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Nsangwini Cave Shelter - A view from our expert author


Nsangwini rock art Swaziland by Mike Unwin© Mike Unwin

Found in the Nkomati Valley, Swaziland’s finest rock art is believed to have been completed by bushmen in a shamanic trance.

Nsangwini preserves Swaziland’s best bushman paintings and is one of the country’s most impressive cultural attractions. The site (mob: 7637 3767; open daily 09.00–16.00) is a community project and reached from the Maguga Dam Road via a signposted turn-off 7km north of Maguga Dam. From the turn-off, follow a well-maintained dirt road 7.5km to reception, passing along the northern rim of the Nkomati Valley. Opposite the small, secure car park is an information hut with some leaflets, a few snacks and drinks for sale, and a comment book for visitors. This is where you pay your entrance fee (SZL20) and collect your guide. If no guide is in evidence, ring the bell and he or she will quickly appear from a nearby homestead.

The caves were discoveredNsangwini Cave Shelter rock art Swaziland Courtesy of Swaziland Tourist Board in 1955. Dating the paintings has, however, proved trickier: they could be anything from 400 to 4,000 years old, and were probably created over hundreds of years. Whatever their age, this was the work of the San and pre-dates colonial times. On the rock you will see various animals clearly delineated, including elephant, lion and the only rock-art wildebeest south of the Zambezi. More intriguing are the human figures. Some are clearly hunters, walking in line bearing spears. Others are more bizarre, apparently floating on raised legs and embellished with feathers and, in one case, the head of a mantis. To the right of a vertical fissure in the rock the figures are supernaturally tall.

(Photo: © Swaziland Courtesy of Swaziland Tourist Board)

Archaeologists now believe that these paintings were completed in a shamanic trance and that many carry symbolic meaning. The elephant, for example, represents rainmaking – the cave probably hosted sacred rain ceremonies – while the fissure represents the division between the material and the spirit or ‘power’ world, with the hunters undergoing a transformation as they pass over into the latter (hence their towering stature). Blacker figures higher on the wall depict the first Bantu pastoralists to arrive in Swaziland. 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, let alone with such colour and clarity.

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