Fighting berg graffiti

2008-02-18 00:00

It had been raining since dawn in the Mnweni area of the Drakensberg. The horizon was close, the high peaks of the Escarpment obscured by mist and cloud. I was with a group heading for a rock art site to remove charcoal graffiti. As we got higher the mist encircled us. “It can be very dangerous when it gets like this,” said Thenjiwe Hlatshwayo, a local community guide. “You can hear voices in the mist: you hear them and follow but there is nothing.”

The berg is full of mysteries. At the amaNgwane Cultural Centre, where several of us had overnighted, an information panel told us that almost every part of the Mnweni area “is an important part of amaNgwane beliefs and rituals. Certain rivers and rock pools are associated with Inkhanyamba, a mythical water snake responsible for strong winds and Inkosazana, a mermaid-like being. If their homes are not respected, drought, tornadoes and ill fortune will follow.”

The amaNgwane came here in the early 19th century. Under Matiwane kaMasumpa, they lived on the headwaters of the White Mfolozi but they fled Zululand during the reign of King Shaka kaSenzangakhona. In August 1828, after clashing with the British forces of the Cape Colony, Matiwane sought protection under Shaka’s successor, King Dingane kaSenzangakhona. But seeing Matiwane as a potential threat, Dingane had him put to death on a stony hill close to the royal homestead of uMgungundlovu, a hill thereafter known as kwaMatiwane.

Matiwane’s son Zikhali took his people south-west to the Drakensberg, to what is now the amaNgwane Tribal Authority. But the amaNgwane had a score to settle and come the Anglo-Zulu War of 1879, “Zikhali’s Horse” was raised to fight on the side of the British. The mounted troop was largely annihilated at the battle of Isandlwana.

That fateful day in northern Zululand still finds an echo here. A local stream is named after the mountain that shadowed the famous battlefield and the previous day, while driving to the centre along the dirt road from Bergville, I had passed the Isandlwana Bottle Store. Other names have been lost. Cathedral Peak was originally called Zikhali’s Horn.

Mnweni lies between the popular hiking areas of the Cathedral range and the Amphitheatre and is one of the most rugged areas of the berg, according to David Bristow in his book Drakensberg Walks. “Here, there are no easy hikes, only extreme ones along long steep paths that lead to the top of the escarpment,” he says.

The rugged nature of Mnweni has probably saved it from the development that has clogged the other entry points to the Drakensberg. Here, there are no big hotels, no ribbon development of guest houses and shopping outlets. The main access to the area is through the amaNgwane Tribal Authority, which, together with the adjacent amaSizi Tribal Authority, combines to form a wedge into the World Heritage Site uKhahlamba-Drakensberg Park.

There are at least 95 rock art sites in the area, some of which have tourism potential and, consequently, a positive impact on the economy of this poverty-stricken area. That potential has been tapped by the amaNgwane Mnweni Cultural Centre, which provides accommodation in rondavels for hikers and climbers. The ideal jumping-off point into this remote area, it is one of the few profitable community-run ventures in the province — the addition of visits to rock art sites by trained community guides, added to what the centre already offers, provides a further boost to local coffers.

Hikers use the centre as a base where they drop of their vehicles before going off into the mountains, often with a local guide. “The guides are excellent,” says Keith Cooper, an adviser to the centre management committee. “Even in thick mist you won’t get lost with them.

“The area is very safe, no one has been attacked and nothing has been stolen. So this is a big plus — not to mention it has some of the most spectacular mountain scenery in the country.”

The centre has been in operation since 2002 and is managed by Agrippa Zondo. “The intention is to generate income in the Mnweni valley,” he says. The centre employs seven full-time staff and there are eight community guides. Hospitality and tourism students from Durban also come to the centre for in-service training.

The centre consists of five red-ochre painted rondavels each sleeping four people, a communal kitchen, shower block and a dining and conference area. “The centre is self-catering but there is a part-time cook if required,” says Zondo. “Holiday periods are our busiest times, especially Easter, then many people come.”

And they come from all over the world — Denmark, Norway, Switzerland, Germany, Italy, the United States and the United Kingdom. “But the majority are South Africans, mainly from Gauteng,” says Zondo, who is currently doing a business management in tourism qualification through Unisa to add to a string of other tourism-related qualifications. “I stayed in Pietermaritzburg for a while just to improve my English.”

Having recognised the wealth-generating potential of the rock art in the area, the centre is determined to protect this resource. Hence the expedition to remove graffiti. They would be spending several days in the berg, visiting three other sites.

Just before we reach the shelter containing the rock art, we find a small stone hut, especially built for local shepherds. The shepherds had previously used the shelter to sleep in and as protection from the elements. It was the shepherds who created the graffiti. Providing them with an alternative shelter is one way of protecting the rock art.

“It’s also important to explain why the art is important,” says berg activist Meridy Pfotenhauer, an adviser to the amaNgwane Mnweni Cultural Centre management committee. “A meeting has been set up for tomorrow with the chief who owns this land and the shepherds whom he employs. The chief will explain how the art is a resource that people will pay money to come and see and that it is in everyone’s interests that it be protected.”

The rock art site is a large overhang. Paintings and graffiti exist side by side on its back wall. Archaeologist Jeanette Deacon, an authority on the Stone Age and a rock art expert, has come from her home in Stellenbosch to teach the group how to remove the charcoal graffiti. She explains matters via interpreter and community guide Caiphas Dingeni Mthabela. “We want to preserve the rock paintings,” she says. “If we leave the graffiti then other people might write on other places and the paintings might be damaged.”

Deacon points out that it is illegal to write on or next to a rock painting and there is a fine if you are found guilty. “However, it is better to tell people not to do it and why. These paintings were made a long time ago. Once they are destroyed, you can’t get the art back.”

Before any removal a plan is made of the rock shelter and the back wall is marked off at one-metre intervals. Jeremy Hollman, archaeologist and rock-art specialist, along with his Natal Museum colleague, technician Nkululeko Sibetha, take detailed photographs of each section. “That’s very important,” says Hollmann, “otherwise you can’t check what you have done.”

Meanwhile, members of the group are assigned metre panels and make drawings of what is on the rock face — both artwork and graffiti. “The drawings are not intended to be scientific copies, but it’s good for people to look at the paintings more closely than they would otherwise,” says Deacon. “Looking more closely, you spot things you hadn’t at first noticed.”

Once this record has been made, it’s time to remove the graffiti — with chopsticks. Small amounts of cotton wool are rolled on one end which is then dipped into distilled water. Excess moisture is squeezed off and the cotton wool head applied to the graffiti. “Gently roll it, you mustn’t press, you must be very gentle,” says Deacon. “If you press too hard the charcoal goes into rock instead of on to the cotton wool.”

The charcoal lettering lifts off the rock; eventually only the paintings remain. Unfortunately, I couldn’t stay. Taking advantage of a break in the weather, I headed back down the mountain. The mist had retreated; moisture smoked off green hillsides.

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