Throne of the Ancients

I had come back to the bundu to get closer to nature, and I had certainly seen a lot of nature on my adventure.  What I wasn’t expecting was that it was also very much about people.  And nowhere did I see that more than when we hiked to the top of Eagle Rock.

We left early, driving up Mohave Highway and then wending through a twisted set of roads that on the map looked like a plateful of spaghetti.  We eventually reached a place called Eagle Junction, and parked in the parking lot under a tree.  Except that it wasn’t a parking lot, it was just an area where vehicles had occasionally parked before, where the grass had been beaten down ever so slightly compared to the taller, undisturbed grass next to it.  And the lone tree was hardly majestic; not big enough to provide even the slightest bit of shade for the vehicle, it acted more as a signpost saying “Park Here” than anything else.

Heading out towards Eagle Rock.

Heading out towards Eagle Rock.

Andrew grabbed his rifle and walked out on the trail for a few hundred yards, checking for animals, while we stayed back at the parking area.  After about five minutes, he reemerged from behind a small rise and told us to follow him.

We hiked along the rocky trail, stopping here and there to identify tracks, scat, and animal remains, before the path dropped down into a little valley below the outcrop that dominated the northern skyline.  After crossing a dry stream that had seen water fairly recently, we emerged on a beautiful plain covered with pastel yellow flowers, scaring off a few baboons who loved to eat them.  Before long, we were at the base of the rocky outcrop, and then ascended a steep path up to the southern ridge.

Once on the ridge, we followed a faint path that moved east, towards the highest point—Eagle Rock, a prominent feature I had seen every day in the Tuli from a distance of many miles.  We passed a large baboon skull, stopped to investigate a massive pair of male kudu horns that had to be at least four, maybe five feet tall, and followed fresh leopard tracks up the trail.  Near the top, in a steep, rocky section that seemed to be accessible by only the smallest, most agile species, we paused while Andrew pointed to some large gashes on the bark of an isolated tree.  An elephant had been here, and had partially scraped the bark away with its tusks.  How an elephant had come this far up—and why it came this far—was a mystery.

Shortly after the elephant markings, we emerged out on a large, rocky plateau, the east side of which drops several hundred feet straight down to the Motloutse River.  This was Eagle Rock, possibly the most scenic spot ever in an area already known for its stunning beauty.

Off in the distance, across the river and in the mopane trees a mile or two away, we could see a lone bull elephant browsing.  To the right, on the plain below, a large herd of impala and a good-sized herd of kudu lazed comfortably near each other, some slowly grazing on the tall, fresh grass, but most just lying down and resting.  Directly below our feet, many colorful lizards came close to see what we were doing and to see if they could scrounge any scraps of food from us.  Far below, on the rocks next to the river, a family of rock hyrax nimbly jumped from boulder to boulder.  Above our heads, catching the strong updrafts caused by the abrupt rise of Eagle Rock, several birds of prey circled and dove and circled again.

Andrew suggested we each find a nice private spot where we could sit quietly, enjoy the view, and reflect on everything we had seen and everything we had done.  The group quickly dispersed across the rocky plateau, which was large enough for everyone to have their own personal space.

Different people in the group did different things.  Some sat quietly and never moved a muscle, just taking in the majestic landscape unfolding before them.  Others moved around a little more, taking photos of the views and the wildlife.  Inexplicably, one person sat with their back to the incredible view, staring sullenly at their boots on the rocks.  Oh, well.  To each his (or her) own, I suppose.  Each person has a different experience, and takes away different things from that experience.

—–

After about half an hour of reflection, Andrew reassembled the group.

“We have a choice on the hike back down,” he said.  “We can take the faster way.  Or we can take the longer, more beautiful way.”

One in our party immediately jumped in and voted for the shorter way.  As the rest of us started to speak up and vote for the “longer, more beautiful way,” it was clear that Andrew never had any intention on taking us the shorter, faster way back.  We were in no hurry to get back to camp.  We were taking the scenic route.

While our hike up had been confined to the southern side of the ridge, our hike back down skirted around the northern side.  This side was less rocky, with more vegetation.  There was no real trail here, and it was, as Andrew had promised, even prettier than the hike up had been.

Signs of ancient habitation on Eagle Rock.

Signs of ancient habitation on Eagle Rock.

Not too far in to our cross-country hike around the northern ridge, I noticed something peculiar.  The ever-present rocks that peppered the landscape looked different here.  My intuition told me what they were, but my brain dismissed this explanation as impossible.  So I rationalized that the small piles and stacks of rocks in odd places on the hills must have been deposited there by water running off of the top of Eagle Rock.

A minute or two later, Andrew stopped us.

