The Inner / Outer Landscape of Biesje Poort

The Inner / Outer Landscape of Biesje Poort

Résumé en français

Des siècles d’interaction humaine avec Biesje Poort ont imprégné le paysage d'une multitude de significations. Les signes ou représentations de ces significations ont été laissés à d'autres pour qu'ils découvrent et lisent conjointement avec la compréhension du paysage. Pour le visiteur occasionnel, le paysage paraîtrait ordinaire. Cependant, une fois que le spectateur est introduit dans le monde significatif des gravures et autres caractéristiques, le paysage devient emblématique en tant que lieu de signification et transmetteur de ces significations. Cet article tente de démontrer diverses stratégies pour s'engager et lire le paysage - acquérir une «éducation de l'attention», parcourir la terre, partager des perceptions à travers des mots et des dessins, et faire des cartes. Ces actions peuvent conduire à une compréhension globale du paysage, mettant en lumière ses qualités iconiques.

Ages of human engagement with Biesje Poort have imbued the landscape with a multitude of meanings. Signs or representations of these meanings have been left for others to discover and read in conjunction with understanding the landscape. To the casual visitor, the landscape would appear ordinary. However, once the viewer is introduced to the significant world of engravings and other features, the landscape becomes iconic as a place of meaning and the transmitter of these meanings. This paper attempts to demonstrate various strategies for engaging with and reading the landscape – acquiring an ‘education of attention’, walking the land, sharing perceptions through words and drawings, and mapmaking. These actions can lead to a comprehensive understanding of the landscape, illuminating its iconic qualities.


From my diary:  The landscape seemed to vibrate in the intense heat. For the most part, it stretched out across the horizon, its vastness emphasised by wispy grass and dwarfed shrubs. Well-defined koppies punctuated views, with names like “Renosterkop” and “Sphinx” bearing testimony to the bleakness of the landscape, allowing one’s imagination to soar.

The team agreed to a general feeling of being blessed as we travelled to Biesje Poort for the fieldwork that encompassed searching for previously undocumented sites of rock engravings and traces of earlier occupation or utilization of the landscape. As the group was documenting exceptional rock engravings of elephants and giraffes, dark clouds billowed over the site.

On my last day of fieldwork, I sat under a Shepherd’s Bush tree with Isak and Oeliset Org to hide from the scowling sun. Earlier, Belinda Org found a ‘frozen accident’ – a pot in pieces. She related how she followed a pink locust and that he led her to this special find. We discussed our connection to the landscape, and how, by listening to it with all our senses, it revealed its stories and secrets. Since the beginning of the fieldwork, I had a strong inclination to investigate a piece of veld at the base of a small hill. Oeliset urged me to follow my instincts, Belinda reiterated that I should go but return the moment I felt unsafe. I was rewarded by a rich collection of stone tools, ostrich egg pieces and small potsherds under a stone shelter. The koppie (a small hill in a generally flat area) then ‘called me’ and jumping from one rock to the next, I reached my destination of a large, upright pinnacle; a rock bleached over years of exposure. There was evidence of generations of raptors nesting at the site, but no trace of human inhabitation. However, it was at this location where I made my most important discovery.

Standing on one of the protruding flat rocks, I took in the beautiful landscape stretching out around me. Kilometres of irregularly undulating veld, placid from this vantage point.  The topography, however, seemed shuffled around Biesje Poort, with dark womb-like rock outcroppings juxtaposed against the jagged, jarred heaps of colossal, flat rock pallets. In some cases, these massive shards were all arranged to point in a specific direction. Oeliset related how these would serve as waypoints to earlier travellers, leading them northwards. The white pinnacle behind me also emphasised this direction, but the surrounding rocks connected me to all the directions of the wind.

As I jumped from one rock to the next, the solid object under my feet produced a hollow sound. I tapped around its surface and the moment I reached the point where the rock almost touched the white pinnacle’s base, the sound reverberated, clearly ringing out over the landscape. I experienced the intense rush of discovering something very profound. I continued testing the remainder of the rocks strewn along the base of the pinnacle – they all reverberated, albeit at different frequencies. This only served to further fuel my active imaginations of the place and possible human interactions with it.

