While the cradle of humankind complex near Sterkfontein has done much to highlight South Africa?s unique position on the map of human prehistory, the fact is that the Western Cape?s incredible scale of history has yet to be fully exploited.
From 450-million-year-old glacier tracks in the Cederberg (try to imagine that on a blistering Cederberg summer's day), to dinosaur graveyards and traces of the earliest human beings, the region has a wealth of sites waiting to be properly discovered by visitors.
There are one million years of archaeology here, says Professor John Parkington of the UCT Archaeology department, pointing to shell middens along the coastlines and metres-deep evidence of human habitation in mountain caves. But most remarkable of all is the fact that the very origin of our species is written on the rock walls of the Cederberg.
Bigger brain, better art
For while archaeological sites further up the continent contain examples of our ancestors, and possibly the mythical ?missing link? between us and the apes, it?s in the Western Cape that we find the first examples of homo sapiens, our species or literally "people like us".
"The story of becoming modern is the story of becoming intelligent," says Parkington as we fly past some disturbingly modern Tuscan townhouses on our way up the West Coast.
And with a bigger brain comes the capacity for invention, problem solving and, crucially, we start to display artistic expression.
It?s these designs and etchings that are the most evocative and mysterious of the relics left by our ancestors, and it?s in the Western Cape that we find the earliest examples. A decorated shell, now in the Cape Town Museum discovered near Blombos has been dated to 770 000 years ago.
The beauty of the area is that there?s no need to go on an archaeological dig to discover these remnants, they are etched and painted on literally thousands of walls, caves and overhangs in the burnt orange rock of the Western Cape mountains.
Which is why I'm in an old volksiebus lumbering up the dusty Nardouwsberg pass outside Clanwilliam, having long since left cellphone reception and all the other trappings of our over-developed civilisation behind.
"There it is, the largest collection of rock art in the world, right in front of you," says Bill Mitchell as we crest a rise and look across at the dusty red strata of the Cederberg.
Mitchell is owner of Oudrif farm, a collection of six comfortable, but rustic chalets tucked away in a secret kloof overlooking the Doring river, and a perfect base from which to explore the rock art of the area.
"There aren?t any signposts, but we?ll give you a map when you book," says Bill offhandedly (ill-advised Italian tourists have been known to spend the better part of the night trying to find the farm).
Mitchell runs the farm close to the earth. The chalets are energy efficient straw-bale houses ? warm in winter, remarkably cool in the heat of summer ? electricity is provided by solar panels and meals are sumptuous home-cooked vegetarian affairs shared round a big farmhouse table, with the added option of a braai for carnivores.
We stop along the way to collect veldkoel ? the tender tops of a budding plant ? which we?ll eat later, steamed with a balsamic dressing. And I thought hunter-gathering was primitive?
It?s the kind of place that you'll book into for a weekend, and end up staying a week. With nothing but the sound of running water and birdsong, you can happily spend your days reading or swimming and paddling in the river. But one of the best reasons to visit is the astounding rock art sites in nearby.
Here you will find herds of elephants etched in outline and painted in multicolour, ethereal depictions of women with the heads of eland and delicate hunters cloaked in skins and armed with bows and arrows.
They are beautiful in their simplicity and utterly mysterious. In fact one of the joys of the rock art here is wondering what the paintings might mean, and discovering more and more paintings the longer you linger at a site.
People have been painting here for over 10 000 years and there are tens of thousands of years worth of material at a major site ? Parkington has been excavating one site for over thirty years, and has yet to exhaust it.
Start at the beginning
A good place to start is the Living Landscape Project in Clanwilliam, which uses the rock art and mythology around it to educate local school and community groups about the wealth of art and archaeology out there. There are also community upliftment and education projects in place. Here you can pick up ideas of where to visit, including the nearby Warmhoek rock art trail, which has been developed by the project.
An hour or so out of town on the road to Wupperthal, Haffie Strauss runs Traveller's Rest, a collection of simple self-catering cottages, together with the Sevilla Rock Art Trail, which links 10 sites together in an easy-to-complete walking trail that will have you clambering under boulders, and exploring sandstone gullies as you work your way from site to site. Highlights include an otherworldly-looking 'monster' that some interpreters believe to be evidence of hallucinations and shamanic rituals on the part of the artists. There are also some fine zebras, plenty of elongated people ? some carrying delicate-looking bows and arrows ? and a fair smattering of other game.
Just up the road, but on the opposite end of the luxury scale is the exclusive Bushmans Kloof resort, which offers a five star wilderness experience with the added attraction of knowledgeable guides to take you through the rock art sites on the reserve.
What does it mean?
The more rock art you see the more fascinating it becomes, and the real puzzle emerges as to who painted them, and what their purpose was.
While there are plenty of theories, and some highly-regarded anthologies of oral histories, the fact remains that we know very little about either the people who painted them, or their motivation for doing so.
The most eerie of all, and evidenced in sites throughout the area, are row upon row of handprints. Small enough to belong to a child, they offer a hauntingly tangible connection to our ancestors.
For Parkington, the paintings are essentially about what it is to be a hunter gatherer. Animals are symbolic, and depictions seem to be rule-based. The hand prints specifically could well have formed part of some form of initiation or coming-of-age rite.
As I wander further down one such cave, I can picture their production hundreds ? perhaps thousands ? of years ago. It is such a quintessentially human thing to do ? childish handprints dipped in paint and pressed onto paper, pressed into wet mud, or even into wet cement on the Hollywood walk of fame.
An animal might leave tracks, but we must be the only species to purposefully print them for no reason, but to leave our mark for our ancestors. Marks that are uniquely our own, and yet which I realise now connect us irrevocably with one of the fundamental cornerstones of what it is to be human.
For more info...
- Find out more about Oudrif at www.oudrif.co.za, or call (027) 482 2397.