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Secret rock art in the Cederberg

By Scott Ramsay | www.yearinthewild.com Book Accommodation

San rock art in Cederberg

Like all mountains, the Cederberg has an ancient, timeless feeling. There’s a definite sense of permanence here. Maybe that’s why people are drawn to mountains like the Cederberg. Our daily lives seem to be filled with constant change, and we end up rushing from one task to the next, but mountains never seem to change. They’re always the same, no matter what. We can walk in them, explore them, gaze at them…and absorb some of their peace and stability.

But the Cederberg has something extra special about it. It is home to the richest concentration of rock art in the world. According to some experts, there are more paintings here per square kilometer than anywhere else on earth. People have passed through these mountains for thousands and thousands of years. The oldest paintings are about 6000 years in age, and most were painted by the San people, the original people of Southern Africa who stayed behind while the rest of us pushed north into other continents.

Rock Art - Cederberg, South Africa

Rock art - Cederberg - South Africa

Yesterday, we were very privileged to hike to one of the most impressive rock art sites in the Cederberg.

We met Patrick Hanekom, nature conservator and head field ranger for the Cederberg, early yesterday morning, and set off on a two hour hike.

“We are going now to one of the most important sites in these mountains,” Patrick said as we started out. “Very few people know about it – it was only discovered in the mid 1990s.”

“I will take you to this special place, but please…” Patrick emphasized, “You can’t reveal its location. People have damaged other rock art sites in the Cederberg, and we want to protect it as much as possible. Only a few experts know about it.”

Patrick Hanekom showing us the secret rock art shelter - Cederberg - South Africa

Patrick Hanekom showing us the secret rock art shelter - Cederberg - South Africa

At first we followed a hiking trail, but then Patrick led us off the path, into a narrow kloof, carved by a river filled with icy, clear water.

Along the way, Patrick pointed out some leopard dung on the path. “Look!” Patrick said, pointing to it, “It’s very fresh.” It made us realize that the Cederberg is still a very wild place – and that it’s a privilege to simply be able to walk in it and share it with all the other living creatures.

We scrambled and rock jumped for another half an hour, and then came to a huge rocky overhang.

There on a sandstone wall, beneath a sandstone overhang about five metres wide, were several hundred paintings, including a large panel of several eland antelope.

“These eland are very similar to those found in rock shelters in the Drakensberg,” Patrick said. “It’s the only place in the Cederberg where eland are painted like this. No-one really understands how they can be so similar to those found in Kwa-Zulu Natal.”

Then we noticed several elongated, bent figures, half human, half-animal, which Patrick explained were representations of people entering a trance state, or moving into the spirit world. Their human legs were painted below a crack in the rock, while their top halves (with heads of animals) were painted above the crack, and were bent forwards.

“The artists were painting what they were feeling when entering a trance state,” Patrick explained. “They felt their bodies stretch, and they felt as if they were becoming an animal.”

Secret rock art shelter

We saw plenty of other figures, including rhino, springbok, zebra (or possible the now-extinct quagga) and elephants.

“Long ago, while the San people were still here, the Cederberg and its surrounding area was filled with wildlife,” Patrick told us. “Even the Cape lion was found here.”

The more we looked at the sandstone wall in front of us, the more figures we discovered. Tiny, intricate figures with fine details, seemed to jump out of the rock. According to Patrick, the San artists used restios to paint the fine details, using a mixture of charcoal, red and yellow ochre, clay and animal blood as paint.

Patrick Hanekom shows how the San may have used restios to paint their rock art - Cederberg - South Africa

Patrick Hanekom shows how the San may have used restios to paint their rock art - Cederberg - South Africa

After photographing the rock art, and spending time losing ourselves within its magic, we sat down and had our lunch. Patrick told us proudly how his uncle John Zimri had discovered this shelter, while working as a field ranger for CapeNature. And how Patrick’s ancestors where Khoi people, who would have met and possible lived with the San people  in these mountains…it made our visit to this secret shelter that much more intriguing.

While sitting in this mystical spot, with the river flowing behind us, and the sun dropping in the wintery sky, I felt very lucky. To be in the same spot as the San artists, sharing the same landscape, the same water, touching the same rock and appreciating the same beauty. The Cederberg still works its magic on people, several thousand years later.

Thank you, Patrick. It was a real privilege.

PS. Although the shelter’s location cannot be revealed, check out the Cederberg Conservancy’s excellent website or the CapeNature website for places which are open to the public. There are plenty…the Cederberg is filled with rock art!

 

Short video of the Cederberg

 

Rock art of possibly a springbok - Cederberg - South Africa

Rock art of possibly a springbok - Cederberg - South Africa

 

Rock art of elongated figures, half human, half animal - Cederberg - South Africa

Rock art of elongated figures, half human, half animal - Cederberg - South Africa

 

Patrick Hanekom, Nature Conservator of CapeNature - Cederberg - South Africa

Patrick Hanekom, Nature Conservator of CapeNature - Cederberg - South Africa

 

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