Rock Art and Rooibos
Written by Lucy Corne
Cape Town resident Lucy Corne invites us to sample a slice of scenic South Africa in one of her favourite spots, the Cederberg Mountains.
It is nearing dusk in the Cederberg Wilderness Area. This is the part of the day that locals rightly rave about, when the setting sun’s rays illuminate the already striking landscape with shades of glowing ochre and russet.
I struggle to decide where to look, my attention divided between the chambers and pillars of the Stadsaal Caves, once inhabited by San hunter-gatherers, and the vista of seemingly sculpted sandstone peaks, a view which must look much as it did when South Africa’s aboriginal population lived here thousands of years ago.
It’s my third visit to the Cederberg, a 70,000-hectare protected area sitting some three hours north of Cape Town. It’s a region of barren beauty and simple pleasures – a hike past emblematic rock formations, a braai (barbecue) beneath the stars, or a night spent under canvas, appreciating the serenity. It’s also a region with a history as old as any found in South Africa, and it is this that has brought me back into the mountains. Not only did the San call this rocky region home, but they also made their mark here, quite literally.
Many of the country’s rock art sites are found in inaccessible overhangs, sometimes several hours’ hike from the nearest road, but the Cederberg offers opportunities to get up-close to these aeons-old paintings with relative ease. I start close to the Stadsaal Caves, an easy 45km drive into the mountains on a good gravel road. It’s a mere two-minute uphill walk from the car park to get a rare glimpse of early South African life, with some of the orange-hued images of the elephants and hunters estimated at being up to 6,000 years old. Seeing the paintings solo is interesting enough, but to really appreciate their significance, a local guide is essential.
For that I head back to Clanwilliam, a sleepy town that acts as a gateway to the mountains. Here the Living Landscape Project trains local residents to work as guides, providing much-needed employment in a remote part of the country. I meet the aptly-named John Mountain, whose infectious enthusiasm for his job quickly turns simple etchings into an animated history lesson as he teaches me how to differentiate between seemingly androgynous male and female figures and how to tell whether paintings depict a hunt or religious ceremony. John leaps around, grinning and gesticulating as he goes into passionate detail about all that is known about San culture and customs.
I’d like to take him with me into the northern section of the Cederberg, but the next part of my trip looks less at the region’s former inhabitants and more at a notable way of life that continues in the mountains today. Here, deep between the peaks, lies a network of diminutive villages. The hub is Wupperthal, founded as a Moravian mission station in 1830 and today home to 500-or-so inhabitants. After a 90-minute drive along increasingly rutted dirt roads, I reach the hamlet and wander its quiet lanes; lanes where cows are more common than cars.
Wupperthal’s attractions are simple and few, but they’re also charming. There’s a shoe factory, where leather footwear is made as it has been for over a century, a small museum, a slightly out-of-place shop selling handmade cosmetics, and of course, an outsized church. Some of Wupperthal’s residents eke out a living from small-scale grass-roots tourism initiatives, but for most, farming is the sole source of sustenance, and here in the arid mountains, one crop reigns supreme – rooibos. In fact, rooibos (red bush) is a fickle plant and the Cederberg is the only place on Earth where the fine-leaved bushes grow. “Rooibos runs in our veins,” says Barend Salomo, MD of Wupperthal Original Rooibos, referring to the fact that the plant has been used in herbal infusions here since San times.
Today, thanks to Fairtrade backing, Wupperthal’s rooibos crop is thriving, with the whole community helping to harvest both the cultivated crop and its wild counterpart. Once picked, dried, and fermented, the tea heads back to Clanwilliam, a route I’m also destined to follow.
The easy way out of the mountains is back along the part-dirt, part-paved road, but there is a more entertaining option. While some of the tinier towns share a sole motor vehicle between the hundred-or-so inhabitants, another form of transport is available, one which has been used since the area was first settled by Germans in the 19th century. As I arrive on foot in the minuscule hamlet of Kleinvlei, I find a traditional donkey cart ready to transport me back to the tarred road.
Although the cart ends up travelling at a considerably speedier rate than I had expected half a dozen donkeys to manage, there is plenty of time to enjoy the views of craggy, jutting rocks against a vivid blue sky. Living here has always carried its hardships, but as you soak up the scenery and solitude, it’s not hard to understand what has drawn people to this remote and rugged spot for the past few millennia, nor to see what keeps visitors coming back.
Cederberg Astronomical Observatory
“Once you have seen the stars on a dark winter’s night in the Cederberg, you just know that it is a special place to look skyward,” says Wayne Trow, one of seven amateur astronomers who set up this small observatory back in the mid-1980s. Wayne lives in Cape Town, but every couple of months he takes his turn manning the observatory and providing ‘sky safaris’ to curious Cederberg visitors who come to hear tales of constellation-based African folklore alongside Wayne’s passionate astronomical commentary.
Wayne Trow – partner in the Cederberg Astronomical Observatory
Rooibos Teahouse at NetMar in Clanwilliam
It was Sanet’s sister’s marriage to a rooibos farmer that first brought her to Clanwilliam – and now the entire family lives here. While musing how to bring more tourists to their small-town craft shop, Sanet and sister Marietjie had a revelation. “We realised that there was no unique rooibos experience in the rooibos capital!” Sanet says. They quickly remedied this, opening the Rooibos Teahouse in 2012. With over 100 flavours on offer, it’s best to start with a tasting of five teas, which comes with an informative chat from Sanet on the history and production process of South Africa’s home-grown hot drink.
Bushmans Kloof Wilderness Reserve
A descendant of the Khwe San Tribe, Roman was born in Namibia but now shares his passion for San history and culture with lucky guests staying at Bushmans Kloof. The reserve harbours a number of notable rock art sites which Roman quickly brings to life with his animated storytelling style. But enjoying his guests’ interest in the paintings is only part of the joy for Roman. Perhaps his greatest pleasure comes from practising the Khwe language every day. Rich in clicks, it’s a source of constant amazement for his guests – and a source of constant pride for Roman.
Roman Ndeja – field guide at Bushmans Kloof Wilderness Reserve
Cape Town, South Africa
Distance: 7,427 km
Flight Time: 11 hours, 25 minutes
Frequency: 4 flights a week via Johannesburg