Resetting the Cape Compass – Cape Town

Seabirds and Cederbergs

Driving north from Langebaan, sea mist flirting with the coast road, I followed Marie-Louise’s advice to discover thousands of Cape gannets nesting on an island linked to Lambert’s Bay by a harbour breakwater. A continuous airborne contingent of the seabirds circled overhead, like flakes of white ash spiralling above a bonfire. Every few seconds, one would lower its webbed feet and ‘backpedal’ using its metre-long wings before stalling clumsily in a thicket of angry, upturned bills. How they found their partners in the homogenous mass of densely packed gannets amazed me – but soon enough I’d see a pair of the blue-eyed birds rattling their bills together, bowing solemnly and tossing back their heads in an effusive display of avian affection.

Bird Island

Bird Island is one of the most accessible gannet colonies in the world – and for a self-confessed seabird nut like myself, it’s worth the 280 km trip north from Cape Town in itself. Not far from Lambert’s Bay, however, lay another equally captivating gem on the road north.

Riven by gorges and chiselled into a sharp relief of sandstone ridges, the rust-coloured Cederberg mountains were once home to the southern San, a hunter-gatherer people that enjoyed almost exclusive human occupation of southern Africa for about 100,000 years. But the arrival of strangers – first the pastoral Khoekhoe and Nguni and then European colonisers in the 17th century – signaled their tragic demise. In just a few hundred years they were enslaved, absorbed and killed off, and by the mid-1800s the San were extinct.

What’s particularly special about the Cederberg Wilderness Area is that you can not only learn something of how the San lived, but you can also glimpse into their minds. Painted in caves and shelters throughout these ancient mountains is their rock art.

Recognised as the “world’s largest open-air art gallery,” Bushmans Kloof is custodian of no fewer than 130 San rock art sites. At the heart of the wilderness reserve, an idyllic thatched homestead pampers guests with fine dining, infinity pools, sumptuous suites and a luxury spa – exclusive access to the rock art comes with a five-star bill, but it’s a price worth paying.

Bushmans Kloof Wilderness Reserve & Wellness Retreat

Over the following two days, my guide, Jannie, showed me extraordinary scenes of San striding single-file across sandstone rock faces, some with bags and karosses, others bristling with quivers and bows. Equally vivid in 10,000-year-old red-ochre paint were processions of elephants and the unmistakable shape of an aardvark, eland and hare.

“When you first look at them,” said Jannie, “the paintings seem to simply portray a narrative view of the San’s daily life – like an ancient diary.” But he was quick to correct this preconception. An arresting study of San hunters firing arrows into an adult elephant, its calf with trunk raised in supplication, surely couldn’t be taken literally. “The lightweight arrows used by the San could never have pierced elephant hide,” he explained. Then there was a surreal sequence of a human transfiguring into an antelope. These, along with the supernatural creatures and strange patterns of curves and zigzags, suggested that at least some of the rock art had been envisaged by shamans as they entered a trance.

The spellbinding San art of Bushmans Kloof evokes a certain melancholy too. As we hiked the Crystal Springs Trail, walking single-file through drifts of Clanwilliam daisies and squirming through a ravine to wade barefoot in a hidden pool, it was not hard to imagine others, from a long time ago, treading the same path.

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