If there is an example of how the social transformation in South Africa has had a positive impact on landscape photography, then the Mnweni area must be it. Buried in the central region of the Drakensberg, between Royal Natal to the north and Cathedral Peak in the south, the Mnweni is a landscape revered by hikers and celebrated by photographers. Regrettably, the region also has a reputation for hostility, forged by a sordid history of cattle rustling, dagga smuggling and even violent attacks on visitors. With a standing of this nature, it is little wonder that the location does not rank highly in KZN tourist brochures and yet – as those in the know will tell you – it arguably offers one of the most authentic Drakensberg experiences available today. Fortunately, my recent visit to the region suggests that this dreadful reputation should be confined to history books and that the area is primed for photography.
The name Mnweni can be somewhat ambiguous for those who are unfamiliar with the region as it encompasses a river, a mountain pass and, in more general terms, the portion of the Drakensberg that extends from the Cathedral Peak ridgeline through to the Eastern Buttress of the Amphitheatre. Notably, this stretch of the escarpment is particularly forbidding with a collection of lofty peaks and steep craggy gorges that form an imposing mountain fortress. A network of passes ascends the steep flanks of this alpine citadel – passes that even at their most benign are terribly unforgiving.
The extreme environment combined with the previously inhospitable residents meant that, for many years, the Mnweni was the preserve of only those with considerable mountain experience and scant regard for personal safety. Yet, such is human nature, that, despite the obvious threats, the area never lost its appeal. Individuals seeking to pit themselves against what is perhaps the Drakensberg’s most challenging setting continued to line up for ascents of the great routes. The Ifidi, Fangs, Rockeries and Mnweni passes, even at the height of hostilities, were sought after additions to every hiker’s résumé, and this remains true to this day.
In all fairness, contest alone was not responsible for outdoor enthusiasts throwing caution to the wind. All the paths that make their way up to the escarpment in the Mnweni area are likely to leave you both breathless and at a loss for words. The land is characterised by numerous peaks and spires that stand free of their founding cliff line. The pinnacles are affectionately said to resemble the spires of Europe’s basilicas, and it is from this metaphor that several of these spectacular summits earned their divine titles: Madonna and her Worshipers, Mbundini Abbey, the Twelve Apostles.
It goes without saying, then, that many of the most dramatic photographs of the region are captured either ascending or from atop one of the territory’s highpoints. Add low-hanging clouds to scenes that already contain rocky cathedrals and cavernous valleys and what you have is a recipe for photographic success.
As much as the images captured from elevated vantage points are spectacular, they are not the only ones on offer. Views from the valley floor are impressive too. Several of the rivers that continue to carve out the valleys of the Mnweni coalesce and meander their way along a lowland plain that is particularly flat. This watercourse provides numerous opportunities for photographers to capture images of the Drakensberg with scenes anchored by the crystal waters of a mountain stream.
The waterway with the greatest photographic potential is the Thonyelana. This river flows into the Mnweni Valley from a southerly direction and, when one looks upstream, offers outstanding views of the Saddle. For those photographers who want to avoid high mountain expeditions, I cannot think of a better spot to take photos of the Drakensberg. The location is incredibly easy to access from the main gravel road, and the rise of the riverbed is so gentle that exploration of the valley floor is all but effortless. Views of the Saddle have had but a fraction of the photographic attention lavished on the nearby – and better known – Cathedral Peak, making finding a unique and compelling angle significantly easier.
The absence of photos from the Thonyelana River speaks volumes about the one aspect of the Mnweni that haunts it to this day – its residents. Aside from geological attributes, the characteristic that sets the Mnweni apart from all other regions of the Drakensberg is the fact that it is occupied by the amaNgwane tribe. The idea that an area of natural significance is home to people is unheard of by most tourists, and when this fact is coupled with an acrimonious past, it is not surprising that the Mnweni sees few visitors wielding cameras.
I am ordinarily of the opinion that people should be removed from regions of environmental importance in order to best preserve the resource. However, there is something inexplicably humbling about children running to school in the shadow of snow-covered mountains. There is an inescapable feeling that the coexistence of humanity and nature, as displayed in the Mnweni, is, in fact, how 'nature' intended it. The authenticity of the region has as much to do with the citizens as it does the untamed mountains. My time spent wandering the foothills was filled with nothing other than the cheerful smiles and waves of people who call the Drakensberg home. There was absolutely no sense of malice present, even amongst those who had clearly enjoyed one too many.
Now, despite my rediscovered fondness for the Mnweni region and its inhabitants, I am not for one moment suggesting that everything is right with the world and that people with nefarious intent do not exist. Instead, what I hope you take away from this piece is the certainty that the past is in the past. There is still risk attached to visiting the area, and one should not be too cavalier during any such excursion. However, it is also reasonable to contend that of the present dangers, the environment is by far the greatest – not the residents. So, whether you are in search of some high mountain adventure or simply a new location to hunt down the next addition to your portfolio, the Mnweni comes highly recommended.
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