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.