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Central Drakensberg Rock Art

The Central Drakensberg rock art region, spanning from Giants Castle in the south to Didima/Cathedral Peak in the North, offers some of the best examples of Bushman rock art in the country. This diminutive tribe, the original inhabitants of the area, unfortunately disappeared towards the end of the 19th century. Their nomadic, hunter-gatherer lifestyle became severely restricted firstly, by the early Nguni tribes encroachment into the interior, and then later by the European settlers who took exception to the Bushman’s hunting and rustling of their cattle. Many were killed in “hot pursuit” operations and others either moved on or integrated into the Bantu tribes.

The last known artifact of San presence in the area were 2 bows and a pouch containing quivers found in 1929 at Eland Cave in the Didima area. The artifacts were hidden on a high ledge and showed recent use.To all intent and purposes the bushman disappeared at the beginning of he last century either moving on, or more likely absorbed into the local tribes. Few remnants remain of their culture but fortunately the painted caves offer some insight. A few of the early explores also took an interest in their art and culture and from the early 1800’s there is a fair amount of written data.The Bushman themselves, with the exception of the paintings, only had  oral history. The paintings are however a mere fraction of their total history as their roots go back thousands of years. In many publications the politically correct term used for the bushmen grouping is “San” or “Koy San” or “Koy Koy” all loose definitions covering the original inhabitants of Southern African region, although each sub group had distinctly different cultures.The Bushman  (The San) were hunter gatherers and never kept livestock. The Koy on the other hand kept livestock. They were the first inhabitants observed by the early explorers and were named “Hottentots”. Although belonging to the same sub group they are slightly bigger in statute than the San. Some terms used to describe the inhabitants of South Africa are today considered  ” not politically” correct. The  word Bushman  used in the context of this feature has been  based on contacts made with the remaining “Bushman” of the Kalahari and it appears that the few remaining groupings do not take exception to the use of this term.   

Rock Art

The Meaning of the paintings

Although many of the messages in the paintings are shrouded in mystery common themes include the bushman’s close relationship with nature; their prey, of which the Eland features prominently; day to day life, a spiritual dimension, and the passing of history. A good guide or a study of the subject is essential for gaining even a small glimmer of understanding. The paintings can either be monochrome, bi chrome or poly chrome. (single color, two colors or 3 or more colors) Many paintings depict Pherianthrope’s which could be interpreted as men with hunting head gear although it is known that the bushmen had strong spiritual leanings and some are thought to have been painted in a trance like state by Sharman and therefore could depict scenes from the afterlife. Some paintings depict the passing history, as illustrated by wagon and horseman painting in Bamboo Mountain, and others, such as the cattle paintings in Dingaan’s Cave, and Black Ox Cave in the Champagne Valley seem to indicate a liaison with the Nguni tribes as the Bushmen did not keep cattle. Battle scenes and hunting scenes also feature prominently and a visit to Battle Cave in Injasuti can be a chilling reminder of man’s war like nature with it’s bleeding warriors and men folk being restraining form the battle by their womenfolk.Painted panels frequently.feature their prey, eland, Vaal Rhiebok, Reedbuck, duiker etc. Cat cave in the Champagne Castle area has a good painting of a Wildebees, game  which are normally associated with the grass  plains a fair distance from the mountains, suggesting that they moved far and wide over the area.Two other paintings in this cave are of lions, perhaps in some cases, the hunter became the hunted.Leopard cave in the Didima valley, as the name implies, has a single  painting of a leopard in hot pursuit of a man.    

Rock Art Protocol

Cave sites may only be entered if accompanied by an Amafa registered guide. In recent years some  paintings have been severely vandalized and excessive visitation has resulted in the authorities and land owners closing many of the sites.  Fortunately, however some of the main sites have available guides and allow visitors. There are over 8650 recorded rock art sites in South Africa but according to Dr Janette Deacon an authority on the subject there are probably 25,000 to 30,000 sites in total, and the Drakensberg offers the highest concentration of rock are in sub Saharan Africa. Rock art has been dated as far back  as 20,000 years( A Namibia painting) but unfortunately, over time the paintings have deteriorated so some paintings are very faint.There are however  moves afoot, using high-tech laser scanning to digitally record the paintings. The project named Rock Art Mapping Project ( Ramp for short) has documented 500 sites of which 80 have been scanned, a drop in the ocean, but nevertheless a start.

Extensive information on the 19 plus sites throughout the area is available on request.

Giants Castle

Main Cave

This painted shelter is easily accessed and is a short walk from the Giants Castle camp. The site is fenced and guided tours commence at the cave entrance hourly 9.00 am to 3.00 pm. They take a maximum of 13 people at a time, so get there early, and cost R 25.00 ( tickets available at Giants Castle reception phone 036 3533718). This is an extensively painted cave although it has badly weathered over time. The Park authorities have built walk ways to protect the cave floor and prevent direct access to the rock face. There is also a life-sized bushman model scene depicting the life of a bushman family. The guides are informative and will explain the various panels.

