Images of rhinos, eland, elephant, wildebeest, people and abstract geometric shapes are to be found on sun-baked dolerite rock outcrops throughout the Karoo, where the ancient San engravers left their last mark. Today, researchers are trying to put the historical puzzle together – but the original artists have gone forever.

Did you know?

South Africa's Walter Battiss was the first modern-day artist to recognise the value of Karoo rock engravings.

Should you ever find yourself driving through the parched desert-scape of the northern Karoo at the bookend of a day, take a closer look in the soft light at the blackened rock eruptions at the roadside.

Many of these magnificent tumbles of ‘desert varnished' dolerite boulders are the canvases for ancient Karoo rock engravings.

Old cultures – in this case San, and possibly the Khoikhoi – etched and pecked out the forms of large wild animals, human figures and abstract geometric shapes.

These ancient engravers lived in a time of relative peace and quiet. The great herds that roamed the plains of this arid land fed their bodies and gave them spiritual inspiration.

Their descendants, however, found themselves in a bitter frontier war that they ultimately lost against the newly arrived colonists.

The bloodlines of modern-day San are still there, in the faces of many Karoo residents.

Rock art in the Karoo often takes the form of paintings in sandstone overhangs, but most of the engravings are done on sun-darkened dolerite.

Rock engravings, also called petroglyphs, occur throughout the world, with particularly fine examples here. In South Africa, they occur mostly in the dry interior. Rock paintings occur mostly in a great arc or horseshoe in the South Africa, where the high mountains like the Drakensberg are mostly found. It is rare that you will find petroglyphs and rock paintings in the same place, though their traditions are closely related.

There are many theories about this work, but modern interpretations indicate that the rock art of the Karoo was not narrative or descriptive. It had a deeper meaning, linked with trance rituals. The rock face became nothing more than a veil between the spirit world and this one.

It is not advisable to visit any of the San art sites without a guide, because you're bound to miss out on fascinating details, such as the presence of ‘rock gongs’ near some engraving sites.

The gongs are flattish dolerite rocks balanced on three or more points. When struck, they ring. Sometimes you'll see ancient drumming marks and then you might wonder: what kind of enchantment took place here?

Travel tips & Planning info

Who to contact

Nelspoort Rock Art Site custodian: Laurence Rathenham
Tel: +27 (0)23 416 1648

Wildebeest Kuil Rock Art Centre
Tel: +27 (0)53 833 7069
Cell: +27 (0)82 222 4777 (David Morris, museum archaeologist)

Origins Centre
Tel: +27 (0)11 717 4700

How to get here

The tiny settlement of Nelspoort is about 40km north of Beaufort West, not far from Three Sisters on the N1. Follow the signs, and go to the Restvale Primary School to meet school head, Laurence Rathenham. Call beforehand to arrange a time. Wildebeest Kuil is 16km from Kimberley on the R31 to Barkly West. It is well signposted, and there is a rock art centre here. In Johannesburg, you can visit the Origins Centre, a museum at the University of the Witwatersrand that is largely dedicated to rock art.

Best time to visit

At both Nelspoort and Wildebeest Kuil it's preferable to be there in the early morning or late afternoon. The heat in summer is more manageable then, and it's easier to see and photograph the engravings.

What will it cost

At Nelspoort, there is no formal fee, but a donation is appreciated.

At Wildebeest Kuil, the entry fee is R24 for adults and R12 for children.

Fees for the Origins Centre are R75 per adult and R35 per child.

Length of stay

At either place, set aside about two to three hours.

What to pack

You'll need comfortable shoes, a hat and a camera.