Tracking rock art on the Makgabeng Plateau in the Northern Province

Posted on 4 May 2009

‘Just follow the road, go through two villages and after you cross the river you will see a shop with many poles outside. Continue straight on to the top of the plateau. There, a boy will find you and bring you to me…

But don’t turn off the road, except where it has been washed away, then follow the new tracks, just don’t turn left or right, and don’t worry about the road it is very bumpy.’

These were the directions we got over a very scratchy phone line while waiting in the bustling rural village of Bochum. We where on our way to ‘The Makgabeng’, a legendary wilderness area a stone’s throw from the Blouberg. It is a 250km square plateau that rises 200m above the surrounding bushveld, and has held a fascination with humans for thousands of years. I had been hearing about it from many of my bush whacking type friends for what seems like hundreds of years, but have never managed to get any of them to guide me up to this isolated wilderness.

Then we heard about Jonas Tlouyamma, archaeological guide extraordinaire. We gave him a call and set up a flying visit to check the place out before committing to a full camping expedition. Intrepidly we followed the directions and made our way along the tracks and dongas that passed for roads to the plateau.

The main attraction of the Makgabeng plateau is the rock art to be found there, over 890 San and Sotho rock art sites to be found hidden under strange sandstone outcrops and overhangs. The area has been inhabited by San, Khoikhoi, Sotho and Tswana people for centuries. It also has a rich recent history of war between Boers and proud chiefs as well as stories of intrepid missionaries, hunters and explorers from all over the world.

So hang on a minute, what is a birder doing heading up there, I can hear you thinking. Well, the area is amazingly isolated and has avoided mass settlements over the last hundred years so the habitat is pristine. Archeologists have been studying it for years, but this huge wilderness it almost completely unexplored as far as bird life goes. So I was going to find some thing special, very special, something that everyone else had over looked! Maybe a first for province, like a Rockjumper, or even a East coast Akalat, which will be a first for the Country, or even a breeding population of Bohm’s Bee-eater

OK , OK not very likely I know, and most likely completely impossible, but if you don’t go you will never know. This feeling is one of the huge driving forces behind birders getting into new areas. Some of the first people back into Mozambique and Angola after the wars were birders. It’s a bit like that feeling you have when you see the ‘no entry’ signs in Kruger, you are always sure that’s where the leopards are!

Well, I never did find any totally unique birds, I did see Booted Eagle, Rock Kestrels, Little Bee-eaters and loads of other birds, but the highlight was the amazing rock art, history and wilderness all interpreted by an incredibly knowledgeable and entertaining guide. Yes, there is more to life than birds, but to beat a good birding trip it has to be really special in a host of other ways, and The Makgabeng managed to do that with ease, and there was the lure of exploring a new area, which is some thing a birder can not resist. We are already planning the four night camping expedition, the punctures have been repaired, we have polished the scratchs off the car and prepared ourselves to tackle some of the worst roads in Limpopo to get back to there.

This time I am sure I will find that secret population of African Pittas! Any one want to join us?

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