Bushman engraving at Giant’s Castle
Giant’s Castle, Drakensberg
One of the aspects of thoroughbred racing in which the sport’s fans take pride, is the integrity of the breed. There is no species (ourselves included) on earth with a better documented genetic history, and it’s a matter of fact that there is not a horse on Summerhill (or anywhere in the thoroughbred world, for that matter) whose ancestry cannot be traced to the original three founding fathers of the breed, the Godolphin Barb, the Darley Arabian and the Byerley Turk. All of these horses were of Arab origin, two of them from what we know today as the Middle East (or old Arabia), and one a North African.
In the context of its domestic relevance, the Byerley Turk led the charge of Captain Robert Byerley at Ireland’s Battle of the Boyne in 1690, where the Gosses and the Maguires stood shoulder to shoulder in the nationalist cause.
History tells us too, that long before the Spaniards and the English began their human plunder of the West coast of Africa, the Phoenicians, the Egyptians and the Arabs were engaged in the trade of slaves on our Eastern seaboard. That they reached as far down as South Africa is evident in this engraving, found in a remote cave just a short drive from here, among the fabled ramparts of Giant’s Castle.
No, the image is not one of Shogunnar on his way to the start for Saturday’s Gold Circle Derby (Gr.2), nor is it one of Stubb’s elegant elongations of the horses’ form. It is an original Bushman engraving, thought to date before Biblical times, though we have no precise understanding of when it was sculpted. What we do know, is that the Bushmen captured the scenes of their day, and it predates the arrival of the amaXhosa, the amaTembu, the amaMpondo (the three tribes that gave us Oliver Tambo, Nelson Mandela and Thabo Mbeki,) and the amaZulu (from whence came Shaka and Jacob Zuma), whose arrival the anthropologists suggest dates back between 1400 and 2000 years.
Six or seven years back, Cheryl and I made our fourth journey to the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe race meeting in Paris, as the guests of the late Ruler of Dubai, Sheikh Maktoum al Maktoum. The “Arc” is Europe’s greatest horserace, and it has taken place at Longchamps in the Bois de Boulogne on the first Sunday in October since 1920. Paris is dressed in its autumnal finery in October, and if you are lucky with the weather, it’s arguably the best time to visit the French capital. On this particular occasion though, it was pouring cats and dogs, and on one of the days approaching the race, we did our usual thing by visiting the Louvre, where they had assembled the greatest collection of Impressionist art ever exhibited in a single location. The “Violets” and the “Sunflowers” were there, so was Monet’s Lily Pond, the best of Renoir etc, and while we had to endure the pouring bleedin’ rain for several hours and pay something approaching R500 at the door, it was the best spent cash I can remember. Sitting in the taxi on the way home, Cheryl and I could scarcely believe ourselves, that we should’ve been fortunate enough to be there to witness this work of 500 years ago. It might never happen again. It dawned on us though, as we alighted from the taxi at our hotel, just how lucky we are as South Africans, and especially in the context of this exhibition, to live where we do.
As dawn breaks, we look out from our bedroom, as I’ve recounted before, upon a canvas comparable to anything on the planet, where the shoulders of the Drakensberg stretch for hundreds of kilometres from north to south, with Giant’s Castle as its pinnacle. This is Southern Africa’s greatest mountain range, providing a spectacular backdrop to what we call our front garden.
Yet its influence on our lives is considerably greater than mere scenery. The withering effect of the weather on these peaks has witnessed their retreat over millions of years from Hilton near Pietermaritzburg to its current position, leaving in its wake a wondrous endowment of mineral riches in our valleys. These days, the towering magnitude of the Berg determines our weather, and guarantees us one of the most reliable climates in the world.
But it’s the history of the place that intrigues us more than anything, and the fact that it was once home to the most spiritual people on this earth, the Bushman. In ancient summers, five or six thousand of these fascinating people occupied the strongholds of the Drakensberg. With the onset of autumn, they followed the great herds of Eland, the Black Wildebeest and the Red Hartebeest across the plains of Summerhill and its neighbours, down into the bushveld of the Hlanzeni and the hunting grounds of the Zulu kings, where they spent the winter.
Tragically, these people who knew more of our origins and the world around us than we’ll ever know, were hunted out, literally, by the settler tribes of the era; we have much to account for in the fact that they are no longer, but that is a story for another day; we shall not dwell on it, as it’s more productive to speak of what they left behind.
The exhibition at the Louvre had triggered memories of the paintings and engravings in our mountain fastness. For R50, by contrast, and within a half an hour’s drive of Summerhill, you take your Land Rover, your family and your dog to Giant’s Castle or Game Pass Shelter, where the work is not 500, but 1500 and 15,000 years old; and unlike the Mona Lisa, whose mocking smile says “keep your 10 metre distance,” here you get personal at a few centimetres.
Wherever we live in life, we tend to take the things around us for granted, and South Africans are not exempt. Often enough, we dwell on the things that irk us, forgetting there’s a balance to life. Those of us who live where the “first people” once did, are also unbalanced. We tend to forget there are things that irk us.