South African rock art has survived because of bitter irony. The San were hunted by Europeans, Zulu, Basotho and other tribes because of their belief that livestock should belong to all. They were forced into the Kalahari Desert and the Drakensberg mountains in KwaZulu-Natal - which ensured the survival of their rock paintings.

Did you know?

San Bushman paintings were often made of blood, gall, egg-white and ochre.

A stunning gallery of South African rock art is permanently open in the Drakensberg mountains and the Cederberg region of the Western Cape, and is the legacy of the San Bushmen, the original inhabitants of southern Africa. Their drawings have long fascinated local and international scholars with their fineness, simplicity of design and bold use of colour, similar to modern poster technique.

The San people, primitive hunter-gatherers when the Europeans arrived, had no tribal system and did not integrate easily. They were hunted, and driven into remote areas such as the Kalahari Desert, the Drakensberg and the Maluti Mountains, where their art survives in caves and under overhangs of rock.

World experts on rock paintings agree that the works of the San Bushmen are the most numerous and strikingly advanced in the world, and South African rock art sites are now protected as a national heritage. To prevent damage to the images, hikers are barred from using remote Drakensberg caves as shelter and must camp outside.

The world was introduced to the strangely spiritual culture of the San, with their grasp of art, music and ritual dance, by author Laurens van der Post, who wrote The Lost World of the Kalahari in 1958.

South Africa's oldest museum, the Iziko SA Museum in Cape Town, opened in 1825, has an exceptional South African rock art display - including whole sections from caves.

The Bushman Cave Museum, an open-air site in the Giant's Castle Reserve in the Drakensberg, has 500 paintings, some of them thought to be thousands of years old. Kamberg, near Estcourt in KwaZulu-Natal, has Shelter Cave, which can be visited with a guide. Bushman's Kloof in the Cederberg region is also a spectacular rock art gallery, as is the Gifberg mountains in the Western Cape.

Kimberley, in the Northern Cape, boasts the Wildebeest Kuil Rock Art Centre, a community-based initiative shared between the indigenous San and Khoe people and researchers. It has been carefully integrated around a sacred hill.

The McGregor Museum in Kimberley and the Vryburg Museum on the edge of the Kalahari also have strong exhibits of rock art in South Africa.

Travel tips & Planning info

How to get here

Most rock art sites are accessed by a gentle to moderate walk from your lodge or centre where you're parked.

Best time to visit

South Africa boasts a mild climate all year round. Winters are coldest in the Cape.

How to get around

South Africa's rock art sites are accessible by guided tours, which are generally arranged at your lodge or resort.

Length of stay

Half-week or full week.

What to pack

Hiking shoes and warm clothes, as the sites are in either the Drakensberg or Cederberg mountains.

Where to stay

Accommodation near the rock sites is plentiful and varied, from rustic to luxury.

What to eat

There is a pick of restaurants at or near the various rock art sites or rock art centres.

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