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Rock Art in the Drakensberg

The Amazing Rosetta Stone of Kamberg

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Kamberg, Drakensberg Mountains, South Africa

Kamberg, Drakensberg Mountains

South Africa Tourism

Ancient Bushman rock art, both cave paintings and petroglyphs chipped into iron-hard dolerite boulders and pavements, can be found scattered all over South Africa, some dating back from tens of thousands of years. The majority is in the form of rock art in the Drakensberg.

Bushman art was first noted by white settlers about 350 years ago, but for the most part were seen as crude scribblings of a savage, barely-human society. But over time their artistic sophistication and clearly deep meaning were slowly appreciated – at least by some – even as the Stone Age Bushman culture was swept aside by white colonization.

The Key to Bushman Rock Art

The most important breakthrough came with the so-called Rosetta Stone at Kamberg reserve, a small nature reserve within the much larger Ukhahlamba-Drakensberg Park. The rock paintings of Game Pass Shelter at Kamberg were among the first to be recorded from the Drakensberg when white settlers arrived in the 1850s, and they were described in Scientific American as far back as 1915

But it was only much later, in the 1980s, that Witwatersrand University archeologist David Lewis-Williams finally cracked the secret meaning of this extraordinary art form. The central image of the main panel shows an eland (an animal sacred to the Bushmen) in its death throes, legs with white hooves crossed over, hair on its back erect and blood streaming from its nose.

What the Heck is a Therianthrope?

Its tail is held by a therianthrope – a mythological creature with a human body and often a bizarre looking antelope-like head. The legs of this fantastical creature are also crossed, and it too has white hooves, and it has a nose bleed. Lewis-Williams realised the therianthrope was the Bushman shaman who painted the image, in the act of drawing spiritual power from the dying eland.

These were no mere doodlings, not even “sympathetic magic” to aid hunts that was the conventionally wisdom of the time. Lewis-Williams called them images of power, and he named this particular one his Rosetta Stone after the stone found in Egypt that was the key to unlocking of the meaning of hieroglyphics. (He once told me it was a complete co-incidence that a village nearby Kamberg happened to be named Rosetta).


Visiting the Rosetta Stone of Kamberg

 

Of the 500 or so shelters in the Drakensberg, containing a total of some 20,000 individual images, about 20 or so can be visited (many others are kept secret). Walks to see the rock art of the Drakensberg range from about 20 minutes to full-day outings.

Game Pass Shelter is an easy half- to three-quarter-hour (one way) walk from Kamberg rest camp. Guided tours begin with a video presentation on the Bushman and their art. You might not have chosen to visit the Drakensberg to absorb the incredible world of rock art, but if you miss this one you will be  missing once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

 

Where is Kamberg?

 

Kamberg is situated just south of Giant's Castle, where the Drakensberg makes a right-angle corner about mid-way along its length. There is a major KZN Wildlife rest camp there, and a much smaller one at Kamberg. Accommodation at Kamberg is in rondavels (usually circular or small square, thatched chalets), often inhabited by trout fishers who throw flies into the Mooi River which runs through the reserve (there are google maps on rest camp web pages).


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