“Does anyone notice anything different in this area?” he asked the group.

I gave the others a brief chance to respond, but the archaeologist in me could hardly hold back my answer.

“Stone walls?” I said, pointing to the unnatural-looking features in the landscape.

“Yes,” he answered.

We moved on, climbing a hundred feet or so up a small rise, emerging on a grassy plateau that was literally surrounded by rock—on one side by a large natural wall, and on all other sides by the remnants of man-made walls.

Grave site.

Grave site.

Within the enclosed grassy area were four or five odd-looking piles of rock.  Andrew pointed at the closest pile.

“Does anyone know what this is?” he asked.

“A grave?” I replied.

“Yes.  This is an ancient settlement.  And these are the graves of their chiefs.  Once a year, the tribal elders still come here to pay their respects to their ancestors.”

The settlement was probably between 500 and 1,000 years old.  By taking advantage of natural features of the rocky landscape and then building a series of stone walls to complete the enclosure, they had efficiently built a small fort that was very defensible against attacks by animals as well as by other tribes.  And it was just a short walk to the top of Eagle Rock, where they had the best view in the land.

Beneath our feet, the ground was a different color within the walls of the settlement.  The typical reddish soil so common elsewhere in the landscape had in this place taken on a distinct whitish tint.  Upon closer inspection, the white color was caused by millions of tiny bone fragments that had been mixed into the soil over hundreds of years of occupation.  These ancients were obviously meat eaters, which is not surprising considering the prodigious bounty of wildlife that roamed not far beneath their lofty perch, easily spotted from miles away from the top of Eagle Rock.

Iron age artifacts.

Iron age artifacts.

Andrew went behind a rock and pulled out some special artifacts that helped us understand a little bit more about the people who had lived there.  These were not primitive people making simple stone tools;  three pieces of iron—an unformed scrap of metal; a wide, flat spear point; and a long, exquisitely crafted barbed arrowhead—were a testament to how advanced these people were.  He then showed us a small, delicate bead, finely crafted out of ostrich shell.  Together these pieces gave us a small peek into their world; hardly enough to define their existence, but enough to give us a better appreciation for those hearty and resourceful souls who used to call this beautiful place home.

—–

After leaving this throne of the ancients, we continued our journey down the ridge, taking yet another detour.  Andrew was looking for a brown hyena den he had seen in this area a year ago, and we needed to find out if it was still in use.

We wandered up several side canyons, boxed in by red rock cliffs, large trees gripping desperately at the steep canyon walls with twisted root systems that looked like something straight out of a fantasy movie.  In a place where I had seen so much beauty, and on a day where I had already been completely blown away by the landscape, it just seemed that with every step we took, every corner we rounded, every hill we topped, we saw something even more spectacular.   I was beginning to wonder how much more of this my brain could take before it exploded from an overdose of visual stimulation.

Andrew eventually found the brown hyena den in some rocks against a cliff hanging above a small plain.  As we walked up to the mouth of the den, walking single file behind him, he saw one of the hyenas dash into the den, but the rest of us did not see it.  So we decided to stand around and wait for a little while to see if it would come back out.

Three baboon skulls and numerous other bones littler the entrance to the hyena den.

Three baboon skulls and numerous other bones littler the entrance to the hyena den.

As I stood there waiting for the elusive hyena to emerge, a gentle, misty rain began to fall and I stared not at the opening to the den, but at the ground beneath my feet.  The ground around the opening was littered with skulls, horns, teeth, tufts of fur, and bones of all shapes and sizes.  Maybe it was just having come from the ancient settlement site high on Eagle Rock just an hour or two earlier, but for some reason I was suddenly struck by the resemblance of the hyena den to a rock shelter—a prehistoric home where early man would have spent his days.

At the opening of a small rock shelter against a cliff edge…

…elevated with a view of the surrounding rocky red hills and plains, ideally situated for spotting prey and defending against other predators…

…a small landing in front of the cliff making a perfect place to return from the hunt and gorge on the spoils…

…the rocks below littered with the debris from a thousand previous hunts…

…deep in the wilds of Africa.

After all of my studying of and fascination with ancient peoples, for the first time in my life, it was as if I was actually experiencing it.

This is exactly what it must have been like.

It mattered little if it was the home of a brown hyena in 2013, or the home of australopithecus robustus a million or two years earlier.  Man and his ancestors are just a few of the many species of animals to ever inhabit the planet, and we really are not that different from each other.

—–

About the Author: Matt Artz is an outdoor lifestyle, environment, and technology writer who lives in Highland, California. This article is an adaptation from his recent book Back to the Bundu: Adventures is Botswana’s Tuli Wilderness [ Paperback | Kindle | NOOK | iPad ]. 

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