As the world celebrates International Mountain Day, our spotlight falls on the iconic mountains in our Wild parks and reserves. How many of these magnificent peaks have you visited? By Magriet Kruger

Make a note in your diary: International Mountain Day is marked on 11 December. Why does it matter? Not only do these landforms delineate our landscapes, they play a vital role in our supply of fresh water. When clouds get caught on their craggy peaks, rain falls down, feeding streams and rivers that provide water lower down the slopes.

Did you know? CapeNature manages 90% of the water catchment areas in the Western Cape, mostly mountain watersheds.

These rugged outcrops with their steep sides are also refuges for animals, plants and stressed out humans. Corners of our world untouched by civilisation where we can reconnect with the natural world.

South Africa’s most iconic mountains are protected by the conservation partners of the Wild Card Programme. Every single one of them is worth a visit for that moment when you lift your eyes up to the mountains and feel your spirit soar.

Table Mountain National Park

Voted one of the New 7 Wonders of Nature, this landmark is a bucket-list tick for local and foreign visitors alike. Taking the Table Mountain Aerial Cableway to the top is an experience, its rotating car offering a bird’s eye view in all directions. But the ultimate way to explore Hoerikwaggo, the Mountain in the Sea, is on foot. This way you can stop and smell the flowers whenever you want, and what flowers they are! The Cape Floristic Kingdom has been declared a World Heritage Site for its incredible biodiversity. It is the richest floral kingdom in the world, with some 9,000 species, of which around 1,500 occur on Table Mountain. An indispensable guide is Wild Flowers of the Cape Peninsula (R130, Struik Nature) by Hugh Clarke and Corinne Merry. It uses a colour-coded system to make flower ID easy, plus it contains several walking routes.

Table Mountain

Table Mountain was voted one of the New 7 Wonders of Nature. Photo by Bridgena Barnard, courtesy SANParks.

|Ai-|Ais-Richtersveld Transfrontier Park

This cross-border protected area is home to South Africa’s only mountain desert. It’s a place of stark beauty, where craggy peaks puncture a cloudless sky. The overwhelming impression is one of emptiness: bare mountain slopes and deserted plains. But first appearances are misleading. The Richtersveld was declared a World Heritage Site for its cultural and botanical landscape. It’s home to the Nama people, nomadic pastoralists who move their rush-mat huts (haru om) with the seasons, as they have for millennia. Travelling through the park you may well encounter a goatherd with his flock. That’s also your clue that this mountain desert isn’t as lifeless as it seems. It is a hotspot for desert flora: no other desert in the world has as many species of flowering plants. The vast stretches of the Richtersveld are best explored in a 4×4, but make time to get out of your vehicle and scale Tatasberg, a massive granite outcrop with forever views.

In the Richtersveld, mountain peaks punctuate stretches of desert. Photo by Alistair Daynes, courtesy SANParks.

Maloti-Drakensberg Park

Whether the sharp peaks of this mountain range evoke the spine of a dragon (Drakensberg) or a barrier of spears (for its Zulu name, uKhahlamba), there’s no question about its majesty. With basaltic buttresses and chiselled cliffs that lend it a real sense of grandeur, the Drakensberg is South Africa’s highest range. But that’s not the only superlative it owns. The Berg’s rocky overhangs and caves house the largest collection of San rock art found in southern Africa. Game Pass Shelter in Kamberg Nature Reserve is known as the Rosetta Stone of South African rock art for the role it played in unlocking the symbolism of the paintings. Here and at Didima there are excellent guided walks that shed light on the Drakensberg’s art. Outdoor adventures abound in this World Heritage Site, from day hikes and multi-day trails to swimming in pristine mountain pools. However, you could just as easily stay in camp, letting your eyes drink in the awe-inspiring beauty.

Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife protects nature through several reserves located in the Drakensberg. Pictured here is Monks Cowl Nature Reserve. Photo by Darren Glanville.

Cederberg Wilderness Area

Considered by many to be the Cape’s best-kept secret, the Cederberg lies no more than three hours from Cape Town. Yet it’s a very different world that awaits the curious traveller. What sets these mountains apart are their sculptural quality. Rock pillars jut out of the fynbos, lofty caverns are carved out of stone, a soaring arch frames the moon. In between, massive boulders lie scattered about as if waiting their turn to be transformed. Names like Wolfberg Cracks, Stadsaal Caves and Maltese Cross call up an enchanting realm. And for anyone keen on hiking, rock climbing, bouldering and mountain biking, this wilderness is pure magic. Even better than simply adventuring by day is spending the night. An overnight hiking permit allows you to camp wild anywhere in the Cederberg. With numbers strictly limited, you will feel as if you have these mountains all to yourself.

Escape to a mountain wonderland in the Cederberg Wilderness Area. Photo by Rebekah Funk.