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Ancestral Voices

Ancestral Voices

Nov 2015

Words Wild editor Romi Boom and Eric Thorburn, pics Rebekah Funk, Eric Thorburn, Karin-Schermbrucker

An art gallery or sculpture garden in a national park? Elsewhere in the world this is not a strange concept. Heritage tourism reaches out to visitors in a multitude of ways, in the same way that adventure tourism has become a yardstick of many a park’s offerings. 

While we have long enjoyed nature-based tourism, there’s much to explore besides scenic beauty and biodiversity. Increasingly, there will also be a focus on “the Nature of Heritage”. 

One of South Africa’s most publicised archaeological treasures, the Golden Rhino, is in Mapungubwe National Park and World Heritage Site. The site where the Zimbabwe culture is believed to have started, the Lost City at Mapungubwe Hill, is testament to a civilisation that prospered between AD1200 and AD1270 and an added attraction to a park that already offers plenty in the line of wildlife and scenery. 

Mapungubwe is not the only kingdom that merits a visit. In Kruger National Park, the highly atmospheric Thulamela likewise conjures up fabulous riches through trade with faraway places such as Egypt, India and China.

Our pick of heritage sites is not only for history boffins and culture vultures. Each will enrich your holiday in Wild Card parks and reserves.

Kamberg Nature Reserve: The Famous Eland Panel

The wind was whispering through the grass as we toiled up the steep track in the Kamberg region of the Natal Drakensberg. The track was leading to what our guide from Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife described as the most famous example of rock art in South Africa, the Eland Panel in Game Pass Shelter. This panel is referred to as the “Rosetta Stone” of rock art as it was this set of images which provided archaeologists with the key to unravelling the meaning of their paintings. 

Until then opinion had been that Bushman rock art merely depicted life as it was in those distant times, with quaint renditions of animals, birds, reptiles and people. A people whose life centred around the need to hunt effectively, using primitive bows and arrows tipped with poison. They were nomads, leaving little evidence of their presence. All they left were their stories painted on the rocks of the shelters they occupied. 

Of all the animals, the eland took pride of place. Not only was it the prime source of food, but it was the ultimate symbol of power and spiritual potency. The Kamberg’s Eland panel shows the eland in its death throes. The lowered head, the hollow staring eyes, the erect hair and the crossed legs as it staggers on the verge of collapse, are typical of the last stages of poisoning from an arrow. 

Scientists from the Origins Centre at Wits University, which incorporates the much older Rock Art Research Institute, made the breakthrough into understanding the real meaning of the images at Game Pass Shelter. The paintings depict the Trance Dance, sometimes referred to as the “Dance of Death”, probably the oldest ritual known to humans.

A group of men and women would gather round a lonely campfire, quite often around the carcass of a freshly killed eland. The women would chant to the throb of drums, and the shaman would dance around the flames. The dance continued for hours, and the tempo increased until the shaman built himself up into a frenzy, hyperventilating, his hair erect. Bleeding from the nose, his head hanging with his arms stretched behind him, supernatural potency would then ‘boil’ within him and he would enter a state of trance. 

In this state of hallucination the spirit of the shaman would be transported into the ‘other’ world, where gods and ancestral spirits were encountered. He might cry out for rain, or good fortune in hunting. In particular he would ask for healing for sickness, or the casting out of evil spirits in his family. Following these exertions the shaman usually collapsed unconscious. After recovering, his adventures were recorded through art. 

Many of these characteristics are clearly depicted in the Eland panel. Imagine a long-dead cave artist, crouched in the rock shelter, contemplating a freshly completed painting of an eland, travelling, in the mind’s eye, through that symbolic gateway into the spirit world lying beyond the rock curtain.

The San Interpretive Centres at Kamberg and Didima, and the display at Main Cave at Giant’s Castle, together create a dynamic record of a way of life, of a maligned and all-too-often forgotten people. 

The Dance of Death

The Eland Panel shows various depictions of shamans doing the trance dance. One has an animal head and wearing a kaross, while another has hooves instead of feet, and has exaggerated erect hairs much like those of the dying eland. A tall shaman behind the eland is holding the tail of the dying beast, with the obvious intention of transferring spiritual power from the dying eland to himself, thus making it easier for him to enter the spirit realm in a state of trance.

Matjiesrivier Nature Reserve, Cederberg: Elephant Painting

On the drier eastern boundary of the rugged Cederberg is Matjiesrivier, a 12 800ha CapeNature reserve, home to the captivating formations of the Stadsaal Caves. When you purchase a day permit at Dwarsrivier, or from Algeria or any of the tourism offices in the Cederberg Conservancy, it comes with a sequence of numbers to open the combination lock at the entrance to the site. The most precious rock painting is sheltered in an overhang, where the smooth face of a huge boulder served as canvas to a long-forgotten artist.

