If you would like to read Part 1 of this series, click here
It’s Saturday 7th December 2013 and Petra and I have left the Makgabeng Lodge en route to our meeting on the mountain. We are heading in the general direction of the plateau, when Petra confesses that she is not absolutely sure where to go, but knowing that she is strongly intuitive, I spur her on, trusting that we will find our way. As we get closer to the sandstone cliffs, the red sand on the track is getting a whole lot softer and deeper, and Petra engages low gear, puts her foot down and we swerve and grind our way to higher, firmer ground. After taking a couple of wrong turns, we are confident that we are now on the right track, and as we make our way up through a gap in the hillside, we leave the valley behind.
Approaching the Makgabeng Plateau
As we reach the level of the top of the ridge, the landscape opens up to a completely different scene. Hidden beyond the rest of the world are small farm plots, scattered amongst the most spectacular, imposing domes of layered sandstone rocks. I feel that we have entered a sacred space, a place only known to the few who live here, and maybe a few lucky researchers who have been up this way to view the jewels that it holds.
The Makgabeng Plateau
In every direction there are sculptured rock massifs
Not sure which way we are going, we make a stop at a homestead, situated at the foot of an impressive mountain peak. Fortunately we have found Jonas’s relatives who soon show us the way to his house at the base of the Thabananthlana peak. He is ready and waiting, eager to show us his playground amongst these spectacular rocks.
Jonas’s family live close to the peak of Thabananthlana
Twenty minutes later, squatting on my haunches under a rock overhang, I am completely immersed in a world of trance dances, shamans and n/om (understood to be similar to chi or the life force). For the first time, I am getting a fuller, clearer understanding of what these finely executed paintings on the rock wall above me, are all about. Suddenly it all makes sense, and as our guide, Jonas Tlouamma, describes the transfer of power from the dying eland to the one who drinks the blood, I am with him and can imagine this power he speaks of. He is mesmerizing to listen to, and speaks of these trance events with a passionate and eloquent conviction. I realize how fortunate I am to be sitting here with him, as Jonas knows these hills intimately, having explored every inch of them on foot, and being largely responsible for finding and documenting most of the many hundreds of San, Khoekhoe and Northern Sotho sites that remain in this area. He worked for many years alongside Ed and Cathelijne Eastwood as they gathered information that culminated in the writing of their book Capturing the Spoor. Jonas is a master storyteller, but it is his vast knowledge of the area and it’s previous inhabitants that is the most impressive. He is passionate about his work and clearly enjoys sharing what he knows. I am enthralled and so grateful to him for making this such an adventure.
Jonas explains the meaning behind the beautifully executed San rock art
San rock art in the Makgabeng Plateau
The animal on the left emerges from a crack in the rock, which according to Jonas suggests that it comes from the spirit world.
What makes Makgabeng such a remarkable rock art site, is that it has good examples of three clearly identifiable layers of history, with visual documents from the San, the Khoekhoe and the Northern Sotho all in the same area. In many cases they overlap and interlock, making it all the more fascinating. When inquiring about who came first to this area, I am told that the San arrived first, then the Khoekhoe, but that there was a long period of overlap and interraction, shown by the fact that in some cases the San art appears below the Khoekhoe and in other places it’s on top. The Northern Sotho arrived some time later.
This is the terrain in which these hundreds of rock art sites are hidden
After listening to Jonas’s account of the San, whose delicately painted works are fairly well known and recognized, I am eager to see what other sites there are and whether there is any variation to this theme and style. We walk a short distance over flat expanses of rocks and descend into a shady stream bed, before climbing up a steep and overgrown pathway to a well hidden overhang. As I push past the last bush, I gasp not only for breath, of which I am extremely short, but from amazement at the scene that lies before me. A rock overhang covered with white drawings. This I am told, is a Northern Sotho female initiation site. The drawings are predominantly white and have obviously been executed with fingers, as the lines are much thicker than those fine line brush paintings of the San. Much of the imagery in this and other sites appears to connect to female fertility, with the women’s aprons in various forms featuring very strongly.
