Year in the Wild Blog

The amazing rock paintings of uKhahlamba Drakensberg

I’ve spent the last few days at the beautiful Didima Camp in the Cathedral Peak area of the Drakenbserg. Like at Royal Natal, the views of the mountains are breathtaking.

One of the reasons for coming here was to see some of the famous rock art. And I was fortunate to be taken by field rangers Andreas Dlamini and Philani Kunene to Elands Cave in the Ndedema Gorge, one of the most famous sites in Africa. It is a tough three hour hike along a mostly indistinct path, including several river crossings and a steep hour’s hike up the mountainside to the plateau. But it’s so worth it. The cave itself is spectacularly located, and is huge – at least fifty metres long and a few metres deep. A waterfall cascades over the opening – you stand inside the cool shelter, gazing at the hundreds of paintings while the water crashes behind you.

The mountains of uKhahlamba Drakensberg contain the largest collection and most concentrated group of rock art in Africa, south of the Sahara. There are more than 40 000 paintings spread across 600 caves and shelters! It is one of the reasons why these mountains are a World Heritage Site – in fact, uKhahlamba is one of few World Heritage Sites that is considered both a cultural and natural treasure…

The earliest of the art was painted about 4 000 years ago, but most in the last 2 000 years. Most of the paintings are of eland, Africa’s largest antelope, and an important animal for the San Bushmen. They relied on it obviously for meat and nourishment, but they were also an important source of spiritual power. They had a life giving energy and mystical potency, which resided in the blood and fat of the eland. The healers of the Bushmen would lead a healing dance, eventually attaining an altered state of consciousness which the healers would use to interact with the spirit world and drive sickness away.

Much of the time, the painters of the day would later paint on the sandstone shelters and caves what they had felt or experienced while under trance. It’s important to realise that much of the rock art is highly symbolic, and not just a depiction of every-day things. It is why you’ll see paintings of therianthropes, which were long, elongated figures, half-animal, half-human. Researchers have suggested that this is what people felt when in trance…a lengthening of their bodies and the sense of becoming animal-like. This sense of “oneness” with the natural world is told in the folktalkes and myths of the “First People” at the beginning of time, when animals could speak and humans were combined with creatures as one. There’s no doubt that people of that time were far closer to nature…in fact, they probably saw themselves as indistinguishable from their environment. That’s something that modern day life and technology has done its best to destroy these days.

The art was painted with a mixture of red and yellow ochre, charchoal, manganese oxide and clay. These minerals were bound together with blood, fat, egg or plant extract. Painters used feathers, animal hairs or grass to paint the figures. The detail in the paintings are phenomenal, and at Elands Cave, there are literally hundreds of them. It’s very, very impressive.

To get there, you have to contact AMAFA, an organisation which controls access to the famous rock art sites in the Berg. It’s an unavoidable fact that the rock art is highly fragile and susceptible to vandalism. So if you want to go, contact them for a permit on 082 809 8801. Then you need to book an accredited guide at Didima Camp. They will take you. If you don’t want to make the hike then the rock art centre at Didima is a good place to get an idea of the context.

When I walked there with the rangers, it was a tough trek. The grass was higher than us sometimes, and the path is not always clear. As we walked Andreas and Philani pointed out that Basotho dagga smugglers sometimes use this route, walking in the night carrying huge bags of dagga to sell in South Africa. Hence the weapons that both of them carried. When we arrived at Elands Cave, it was clear that the Basothos has been there, probably sleeping over night a few evenings previously. So it’s interesting to think that these caves and shelters are far from being sterile museums; instead, they are living, breathing, active parts of the landscape, and they will continue to be lived in for a long time to come.

Check out this article I wrote several years ago for Getaway. It’s a nice round up to the most famous rock art sites in the Berg.

Elands Cave is a fitting place for one of Africa's most impressive rock art sites. A waterfall cascades over the cave.

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