The scene on the wall looks like a prehistoric dream sequence. A long-limbed shaman, burnt orange in color, dominates the gray panel, as six smaller, dusky-blue figures recede into the distance. The pale ocher shadow of an elephant lies to the shaman’s left, with a trail of dots at the animal’s feet leading to who knows where. A dozen shadow people fill out the tableau, ghostly and mysterious.
The painting stretches across the 30-foot-wide expanse of Fallen Rock Cave, one of 130 ancient art sites on the grounds of Bushmans Kloof, a luxury resort in South Africa’s pristine, arid Cederberg Mountains north of Cape Town. Perhaps the cave painting is 3,000 years old. Maybe it’s 10,000. Or it could be that the shadowy figures in the background were created 5,000 years ago and the brightly colored dots and lines more recently. Archaeologists have tried to date the pictures, but they can’t do much more than guess: It’s possible to carbon-date the rock surface but not the stain left behind after the paint wears away.
The pigments themselves were concocted from a mixture of urine, blood, crushed ocher, charcoal and ostrich eggs by the nomadic San people. Also known as Bushmen, the San were hunter-gatherers who first roamed this territory–from the Atlantic coast, across South Africa to the Drakensberg Mountains in the east and up through the Kalahari Desert into Botswana–starting 20,000 years ago; they can be found in the Kalahari to this day (though they no longer live as hunter-gatherers). The San artists applied the paint with porcupine quills and plant fronds.
In a country known for beaches, wine country and wildlife, the rock art of the Cederberg is very much worth a visit, too, and the pleasures here are heightened by the comforts of Bushmans Kloof (kloof being the Afrikaans word for “gorge”). The 16-room retreat, a member of Relais & Chateaux, is surrounded by shade trees–most welcome in a region where midday temperatures can reach 110 degrees–lawns, four swimming pools and rocky wilderness. It doesn’t hurt that the rooms have central air-conditioning, and you can always retreat to the spa, which offers two treatment areas overlooking the wild, sandy terrain. There is also a private villa on the property that sleeps a family of ten and comes with its own chef and guide.
Fresh local cuisine is a major emphasis here, and all four dining areas take advantage of the on-site organic garden. Offerings run from elaborate dishes like demitasse of guinea fowl consommé with poached quail’s egg to a more straightforward chicken curry.
When the resort opened back in 1997 there was muttering from rock art enthusiasts, who had previously enjoyed free run of the neglected farmland here that once grew grapefruit, oranges and rooibos tea. Cape Town banker Bill McAdam had bought the place four years earlier and started ripping out the orchards and tea fields to allow the native vegetation to reestablish itself.
McAdam consulted with a local nature organization and decided to import a half-dozen once-native species of buck and antelope, and the endangered Cape Mountain zebra, an elegant creature with distinctive stripes running down its powerful legs (the more common Burchell’s zebra sports white limbs). McAdam decided against bringing in predators, so visitors can roam the sprawling, 27-square-mile property without threat. In 2004 the London-based Red Carnation boutique hotel chain took over the resort and started a long-term upgrade.
Though privatizing the rock art has been controversial, John Parkington, an emeritus professor of archaeology at the University of Cape Town and author of a 2003 book on the Cederberg paintings, argues that it has been a boon. “Having a concerned owner like Bushmans Kloof is actually the best thing that can happen to the paintings,” he says, since it’s in the resort’s interest to study and preserve them.
Haffie Strauss, who grew up nearby and now runs the neighboring Traveller’s Rest, a farm with simple, selfservice cottages, agrees. “Some of our guests say Bushmans Kloof should be public property,” she admits. But Strauss notes that the resort has created jobs for locals and showed a commitment to conservation.
Bushmans Kloof guests can escort themselves on two art trails next to the lodge or opt for a guided excursion to 14 sites (others can be visited by special arrangement). Unlike such famous European caves as Altamira and Lascaux, which lie in deep limestone caverns and require artificial lighting, the Bushmans caves are shallow overhangs, allowing a visitor to observe the mysterious scenes in a patch of sunlight.
At Fallen Rock Cave, head field guide Jaco Fourie regales guests with his version of the shaman figure’s story: The shaman is in the middle of a trance dance, trying to bring luck to a hunting expedition by transforming himself through dehydration and movement. What appear to be legs growing out of his back are a sign that he has partly turned himself into an animal. Still, concedes Fourie, “Nobody really knows what these people were trying to tell us.”
What archaeologists do know about these paintings is that they are sophisticated, multilayered and aesthetically complex, which is significant, given that European colonialists depicted African rock art as the scribblings of a crude culture. Instead, they come across to the visitor of today as the kinetic and vibrant record of an ancient people.
And Bushmans Kloof’s owners believe there are more caves on the property yet to be discovered. As recently as 2007 the resort’s then resident archaeologist, Siyakha Mguni, discovered two new sites, including one depicting what Mguni conjectures is a kind of rain beast, a leopardlike creature believed to summon precipitation. It is yet another clue that links us to a people of long ago, who left us the gift of their art.
For more interesting topics related to archaeology, visit archaeology excavations.