Gamkaberg Nature Reserve is home to an ultra-rare protea, endangered Cape mountain zebra and 40 rock art sites. Now a new heritage trail allows the public to view its Khoisan rock art for the first time. By Magriet Kruger

Tucked into the mountains between Calitzdorp and Oudtshoorn, Gamkaberg‘s quiet kloofs are a haven for stressed out city types. A place to unplug devices and recharge your own batteries instead. Thanks to the reserve’s use of gas and solar power, it’s a place blissfully free of blinking lights and beeping sounds. Just what I needed after a few deadline packed weeks.

I was the latest arrival in a long line of people seeking refuge in this beautiful corner of the Klein Karoo, as I discovered when I talked to reserve manager Tom Barry. More than a millennium and a half ago, people were already sheltering under Gamkaberg’s rocky overhangs – and leaving their mark. Scattered across the reserve are some 40 rock art sites, testament to the Khoi and San people who lived, hunted and worshipped here. (Khoisan is a collective term for southern Africa’s early hunter-gatherers and nomadic herders.) I was to see one of these Khoisan rock art sites as part of the new heritage trail, a first for visitors to the reserve.

From 17 to 24 September 2018, see Gamkaberg and other Cape landmarks for free. During CapeNature Free Access Week, visitors will pay no conservation fees.

Gamkaberg takes its name from the Khoikhoi word ‘xami’, which means lion. The big cats were last seen in the area in the 1700s; today the reserve protects leopard, honey badger, aardwolf, aardvark and the endangered Cape mountain zebra. Incorporating three distinct biomes – Fynbos, Succulent Karoo and Albany Thicket – it attracts an array of diverse birds and is home to kudu, eland, klipspringer, steenbok and duiker.

Displays on Khoisan culture

Our walk started at the new interpretation shelter, close by reception, with a traditional ceremony conducted by Khoi headman Dennis Jacobs. After lighting a bundle of imphepho (or kooigoed), a shrub burnt as a ritual incense, he carried the smouldering parcel on a pair of kudu horns around the display. The smoke drifted across the site, purifying the air and blessing the half moon of information boards.

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Khoi headman Dennis Jacobs carries a smouldering bundle of imphepho around the new interpretation shelter. Pictures by Kelvin Saunders

A lot of thought has gone into every aspect of the interpretation shelter, which is set within a circle, a hearth at its centre. “The circle represents the sun. Every morning the hunter would ask the sun to steady his hand,” explained Tom. “The hearth is where daily life happened: cooking, healing, talking. And for people who lived close to the land, the lunar cycle was extremely important.”

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The interpretation shelter evokes elements that were symbolic to the Khoisan: the sun, moon and hearth.

With Khoi paramount chief Abram Herrendien leading the way, we headed to the rock art site. From the interpretation shelter, a 4,1km trail leads past 12 information boards that shed light on Khoisan tools and artefacts, the plants and animals that were important to them and the right way to view rock art.

The power of rock art

We approached the site quietly, as one would enter a cathedral. At the base of the cliff we could clearly make out the pictures on the rock: handprints, human figures, black and red dots. According to Tom, not only the pictures, but the paint itself was imbued with power.

“To make the paint, Khoi medicine people or shamans would have mixed eland blood, egg white and the sap of local Euphorbia plants. Bird droppings were used for the colour white, charcoal for black.” The Khoisan peoples revered the eland and by mixing its blood into paint, the animal’s potency was transferred to the painting. In this way its power was effectively locked in the rock, where the shaman could access it for rituals and healing.

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Khoi headman Dennis Jacobs with paramount chief Abram Herrendien at the rock art site.

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It is estimated these handprints on the rock were made more than 1,500 years ago.

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These round dots were likely made by dipping the tips of the fingers into the paint and then pressing them against the rock. The paint, which was a mixture of animal blood and other fluids, would transfer the potency of the animal to the painting.

“When it comes to heritage, you can’t separate nature and culture,” pointed out CapeNature CEO Dr Razeena Omar. The conservation body has mapped cultural sites on all 114 parcels of land they manage and is putting more of an emphasis on making sites accessible to the public. In May 2016 the Truitjieskraal Interpretive Trail in the Cederberg was launched and now the Klein Karoo has got its own cultural attraction in the Gamkaberg heritage trail. This new route, which illuminates the Khoisan and their connections with the natural world is well worth the visit.

Where to stay

Gamkaberg’s eco lodges are small tented camps that offer comfort and privacy. The latest addition, Xami, is a spacious two-sleeper tent with en-suite bathroom and open-plan lounge and kitchen. The expansive deck has a built-in eco splash pool, sun loungers and a braai area.

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Gamkaberg’s safari tents offer supreme comfort under canvas.

The campsite has concrete camping decks, shade trees, picnic tables and ablutions with hot showers. The Stables alongside is hiker-style accommodation with bunk beds.

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The campsite in Gamkaberg comes with a picnic table and shaded area for each stand.

Oukraal is a rustic rock shelter with kitchen and braai facilities and wooden herders huts.