In the footsteps of the rock artists of the Drakensberg [South Africa]

Text: Claire Lessiau & Marcella van Alphen
Photographs: Claire Lessiau & Marcella van Alphen

The skinny young man dressed in animal skin is standing, with his spear high up above his head. His friends are following him striking a similar posture. They are wearing animal skins. Their tribe has been following the migrating herds, higher into the mountains. The tracking has been long and laborious, and they are tired. The tips of their spears are covered in diamphotoxin, a slow-acting poison obtained from beetle larvae. Further, a herd of elands grazes. The large more-than-half-a-ton animals are unaware of the men’s presence. Even for great hunters as the Bushmen, this is a dangerous endeavour: with a shoulder height of 1.7 meters (5 feet 8 inches), Africa’s largest antelope is much taller than them.

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Unfortunately, today, the Bushmen people, an indigenous group of hunters and gatherers representing the first nation of South Africa, no longer exist in the paradise-like green grasslands of the Drakensberg Mountains – and hardly exist in the country altogether. About thirty thousand of their artfully crafted rock paintings, depicting everyday life scenes, such as this hunting party, remain in the uKhahlamba Drakensberg Park as the sole witness of their presence for over ten thousand years of occupation: a fragile and precious open-air museum.

We walk on a velvety carpet of infinite green grassland covering the slopes of the mountains. In the distance, the dramatic basalt rock-faces rise into the sky. The Sani Pass dirt-road winds its way up to the Kingdom of Lesotho we can only guess behind the back of the dragon, as the mountain range was referred to by the first European settlers. The pink everlasting flowers are in bloom. Rock thrushes, endemic birds with a red breast and metallic coloured head sing loudly while a crested eagle dominates one of the few treetops in this landscape of grass. The bushmen used to burn the forest in order to attract grazing animals such as impalas and elands which were critical for their survival, providing meat and animal skins, bones and blood, essential for painting. Today, elands are scarcer. Endemic plant species are abundant though and the protected Drakensberg Mountains have looked the same for over thousands of years. The Bushmen knew precisely how to live from them. In the dryer months when animals were scarcer, the Bushmen relied more on gathering plants and insects: two to three hours of gathering would be enough for the day to bring back fruits, berries, tubers, bush onions, etc. and also grasshoppers, beetles, caterpillars, moths, butterflies, and termites, nothing edible would escape the trained eyes of the Bushmen, a skill they have passed down from generation to generation for thousands of years. A Jurassic Tree Fern indicates where an underground river can be found rising taller than the pink irises and white wild orchids.

The emblematic Protea flower trees dot the green slopes when we climb to an altitude of 1,800 meters (5,400 feet), admiring the surrounding landscape. Some large overhangs appear in the distance. It is easy to imagine the Bushmen gathering their food in these hills of abundance or socially interacting with each other under one of the large overhangs of the golden Clarens Sandstone that would shelter them from the elements.

Life was rather easy. Once food and water were gathered, most of the day could be spent relaxing and interacting with each other: chatting, joking, playing music, and dancing, often with a sacred component were the main activities for adults, while children would simply play. Women had a high status and were respected in the rather egalitarian Bushmen society, where they took part in decisions and were responsible mainly for water holes and foraging areas. Conflicts were rare as their society was based on consensus rather than strict leadership.

The sound of a waterfall interrupts our discussion with our knowledgeable, passionate and approved guide, Dane Engelbrecht. We are getting closer to one of the masterpieces of the Bushmen. Their art is very difficult to date as hardly any organic pigments were used but for eland blood to fix the colours. Taints were obtained from iron oxides found everywhere on rocks: they were smashed into an orange powder, and then burnt and they became redder as they would oxidise. They were then applied with hair brushes and feathers for a detailed rendering, even capturing colour gradients in their sophisticated style of painting. The art we are looking at is as ancient as 2,000 years old, with many of the paintings dating back to the boom of Bushmen art of the 12th century. Some scenes depicting conflicts are more recent and belong to the Contact Period, after the colonial settlement. Main themes are hunting and spiritual.

Dane, who grew up on a farm in the valley and has studied Bushmen art in-depth explains: “the Bushmen believed that cracks in rocks were gates to another spiritual world.” Sometimes figures are painted half in as in coming from or going into the spiritual world. “They revered animals as well,” Dane continues while pointing at a man wearing an animal skin to become one with it, and to lines of power, coming out of the heads to describe a connection between animals and people. The hunted animal is often anecdotal, and also a metaphor for death, as well as people surrounded by fish and birds.

Further down, the art is less detailed and black only, drawn with burnt wood: on these more recent drawings that are only 200 years old, the Bushmen were fighting for their lives and did not take time to create colours.

Unfortunately the Drakensberg Bushmen are no more. Their non-violent society was not adapted to face the challenges that came with the Europeans settlers. Some were kidnapped and forced to work on farms. Some still lived in the mountains and stole cattle as they did not understand the notion of property, and often died in jail. Others fell ill from diseases brought by farmers such as smallpox or typhoid fever. Many intermarried with other passing tribes and settled. Today, their language has disappeared and there is nothing much left to help with the interpretation of the multi-millennium-old art, the last remnant telling the story of the Drakensberg Bushmen.

Notes:

  • In some instances, “San” and “Bushman” can have a negative connotation, and these populations should be referred to by their individual group names that are very varied and based on the area where they live. As it is clearly impossible in this article as the populations have been wiped out, we chose to use the term “Bushman” and do not intend any disrespect in doing so.
  • Some Bushmen communities remain in South Africa (10,000), Botswana (63,000) and Namibia (27,000), with less than 1,200 in Angola and Zimbabwe.
  • The photographs of Bushmen in this article were taken in Botswana.

Travel tips:

  • All rock art sites which fall within the uKhahlamba Drakensberg Park can only be visited with an approved guide.
  • To visit this fantastic open-air museum, refer to Drakensberg Adventures. With this fair-trade tourism pioneer and champion, part of your tour fee will support the Khomani Bushmen of the Northern Cape Province in South Africa.
  • Other great places to admire Bushmen art is Liphoufung, the place of the Eland, in Lesotho and Kanti Marching Man in the Southern Drakensberg.
  • Check out this interactive map for the specific details to help you plan your trip and more articles and photos (zoom out) about the area! Here is a short tutorial to download it.

For more in South Africa, click on these images:

8 thoughts on “In the footsteps of the rock artists of the Drakensberg [South Africa]

  1. The paragraph about the demise of the bushmen was quite touching — and so very real. I wonder how many societies had similar beliefs about property. Interesting! Also, we saw the protea flower used as a symbol of the area for note cards, etc. in gift shops in Cape Town. Very pretty!

    • Good point. I’m guessing the notion of property appeared with taxes… I should look it up. Thanks. Didn’t you see the protea flowers on Table Mountain while you were in Cape Town or in Kirstenbosch? So nice in the wild with sunbirds feeding on them!

  2. I enjoyed this post. Beautiful photos, and the stories of the bushmen were very interesting, reminding me of similar explorations in northern Australia. I’m glad that at least some populations of Bushmen have survived.
    Alison

    • Thanks Alison, happy you liked the article. Yes, some Bushmen remain in Southern Africa but their situation (such as in Australia or in the USA for the Native Americans) is often precarious… We felt very privileged to get a glimpse of their daily life in Botswana last year, right before COVID-19.
      Claire

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