‘Vapour trails’ of time rise

31 December 2003

The images appear in a granite rock shelter in a small mountain range, the Krokodilpoortsberg, east of Nelspruit. Along with roan antelope and paintings of San women’s aprons are figures that appear rarely, and only in Mpumalanga province: humans with long, curving tails, like streamers, nesting one inside the other.

The ‘vapour trails’ have put rock art in the province on the map, but there’s much more to see. “I’ve lost count of how many, but there are more than 200 sites”, says Conraad de Rosner, a young game ranger who manages Ingwe, a small camp near Bongani Lodge in Mpumalanga. “Last week I found three new sites. An area had been burnt and I went to look for injured game. There were three sets of massive granite boulders, all with human figures.The “vapour trails” have put rock art in the province on the map, but there’s much more to see.

“It’s happened before. The record is six sites in one day.”

He stands on the terrace of Bongani, where he began his career in the bush, and gestures north, towards the range. “All those mountains you can see are filled with rock art. People knew of one site here and one there. But no one realised the extent of the shelters found in this area.”

De Rosner spends every spare moment climbing in the Krokodilpoortsberg, looking for rock paintings – generally on his own but sometimes with a colleague, game ranger Gideon Twala, who is also captivated by these ancient images and has discovered sites of his own. Both will take lodge guests to a selection of sites; Bongani, in fact, is known for its rock art tours.

Bongani and Ingwe are sited in the Mthethomusha game reserve on land owned by the adjacent Luphisi and Mpakeni communities, which have leased it to the Mpumalanga Parks Board.

CCAfrica, or Conservation Corporation, contracted by a company called Inzalo to run the game reserve, makes a point of giving something back, working through the Africa Foundation, to the communities where it does business.

For Luphisi and Mpakeni, it’s an ideal situation, one which has brought them schools, electrification, training and bursaries. Trainee rangers and hotel-keepers at Bongani are all drawn from the communities who own the reserve. And there is more to be had from the reserve than tourism: the land in the reserve is accessible for those who wish to harvest medicinal plants, and game meat is supplied to the tribal authority for distribution.

It’s also ideal for De Rosner, who is encouraged – indeed, subsidised with equipment and materials – by Inzalo and CCAfrica to spend his free time finding and recording rock art sites.

Not that he needs much encouragement. When stumbling on a site never before recorded, he says, “something grabs you and twists you around. I’m catapulted back into that ancient world.”

The sites are very old. “There’s no historical record of San in that area”, says Professor David Lewis-Williams, the doyen of San rock art, “so we suspect that these are in fact very old, some thousands of years – probably more than 2 000 years old.”

De Rosner contacted the Rock Art Research Institute at the University of the Witwatersrand three years ago, when Lewis-Williams, who has since retired, was director, and sent members of the Institute’s rapid response field team, Jamie Hampson and William Challis, out to mentor him. They came out every few months and stayed for about a fortnight, often bringing students and field assistants.

“William, Conraad and I went out into the field together, Conraad carrying his pistol or rifle” – not to ward off dangerous animals but for defence against poachers, says Hampson. “We occasionally encountered rhino, lion and buffalo on the trail, but on the whole we had few problems, and the mambas left us alone.”

The Wits team only found three or four “new” sites, but that wasn’t their job; they were out there to record the paintings De Rosner had found. It was a matter of two or three days per site, says Hampson, and fairly arduous work.

They were also tasked with teaching De Rosner how to copy the paintings without damaging them. “It’s a difficult job,” says Lewis-Williams. “It’s backbreaking work. Conraad does a lot of the tracing, which he does very well; he’s very careful. He has produced an astonishing amount of material. We had no idea there was quite so much there. It was pretty much a blank on the map of rock art.”

Farmers in the area knew about the odd rock painting on their property, but it wasn’t until now-retired game ranger Mike English began photographing what he found in the Kruger Park that anyone realised just how much there might be.

In the 1980s, English was stationed in the extreme southwest of the reserve, just over the boundary from Bongani. “There was a lot of poaching there’, he says. “Poachers used to come in sometimes for a week or more in the mountains where it was difficult to track them down. They used to stay in shelters.”

English did a ground survey of the area looking for poachers’ hiding places and found, instead, rock paintings – more than 100.

He mapped the sites, took slides of about half the art he’d found, invited Lewis-Williams and specialist Bert Woodhouse to take a look, and registered his project with the National Parks Board, now SANParks.

Like those at Bongani, the rock paintings show signs of antiquity: there are no representations of domestic animals, no recent historical scenes – and there are vapour trails, “right from the south to the north. There is such a terrific scope of rock paintings, I’d like to see someone get on with it.”

Eventually he sold the project to Goldfields, which donated it to SANParks – where, says cultural resources manager Johan Verhoef, the slides are being incorporated into a cultural resources database.

“We are at the moment looking at opening up rock art sites to the general public,” says Verhoef, “hopefully this year.”

There are problems to be solved first – the general inaccessibility of most of the sites, for example, and finding a way to protect the sites from harm and manage them properly. At the moment, visitors who want to see rock art in the Kruger Park sign up for the Bushman Walking Trail – essentially a game trail where viewing rock art can be included.

How old is the rock art in Mpumalanga? “We don’t know,” says Lewis-Williams. “There’s no direct way of dating it. If the pigment was ochre, and it was, you can’t get a carbon date on it.’

The Institute has found blood, however, in the mix of ochre and other materials used in the rock art palette in the Drakensberg, and there is a possibility that blood was used to bind the powders used in the Krokodilpoortsberg paintings as well. One can get a carbon dating from blood, so eventually the art can be dated.

But it’s not going to happen anytime soon. Permission must first be granted by both the landowners and the South African Heritage Resources Agency before any large-scale testing can go ahead. However, says Lewis-Williams, “once the technique has been refined in the southern Drakensberg, where the paintings are so much better preserved and more recent, then we will extend it to other parts of the country’.

By that time, the way things are going, De Rosner will no doubt have uncovered another 200 paintings in the granite rock shelters of the Krokodilpoortsberg.

This article was first published in Earthyear Magazine, The Essential Environmental Guide. Volume I, 2003 is now available at CNAs and selected bookstores countrywide. Or visit the Earthyear website.