Footsteps of bushmen: Drakensberg Mountains, South Africa

by samfriday

The Drakensberg Mountains that dominate the landscape of much of the Kwa Zulu Natal region of South Africa are home to examples of San Bushmen cave paintings and are a great place for a hike!

Ukhahlamba means ‘wall of spears’ in Zulu and refers to the shape of the mountains and the fact they are a natural defensive stronghold. Drakensberg or ‘Dragon Mountain’ is an apt description for its shape as in some places the ridges look like a sleeping dragon; add to that the clouds and mist rolling over the top and the image is complete.

The Ukhahlamba Drakensberg region is a World Heritage Site with dual recognition – both for the diversity of the natural environment (flora, fauna and geology) and, the focus for our hike, the cultural history of the San people. These indigenous people were the inhabitants of much of Southern Africa thousands of years ago and many aspects of their culture are recorded at around 600 cave art sites in the mountains through 35,000 individual images.

We began the hike at Sani Lodge (located in the Southern Drakensberg), an ideal base for exploring this region. The lodge is around 1500m above sea level and surrounded by the dominating peaks. The grounds of the lodge are lush and green with commanding views all around.

One of the tours the lodge offers is ‘In the Footsteps of Bushmen'  – a walk of around 13km to a height of 1860-1900m. It is cool in the mountains, even in summer, and you have to be prepared for all weathers; not long after we returned, there was a torrential downpour! We were guided on our hike which meant we had expert knowledge of the area and locations of some of the rock art sites. As all rock art sites within the World Heritage Site are protected, you must be accompanied by an approved guide in order to preserve the art from vandals and unintentional damage.

Art protected by Dragons

As you climb through these majestic peaks, you pass by many clear mountain streams which tumble their way down, weaving through patches of protea, wild sage and heather. The layers of rock are evident in the mountainside and stripes of sandstone as well as volcanic rock are often seen, on occasions in interesting formations such as ‘balancing rocks’ which, as the name suggests, are balancing precariously on top of each other with what seems to be only a small section of rock, the rest having been eroded away.

The first site we visited gave us an introduction to the cultural significance of the area being a World Heritage Site; the ‘cave’ under the overhanging rock was covered in images mainly painted in striking red. The most easily identifiable image was of the Eland – the Bushmen’s sacred animal. In some places the rocks were smudgy and the pictures indistinct; this was due to previous pictures often being painted over. The second site had more variety of images including snakes and lots of people. This may have possibly been a record of a vast migration due to the mass of people depicted.

Events such as migrations were sometimes recorded and the images were mainly painted by the Shaman. We were told of the ‘trance state’ these men would frequently enter in order to become knowledgeable about future events or important details. These trance states are responsible also for specific images known as ‘entopic phenomena’ which look like a series of lines IIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIII and were often seen at the cave sites. Many of the images painted represented the wishes or dreams of the San people, rather than merely recording daily events. Although crude in appearance, it is believed that a great deal of this work actually held deep spiritual or religious significance to the San people.

The majority of the art sites we saw were well preserved due to their location and the eye-catching reds and whites were still clear after many years exposed to the elements. We had seen examples of this art in the South Africa Museum in Cape Town, however viewing them, in the place they were actually painted, so long ago, helped to give a real sense of the history.

On the nearby mountainsides as you view the rock art, Eland (real ones!) still graze and on our return journey to the Sani Lodge, we saw more examples of local wildlife including Reedbuck and Duiker. Due to the weather threatening to worsen, we took a shorter route back which involved a 100m wade up a freezing cold river (luckily only shin height). The chocolate cake presented to us on our arrival at the lodge was most welcome (and almost made up for the river walk)!

Comfy accommodation

The chocolate cake was only one of many features of the lodge that was welcoming – from the friendly staff to the cosy, comfortable rooms (they offer dorms, twins, doubles, private cottages and group accommodation as well as camping). It is very sociable with communal seating areas, perfect for discussing the day’s adventures or simply relaxing! Immediately next to the lodge is The Giants Cup Tea Garden, Restaurant and Farm stall, if you book one of the full packages, this is where dinners (hearty, mostly local fare) will be served (you can also book separately). Our hike was part of the Essential Drakensberg tour organised by Sani Lodge. This includes food, lodgings, the Sani Pass tour and ‘In the Footsteps of Bushmen’ tour all for ZAR14700 pp. (children ZAR975 pp)

The closest International airports are Durban, SA (around 80km SE) and Johannesburg, SA (around 500km N). For visiting the Sani Lodge, getting to Durban, then Pietermaritzburg is probably the best option.

If you are unable to get to the Drakensberg to see the San art in its natural location, the examples exhibited in the Iziko South Africa Museum in Cape Town are a very good introduction to this element of the history of the country. (25 Queen Victoria Street, Cape Town +27 21 481 3800. Entry fee 30ZAR (18+), ZAR15 (6-18yrs, SA students and pensioners), ZAR75 (family ticket - 2 adults, 2 children), children 5 and under free.


I am a Primary School Teacher but currently full time mum to 2 year old twins and have lived most of my life in West Sussex. I travelled with husband during a career break including South Africa, USA, Canada, Australia and New Zealand.  

Between November 2010 and June 2012, myself and my husband lived in the San Francisco Bay area in California and got to experience a different lifestyle and visit many fabulous places! 

In the spare time that I have, I love reading, playing netball, walking and camping as well as running around after two little people!