Injasuti (Meaning Valley of the dogs)

Battle Cave

This cave is located in the Injasuthi ( translated as valley of the well-fed dog) valley and is a strenuous 5-hour round trip from the Injasuthi camp. Guided hikes can be arranges and booking essential – phone 036 4319000. The cave is fenced so cannot be accessed without a guide. To get to it and back is a fairly strenuous five-hour hike and the topography is typical Little Berg: undulating paths with an occasional river crossing. If you’re lucky, you might spot eland on the slopes. The cave itself is fenced and your guide will let you in.

Battle Cave, as its name suggests, is especially well known for a battle scene, a chilling reminder that the idyllic hunter-gatherer lifestyle was occasionally marred by conflict. The panel shows two opposing groups, women trying to restrain their menfolk from entering the fray, arrows flying in all directions, and wounded and dying warriors. An exquisite painting on the right top side shows a warrior in full stride, with his bow and arrow poised and a full quiver of arrows. It is far more detailed and delicate than others in the panel, so one wonders if it might represent a spiritual presence.

It has been suggested that the battle panel is not a representation of an actual battle but metaphorically speaking a spiritual “blood letting” or release, painted by a shaman in trance. Who knows? Very little history is known of the bushman prior to the 1800’s,the first written records having been prepared by the early settlers , as all their history was oral. The paintings are therefore subject to interpretation.

Another scene shows opposing stick-like figures painted largely in red, but with some in red and white. Besides the main battle scene there are numerous other paintings providing a good representation of the rock art. There a two paintings of leopard’s ( one partly worn away) and two exquisite paintings of rhino. One wonders if in the past rhino were endemic to the area or were painted from memory after a hunting trip into the plains. A visit to this cave is a must for anyone interested in the art and culture of the Bushman.
The main panel of the battle scene. Note the arrows in the upper middle of the scene
Into battle

Grindstone Cave

This series of caves are a 2 hour walk from the Injasuthi camp. There are 5 caves in a row below the the sandstone cliffs stretching for about 1 kilometer. Only 2 of the caves are painted but other than one excellent painting of an eland the paintings are very worn and indistinct. The first 2 caves are not painted and can be slept in. They also have water. The second cave in the row has a grindstone, a relic of the past. It does not appear to be of Nguni origin as it is round with a square hole in the center so was probably made by early Voortrekkers.

Compensation 1 & 2

These paintings are on the side of rocks below the Little Berg on the path between Wonder Valley and Injasuthi. It is a long slog to get there and the paintings are somewhat faded. They are predominately monochromes of bushmen and antelope.

Champagne Valley

Although extensively painted many of the paintings are on private property and their whereabouts a closely guarded secret.

Cow Cave (also known as Boschrand)

This cave is accessed from The Oaks Supermarket in Dragon Peaks Park. There is a fairly extensive panel of antelope with one cow in a lying position. The paintings are in good condition and significant as they seem to indicate a liaison with the local Nguni tribes, the single painting of a cow not characteristic of their usual subjects, game. Due to abuse of the site the owners no longer allows visits.

Black Ox shelter

This delightful cave, the beauty of which has been marred by alien vegetation encroachment, is situated on the way to Wonder Valley. It is named after the painting of a black ox once again indication a liaison with the Nguni tribes that lived in the area.

Maarten’s Shelter

This small site is situated on the path between Champagne Castle Hotel and The Sphinx path at Monks Cowl . It is on the Champagne Castle Hotel’s property so access is with permission of the hotel management. The site is well marked and is a small set of paintings of Mountain Reed Buck on the underside of a large fallen rock.

Buys Cave

This cave situated on a private farm on the road to Bell Park Dam. The paintings are a short distance west from the main farmhouse. The large cave has been somewhat trashed by soldiers who occupied it in the early 1900’s . But this is a history in itself as there is a carving of the regimental badge in one of the rock faces.The cave has also been trashed by recent graffiti and crude attempts to copy the paintings in blue paint a great pity as this good example of out natural history has been badly damaged. Access by permission of the owners.

Dingaans Cave

There are 2, possibly 3, painted caves at Fernwood lodge of which one is easily accessible. It is fairly extensively painted with several panels of buck and some human figures, although they are very faded. Nevertheless, it is worth a visit but as it is on private property permission from the management is necessary.

Uthekwane Rock Art Site

About 4 km north of Cayley Lodge ( now Holiday club) above the Ama Swazi settlement is an extensive rock ledge where 2 small streams enter the valley below. On the South side of this ledge is a small overhand with some reasonably well-preserved paintings comprising of a few Eland some other antelope, human figures and a very faint therianthrope (half human half animal drawing).This site has been badly damaged by graffiti and is now closed to the public. This cave has also been effected by the unstable rock formation in the cave wall several cracks having appeared with possible negative future impact on the paintings.

