Rock art takes tourists back in time

2011-01-14 11:08

KwaZulu-Natal is home to some of the finest rock art in Africa.

One of the most spectacular ­destinations is the 230 000 hectare Ukhahlamba Drakensberg Park.

One of just 23 designated World Heritage Sites, the park is as ­renowned for its unique cultural significance as it is for its scenic beauty.

There are 500 Stone Age cave and overhang sites richly endowed with paintings of the San hunter-gatherers who lived here for ­millennia.

The paintings are thought to date back 2 000 years to the last indigenous survivors of the region in the late 19th century.

The rock art sites extend from Royal Natal National Park in the north to Bushman’s Neck in
the south.

Didima Gorge alone, situated in the central Cathedral Peak region, has no less than 3 900 paintings at 17 sites, while the nearby Mdelelo Wilderness Area has more than 8?800 paintings at 130 sites.

Other famous sites include ­Battle Cave in the Injasuti Valley, Kamberg’s Game Pass Shelter and the easily accessible Main Caves at Giant’s Castle Game Reserve.

Subjects depicted in the ­exquisitely rendered paintings range from people to animals. The animals are mainly eland, which were deeply revered by the San.

Once considered by outside observers to be mere pictorial records of the San way of life, modern ­archaeology now reveals that the San art is something far more ­subtle and penetrative in content.

San paintings were a means of reaching beyond the confines of physical life into the spiritual realm.

For a shaman, depicting an eland meant more than merely paying homage to the sacred animal.

The pastime of painting it was a means of capturing its essence.

The act of hunting, besides ­providing food, was a way of ­symbolically conferring the power vested in the revered animals upon the humans who killed them.

When entering a state of trance, shamans bled from the nose, their arms outstretched behind them as they transcended physical ­consciousness.

Modern-day scholars believe trance dances served as the foundation of rock art. Close links existed between cave images and trance ceremonies.

Clear evidence of all of these theories is there for the viewing in the Ukhahlamba Drakensberg Park.

The World Heritage conservation status of the park has sparked ­interpretive rock art centres and guided trails for the benefit of ­local and international ecotourists.

These facilities include the San Rock Art Trail and Interpretive Centre, situated in the Kamberg Nature Reserve, and a highly ­sophisticated one close to Didima Camp near Cathedral Peak.

The latter boasts a fully fledged rock art museum.

There’s a hall housing various displays depicting the lifestyle of the San that leads into a small cave-like room in which visitors are given a virtual fireside experience of San folklore.

The room in turn leads to the ­centre’s uniquely styled Didima ­auditorium, seating 100 visitors ­before a life-size replica of a ­Clarens sandstone overhang.

Here, as the lights dim, a multimedia presentation – heralded by a wonderfully simulated electric Berg thunderstorm – explores the ­legends surrounding the rock art of the region and their spiritual significance in San history.

A magnificent example of ­science informing tourism at the highest level, the centre is highly recommended.

Trails conducted by trained guides add eye-openers ­into the distant way of life of an ancient people, whose highly ­complex belief systems are ­wonderfully preserved for posterity through their art.

» For more information call Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife Central Reservations 0 033 845 1000 or visit

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