Circles on a mountain

The path to proof of lives long gone is filled with thorns, ticks and dangerous terrain

A FRIEND of mine is a Google Earth nerd. He doesn’t (as far as I know) use it to spy on the people he knows but he has recently taken to observing people who have been dead for hundreds – if not thousands – of years.

Around Lydenburg (now renamed Mashishing), according to the nerd, are hills-full of stone circles lying around unnoticed – or maybe ignored – on farms.

He has nerdily marked and numbered them on his laptop. Would I like to pop over the Long Tom Pass and have a squiz? You know, like Stonehenge, Machu Picchu and all that?

Not really, but okay.

Now, we all remember that the old government kept Thulamela and Mapungubwe under wraps because it didn’t suit them ideologically that the “natives” might have been living civilised lives in that neck of the woods before the likes of Potgieter and Maritz turned up – but this was something else altogether.

“I know nothing,” said the acting curator of the Lydenburg Museum when we dragged her out of a prayer meeting. She was almost completely correct. Giving us two strangely dissimilar maps of the neighbouring Gustav Klingbiel Nature Reserve and relieving us of R10 each, she sent us on our way, pointing out that she’d never heard of any ruins and that the only thing she did know was that the roads were “difficult”.

They have, in truth, disappeared almost completely and where they survive they are crossed by deep, untraversable dongas.

So we set off on foot through grass as high as a passing blesbok’s eye, pulling the ticks from our legs and shirts as fast as they could cling on, while studying every rock we stumbled over for signs of an earlier presence.

Fording streams and ducking under heavy-branched trees, we tore ourselves to shreds on thornbushes until we emerged, suddenly, onto an open hillside, which looked exactly the kind of spot where I would have ringed my rocks, had I been an earlier person. Nothing.

The circles in this reserve are actually called the Mashishing Ruins. Lydenburg has been renamed after them for goodness sake and yet the acting curator of the museum didn’t know where they were. We were standing in the middle of the nerd’s markings and couldn’t find any signs of civilisation whatsoever, let alone dozens of interlinking settlements with high walls and streets.

We stumbled up the hill, sloshing through streams and in and out of erosion ditches, past termite mounds and scrubby bushes. Nothing. Let’s just try over the next rise, we said, casting another pointless look at the nerd map to work out our exact position in relation to the invisible villages through which we were supposedly slogging.

A clattering of buck hooves and . eureka! A small ring of rocks about a metre across. But it was only erosion control from not-so-yesteryear when there was still a passable road to these parts.

Let’s just try over the next rise. And the next .

We were about to give in and head back to the bakkie when . wait! A path onto a ridge. Climb up there and see.

I did.

Nothing except an old white board with an arrow and the word POWERADE. Not evidence of the use, centuries ago, of energy drinks by early people, but proof that this was a mountain bike route. Dry season only.

Our modern-day energy now sapped, and with no invigorating drinks available, we clambered wearily back down through the thorns, ravines and tick-infested grass.

No luck, then. Later, on a stormy mountainside about 10km south, we did see some walls, some rings and some barrows, so the nerd is right. The earlier people were there, although how much earlier remains to be seen. But Mashishing?

Well, Mashishing, I discovered subsequently, means Long Green Grass, which would explain some of our difficulty.

But I propose another name-change for the ruins: Vanishing.

A place to crash

Rhinos apart, there are few more peaceful places on earth than iPhika Camp in the Spioenkop Reserve

IF you’ve ever wondered why the collective noun for rhino is a crash, you haven’t been for a walk in the Spioenkop Nature Reserve.

The word doesn’t begin to cover the explosions that emanate as these near-dinosaurs hurtle blindly towards you through the scrub, kicking up dust and breaking everything in their path. They may be unsure of your exact location but they’re coming to get you regardless.

The crash is accompanied by loud cracks, splutters, snorts and stampings. And probably the panicked scramble of human feet and some panting.

Rhinos apart, though, there are few more peaceful places on earth than iPhika Camp in the Spioenkop Reserve. We arrived in pitch darkness (not recommended) under a starless sky, with not a light in sight anywhere on the plains below or the blood-soaked mountain towering above us.

