they offer little in terms of food.

The quality of the grazing also changes with the weather, and there are few places in Africa where the weather is as changeable as in the Drakensberg range. Too much or too little rain can both mean hunger for the herds. When the grass becomes useless, eland can turn to browsing among shrubs and trees. In fact, in savannahs across Africa where bush-land and trees are abundant, eland will browse rather than graze.

The approach of autumn is heralded by a change of winds. Their tide turns, from warm, moisture-laden easterlies to dry westerlies sweeping in from the cold Atlantic across the sand seas of the Namib Desert. Within weeks, these desert winds turn the green flanks of the Drakensberg brown.

Generally, two out of three eland calves will not make it through their first year. In the wake of any herd there are scavengers, hoping for weak individuals to fall by the wayside. The herd is constantly under careful observation. Any victim of hunger and exhaustion will feed an eager crowd. The strong vulture population of the Drakensberg gives a good indication of the high mortality of big animals in this region.

The plateaus of the Middle Mountain are criss-crossed by river canyons. Even though the plateaus and slopes are dry at this time of year, there is a constant flow of water down in these canyons. Drawn by the green vegetation along the river banks, the eland have followed a river upstream. But the strip of green along the river is narrow, and pickings are not great. Soon, the herd will have to move on again and trek in earnest up the mountain.

The herd is setting out on the big trek up to the highest pastures. For the calves, every step of this journey is new. The older animals have been through this annual cycle before. They know that the grass is truly greener on the far side of the hill. For the first time on their journey, they appear more drawn by expected abundance than pushed by lack of food. Steep as their path is, the eland are moving fast now, driven by impatience.

The highest peaks of the Drakensberg range are 3400 metres high. The eland are known to use passes climbing to an altitude of 2800 metres. Most of the high grassland up here is way above 2000 metres. The grass is delicious up here. However, the alpine region of the Drakensberg is as dangerous as any high mountain range. The weather can change within the hour.

Lightning may strike anywhere. If the wind picks up, the fire can race across the land faster than any animal can run. Instinctively, the eland rush to lower ground. Nevertheless, their luck completely depends on the wind. The fire gathers momentum and sweeps on, kilometre by kilometre.Soon, the entire mountain is shrouded in smoke. Even when the animals can escape being fried alive, there is a danger of suffocating.

Within hours, the mountain paradise has turned into a real hell, bringing to mind the literal meaning of Drakensberg - the dragon mountain, the fire-spitting monster. The fire has spent itself. The smell of charred vegetation will fill the air for weeks to come.

The bearded vulture glides over scorched slopes and smoke-filled canyons, knowing there will be a rich aftermath. The eland have escaped the fire, but now the Drakensberg seems set to starve them out. Instead of fresh pasture, all they can smell is cold smoke. Anything that survived the fire - grass roots - is now under ground.

The eland have reached another high valley, but the pasture here shows clear signs of overgrazing. The grass cover is ripped open by hundreds of hooves, and the grass has been cropped. Others have been here before. The herd has no choice - it has to move on again. And it’s getting late in the year.

The fogs are getting chillier, and as autumn days shorten, the Drakensberg, after the firestorms, turns to its other extreme: Night temperatures are dropping below freezing. Winter is round the corner.

A baby baboon must have lost its way and succumbed to exposure and hunger. The father takes his dead infant back to where it was born. Both parents show signs of deep dismay. To them, this seems to be a heavy loss - the loss of their offspring.

The rugged basalt cliffs near the top of the Drakensberg are an improbable haunt for a bulky antelope - but even here, generations of eland have made a path. The path leads along the cliffs to a plateau that seems deserted. Surprisingly, even at this time of the year, there is edible grass up here. The world’s largest antelope has conquered the largest mountain in its native range.

Before the first winter storms hit, the eland have to be gone. The eland are under pressure now to build up fat reserves for the cold season. As the first Antarctic front rolls in from the south, the calves get their first taste of a high mountain winter , not snow yet, but a hailstorm. And then, silently, snow begins to fall.

If any African antelope can cope with cold weather, it’s the eland, simply due to its great body mass. But the eland’s metabolism is really designed for a hot, dry desert habitat. The herd may take a day or two of such weather, but they cannot stay up here in winter.

The worst of the Antarctic front has passed. Now, every hour of sunshine is appreciated. If it were not for these traces, it would seem a fantasy that giant antelopes would have ever trodden this mountain. But the eland have simply moved down and away, seeking the lower valleys that already show the first signs of spring.

On their way past the sandstone cliffs, in the foothills of the Drakensberg, the eland, once more, have passed the ancient record of their everlasting journey. Their own record has been inscribed right into the mountainside of the Drakensberg, legible only from the air. Generation after generation, thousands of hooves have scarred the delicate ground, marking an ideal line through impossible terrain - a strait and narrow path through seasons, years, millennia.

This rock of ages, ancient as it may seem, is itself a creation of the everlasting flow of things. The Drakensberg is a monument to change - cataclysmic at the outset, then slow and steady, through millions and millions of years - and somewhat different every time the sun goes down.

Bottomline, the music on this programm was very important and in making the score I put my focus on developing an african sound. Fortunately I got the famous a capella singers `Insingizi` on board. These guys from Zimbabwe created an unique, remarkable and authentic sound. Working together was an outstanding, great challenge and finally a big success.

Fotos: Copyright by Afrika Wildlife Films