Not far beyond the gate, turn right at the sign saying Elephant Cave. A short walk from the car park takes you right up to the well-preserved rock art site, at least 1 000 years old. Clearly depicted are three groups of tall figures, clad in animal skins, and a family group of six elephants, in a delicate, fine-line style. Powerful stuff, the presence of an ancient culture. 

Elephants are more common in the rock art of the Cederberg than in other regions of South Africa, while the eland is the most popular of all the antelope painted in the Cederberg. Animals have important symbolic religious meanings. Humans are also depicted, often in procession, hunting or out gathering food. 

Imagine the artist, assembling their materials, grinding red, maroon, yellow and orange pigments from ochre. Clay, charcoal and manganese oxide would be placed alongside. The colours would be mixed with binders such blood, fat, egg and plant juices. The veld would be scoured for materials to use as brushes, such as animal hair, feathers, reeds or porcupine quills. 

Since ochre pigment endures, unlike the black from charcoal, the humans in this scene, believed to be shamans engaging in trance ceremonies, look headless as the paint used for their heads has faded. 

Southern Africa probably has the richest legacy of rock art in the world. Matjiesrivier is a delightful open air museum, and there aren’t any queues!  

Thulamela, Kruger National Park: Sacred Stone-Walled Site 

Atop a hill with a view to forever, in the far north of Kruger, is a late Iron Age site that was born from the demise of Great Zimbabwe. Our pickup, a safari vehicle from Punda Maria rest camp, had left at 07h00, the golden hour when the bush awakens. During the hour-long drive to the ruins we passed an army of buffalo and countless alert nyala. The scene was much the same as five centuries ago, during the rule of the chiefdom of Thulamela, when smaller tribes had abandoned Great Zimbabwe and migrated south across the Limpopo River. The hilltop citadel also benefited from an increase in trade networks from the east coast towards what is now Botswana, Zambia and Central Africa. Muslim traders brought glass beads from India and porcelain from China, exchanging these for ivory, gold and animal skins. 

According to oral histories, the Shona-speaking inhabitants, the Lembethu, believed in a mystical relationship between the land and their leader, the Khosi, whose ancestors would intercede on behalf of the nation. The Khosi was an elusive figure and could be seen only by certain confidants. Commoners most probably lived near their fields, where they cultivated grains such as sorghum and millet for porridge and beer. Flanked in front and behind by armed field guides, we trundled uphill from these fertile soils. 

Much of the site has been restored since its discovery amidst the overgrown bush by section ranger Flip Nel in 1983. As we trod over a maze of loose stones and low walls, it was quite a challenge to sidestep the vibrant splashes of red velvet mites. Less heedful were the elephant that had used this very same trail shortly before, disrespectfully depositing their dung on the sacred rubble and pushing over carefully reconstructed dry packed stone walls. Not only iron artefacts have been found, but also shards of clay containers used for cooking, eating and drinking. Standing there, you could visualise the human activities of days gone by. 

Songs from Yesteryear

• Have you ever considered going tracking with the Bushmen in the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Reserve? At !Xaus Lodge you can follow rooikat, aardvark and jackal spoor across red sand dunes, while sharing the legendary hunters’ stories of survival.

• While you might not think it worth driving out of your way to see coastal shell middens left by Khoi herders, such 2 000 year old archaeological deposits are an exciting sight. The Spoeg River Cave in the Namaqua National Park, Klipgat Cave outside De Kelders in Walker Bay Nature Reserve, and various sites along the Whale Trail in De Hoop Nature Reserve come to mind.

• Various cultural heritage sites are being identified and protected in the Tsitsikamma Section of the Garden Route National Park, ranging from Khoisan caves, shell middens and rock art to more recent ruins of small fisher settlements, remnants of the past forestry industries and grave sites. The Oral History Collection project taps the memories of the older people from the region about the more recent history of the forestry and fishing industries. 

• The Nama people from the Augrabies, Namaqua and Richtersveld communities commemorate their heritage through various cultural activities, including traditional singing, dancing and storytelling as well as showcasing their traditional products. 

Source: Wild Magazine

Mapungubwe National Park
Kruger National Park (North and Far North)
Kamberg Nature Reserve
Kamberg Rock Art Centre
Game Pass Shelter Trail, Kamberg 
!Xaus Lodge


Article provided from WILD - Wildlife, Environment and Travel Magazine.