“It is a privilege to be here, an honor to be in this place.” Selby, our guide to the San rock art at Game Pass Shelter in the Kamberg Nature Reserve said these words several times on our journey. We felt the same way.
School is over for the year, so Joe and I decided to explore the Kamberg Nature Reserve, part of the Maloti-Drakensberg Park UNESCO World Heritage Site, and site of the Game Pass Shelter San rock art.
To protect and preserve these ancient art works and important cultural artifacts, the painting site is fenced and locked and you need to be accompanied by a community guide to see them. We were happy to go with our guide, Selby, who lives in the nearby village. On the 2 mile hike to get up to the paintings, Selby told us about the area and advised that we keep a good pace in case the clouds gathering overhead brought rain. We stopped a few times along the way to enjoy the view.
After about an hour, we reached our destination. We were amazed by what we saw.
The images have been dated to about 4,000-6,000 years old. They were painted by San shamans as part of a ritual in which the shaman connected with the eland (the largest antelope in southern Africa), believed to have important spiritual powers which could be given to the shaman. Many elands are portrayed, as well as therianthropes—figures who are part-human, part-animal, that is, people who have metamorphosed into animals.
There are several layers of pictures. Our guide explained that images were drawn on top of one another over several visits as a way to increase power or connect with power over time. The paintings don’t just record an event or tell a story; they’re meant to enable the connection between the person and the animal’s spirit. Scholars believe the rock art was made while the shamans were in a trance. Shamans would enter the spirit world to try to heal the sick, control the weather, or direct the movements of animals.
Materials used in the paintings include red ochre, yellow ochre, bird dung, and eland blood. Eland fat, believed to be a source of the eland’s power, was rubbed on top of the painting and is one of the reasons the paintings are so well preserved.
The San people were nomads who lived in the area before the arrival of European settlers. The San were killed and driven away by the settlers, although some assimilated with different people in the area. As the San traveled, they erased all trace of having been in an area, except these paintings, which have survived for so long and give a glimpse into their lives and beliefs.