Bushman Art, Eastern Cape Mountainlands

Story by Julienne du Toit

Photographs by Chris Marais

Somewhere in the middle of a massive sandstone circle surrounded by the settlements of Aliwal North, Molteno, Jamestown and Burgersdorp lies a farm called Leliekloof – the Valley of Art.

Clearly this was once a place a lot of people wanted to get to. There are many signs to it, but not all of the winding roads are suited for platkarre (sedans) anymore. So, taking it slow in our old diesel bakkie, we carefully follow a hand-drawn map provided by Leliekloof’s Minnie de Klerk.

This is remote mountain country, outlaw country. Getting there is half the fun. You enter a world that geologists would know as the Molteno Formation of the Stormberg Group, one of the topmost layers of the Karoo’s long geology. Local landmarks carry legendary names like Witkop and Predikantskop.

The landscape, with its sandstone buildings and conical hills, is reminiscent of the Eastern Free State.

Sandstone Mountain Magic

Anyone who knows the Eastern Free State would immediately recognise the sandstone formations, some baked hard by the volcanic dolerite intrusion of 182 million years ago.

We drive through a landscape of conical krantz-topped hills and waving grasses, and evergreen ouhout, a distinctive woody shrub that is distantly related to the rose family. Everything that thrives here is frost-resistant, some kind of survivor. There are the same Lombardy Poplars you see between Bethlehem and the Golden Gate, some ragged from frequent lightning strikes. There are rosehip plants, brought to the mountainlands by missionaries wanting to save people from vitamin deficiencies, or so the story goes.

At Leliekloof Farm, Minnie and her husband Dries emerge from their sandstone home, which lies at the edge of a trout dam.

“Welcome to the Valley of Art,” they say.

The Mantis dancers – the image in Walter Battiss’s book that sparked a quest to find the original.

Walter Battiss – The First Clue

We find ourselves here because of a special birthday party we attended down in Somerset East, to honour the life and work of the artist Walter Battiss. In between festivities, my husband Chris was rootling about the displays at the Battiss Art Gallery. He discovered Walter’s first book, The Amazing Bushman (1939), scanned through it and told me in rather excited tones:

“Jules, look, this is our next assignment. It’s up in the Stormberg Mountains.”

Back in the 1930s, a young and avante-garde Battiss was the first of his fraternity to feel the magic and realise the importance of Bushman art, which resides in thousands of caves, overhang shelters and etched on ironstone outcrops all over southern Africa.

Visits to sites like Leliekloof inspired Battiss’ work just as much as time spent with his friend and mentor, Pablo Picasso.

A detail of the People on the Move tableau in the Dog Shelter, showing what looks like a sheep and goats.

Inspired by Pablo – and the Bushmen

In The Amazing Bushman, Walter says of Leliekloof:

“The valley is a treasure-house of Bushman art. There are hundreds of paintings, most of them surprisingly fresh and clear. More valuable still, the artists who lived in this paradise produced work of amazing beauty. I remember the aesthetic emotional experience that befell me when I saw the Botticellis in Florence. It was my rare privilege to have the same experience in this Valley of Art.”

Our hosts know and love the immense and, in places, fast-fading, collection very well. Dries grew up in these parts and discovered the shelter system back in his child-explorer days. He later showed it all to his new wife Minnie and she was hooked.

Dries is currently preparing to go jackal hunting on a distant farm tonight, so Minnie will look after us and do the guiding on our trip to the shallow sandstone canyon tomorrow.

The female figure in the Eland Shelter holds what looks like a serpent or a stream of energy. It is a very unusual and significant image.

In the Heart of a Migration Route

Just before sunset, Chris and I go on a meander about the farm. We head down a poplar-lined road towards a distant farmstead that serves as a guest house. It snugs just below a ridge of huge sandstone boulders that look like baby dragons hatching. There is no doubt that you are in a kingdom of mountains, where massive rock formations rule.

Leliekloof lies at the heart of an ancient migration route. In summer, the heights of the Drakensberg and Malutis were grassy and well-watered and full of game, so that’s where the people (then the San or Bushmen) would stay during the warmer months.

As the days started getting shorter, they and all kinds of wild animal herds slowly descended the high slopes after the first frosts hardened the grasses and sealed away its nourishment. They headed towards the Karoo with its thickly vegetated plains and higher temperatures.

Minnie de Klerk at the edge of the long, winding shallow sandstone canyon complex created by the Skulpspruit creek.

Faithful Curators of a World-Class Gallery

Everyone passed through here. This must have been a gathering place for the clans, a kind of nagmaal spot for First People.

In the days when they were the only humans around, the Bushmen would have travelled about in many little families. These Eastern San (/Xam) Bushmen typically stayed in groups no larger than 15 or so. Minnie wonders if they sometimes swopped members when there were squabbles and unhappiness, or found their wives and husbands from other clans, so they remained interlinked and in touch.

In fact, when Minnie de Klerk tells you about the artists who once worked here, she speaks in tones of admiration and familiarity – as if she were a faithful curator of a world-class gallery.

