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?

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