Although the Cathedral Peak area of the Drakensberg is very, very beautiful, it is probably more famous for it’s spectacular rock art paintings. The uKhahlamba-Drakensberg mountains are a world heritage site, both for it’s natural diversity and beauty, and also because it is home to one of the largest collections of rock art in the world.
There are more than 30 000 individual paintings in these mountains, across more than 600 sandstone shelters and caves. And the Didima valley in the Cathedral Peak area hosts the most concentrated collection of rock art in the Drakensberg. There are thousands of paintings in this one valley!
Visitors should definitely visit the Didima Rock Art Centre for an excellent introduction to rock art in southern Africa, and its meaning and importance. Most paintings here are about 3 000 to 4 000 years old, but some are as old as 8 000 and the most recent are just a few hundred years old.
Painted by the Bushmen, the original inhabitants of South Africa, the figures on the sandstone walls have survived millennia, and it’s a great credit to the ancient artists who applied the paint mixture so carefully and delicately.
There are only a few sites in the Drakensberg open to the public, but we received permission from the heritage agency Amafa to visit one of the most special of these sandstone shelters in the Didima area.
Guided by accredited local guide Wiseman Mdluli, we spent a few hours hiking along a non-descript route, cresting a high, steep ridge, and eventually finding ourselves in a huge sandstone overhang. On the walls of this shelter are more than 1 600 figures, many of which are thousands of years old. According to experts, it’s one of the most special rock art sites globally.
It’s also a poignant place, because it was here in the 1920s that a local farmer found a Bushmen hunting kit, with a bow and some arrows. Clearly, this was one of the last places that the Drakensberg Bushmen had lived, hiding away in this remote valley of the rugged mountains. Of course, by the 1900s almost all the Bushmen – who had lived here for over 10 000 years – were either amalgamated into the local Zulu culture, or exterminated by colonial powers. Their rock paintings are the evidence of their existence – and their connectedness to nature. For me, the experience of standing in a shelter like this one is equivalent to being in th the Louvre gallery in Paris or the Sistine Chapel in Rome. Perhaps it’s even more impressive…after all, the Bushmen paintings are far older, and are probably equally metaphorical and symbolic in their design. What’s more, all these paintings are outside, on sandstone rock, in one of the more beautiful mountain ranges on Earth.
Visiting this particular cave is a superlative experience, and if you’re serious about rock art, then contact Celeste Rossouw at Amafa, the provincial heritage agency which controls access to the rock art sites. She’ll put you in touch with a guide who can take you there.
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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.