We adventure into the Drakensberg mountains to admire the ancient rock art left by the nomadic hunter-gatherers who migrated through the region. Dating back as far as 5,000 years, these stylised images offer intriguing insights into the eclectic history of Southern Africa and the mysterious San tribes that painted them. They also provide conservationists with valuable clues into which species could successfully be reintroduced into the dramatic mountain landscape.

Rising up over 3,000 metres (9,800 feet) from the Kwazulu Natal sub-tropical belt are the soaring Drakensberg mountains. Known as the ‘mountains of dragons’, the impressive range of pointed peaks stretch for over 1,000 kilometres (600 miles), resembling the back of the mythical beast. Because of its immense natural beauty, geological history, diverse flora and fauna, as well as its unique human heritage, the Drakensberg is celebrated as a World Heritage Site. The sandstone caves in the mountains contain the richest density of rock art anywhere in the world. The Main Caves in Giant’s Castle Nature Reserve is one of the best sites to view the symbolic paintings left by the indigenous people known as the San and nicknamed the bushmen.

Our accent up to the reserve, named after the mountain escarpment that resembles the silhouette of a sleeping giant, took us from the colonial-inspired comforts of the Midlands into the real Africa. We passed traditional Zulu huts topped with sagging thatch roofs; waving, smiling children walking home from school in neatly pressed canary yellow shirts and smart grey blazers; and painted Nguni cattle which wandered straight towards us on the pock-marked road. As we entered the reserve, which seemed as if we are driving right into the mountains, giant birds of prey circled the thermals overhead. We passed a sign demarcating a hide where one can climb to the eyries of the Cape vulture and bearded vulture (lammergeyer), near threatened birds that nest in the craggy peaks surrounding us. At reception, we saw an adult lammergeyer preserved in all its grandeur. With a recorded wingspan of over 2.8 metres (9 feet), this bone-crunching bird has a formidable beak and intense black-lined eyes.

After we unpacked our bags into the thatched rondawel (a traditional round bungalow), we took a late afternoon walk while other guests were starting to light their fires for their evening meals. We were the only people on the dramatically beautiful mountain path. We hiked through dense green gullies – perfect leopard country – and over the gurgling stream running through the valley. As we returned in the dwindling evening light, we admired the graceful outlines of the largest of all the antelope, the eland, calmly grazing on the verdant slopes above us. We quietly crept up the hill towards them to capture their image. The eland held totemic and spiritual significance for the bushmen and I took the sighting as a good omen for the start of our tour to Kwazulu Natal.

The next morning, we were blessed with a beautifully still autumn day flooded with soft sunlight, as if the world had an Instagram filter. The Main Caves were only a 45-minute hike from the camp. We left at 9.30 am for the 10 am tour and made it easily, passing our fellow South African tour companions breathing heavily on the short uphill track and joked amiably with them when they arrived at the top. Our Zulu guide, Thandeka, led us up some wooden stairs to the first east-facing cave.

Before we admired the art, we took in a recreation of a San tribe, more commonly known as bushmen. These diminutive people were only 1.5 metres tall and extremely hardy; they could run for days, covering vast distances with little food or water. Being hunter-gatherers, they lived in small tribes, hunting only for food and lived in harmony with their surroundings. By 1200 AD, the first Iron Age, other people began to shatter their idyllic existence.  Firstly, in the early 1800s, Zulu power reached its pinnacle, displacing all those caught in its path and pushing them higher into the mountains. By the 1830s, the first white settlers began to arrive. These colonists hunted for pleasure and killed any carnivores that they encountered that were a threat to their sheep and cattle, and Africa’s animals dwindled rapidly in number. This severely threatened the San’s once-stable food source. With no concept of possession, the bushmen took the cattle belonging to the Bantu farmers and the settlers that were ousting them out of their traditional hunting grounds. The settlers retaliated and drove them further and further north. By 1865, the last of the bushmen were confined to the middle and upper Drakensberg. In 1872, their last recorded cattle raid took place and they are believed to have died out in the mountains soon afterwards.

The original inhabitants of South Africa were small hunter-gatherer tribes known as the San or Khoisan. While most people believe the opposite, the word ‘san’ means ‘people without possessions’ or ‘nobodies’ in the KhoiSan language and they preferred to be called bushmen.

When the Giant’s Castle Nature Reserve was proclaimed in 1903, there was no legislation protecting the rock art. Vandals scratched their names over the paintings and even tried to remove some of them, despite the flakiness of the sandstone. In 1909, Roden Symons, the conservator of the reserve, deplored the desecration of the art he discovered. The vandalism prompted a plan to fence the caves containing the paintings in 1910 and it was only a year later that the first legislation was passed to protect the paintings. The laws may have been passed, but to police them in this sparsely populated land was largely impossible.

Despite this protection, a lot of the artwork has been lost to natural causes. “Unfortunately, the weather and the flakiness of the sandstone means that many of the paintings have faded and some have been destroyed altogether,” explained Thandeka as we stand under the impressive overhang and move our attention to the stylised art on the sandstone walls. By taking samples of the sandstone alongside the art, archaeologists have carbon dated the paintings to as far back as 5,000 years, making the San one of the oldest tribes in Africa. With the most recent paintings dating back to the nineteenth century, these ancient artworks span thousands of years and demonstrate how materials, techniques and styles evolved over time.

