Snakes and Nsangwini Rock Art in Eswatini | Sense Africa

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Snakes and Rock Art25th October '17

“Snake, snake”, yelled Siphiwe as she barrelled down the rocky trail like a bowling ball in a skittle alleyway. We leapt out of her way as she bombarded past us leaving a trail of destruction; guests in the bushes either side and her shoes on the path near to where she had seen the snake.

“Yes,” said Enid calmly, “we saw it on the way down in the same place. It’s OK, it has gone now.”

Siphiwe was not overly impressed by the whole idea. We carefully retrieved Siphiwe’s shoes and handed them back to our hyperventilating guide. Swazis are not keen on snakes. Which is not surprising considering the Big Seven in Eswatini are the seven deadly snakes found there; puff adder, Mozambique spitting cobra, snounted cobra, rinkal, black mamba, boomslang and vine snake.

We checked the path for the snake and gingerly walked past the rocks where it had slithered off to. No doubt the snake was more scared of us, although I did have to rethink this looking at Siphiwe. She was still breathing heavily and wiping a sweaty brow. And the fact that she had not broken into a sweat walking down to the Rock Art, or back up, was testament to her fear of snakes.

Origins of Nsangwini Rock Art

That morning we had decided to visit the Rock Art of Nsangwini, despite it being a bit of a mission to get to as the roads are quite rough and ragged. It also can be quite confusing as it is sign posted as Rock Art but it is in fact Rock Paintings. There are so many carvings for sale on the side of the road I am sure many a tourist has been confused by the outcome. The Nsangwini Rock Art is the largest example of San art in the Kingdom and is said to provide the most comprehensive display in Eswatini.

It is a serious downhill hike – imagine walking on marbles and this will give a good picture of the terrain. After the initial visit from the snake, we safely arrived at the Rock Art which is an overhang of rock forming a shelter from the elements.

You would be forgiven if your first thought was “Was that worth it?” To begin with it looks as though there is nothing there. However, when you start to notice the paintings they are suddenly everywhere – on the walls, boulders and ceiling. Some of the figures are large and crude and others are tall and thin. There is a huge elephant, indicating that this was a rainmaking site, as well as some small and exquisitely painted figures with human bodies, bird wings and preying mantis heads. All very peculiar.

Nsangwini rock art


Eswatini rock paintings

Why the rock paintings?

4000 years ago, the San people (also known as Bushmen) used the area for experiences, visions and dreams and for recording iconic moments in their lives. These were noted as intricate etchings on ancient rocks. The paintings are a poignant link with the past, depicting scenes from a lifestyle which remained virtually unchanged for thousands of years.

The caves were discovered in 1955 and although not realised at the time, this find contained the most diverse subject matter anywhere in Eswatini. Dating Nsangwini rock art has proved tricky: they could be anything from 400 to 4,000 years old. So, take your pick.

Bushman paintings in Eswatini

What do the rock paintings mean?

Siphwe began to recount the history around the pictures. Carefully she pointed out the only rock art blue wildebeest south of the Zambezi, unique to Eswatini paintings. There are two blue wildebeest with a very tall elongated human figure between them. They have been identified as blue wildebeest from their body profiles and by the way they are holding their heads. Although they could be confused with black wildebeest or buffalo but the former has distinct curved horns and the latter has a much heavier body and more solid horns. It is thought that they may represent ancestral spirits, special to the people associated with this rock shelter.

More intriguing are the human figures. Some are clearly hunters, walking in line bearing spears.

human rock art painting

Whilst others are most unusual and consist of figures in a trance dance. They are thought to be shaman initiates moving right and entering the ‘power’ world through the fissure in the rock (see above). Apparently this crack represents the division between material and spiritual worlds. Below are two winged figures in dark red monochrome, who could possibly be transformed shamans indicating the entrance to the spirit world behind the rock face. To the right of this vertical fissure the figures are supernaturally tall, the hunters having undergone a transformation as they pass over into the spirit world. The Swazis have a strong belief about the powers of their ancestors which is depicted here as art.

The work has been executed with amazing delicacy and precision using red ochre and animal blood. Given the ravages of time, it seems little short of miraculous that it has survived at all. The colour and clarity is incredible.

To see Nsangwini Rock Art make sure you are wearing sturdy shoes and be prepared for a steep climb, but it is worth it. It is Eswatini’s finest rock art, believed to have been completed by bushmen in a shamanic trance.

And keep any eye-out for that snake!

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