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Rock Paintings in the Midlands

Rock Paintings in the Midlands

There are hundreds of painted rock shelters and free-standing boulders in the KZN midlands and in fact throughout southern Africa. The Drakensberg paintings are well-known for their rich images of eland and other animals, painted in shaded reds, browns, yellows and whites with touches of black for horns and hooves. The paintings are particularly astounding when one considers the rough, porous surface of the sandstone “canvas” and the fact that every tool (from brushes to feathers to bone points) had to be made or adapted by hand, and that the paints had to be prepared from raw materials. These in turn had to be collected by the artists.

The base material for the colours was ochre, baked for many hours to bring about colour changes and then broken down and hand-ground to powder. This was then mixed with other ingredients such as egg, plant juices, possibly saliva, fat and blood. White paint was prepared from vulture droppings or sometimes from white clay and black was probably derived from charcoal mixtures. The shaded paintings have been dated to about 2000 years ago when there was already a strong painting tradition, going back thousands more years.

Although there is not consensus among researchers as to the exact meaning of the paintings, it is agreed that they are religious in nature, relating to San beliefs about rites of passage, the role of spirits of the dead, rituals such as rain-making, spiritual powers and so on, often shown through images which are part animal, part human. In particular, the Drakensberg San held the eland as ‘sacred’, a creature possessing links to creation and spiritual power.

Unfortunately the paintings are badly affected by weathering, by seepage through the porous sandstone, by dust and by physical damage by humans and animals. Painted sites are therefore protected, but certain sites are open for public visits in the company of a guide. The Main Caves at Giant’s Castle are an easy walk from the camp. In one is an exhibit of how a family of San may have appeared in their rock shelter home and in the second a boardwalk allows visitors to view paintings without stirring up dust. Unfortunately many paintings are no longer very clear or easy to see, but time spent looking closely will be rewarded.

Game Pass Shelter at Kamberg Nature Reserve has wonderful paintings in a high shelter overlooking the Mooi River Valley. If you enjoy walking, a guide will take you up from the camp, but be sure to have comfortable shoes, a hat, sunscreen and a water bottle. The last section is steep but the path has been paved for visitors and a walking stick is helpful. If you can’t make it all the way up, the rock shelter near the stream crossing still has a few paintings visible.

The third open site is Battle Cave at Injisuthi north of Giant’s Castle and is quite a long walk but does not involve a steep climb. This large site is not actually a cave at all, but a massive cliff and the paintings occur on boulders as well as in various friezes on the rock walls, including the well published “battle scene”. Interestingly, this painting can be viewed as “contact art” as it features metal battle axes, so it clearly was made after the arrival of iron-working people from the north. Paintings which show horses and cattle of course also give rough dating to the paintings, being associated with the arrival of the colonists.

Although there are quite a number of people of San descent in KZN, many are reticent about their family history. The San have been persecuted and looked down upon as inferior and only now are slowly beginning to be appreciated as South Africa’s true “first people”. In quiet rural areas, particularly in hidden valleys in the Drakensberg, some San practices and rituals have been retained and are continued in secret.