The Makgabeng Plateau lies south of the Blouberg and west of the Soutpansberg, near the town of ‘My Darling’ in the North-west of Limpopo Province in South Africa. Rising 200 metres above the bushveld, the Makgabeng stretches over a distance of 250 square kilometres and most of this is uninhabited. Imagine towering ochre cliffs, strange rock formations rising out of the bushveld surrounds, vast expanses of wilderness and over 800 unique KhoeKhoe, San and Sotho rock art sites undisturbed for centuries. Imagine this and you are still nowhere close to the reality of this awe-inspiring, wild and wonderful place. It has all the essential elements of a really good holiday!
A hidden gorge takes our breath away in a stomach-dropping kind of way. Glowing red cliffs rise majestically from the Masebe River below and the other side is populated with fat dassies, vervet monkeys and baboons who test out the echo with resonating barks. Further along there is a sandstone arch cut into the dramatic scenery like a stairway to another realm. Jonas Tlouamma, who has brought us here to see the precise and beautiful San paintings, stops to pick us some Sandpaper Raisin berries with a hard pip under some strangely addictive flesh. The taste is almost like marulas but more intense and we are soon sucking and spitting as we walk and detouring to the laden bushes for more. “Wait until you try the chappies,” says Jonas, explaining that a certain tree oozes a resin like bubblegum, but our mouths are too full of berries to reply ro the rousing cry of baboons on the mountain-side, we trudge through a riverbed while Jonas shows us a gardenia bush which he says “is planted on graves to help grieving people more easily accept what has happened.” Further along is the white berry bush which is used in the sacred task of rainmaking. We scramble up the cliff to a shallow overhang which bears the secret story of Northern Sotho female puberty rites. Here, drawn on the rock face, we can see the young girls’ bark aprons, square in front and swallow-tailed in the back. These aprons are associated with fertility, the full moon and feminine potency. Women’s aprons are powerful resources for Shamans tapping in on the supernatural but can have a negative effect on men’s hunting prowess. “The full meaning of the apron symbolism is secret to all except the initiates themselves,” says Jonas.
At another San rock art site, emerging from the rock face in ochre paint, are three Shamans transformed into humans with animal heads, faces upturned towards a string of light coming down from the sky. They are bleeding from the nose and have ochre smears across their bodies where the ‘n/om’ or supernatural potency has been activated at the base of the spine. Nearby, slim Kudu appear to be climbing out of the cracks in the rock from the spirit world behind it. We feel as if we have stepped back in time as we stand beneath this sheltered sandstone overhang. This feeling is also present at Thabananthlana, the highest point in the area, Jonas points out the ledge where granaries can still be found. These huge clay pots stored millet, sorghum and other food hidden from raiding parties. Climbing in between trees, to another small rocky inselberg, Jonas shows us a fascinating record from another tribe, on the red rock face. Here we see white men on horseback, with their hands on their hips, as if saying ‘Doen die werk.’
Our experience is vastly enriched by Jonas – his explanation of each figure is the key that unlocks the meaning behind them. We are totally fascinated and absorbed in the layers of history captured here – the Khoekhoen, San and Bantu-speaking people; Chief Malebogo’s origins in Botswana; the missionaries; the conflicts with the Boers – all this is recorded on these sandstone ‘pages’. Hidden in the wilderness on top of a plateau, a chapter of history comes alive again.
Jonas explains, “When our people left to go and work on the gold and diamond fields, they were transported by train. This is depicted as a huge snake, Kgolomudumu, whose belly doesn’t ever get full. There are over 50 train paintings, and on each, the pigment was applied with their fingers using a paste of lime, ground plants and ash. There is no direct dating but estimates suggest it may have been done over 100 years ago.” Telescoping in from the imposing sandstone plateau, to the rocky overhang and even closer, to these delicate paintings so full of meaning, we realise we are only scratching the surface of the hidden layers in this magical place.
(Adapted from an article for SA Country Life Magazine)
View the entire gallery with more rock art here.
Words and Pictures: Lisa Martus
If you are interested to use the independent guide services of Jonas Tlouamma you can reach him here: +27789454435