On some of the sandstone walls, the images had been superimposed on top of each other up to seven times. The deeper layers of sandstone revealed the oldest of the paintings while those on top were the most recent. The artefacts changed over time, showing that the bushmen had contact with both black farmers and European colonists; the most recent painting depicted the conflict between two. The roof of the cave was black with soot from the fires the San made as they migrated. As a nomadic tribe, they never stayed more than one week in a particular spot as they travelled to warmer climates in the winter. The elderly who could no longer travel were left behind to face a grisly death – starvation, exposure to the elements, or being attacked by wild animals. Although this may seem merciless, the San were respectful of their environment and each other. This was just part of their inevitable cycle of life.

Despite the soot from fires, the bushmen never slept in the same place that they painted. These caves were considered ‘spiritual sites’ and the process of painting was a means of communicating with the spiritual world. Each tribe had two sangomas, or medicine men, whose job it was to protect the community. One stayed with the woman and children while the other ventured out with the hunters to bless the hunt. The hunters believed that they gained the powers from the animals that they killed and the eland, the largest of all the antelope, is one of the main subjects in the rock art that we admired. On one wall, there were three different eland painted in different coloured yellow and red paints. According to Thandeka, they were all in different styles, showing that three different people have painted them. I asked what they used for paint and brushes and Thandeka listed the ingredients: ochre, soil, charcoal, white clay. “These are mixed with fluids, whether they are animal or human. Ostrich egg, animal fat, urine and blood.” For brushes, they used a combination of sticks, fingers and porcupine quills. These different materials used help to date the artwork.

In addition to the Main Caves, there are another 45 sites featuring bushman art in the Giant’s Castle Nature Reserve. Just before the Union of South Africa in 1910, the Natal Government started to take an interest in bushman art and Roden Symons was asked to submit a list of caves with a description of the paintings he discovered in them. By modern-day standards, his descriptions were brief, but he mentions an elephant in one painting and interestingly, an Arab slave gang in another – further clues to what the San witnessed. In 1911, he discovered the paintings in the Martial Eagle Valley, which he reported were 20 to 30 feet off the ground, another clue to how the topography has changed over the millennia.

When the Arab slave gang was discovered in 1936, it was already crumbling due to the nature of the porous sandstone and was preserved with a silicate of soda spray. Each artwork reveals intriguing insights into what occurred in the area, turning another page in Southern Africa’s eclectic history book.

Symons’s work revealed two interesting twists both involving Battle Cave, named after an artwork depicting the scene of a battle. The most striking painting in the cave – and the most noticeable one when entering – is a clear red painting of a leopard. However, Symons makes no mention of it in his recordings in June 1909. The most likely explanation for this is that it was painted after his visit to the cave by San living in the area. While there are no bushmen left in the area today – only a handful remain in the Kalahari Desert and the rest have crossed over the border to Namibia and Botswana – it is thought that the indigenous people could have existed in the remote mountainous regions of the Drakensberg up until the 1920s.

The second interesting revelation is that Roden Symons refers to “two rhinoceroses in red” however, the cave has clear paintings of two rhino in white. Did the original red rhinos disappear or did the red paint turn white from exposure to the elements? The older-dated paintings of rhino, elephant and roan antelope are all in white, offering conservationists some interesting insight. As the images can all be carbon dated, and because the bushmen only painted what was living in their immediate area, it’s possible to determine when the elephant, rhino, and other animals they depicted lived in the region.

The San paintings show eland as the most common along with red hartebeest, black wildebeest and other smaller antelope. Elephant bones were found in the Little Tugela area and it was thought that these animals existed in the region up until about 200 years ago. When reintroducing animals into the area, these paintings provide valuable insight into which species existed naturally in the environment. Logically, unless an animal was depicted in bushman art, it should not be introduced into the reserve. There were no cave paintings of blesbok and when these antelope were introduced to the area, they didn’t last long. Although not officially stated, the Natal Parks Boards has been using bushman art as a conservation guide for years.

On our way back to Giant’s Castle Resort, which sits on a grassy plateau overlooking the verdant valley, we hike along the Bushman’s River and admire the soaring ‘dragon-backed’ mountain ranges which surround us in all directions. Here, we stumble across the number 75 carved into a rock. A plaque tells us that in 1874 troopers from the 75th regiment camped at this scenic site and the regimental cook carved the figures into the rock. During their four-month stay, they attempted to blow up the Bushman’s River pass and other passes in the area to prevent the movement of the Amahlubi tribe who were attempting to move their cattle from Natal into Basutoland.

Like the rock paintings we had just observed, these numbers give clues to the chequered history of rivalry between the area’s earliest occupants. While many people believe that the first inhabitants of Southern Africa were the black tribes, such as the Zulu, and that they were displaced by white settlers, this is actually incorrect. History reveals that black African tribes migrated south as white settlers ventured north, causing them to clash at various points in the country. The true original inhabitants of the land were, in fact, the small scattered San tribes of peaceful hunter-gatherers who had been driven off their rightful land by both black and white. Their legacy, the intriguing rock art that we’d just witnessed, is a gentle reminder of how we should all live in a more conscious manner – living with more tolerance of one another and living more sympathetically with Mother Nature.

Some of the research for this article is from the book, Giant’s Castle: A Personal History, privately published by Bill Barnes in 2003. Bill was a Giant’s Castle warden in 1956 and wrote his intriguing book for 35 years after his appointment.