Well, today my legs were sore! I’m definitely not “hiking-fit”, and after yesterday’s hike up the Thukela Gorge, I was feeling a bit lazy this morning. But the view of the Amphitheatre from my cabin at Thendele camp inspired me to jump out of bed, and head to Sigubudu Shelter, one of the rock painting sites that are open to the public.
The uKhahlamba-Drakensberg mountains are a World Heritage Site, because they contain the greatest concentration of rock paintings in Africa, and perhaps the world; there are more than 40 000 paintings spread across 1 200 sites, caves and shelters. Some paintings date back 8 000 years, but most are between 4 000 and 1 000 years old. Who painted them? The Bushmen, or San people, who were the original inhabitants of Southern Africa, their heritage extending back 50 000 years.
The walk to Sigubudu Shelter was just 15 minutes, and I met up with a group of other visitors who were with local guide Mathiba Mncube. There are about 15 distinct paintings at the shelter, including four beautiful eland paintings, the world’s largest antelope (they can weigh over a ton). Mathiba explained that the Sigubudu paintings are about 1 000 years old, although I’m not sure anyone knows really, because carbon dating is very difficult, owing to the paucity of organic ingredients that comprised the paint which Bushmen used.
Although the Bushmen saw themselves as indistinguishable from nature and all other animals (listen up, we modern consumers!), they viewed the eland antelope as a particularly spiritual animal, and important for reasons beyond food. They believed that the eland was the source of healing power, which “shamans” used for treating sick people. The eland’s potency could also be harnessed to predict where rain would fall, or where the other animals were in the valleys and hills, so the Bushmen could hunt them. It’s no surprise that it’s the most common animal painted in the Drakensberg.
Sigubudu is still in reasonably good condition, and is one of the few sites open to the public. Most of the rock art shelters in the Drakensberg are off-limits to the public, for obvious reasons. These paintings are astounding in their delicacy of form and colour; I have visited several painting sites in the past few years, and every time I am bewitched by what I am seeing.
It’s like standing in the Louvre in Paris, except there are far more paintings in the Drakensberg, and are thousands of years older than any renaissance art. Experts still aren’t sure of the exact meaning of many of the paintings, some of which are symbolic and metaphorical in the extreme, with depictions of “therianthropes”, a fancy word for figures of half-men, half-animals. And they’re all outside, painted against the sandstone cliffs of a wild mountain range, where eland, baboons, reedbuck, bushbuck and black eagles still roam free and wild.
If you want to take the guided walk to Sigubudu, call Mathiba on 072-975-6539, or fellow guide Elijah Mbonane on 073-137-4690. It costs R30 for adults, and R20 for children. The walk takes just 15 minutes.
After Sigubudu, I thought I’d walk out my stiff legs, and hiked up to the Policeman’s Helmet, a sandstone rock formation perched on a ridge in front of the Amphitheatre. It’s about an hour and a half up to the formation. I wanted to get some photos after sunset of Policeman’s Helmet. Check them out below.
An interesting botanical aside: according to R.O. Pearse in his monumental and superlative book “Barrier of Spears”, the extremely rare Protea Nubigena grows near Policeman’s Helmet. There are apparently no more than 50 plants growing in an area 20 metres by 10 metres, and they occur naturally nowhere else in the world. “Nubigena” means, appropriately, “born of the clouds”. This rare species was first found in the winter of 1964 by botanist Elsie Esterhuizen, but they weren’t in flower, so it was only in 1978 that protea boffin John Rourke confirmed the new species. John celebrated the occasion by popping a bottle of champagne near Policeman’s Helmet, high up in the mountains. My kind of botanist.
After taking some photos, lighting the rock formation with my torch and flash, I walked down in the dark under a waxing moon, and even though it is winter here, the weather remains warm! When is the cold weather coming?!
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Conservation partners BirdLife South Africa, Botswana Department of Wildlife and National Parks, CapeNature, Eastern Cape Parks and Tourism, Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife, Gorongosa National Park, iSimangaliso Wetland Park, Namibia Wildlife Resorts, Parque Nacional do Limpopo, South African National Parks and Zimbabwe Parks and Wildlife Management Authority.