Northern Cape: Ancient rock art in the Cederberg Mountains

An index of the Northern Cape series appears at the first post.

July 9, 2016

For the last full day of our vacation, Natasha suggested something special.  We would go over the pass to see the Sevilla Rock Art Trail, a 5 km walk dotted with ancient paintings from the San hunters and gatherers who have occupied this area for thousands of years.  I started out somewhat skeptical.  How much art could have survived outdoors through thousands of rainy seasons?  I was about to receive an education in the subject.

We drove back up the gravel road toward Clanwilliam, then turned away just before reaching the city to follow the R364 east instead.  We had not been traveling for long when Natasha called out “Eland!”  Sure enough, one of the large antelopes was standing calmly in a meadow near the road.  Considering how often we had seen its smaller relatives, it was special to see this massive creature on the last day of our trip.  The eland had particular significance to the San, playing an important role in their ceremonies and trances.  Sadly I could not find a place to stop the car nearby.

The R364 climbs strongly as one drives east.  In some respects, the road is climbing over the rim of a bowl.  The Pakhuis Pass climbs to almost a kilometer above sea level, getting rockier as it rises.  We passed a parking lot crammed full of cars from Cape Town; many people enjoy hiking and climbing at Rocklands Bouldering.  It is quite obvious when you have reached the top of the pass from an awe-inspiring view of the valley beyond.


The afternoon view to the east of Pakhuis Pass

We descended from the pass and kept our eyes open for “Traveller’s Rest” (this name had resonance for me because of a historic plantation in Nashville by the same name).  We found the farm just before a bridge over the Brandewyn River (this name, of course, made me perk up my ears since I am an avid Tolkien reader).  We parked and walked into the farm store and restaurant.  We paid a R40 per person permit fee since the trail is on private land.  We walked across the bridge to the trail head.


The Brandewyn River bridge (the photo is from coming back rather than heading out)

We ducked through a spring-loaded gate, passed through a meadow, and then we were striding across rock.  The San were somewhat inconsiderate, so the first art was at least a kilometer from the highway!  The way was marked with white footprints painted onto the rocks.  The brochure from Traveller’s Rest helpfully includes a silhouette so that the complete neophyte knows what to look for.


We pause before the first painting.

Natasha has experience with the rock art of this area, and she explained a couple of aspects for this site.  First, some rocks are in such a convenient location that they were used by multiple artists at different times.  The red figures represent a hunting party from a different painting than the black ring of spectators, present at a ceremony.  The images at the next two sites showed the spiritual importance of animals in such ceremonies; the shaman was believed to transform himself into an animal, and so therianthrope creatures play a significant role in the art.


Site Five of the trail features a wealth of fine figures.

Although one can see a considerable variety of pigments used in these paintings, the black and red have remained intact for a longer time than the white and yellow pigments.  As a result, some figures painted in bichrome style seem to be missing parts; an empty space on the rock might have been yellow a thousand years ago.  In the figures to the left, the chests appear to be missing above the legs.  This is probably a case where a different color was used for the kaross cloaks.

The art appears to split into roughly three eras.  The first, stretching until approximately 1500 years ago, looks like the above, with finely detailed figures.  Work during the period after that is surprisingly coarser, sometimes even being daubed onto the wall with fingers rather than finer instruments.  Colonial-era art also typically employs a cruder style, but it may feature recognizable elements of the imported European culture. Simple hand-prints are harder to place in time, but they don’t particularly require an artist’s skill.


The eland bodies at the right of Site Nine are harder to recognize without their white legs.


The view from Site Nine.

As we navigated the trail, I learned a bit about rock art.  The people who painted these images had favorite spots that they sought for their art.  A huge, balancing rock was an open invitation to local artists, even if their images below the boulders required some crawling to see.  If a recess in the rock wall was large enough for habitation, smoke from fires would mask art on the ceiling.  The ridge east of the Brandewyn River features recesses of many depths, and almost all of it seems to feature the piled stones that were so attractive.  In some places, it appeared that the artists had incorporated cracks from the stones into their work.  We were happy to find other art near these sites that were not featured in the brochure.

The vegetation in the area was also quite lovely.  We paused at Site Five for lunch and enjoyed the shade of a wild olive tree that had probably been in place for hundreds of years (which would have it begin its life long after most of these paintings had washed away).  Natasha fed me a leaf from a suuring (Oxalis flava).  The plant has been used for flavoring stews.  We saw many colors of small flowers, and of course the view of the distant ridge line was always with us.


What a delightful place to put an art gallery!

By the end of our hike, I was getting a bit dizzy from the sunlight.  We shuffled back into the car for our return drive over Pakhuis Pass.  On the drive, though, we passed two pairs of baboons.  They made it clear what they thought of us with their wary scowls.  We had almost returned to the bed and breakfast when we saw a shape scurrying across the road.  Natasha was able to recognize it as a mongoose!  For a day that was about the art of mankind, I felt happy to have seen so many critters.

As we prepared for the drive home on the following day, I was delighted to discover that the bed and breakfast had prepared a bag of navel oranges for us to take with us.  The cost for this heavy bag of oranges was R15, approximately one U.S. dollar.  They have been a happy reminder of our adventure in the days since our trip!


Orange you glad I saved this photo for last?



3 thoughts on “Northern Cape: Ancient rock art in the Cederberg Mountains

  1. Pingback: Northern Cape: Climbing the Highveld | Picking Up The Tabb

  2. Pingback: Enjoy 28 landscapes in South Africa on your desktop! | Picking Up The Tabb

  3. Pingback: Dar es Salaam: the National Museum of Tanzania | Picking Up The Tabb

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