The Infinite Intrigue of Bushman Rock Art

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Once a year, do something you’ve never done before, people will tell you. Just as good, though, is doing something you’ve done many times, but with people who haven’t.

Because just when you think you have seen, thought, felt and captured all there is to see, think, feel and capture about a place, a young girl or a grown man come along and offer you a world through different eyes.

When it comes to viewing rock art in the ancient caves of the Cederberg, there is no end to new and contrary views…

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Pointing to a series of painted dots winding across the rock face of the cave we were gathered in, in the heart of Bushmans Kloof Wilderness Reserve & Wellness Retreat, the girl excitedly shouted, “It’s a snake! A looong snake!” Her voice echoed in the enclosure. She frowned and interrupted herself, revealing the difficulty of the task at hand, “Or it’s a whole lot of people standing in a line…”

I had never noticed it before – the snake or the queue. (Or was it a necklace of ostrich beads? A spirit on a journey?) On a previous expedition to this particular Bushman rock art site in the reserve, my attention had been called exclusively to the elephant and the long-armed man. I remember them most. Through the girl’s fresh, first-time gaze, the other details came to life.

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“That looks like Captain Hook!” Her hand shot out to direct our attention to the outline of what quite rightly resembled a hook at the end of an arm. “And those are Halloween ghosts!” She continued. Her imagination was rampant and it was thrilling.

The gentleman of our party was taking the silent, serious approach. He was not of the “gaze and guess” school of thought. I wanted, badly, to know how the scene looked through his eyes.

When I cornered him, he fessed up: whereas the girl had only answers, he had only questions. Too many, each new one just perplexing the last, until silence seemed liked the best riposte.

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He continued listening to our guide for greater clarification. Taking us back 10,000 years, to when some of the over 130 rock art sites in the Cederberg were created, the guide painted the picture for us so vividly that silence fell over us all. In front of my eyes, the Bushman tribe’s everyday life materialised, and then their spiritual practices – the shamans, the trance dance, the mystical spirit world.

“But how do they do it? The painting?” The girl asked. “With their fingers?”

Sometimes the right questions to ask are the simple ones.

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Our guide presented her with an example of the reeds used as paintbrushes, rolling them between his fingers, and then moved on to explain the pigments, all mineral in origin: the reds, browns and yellows made from ochres; whites from silica, china clay and gypsum; blacks from specularite or other manganese minerals.

When he added that blood and egg albumin were sometimes used as paint binders, the girl’s expression shot from wide eyes to “Eeeew” to more frowning, as she tried to figure out the intricacies of the Bushmen paintings, of this strange other world she’d never heard of before now.

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She grew quiet as the guide explained that the Bushmen were mankind’s oldest nation. That they lived in these mountains for 120,000 years. And that, as hunter-gatherers, they had something we have lost as a society: a deep and profound connection with the land, not only an intimate knowledge of the natural world, but a genuine state of harmony with it too.

I guessed that the magic was hitting her – the significance of being cheek-to-cheek with some of the oldest art in the world, of standing on land once trodden by “the first people”. I remembered, while watching her, the moment it had all hit me as a young girl and I knew then that she too would be back. Called by the infinite intrigue of Bushman rock art.

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Read more: Bushmans Kloof Wilderness Reserve & Wellness Retreat here, with Relais & Châteaux.

A Safari Morning

In the early morning, mine is the only voice I hear.

You might think this odd. You’ll think, ok, this girl talks to herself. But it also has to do with reflexes. Tap my elbow and see my arm shoot out. Stand on my toe and hear me shout. Show me a sunrise from a treehouse in the wild, the sound of elephants and that coo coo of a distant dove and listen for my woahs and wows. My unbelievables and you’re kidding me’s.

There’s the voice inside my head too, when the peace and quiet feels too good to disturb. This is how a morning in my villa at Londolozi Private Game Reserve in South Africa begins. This is a morning in Africa, the wilderness.

Without anyone around, my hands dance from white duvet to coffee cup, slipper to nightgown, as I slip out through the sliding doors, closing them to keep the monkeys out (I’d much rather they played in the trees). I take my place in the moving gold light as it spreads over the entire deck, reminding me of the passing of time and seasons, even though I feel worlds away from these concepts.

