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Life in the Stone Age

Ancient art gallery

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FRESH COAT: The paintings (left) depict men in shamanistic trance states and animals

The white rock paintings are a stunning peek into life in the Stone Age.

Sheets of rain that had pounded the northern Cederberg wilderness for over 48 hours at a stretch had made the red sandstone plateau slippery. A 40-metre wide gorge, splitting through the plains of the Karoo region, had turned overnight from being bone dry to an angry devourer, water gushing down through it from the higher slopes and finally ending up into a raging waterfall.

A few careful strides through a thick stretch of Rooibos bushes that are indigenous to this region brought us to a natural staircase created from years of wind erosion. A hop skip and jump over a natural rivulet, a few daring climbs over jagged rocks and I had reached the famed Fallen Rock Shelter - a big open cave that gets its name from the large rock slate which precariously hangs over it. Drawn on the white sandstone rock surfaces in front of us were paintings in ochre (bright yellow to brown), that looked as fresh as the previous day's work. It is just that they were almost 10, 000 years old. "Welcome to the world's oldest natural art gallery, " said Sam, our guide.

Bushmans Kloof - 7, 500 hectares of wildlife and nature reserve in the heart of the revered 500 million years old Cederberg mountains - is a stunning South African natural heritage site which is home to the world's largest collection of paintings made by the hunting-gathering tribe of San Bushmen - the oldest inhabitants of southern Africa, where they have lived for at least 20, 000 years.

Bushmans Kloof is roughly 270 kilometres from Cape Town and is home to over 13o such painting sites - 18 of which are open for public viewing. Fallen Rock Shelter houses one of the largest and most well-preserved collections of images known in the entire Pakhuis region. It seems to have been a dwelling site, as it has an unexcavated deposit of ash, sand and grass left behind by the Bushman occupants over thousands of years.

"It shelters the largest painting of a Bushman cave-dwelling group known in the Western Cape, " Sam added. What is surprising about the paintings is the detailing and the high quality of the image. The white used in the paintings was derived from ostrich shells, bird droppings and hyena dung while the red and yellow was a result of the blood of an eland (the biggest antelope in the world) mixed with animal fat and the shavings of the red stones found all over Kloof.

The Bushmen used feathers or poccupine sticks to create these marvels. One of the more important sites of these paintings is the Bleeding Nose Shelter, which was probably a ceremonial site. Drawings of an eland, small antelopes and a whole range of humans standing, dancing and shooting with bows are spread over the rock walls. This site takes its name from a painting of a man in the shamanistic 'trance' state, with blood pouring from his nose. Sonya's Cave shelters tall male figures painted in red along with figures in black depicting giraffes and antelope.

"The Bushmen used natural pigments such as ochre, animal blood and plant juices to make their paintings. While some colours have been lost over time, numerous clearly discernible pictographs have survived to serve as cultural markers, revealing the shamans' visions, tribal dances and other spiritual rites, " Sam explained. Another interesting fact was that important figures in the painting were drawn over and over again - a practise that helped them stay fresh for so many years. Unfortunately, the rock art at Bushmans Kloof can be viewed only if you're staying there, not as a day visitor.

Bushmans Kloof is a true wonder that mixes luxury with breathtaking natural beauty. Opened to the public in the year 2000, it is home to over 755 indigenous plant species. Naturally occurring only here in the Cederberg region, the Rooibos is renowned across the world for its extraordinarily powerful health benefits and delicious, nutty taste. The needlelike Rooibos leaves are used to make a refreshing brew. In the Bushmans Kloof reserve, Rooibos is used extensively - from the refreshing iced Rooibos tea served on arrival as 'signature welcome drink' to the intoxicatingly fragrant hand-made Rooibos soaps. The local chef on the other hand uses Rooibos in some of the sumptuous Cape Country cuisine dishes.

Later, I headed out to look around this stunning reserve dotted with luxurious thatched lodges in white surrounded with immaculate, natural pools. The Kloof protects one of the largest herds of Cape Mountain zebra in the world - an animal saved from the brink of extinction. I was lucky enough to spot a few grazing a hundred metres away. The Cape Mountain zebra has bold black-on-white stripes - as opposed to its savanna-dwelling cousin which has extra brown shadow stripes, and a cream undercoat. As we passed through the reserve's undulating plains, Bonteboks stared at us wary of our presence while a large black male ostrich dashed across to guard its eggs tucked away behind a bush. A bat-eared fox waited wryly to feast on the eggs the next time the ostrich headed off for a break.

A trip to South Africa is incomplete without a visit to this teeming primeval paradise.

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