Just like waking up in a movie

14th June 2014

Rock art at Makuleke

Saturday 7th June 2014

Not many people left “home alone” would be getting up at 05.00 to do extra work if they didn’t have to, especially when it’s only three degrees centigrade. Then, not many people get to walk as their day job.

The morning’s walk was made even better by the fact that I led again. It was a very chilled out walk, this time we got a drop off at Reed Buck Vlei, we then explored the south side of Nwambi Pan before crossing the Salvadora plains to make our rendezvous on Middle Road.

After a 10k run and a spot of lunch we headed up to the Sandveld for a sleep out. A month or two ago I’d visited the cave paintings and promised myself I’d make it back there to camp to experience the bushman’s* home for myself. I’m so grateful for the guys agreeing to the location, now all the remained for me to do was to get them there. Not an easy prospect given my sense of direction.

We parked at the junction of Lanner Drive and Caracal Link, then it was a case of simply following the arrow on the GPS to our destination. But nothing is ever that simple, especially as the technology isn’t sophisticated enough to show the various gorges along the way.

Unfortunately I knew we needed to cross a gorge, unfortunately I didn’t know there were several in the area. As soon as I saw an opportunity to cross the gorge I jumped at the chance. However, what I should have done was carry on along the path and cross it at a later point. What this meant was that we in fact had to cross an additional gorge. The silver lining, there’s always a silver lining if you look hard enough, was this new gorge was stunning and we’d now been to some places that man may never have walked before.

Regardless of the slight detour we got to the cave paintings in good time. Setting up camp was not onerous at all, it was just a case of picking where you wanted to sleep, then laying out your bed roll and sleeping bag. I chose to sleep under the overhang of the cave so I could look up at the rock paintings to really soak in the experience.

We collected wood for a small safety fire, the only purpose of which was to warn off any dangerous game that became too curious. It didn’t take long to collect firewood as we didn’t need much, there was plenty of fallen Lebombo iron wood (Androstachys johnsonii) and silver cluster leaf (Terminalia sericea) to choose from.

Once we’d collected the wood we then got down to the task of making fire by friction, to do this we used a corkwood (Commiphora) baseplate and drill. We also collected dry grass to move the flames from the drill site to the fire place and some dry elephant dung to ignite when we’d created an ember. With five of us taking it in turns to power the drill it didn’t take long before the fire was lit.

Once the fire was up and running I sat sat up on the ridge to enjoy the view in the last of the light. It was incredibkly quiet other than a brown-hooded kingfisher, a natal spur-fowl, the chatter from around the fire and the distant roar of the Luvuvuh River.

Dinner was cooked over a gas stove, then after a cuppa it was to bed. We’d worked out shifts, the first started at 21.00 for an hour and three quarters. When I retired to my cave for the night I left my rifle with the watch. What a great place I’d picked to sleep, actually I should say, what a great place the bushmen had picked to sleep all those years ago. As I looked up from my bed I could see both the cliff face and too my left the night sky which reminded me of an extract from T V Bulpin’s Ivory Trail, “It was a cool evening that tempted one to accept the Africa mythology of the night, that darkness is but the blanket of the sun. Each night he draws the blanket over himself when he goes to rest; but because it is so old it is full of moth holes, and so the stars come shining through”.

I’ve been on a few of these sleep outs now, I’ve come to learn that once you accept that you’re not going to have a perfect nights sleep you end up sleeping quite well, all things considered.

Hein woke me for my shift, it was 02.15, my first priority was to get the kettle on for tea and a rusk. The night was incredibly quiet, a hyena calling now and again as well as a leopard “sawing”. There was the odd shuffle from one of the boys trying to get comfy on the cold sandy floor, some sporadic snores and a few wild animal noises that I couldn’t place. At four O’clock Jomi took over to bring us safely through to dawn.

He did this in true Jomi style, whilst it was still dark although there was a glimmer of dawn breaking he piped up a tune on his recorder. It took me a moment to work out what was going on, it could have actually been a movie set I was waking up on. In fact the tune he was playing was from Lord of the Rings, very fitting for the space we were in. I think this is the first time I’ve ever heard anybody playing something other than “London’s burning” on the recorder.

I wasn’t jumping out of bed, I was enjoying my temporary home too much. Luckily I didn’t as Jomi soon appeared with tea and rusks for us all. I lay in my sleeping bag with my woolly hat pulled down and my neck piece pulled up. Here I lay watching the sun illuminate first the large leaf rock fig and then the paintings themselves. The dawn chorus is not spectacular on the Sandveld, I guess the habitat isn’t the best. What I did hear as I refused to emerge from the warmth of my sleeping bag were: Swainson spurfowl, white-bellied sunbird, the ubiquitous cape turtle dove, kurichane thrush (not id’d by me), dark-capped bulbul, crested franclon and grey-headed parrots.

Once we’d broken camp and left it the way we’d found it. The fire place had disappeared as we’d mixed the ashes with a lot of wet sand and dispersed it over a wide area, we then scattered any unused firewood and then even wiped away our footprints.

I led back, a much more direct route than before. Jomi took over when back at the vehicle and drove us back to camp. As we drove down Caracal Link he asked if any of us had our phones with, to this I thought cool, phone signal, then he announced that he wanted to use one of our bird call apps to try and call up an Arnott’s chat. We had no luck but as we were waiting and listening we heard a leopard call.

The leopard call would have been a cool way to finish but it wasn’t the end of our excursion. It in fact ended on a sour note, close to camp we saw vultures down on a kill. We jumped off the vehicle and went into the acacia veld to investigate where we found an impala ram that had been choked to death by a snare. It had obviously been a struggle for some time, he was incredibly skinny and the bush that the snare had been attached to was broken off next to him. Where he had dragged this bush from I do not know. We took the GPS coordinates so we could report it when back in camp.

Bushman of the Later Stone Age

The first contemporary South Africans are the San (descendants of the original hunter-gatherers) whose ancestors were our last living link with the Later Stone Age. The San embodied the Later Stone Age which lasted from about 10,000 years ago up until 1,000 years ago, after which it was disrupted by the Iron Age which overshadowed the hunter-gatherer economy.

The San refined stone tool technology to its peak, specialising in sharp-edged stone blades and developed digging sticks weighted with bored stones. They polished animal bone into needles and arrowheads.

They were sophisticated hunters with a deep understanding and respect of their landscape, environment and animal behaviours. They had an in-depth knowledge of the use of plants for medicine, food and poison.

They were specialists in Rock Art, with a broad range of beautifully crafted images in a variety of styles. A lot of the remaining art today, is of engravings rather than paintings and depict identifiable animals such as zebra, eland superimposed with fine and irregular motifs that may be interpreted as ritualistic symbolism. The artists depict beautiful or powerful images and most of the work is imbued with a deep respect for the animals depicted.

Source: EcoTraining information folder, Makuleke Camp, March 2011.