There is more coffee and then the move from slippers to shoes, gown to jersey, inside voice to outside voice. I follow the trail through the trees to our game vehicle, our ranger and tracker, other guests, cameras and binoculars adorning our necks like ancient Egyptian wesekhs.

The scent of promise is in the air. The engine turns on and beanies are slipped over ears, scarves around noses, smiles across faces.

I do that talking to myself thing again (the outside peace still holding) and bet myself I’ll see an elephant first. Lots of them. Babies, curling through the legs of their mothers. A great troupe with trunks in the air.

I heard them first, at the villa, and I hear them again now, like clockwork, as they say. You owe me tea, I tell myself. The whole herd swims across our view as though floating in a deep river.

In that moment, I remember being on top of one of these greats, at an elephant sanctuary in South Africa, one of the humane few. I remember that inimitable slow sidling of their amble, like a wild lullaby. I remember the feeling of the elephant tickling my ear after our ride, back on terra firma, its hairy trunk, how its physical touch connected me to it, it to me, for life, in my mind at least.

But in the wild at Londolozi, even without touching, this morning family mesmerises us all.

We climb out of the vehicle and stand around the front while the ranger hands us more coffee, steaming like our hot breaths in the cold air, champagne, biscuits, Amarula… Sharing the same ground now as the wild things, feeling the earth beneath us, part of us, I wave to the last elephant. Safari njema, inside voice announces.

And this I promise you, as though hearing me and my heart’s fastening beat, the elephant waves back and then trumpets the final note in our morning song.

Tell us…

What’s your favourite thing about mornings on safari?


The Sweetness of the Solo Safari

It wasn’t merely that the animals were all out, on this early morning in the Nambiti wilderness. Not simply that we didn’t have to search too hard to find the rhinos and buffalo, the giraffe and lions, the wildebeest and waterbuck. What made the drive something special was what was not there. That is, other people.

I know, sharing is caring. But have you ever been on a game drive through the African bush, alone, just you and your guide?

No voices disturb the peace. No movement interrupts the stillness. And there’s the matter of time… of being in the wild, with its animal life, its birds and plants, sounds and scents, and having no need to leave before you’re ready.

There’s also the fact that I really like to take photographs. Lots of them. From all kinds of angles and with all kinds of lenses. I need time. I photograph best in silence, too, as a ranger tracks best in a quiet of his or her own.

Even with the camera down, resting in my lap, the peace creates a space to properly connect with the surroundings and myself. Space for me to offer the wild my entire attention. Space to see the little things, the details. The details of a lion’s nose or of the unfolding scenes… like the wildebeest elders gathering around their little ones to keep them safe or the alarm spreading across an impala herd as a predator nears.

Sharing can be sweet. But the notion of “the fewer the merrier” has its magic too. It’s what Esiweni Luxury Safari Lodge in the Nambiti Private Game Reserve of South Africa is all about. There are very few staff or rangers, only five suites, only two chefs, and the French owners, Ludovic Caron and Sophie Vaillant, play the role of maitre de maison. It’s a small family. And it creates the feeling of retreating to a villa in the countryside, in the south of France, with your people. Your nearest, dearest, or nobody at all.

Of course this countryside has big cats and great giants roaming its hills and plains, but the sense of nature, of Provençal bliss, is very much there. Dining slowly under the open skies, with fresh breads and pastries, fine cheeses accompanying finer wines, just the crickets chattering and streams trickling, it feels like a moment stolen from the continuance of time. A world apart.

One night, on one of our solo game drives, my guide, Pemba and I watched the sun set from a clearing in the bush, as a lion announced himself only metres away to his approaching brother. His deep gravelly roars seemed to never end. I could feel them echoing inside my very core as night fell over us. As though we were together in a vast ancient cave and not in the open plains.

Another night, we chose to join the owners for sundowners and stories of lions and leopards under a lantern-lit tree, while a giraffe ambled in that slow giraffe way right past us. Even in the company of other souls, sitting around a campfire, the peace of the place held its incantation.

And yes, sharing is sweet, but I felt the real, quite rare charm in being able to return to a big villa on a cliff face looking out over the Sundays River, soaking in the solitude with nothing pulling me away. With no voices to disturb the peace. No movement to interrupt the stillness. And no need to leave it all before I was ready.