The next morning, she drives us up onto the farm heights in a sturdy Land Cruiser, via a rocky road they call the Khyber Pass. We stop near the gully, get out and prepare to hoof it down to the first shelter. Chris has been raving to Minnie about one of Battiss’ copies of a Leliekloof painting called A Mantis Dance, so that’s where we are headed.

The Mantis Dancers in the Dome (Nguni) Shelter, still full of joyous movement.

The Mantis Dance

There are no trails leading to the overhangs, and the going is tough in some areas. You find yourself clambering down and up sandstone ledges, negotiating slippery descents and tricky ascents. We follow our sprightly guide, who soon gets the nickname of Minnie the Mountain Goat. She is hill-fit and we are not.

But once you arrive at The Mantis Shelter (AKA The Nguni or Dome Shelter) you realise it was worth every huff and puff.

It looks and feels like a place you’d want to stay in. The little Skulpspruit runs not far below, clucking contentedly to itself. I can imagine children playing at the spruit edge, seeking out the freshwater mussels it was named for, women talking, men smoking. And the “little painters” (as Walter Battiss fondly called them) busy as heck under the overhang.

We spot the Mantis Dancers, somehow conveying movement and the mischievous joy of the Bushman god !Kaggen. Nearby are women clapping hands, a shaman touching an animal, a beautiful little bokkie licking its hind leg and an Nguni cow, possibly depicting the presence of newly-arrived African tribes from the north. Everything is so precise and beautifully observed.

Walter Battiss initiated the removal of a panel from the Nguni Shelter by the Historical Monuments Commission in 1940. The three three tableaux on the rock panel are now safeguarded at the University of the Witwatersrand’s Origin Centre.

A Bushman Brueghel

Much of it – all of it, tragically – is gently fading into the rock, as if drawn back into spirit world. But still, Leliekloof’s paintings are unusually clear and heart-touching.

“I don’t know much about art, but I know what I like,” quips Chris, still busy over at his Mantis Dancers. “And this I love.”

Another long trek follows to the Dog shelter, also known as People on the Move. The wall art here faces south and gets little damaging sunlight, so the figures still seem as freshly painted and glowy as they were hundreds of years ago.

The main focus in this cave is on a small area with big detail. It’s a Bushman Breughel: goats what might be sheep with travellers, dogs running ahead, a pregnant woman, a mother with baby, hunters and livestock, dancers, groups of onlookers, an old figure struggling to keep up, a woman on her back with something flowing in or out of her body, an eland with a nose bleed – all seeming to move in one direction. It is like a scene from Exodus.

We lunch on burgers back at the De Klerk home, rest up for a bit and head out again. We have another passenger this afternoon: Yster the wire-haired terrier. He’s been with his boss all night looking for jakkalse, but he’s ready, willing and able to go on another long ramble.

Yster the terrier takes a seat close to the Eland Shelter figures.

Yster the Model Dog

Chris finds Yster totally charming, and photogenic to boot. Hilarious mountain photo shoots follow, during which the dog seems to heed Chris’ every instruction:

“Okay now Yster, I’m going to take a picture of you on that rock, so just stay there. Now look to your right, yes, lovely profile. Now full frontal. Ooh, beautiful, well done!”

The route to the Eland Shelter is rocky, sloping, uncomfortable and once again well worth the walk. Some of the remarkable works include a long line of celebrants, dancing, singing and generally cavorting. A bit like one of those old Graça ads.

A female eland faces up against a male, there are bleeding rain animals, trance dancers and a woman who holds what appears to be a snake or a thunder bolt or some kind of staff of power. Academics like Anne Solomon have called this “a high church kind of place”.

The beautifully rendered rhebuck doe and fawn that give this Shelter its name. Just as the Bushmen are thought to have done, they join into large groups at certain times of year before splitting off into smaller nuclear families.

How Can Our Civilisation Do Better?

Our last amazing gallery visit of the day is the Doe and Fawn Site next to the dam at the bottom of the Khyber Pass.

One of its prime features is a tiny but exquisitely drawn doe and suckling fawn. There are floating figures touching an eland, women with digging sticks, a wolflike figure and what appear to be floating wraiths from a spirit world. Again, this particular spot feels peaceful and welcoming.

Driving home with Minnie at the end of an incredible day at Leliekloof, we reflect on what Walter Battiss had to say about it all:

“So a primitive people disappear and leave art of the highest order to perpetuate their memory. Can our civilisation do better? Will we be remembered by a mine dump or a poem?”

  • For more in-depth information on the various rock paintings in overhangs at Leliekloof and the farm’s hospitality facilities, visit: leliekloof.co.za

2 thoughts on “Bushman Art, Eastern Cape Mountainlands

  1. Bartle Logie says:

    A wonderful and loving tribute in words and photos to this very special place. It takes me back more than 70 years to when Battiss showed us his book and told us to emulate these artists. Being the young hooligans that we were, we thought he might be playing the fool with us. Only later did it occur to some that he was in earnest.

  2. Ros Turner says:

    Wonderful article, Jules and Chris, and reminds us that Battiss (who was 114 last Monday) is still as relevant now, in every way, as he was when he was a young man.

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