There being no power in the camp, some fumbling around and dextrous torch-work unearthed gas and paraffin lamps from the boulder-and-thatch hobbit house at the back of the wide terrace. Further investigations later uncovered two spacious East African safari tents out on a limb up gently sloping winding paths.

En route we had stumbled into a reed construction, housing a flush lavatory and an open-sided shower, so we were set. As we lit a fire, so the moonless sky cleared to reveal a million pin-prick stars so bright we could see by them. A jackal howled in the distance, otherwise all was still. There must be ghosts on Spioenkop, we thought, but none showed themselves. Instead, we slept like the dead.

An early morning mist burned off as fast as dawn’s shadow could recede down the mountain, revealing golden grass and hundreds of shapely umbrella thorns.

Here a giraffe’s silhouette broke the skyline, there a dazzle of zebra stumbled across the rocky ground. Fresh rhino dung lay in middens at selected locations around the camp – just outside the hobbit kitchen, for example. And just below the shower. Just behind one of the tents. They were there alright, but we hadn’t seen one yet.

The principal game-viewing area at Spioenkop is away from iPhika, on the other side of the dam. There is a small shop, selling not much more than curios and cold drinks, surrounded by the sadly derelict buildings that once made up Ezemvelo’s offices and the occasional useable still-inhabited buildings of the staff. An abandoned tennis court makes up the centrepiece, weeds growing through the asphalt, and what’s left of the fence hangs in bent and twisted rolls from its supports.

Paradoxically, once you leave this forlorn sight behind, the reserve is immaculately managed. The roads are in good nick with excellent sightings of zebra and hartebeest and especially photogenic giraffe clambering around on rocky hillsides. And plenty of rhinos, easily watched from the safety of a vehicle.

Along the shore of the dam lie picnic sites with braais for fishermen and day-tripping families. There are even rows of swings for rhinoed-out children and, at the far end, through the fence in a rhino-free zone, there’s a well-marked walk among the aloes.

Back at lovely iPhika in the afternoon, we took our mountain-bikes up the hill and cycled right up to a herd of zebra, which promptly scattered flatulently.

Propping the bikes up against a tree, we wandered into the dense bush to see how close we could get to a puzzled giraffe. There are so few places one can safely walk unaccompanied with wildlife and the thrill tickles every vertebra of the spine.

Skidding back down the road to camp, we made out a couple of tantalising grey bulges on the other side of the waterhole, only 30m below the terrace. Carefully and sensibly, toting binoculars and cameras and keeping the waterhole between us, we approached them. They didn’t know we were there.

Then the crack of a stick alerted them and they turned, mother and calf, towards us through the bush. There was much human scrambling and much human panting but no one was hurt. So it wasn’t a major rhino crash.

IF YOU GO

WHERE IT IS:

On the Spioenkop Dam between Winterton and Ladysmith.

WHY GO THERE:

For complete solitude. For boating, fishing and horse riding. And to walk with giraffes and zebra. And rhinos. Carefully.

WHAT IT HAS:

It sleeps a maximum of four people on proper beds in two spacious, permanent tents. The water is hot and the camp is cleaned daily.

WHAT IT’S LIKE:

Basic but comfortable. Lots of rickety, shiny velour armchairs inside but the outside braai area is well furnished and the views are unforgettable. It’s like having your own private bush camp.

WHAT TO TAKE:

The iPhika camp is self-catering but cooking equipment, cutlery, crockery and bedding are supplied. Bring all your own food, drink, firewood and plenty of torches.

RATES:

R610 for three people. Each additional adult pays R203; children R101. Park entry R20. Wild Card holders don’t pay entry fees.

GETTING THERE:

The main entrance is 14km from Winterton on the R600 towards Ladysmith and the N3. Pick up the keys there (before 4pm) and receive detailed instructions to find iPhika.

WHAT THERE IS TO SEE ON THE WAY:

Battlefields or the views from the Van Reenen and Oliviershoek passes.

CONTACT:

Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife on 033 845 1000; e-mail webmail@kznwildlife.com or visitwww.kznwildlife.com.