The beautiful scenery that is so much part of the Drakensberg experience has a dramatic past going back one hundred and forty million years. The Drakensberg would have then been at the very centre of the supercontinent Gondwana. Movements beneath the Earth’s crust caused Gondwana to fracture, and the greatest lava flow of all time rose from the cracks, hardening to form 1000m thick basalt layer on top of the Drakensberg. At this time Antarctica started drifting away on its long journey to the South Pole. KwaZulu-Natal suddenly had its own coastline, and the unsupported cliffs gradually crumbled into the water, and erosion has cut them back to The Amphitheatre, just around the corner from The Cavern. Beneath the basalt is the equally famous Cave Sandstone. This is desert sand, 200 million years old, containing dinosaur fossils. It erodes into sheltered overhangs and some of the finest Bushman paintings are found in the Drakensberg.

The beautiful Drakensberg forests spread down from the mountains of East Africa in a much wetter period some million years ago. Today they hang on in river valleys, and on the south facing slopes where evaporation is low. The most famous trees in The Cavern Fern Forest are the yellow-woods. Many of the bigger ones were cut down in the nineteenth century for building materials and the old saw pits are still visible beside the paths. Since then the Drakensberg forests have recovered well, and are lovingly protected from any interference.

Grassland occupies the drier and warmer spots of the Drakensberg and owes its existence to fire. Fire removes the old long grass, stimulates some seeds to germinate and removes taller plants that might shade out the grass itself. So the grassland is deliberately burnt in sections, with some long grass being left every year. Most Drakensberg grassland animals prefer to feed in the fresh burns or the younger grass, but nest or hide in the longer grass. The only trees that grow in the grassland are proteas. Their thick bark protects them from fire. Drakensberg Grassland is famous for its wild flowers and these are most spectacular in spring after a burn.

Alien weeds are rare in the Drakensberg and at the Cavern. It was not always so. Over the past 30 years large areas of invading wattles have been cleared, and the land restored to natural vegetation. This is a very important conservation exercise that is never complete. Every year there is a further check to ensure that new weed seedlings are cleared before they get out of hand. In the gardens around the hotel indigenous plants are being brought in and invasive aliens removed.

The birdlife at The Cavern and in the Drakensberg in general is rich, and many of the common species live in the Cavern garden. Others are more choosy about habitat, remaining in the forest, or along streams. The Halfcollared Kingfisher is a local special. More than half the species are resident, but in summer the migrants arrive. Some come to escape the European winter – such as the European Swallow and Steppe Buzzard. Others come from tropical Africa to breed here – the lovely Paradise Flycatcher being an example. Cuckoos are the most obvious, calling all day long. In the winter the Cavern gardens can be spectacular too, when all the sunbirds and sugarbirds come to feast on the aloes. Watch the Drakensberg skies long enough and a Cape Vulture or even a Lammergeyer will fly past.