Jonas explains the meaning of the symbols at this predominantly Northern Sotho rock art site
This rock overhang contains clear finger painted images of women’s aprons
Making our way down through thick bush en route to the next site
We return to the car and after a short drive, park in the bush and follow Jonas through the dense undergrowth. I am entranced by the beauty around and above me, particularly the towering rock face that looms overhead, and am completely unaware that we are within metres of a major South African rock art site.
We are about to enter one of the most amazing overhangs that I have ever seen
Before I know it, we have entered a cool rock overhang and Jonas has seated himself at the base of a frieze of dramatic protest art. He is watching for my reaction, and all I can say is ‘Wow!!!’ I have never seen anything like this before and take a moment to let it sink in. The graphics are incredible, with trains, railway lines and station intersections, along with wagons, people on horses and men standing rigid with shoulders hunched. The lines are thick, suggesting they were painted with fingers and the white pigment stands out in stark contrast to the ochre red sandstone walls.
Jonas relaxes beneath a frieze of Northern Sotho protest art
A detail of the train that has taken the captives to jail in Pretoria
Petra listens to Jonas as he explains the meaning of the artwork
A depiction of Boers, with a woman and child in the mid section
The overhang viewed from the far side
So who painted these images and what are they all about?
Jonas tells us that this mural is the work of the Northern Sotho or the Hananwa and documents the story of the Maleboho war of 1894. During this period, the Boer republic under Paul Kruger was in need of land and cheap labour for the mines, so in order to force people off the land and into the mines to earn money, a hut tax was instituted. Chief Maleboho, leader of the Hananwa, refused to pay, and Kruger gathered his forces together and attacked the Hananwa.
For many months Maleboho was able to hold out against the Boer forces, despite increasingly vicious tactics, which included the seizing of Hananwa cattle and the burning of their houses.
When it became clear that it was necessary, Maleboho headed to the hills for safety, but eventually hunger and thirst forced him to surrender and Maleboho and his men were loaded onto a train and taken to Pretoria, found guilty in a military court and jailed. In 1900 the British forces took Pretoria and in recognition of Maleboho’s valiant fight, he and his men were released and their land returned.
The whole story is documented on these rocks, beginning with scenes of armed men on horseback firing their weapons, and ending with Maleboho and his men being locked up in a Pretoria jail and the train leaving them behind. Central to the scene are railway lines going off in various directions and a very impressive train, which has so much movement it’s quite riveting to observe.
The telling of the story is very powerful and I sit there in silence for a while trying to absorb it, when Jonas suggests I have a closer look to see if I can find something else of interest. I inspect the wall, feeling the pressure of trying to find something I cannot see, with Jonas smiling knowingly in the background. Then to my delight, I see it! Beyond the layer of strong white marks of the resistance art, lie the tell tale delicate lines of the San. Men with bow and arrows, domestic animals which look like sheep and cattle, and the unmistakable stripes of zebra.
Fine depictions of domestic animals, painted by the San
San drawings of men with bow and arrows
I am completely blown away by this mountaintop gallery, and feel so filled to capacity that I can understand why it’s not possible to visit any more sites today. With almost a thousand sites to see, there is plenty of reason to return here someday.
We bid a fond farewell to our guide and teacher, the one and only Jonas Tlouamma, and criss-cross our way back across the plateau before descending into the valley.
On our way home, before leaving the village of Senwabarwana (previously Bochum), Petra pulls up alongside some deserted houses. This place, she tells me, is the original leper colony, started by Lutheran missionary and nurse, Helene Franze, over a hundred years ago. The houses are all empty, but interestingly have all their doors and windows in tact. Nothing appears to have been tampered with, and as we walk around from house to house the atmosphere is so eery and full of sadness that it forces me to wonder about the poor souls who once lived here, locked away from the outer world. One wonders what stories they could tell upon their cold cement walls.
The deserted Helene Franze leper colony at Senwabarwana
So here we have one more layer of history. I have so much to think about as we wend our way home, but one thing is clear that these layers and layers of silence have left me wanting to know more.
Surely if we can access and acknowledge the past, we can appreciate and live more fully in the present and make better informed decisions in the future?