Arthur’s Seat

There is a small painted panel on the Eastern side of Arthur’s Seat. Access is through private property and the cave is closed to the public.The paintings are all monochrome  and feature hunting scenes, pheriantthrope’s , game and mystical figures. There are some good examples of mystical figures said to have been painted by Sharman in a trance like state. Pherianthrope,s ,( humans with animal heads) also feature; could these be bushmen in hunting masks, or as more commonly believed, painted by Sharman in a trance like state?. The paintings are a good representation of the rock art as found in other sites in the area.

Wonder Valley

This valley lies between the Champagne Valley and Injasuti, and can be accessed after a long walk from the R 600 just below Champagne Castle Hotel. This is private property so access is only by permission of the owners. It can also be reached from Injasuthi camp.Travelling North from Injasuthi following the path around the edge of Compensation Hill there are 2 painted sites on loose rocks on the bottom ridge a well preserved painting in each with signs of other paintings that have now faded.( Compensation 1 & 2). Following this path in a northerly direction one reaches Wonder valley. There are painted sites along the sandstone ridge next to a small waterfall. From there, there is a small ill defined steep path up the ridge to the top of the Little Berg and Wonder Valley cave, a magnificent cave for an overnight. It may also be reached from Injasuthi camp via Van Heineken’s Pass. There are several painted caves in the area aptly named Wonder Valley 6,7 & 8 which still have visible paintings, monochromes and bio chromes in red and white depicting hunters and their prey. Wonder Valley 8 has a good panel of bushmen about 300 mm in height, which although faint are still visible. These paintings are somewhat strange as they seem to depict a group of men in headgear and battle ready and the faintness of the paintings leads to some conjecture regarding their tribal origin and purpose. Two of the caves have faint images left and must have been magnificent in the past. The paintings in the final cave have all but disappeared. The caves are difficult to find even with a GPS as they are in an undulating area and in a rock band on the eastern slope. Luckily due to their remoteness there has been no vandalism or graffiti.

uKhahlamba Park – Monks Cowl

A number of sites can be accessed from the Monks Cowl Entrance to the ukhahlamba world heritage site. Generally however these are hard to find as none of the modern maps show the painted caves ( in an attempt to restrict access), and it requires a long walk. Remember you need to have an Amafa registered guide to access these sites and that all the caves in the Didima valley are now restricted and require a special permit from Amafa before they can be visited.

Cat Cave

This painted cave is close to Zulu Cave. It requires a long walk up the Sphinx path to Breakfast Stream and on to Blind Man’s Corner and the contour path. Turn right at the contour path to Hlathikulu Neck taking the Keith Bush Camp turnoff. The path to Zulu Cave turns off to the right on the Keith Bush Camp path. An overnight stay is suggested as it is a long way.This cave contains a good array of rock art one painting of significance is a monochrome of a Wildebees about 400 mm long the only known painting of this animal in the Central Drakensberg. One wonders if they were resident in the area in the past or whether the artist painted from memory, as they are generally plains animals. There is also a ghost like image about 500 mm high not typical of bushman rock art more akin to ” Casper the ghost”.There are also several poly chrome paintings of Eland, one in particular is noteworthy as it is painted in a much darker tone than the others. This might signify an old bull.

Anton’s Shelter

This small shelter on top of the Little Berg overlooking the valley has a few good paintings. It is on the path past Stable Cave and is a long walk starting either at Monks Cowl or from above Berg View taking the Jacobs Ladder path.

Vaal Rhebuck Cave

This painted cave lies beyond Stable Cave, a long walk probably requiring an overnight stay.

Leopard Cave

This cave lies on the edge of the Didima gorge half way between Monks Cowl and Didima/ Cathedral Peak. There is a single painting of a leopard chasing a man and by the closeness of the encounter, it is definitely not a self-portrait.

Eland Cave

Rock art
Rock Art

This extensively painted cave, one of the best painted sites in the country, is situated on the South Eastern side of the Didima valley. Special permission is required to visit this site. It can either be accessed from Monks Cowl or from the Didima / Cathedral Peak side. It is an extremely long hike from either side and should be done as an overnight trip. The paintings are well preserved and are numerous and varied. This cave is the last recorded contact with Bushmen and is the site where a bow and quivers were found in 1931.

Didima Valley

Rock Art Interpretive Center. This center although World class, has been all but closed for a number of years now due to the fact that the Projector has broken and there are no funds to fix it. It nevertheless still has a full complement of staff so visitors can view the few displays in the entrance.

Drakensville-Northern Drakensberg

Although not in the Central Drakensberg the Northern Drakensberg caves are about an hours drive from the Champagne Valley and the reason why included in this guide is that there is an excellent painted cave the “New Beginning” which although on private property may be visited with a guide supplied by the Drakensville Resort. The walk is less than a 4 hour return trip and would be classified as an easy walk with no steep climbs.

For more information contact Drakensville on 036 438 6287