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My Search For Bushman Paintings

by Sybil Bowden-Lyle.

When touring this summer in the Kruger National Park, South. Africa, with Afrikaner friends I saw my first Bushman painting.  To Grits and Kowie +Wium, my companions, it was disappointing: a wee reddish daub in a gloomy rock shelter behind an iron grating, put there to prevent tourists from, touching it: but I was very thrilled and pleased. Poking my camera through the grating as far as I could, I aimed at the 'daub' and hoped for the best.  It was fairly successful.

Later we stayed with Kowie's brother in Uniondale, a small township in Cape Province in the Little Karroo, where, from maps I knew the Bushmen had lived in large numbers.  Nobody in the district seemed interested in the possibility of paintings but, with typical South African hospitality, Sonny Wium made enquiries.  As the local doctor, his duties took him over a very extensive area and he knew all the farmers.  One of them twenty miles away, believed that one of his native boys had seen one somewhere on the farm.  We set out, five adults, four children and one native boy.  Fortunately, the rock shelter was easily accessible, although off the beaten track, just up the steep slope of a cactus covered kopie.  This time everybody was pleased for there were twenty five human figures all in the reddish paint, each one different, some; carrying bows, others shields and all nude, about five to six inches high and showing the two noted characteristics of a Bushman - enlarged pear shaped buttocks and a semi-erect penis.  In some places, superimposed at times, were various dots showing the finger prints of the Bushman artist of many years ago.  I tried to puzzle out their design but in the hour that I stayed there alone, making drawings and counting the figures and the 167 dots, I failed to find a reason for the dots being where they were, they did not follow the contours of the rock, and neither did they form any picture, just a maze of large and small finger and thumb prints, mostly black but some in red.  I took several photographs but in the car on the return Journey, the camera slipped to the floor, unnoticed, and lay above the exhaust pipe.  The whole film was completely ruined.

Before I left I returned to the farm, to thank the farmer for his help and for the loan of the native guide.  It was then that he told me that several years ago, an 'archaeologist' had asked to see these paintings.  Permission was given and the man visited the rock shelter.  Hours later he returned carrying a large chunk of rock upon which were the best paintings.  Naturally the farmer had been furious at the theft and the vandalism.  These paintings are now in the homestead and since then no-one has been granted permission to search his land.   I was extremely lucky, for Sonny is one of the most well loved and respected people in the whole area, and, without his introduction, I should never have been allowed to see these works of art.

The next painting was much more difficult to find, but, by this time, though Kowie and Grita had returned to working Cape Town, I was back in my beloved karroo with a now highly interested doctor and his just as interested family, plus another intrigued farmer.  We set out in a truck into the bush, startling wild zebra and springbok on the way.  After five miles of bumping and jolting over soil eroded stream beds and an axle-destroying track, we left the truck and entered the kloof, a kind of ravine.  Pushing our way between thorn bushes, prickly pear, various cacti, over boulders and in and out of the stream, we searched every rock shelter up on the side of the cliffs.  Neither the farmer or his friend, who carried the rifle as a protection against the many leopards which live in the region, knew where to find the painting - they had only heard rumours in their boyhood days.

Gradually the party became separated. Sonn', Juna and-the kids decided to return to the truck as the way became too difficult for the children, and Sonny intended to come again. While we had a brief consultation, the two farmers, thinking that we were all following, disappeared round a bend in the kloof.  For the next half hour I was alone in country where the two leopards had been shot the previous week.  As they attack on sight and not only when hungry, I moved on as quickly as possible to reach the protection of the men and the gun, but my feet refused to go past any rock shelter until my eyes had scanned the walls for tiny bushman paintings. Leopards or no leopards, I was determined to search the cliffs but every time I rounded a bend I expected to see a prowling beast.  I didn't know whether to make as much din as possible with my feet and scare off any would be diner or to move as silently as possible.  That scared me most, as then my ears strained to hear possible animal movements; the whereabouts of distant farmers; the sudden far off bark of the dogs or the echo of a gun shot.  All I did hear was the pounding of my own heart.  At last I caught up with the men and their dogs and we continued down waterfalls and up cliffs.

After a mile and a half we forsook the dogs as we found the shelter.  There were fewer figures but some animal paintings deer of some type. While recovering our breath, as the shelter was about fifty feet up a steep climber's type climb with a traverse of thirty feet over a drop, I started to scratch around in the floor roughly where a possible fire would have been lit by the bushman inhabitants. There, about eighteen inches down, was a charred stone; a largish piece of charred tortoiseshell and a bone. These I brought hack with me.  We just managed to return to the truck before the sun sank in the most unusual sunset I have ever seen.  That has proved successful as a colour print.

The fourth painting was the most difficult to reach, although the rock shelter was plainly visible from the track.  Sonny was by now even more eager to see paintings than I was.  While Juna and the children had a picnic by the car, we tried to cross the river channels of black water of unknown depth, hidden by twelve foot high pampas grass and tangled plants.  Half a mile downstream, I saw willow trees by an outcrop of rock and these I reached fairly easily.  After ten minutes of pushing, shoving and muttering, I managed to make a pathway through the excessive growth near the river.  Eventually I crossed the channels with the aid of the willows and remained dry. Sonny, who was determined to see the paintings before I did, got soaked, but the paintings were worth the effort.

Above several deer were figures forming an ellipse.  They were evidently dancing and were joined together by bows and bow-like instruments similar to those of present day Zulus whom I saw.  Well pleased, we returned via cactus and thorn bushes to the willow trees and home.  Sonny, his interest really roused, has contacted more farmers; heard tell of several more paintings and his telegram delivered at the airport of departure in Jo'burg told me   "Have found more paintings.  Come again."

Unfortunately I had promised to return to school in just over 24 hours - but next time I go to South Africa.......!