5 places to see San rock art in South Africa
South Africa is regarded as having the richest collection of rock art in the world with examples in national parks and nature reserves around the country.
Beyond the initial belief that San rock art was a record of daily life, much of their work is now thought to portray the specific San experience of spirit world jouneys and the experience of San shamans (known as the shamanistic hypothesis). This hypothesis regards rock art as repositories of the supernatural vigour that shamans needed for their spiritual journeys – by touching the paintings, they drew on their spiritual power…
This argument gains further support when you consider the powerful substances, like eland blood and gall, egg white etc. that the artists used in their paints to give their images potency. The rock on which the images were painted was seen as a veil between the spirit world and ours.
There are thousands of examples of San rock art and paintings throughout the country, with the most significant of these found in the uKhahlamba Drakensberg Park in KwaZulu-Natal where much of the rock art in South Africa is believed to be around 3 000 years old.
Just two hours from Cape Town brings you to a range of craggy mountains in which there are over 2 500 different San rock art sites, many of them accessible, some of them still to be discovered. Pick up booklets on rock art from the tourism bureaus at both Citrusdal and Clanwilliam. Visit the following:
- The 4km Sevilla Rock Art Trail
- A number of day hikes take you to the rock art sites of Stadsaal, Truitjieskraal, Southern Arch and Varkkloof, in the Cederberg conservancy
- Living Landscape Project (a community based initiative) take guided tours to key rock art sites close to Clanwilliam
- Open Africa’s West Coast Rock Art Route – a series of sites to visit in the Cederberg, Nardouwsberg, the Koue Bokkeveld and Olifants River Valley.
- Bushman’s Kloof Wilderness Reserve, 50 km from Clanwilliam
Over 20 000 individual rock paintings in some 500 caves and overhang sites between Royal Natal National Park and Bushman’s Neck in the Drakensberg are now protected as a World Heritage Site. Most of it is hidden away in caves that take some hiking to reach. But they are the region’s cultural treasure. Here are but a few of the sites:
- Battle Cave approached from the Injasuti Camp, has some of the only fight paintings
- Game Pass at Kamberg is one of the of the best preserved rock art sites
- Ebusingata in the Royal Natal National Park must have a local guide
- Ikanti Shelter is easy to reach, not far from Sani Pass Hotel
- The open air Bushman Cave Museum in Giant’s Castle Reserve is one of the most accessible rock art sites with only a short walk bringing you to about 500 rock paintings
- Mpongweni Shelter in the Cobham Reserve is worth the long walk
- The Cavern at the Cavern Hotel
- Sigubudu shelter is in the Royal Natal National Park
- Ndedema Gorge has roughly 17 sites with an estimated 3 900 paintings, over 1 000 of them in Sebaayeni Cave
- Bushman’s Nek Hotel, in the Little Berg, has its own rock art display and a number of rock art sites in caves for which they will give directions
In the southern reaches of the Drakensberg one finds in the more remote and ruggedly beautiful Eastern Cape Highlands yet more examples of San rock art. Dominated by mountains, sandstone cliffs and green valleys, rock art is part of the landscape.
- Dinorben farm on the Barkly Pass is a 40 metre shelter with very clear paintings
- Buttermeade, just outside Rhodes, is easy to get to, with fine examples of polychrome artwork of eland, birds, and dogs
- Martindell, 15 minutes’ drive from Rhodes, is worth the climb to reach as the paintings are wonderful
- Other sites include: Ganora- 8 km east of Nieu Bethesda, Kalkoenkraal – between Aliwal North and Jamestown, Leliekloof – between Burgersdorp and Jamestown, and Woodcliffe on the Naudesnek Pass road
Three rock art traditions occur in the Limpopo. In some rock art sites all three occur together. San rock art, Khoekhoe paintings (made by the Khoi) and Northern Sotho paintings. Art by the Khoi people was geometric in design, very different from the San rock art. Whilst Northern Sotho art is always painted, never engraved, and easy to distinguish from San rock art as most of it is painted in white clay, with the odd black and red highlight, and applied with the finger. It is concentrated in the hills of Limpopo, particularly the Soutpansberg and Waterberg ranges, as well as the Makgabeng plateau.
- Kaoxa’s Shelter on the Machete farm, a rather imposing 25 metre overhang with over 190 paintings that contain over 16 different animals and 13 unique rock paintings of locusts
- Makgabeng Plateau – over 890 examples of San and Northern Sotho paintings under a series of sandstone outcrops and overhangs
The hot landscapes of South Africa’s interior provide further examples of San rock art, much of it found on boulder strewn grasslands, as opposed to mountainous areas, making them far more vulnerable to destruction. The Northern Cape boasts both engravings and paintings. Find San rock art at these sites:
- The Wildebeest Kuil Rock Art Centre about 16 km from Kimberley is a Heritage Site to protect a series of over 400 rock etchings, most of them made by the ‘pecked’ technique (the use of a hard stone to chip away the outer crust of the rock to expose the lighter coloured rock below)
- The Wonderwerk Cave, in the hills between Danielskuil and Kuruman, is a huge ancient cave open to the public with finger paintings of eland and elephant, amongst other animals, on the walls that date back 1 500 years