At this elevated location, I realised that I had experienced an exceptionally strong connection to the landscape. After only four days, I was acutely aware of my place within the environment and became conscious of a bigger reality other than just the here and now. I started to discover snippets of its history and the team uncovered various layers from different eras. A personal compilation of the history of the farm and its inhabitants by one of the daughters of the original farm-owners proved very insightful. I read about aspects such as the farm’s school and its sole teacher, Mr van der Westhuizen; the childrens’ monthly excursions to document the rock engravings and search for artifacts for the school museum and the revolutionary farm policy to install jackal fencing along its entire perimeter to nullify all future hunting of the animal. Most poignant was the family’s deeply ingrained love for the landscape that etched itself on the lives of over four generations of individuals. Even though the farm was sold twice in the past few years, the remaining members of the original Beukes family all plan to be buried in the family cemetery on the farm.

The stories of this place bear witness to the powerful relationship between this iconic landscape and its human inhabitants, passers-by, or perhaps even researchers.


Biesje Poort is a landscape of hills in the northern parts of South Africa close to the border with Namibia.  The landscape divides the Orange (Gariep) River Basin near Kakamas from the plains of the southern Kalahari fringe near Lutzputz. Biesje Poort forms part of a larger arid landscape system shaped by geological and hydrological processes. These natural processes created protected, life-sustaining valleys as ‘gateways’ into the Poort (a narrow passage through mountains or hills) where water collects and flows. It is a beautiful, harsh landscape, but not particularly noteworthy to casual visitors. Its layers of significance only reveal themselves through active immersion in the landscape. To the uninitiated, it may have little meaning, and will not resonate as being iconic.

Fig 2: The poort and surrounding hills of Biesje Poort

Biesje Poort has consistently, though transiently, been inhabited by different groups of people. The concept of landscape exists in the mind (the inner landscape), but also in the physical matter (the environment). It is within the relationship between the environment and the people inhabiting, moving through, or engaging with it, that meanings are deposited – conceptual representations or cultural meanings embedded in the landscape. And subsequently, the landscape itself becomes the transmitter of these meanings, if one knows how and where to look. In the case of Biesje Poort, subtle and eroded signs have been engraved on numerous exposed rock faces in strategic positions around the rocky outcrops as illustrated in Figures 3 and 4 below.

Fig 3: Engravings depicting animals Site BP7
Fig 4: Engravings depicting animals at Site BP11

Different peoples have, like the water, carved routes and resting places through the landscape where they inscribed their presence onto the rocks, communicating messages to those who were to follow. There are many voices that ‘echo’ through the site, these are evident in the messages encoded in the landscape – the engravings on the rocks, and artefacts found along the riverbeds and scattered around the sheltering caves. They are layered and hidden, yet visible if one takes the time to discover, discuss and interpret. The engravings depict the animals and their tracks that probably used to be found on the site, as well as humanoid figures. There are also depictions of shapes and patterns which are not so easily identifiable, but because of various star-like shapes, these were interpreted, during the fieldwork, as being cosmological symbols. The rocks on which the engravings appear are in a state of slow but persistent decay. The impact of natural weathering is erasing and altering these traces of a past time.

Fig 5: A characteristic drainage line across the exposed rock surfaces
Fig 6: Different groups of engravings on the various exposed rock surfaces throughout the site

The identity of the engravers is not known for certain. However, these remnants are part of humanity’s history, not simply limited to the heritage of the hunter-gatherers, or herders, or farmers, whose traces have all been found imprinted on the land. There is a resounding call shared by heritage conservationists and archaeologists that the site needs to be protected and honoured for the fragile layered landscape which it is, and for what it means today.  This is primarily why our research team was there.

Fig 7: Artefacts found on the site - a pin from a British nurse's uniform
Fig 8: Artefacts on the site - a stone-age grinding rock

Interdisciplinary fieldwork carried out during 2010 to 2013, that recorded the rock engravings at Biesje Poort farm, culminated in the publication ‘Engraved Landscape: Biesje Poort: Many Voices’ (Lange et. al. 2013). The research team included archaeologists from McGregor Museum, landscape architects from Universities of Pretoria and Cape Town, representatives of an arts-for-peace non-profit organisation ARROWSA (Art a Resource for Reconciliation Over the World), CCMS (Centre for Communication, Media and Society) students from the University of KwaZulu Natal and Kalahari crafters and organic intellectuals from the ≠Khomani San Bushman community.  Transdisciplinarity (a research strategy that crosses many disciplinary boundaries to create a holistic approach) underpinned a variety of research and recording techniques including cultural mapping via GPS, scientific methods of recording heritage sites, tracing rock art, open-ended interviews, demonstrations of the use of found material culture, and participant observation.

Fig 9: The research team worked together to document and interpret the various sites and engravings

During the research, a question that predominantly informed the investigation was this: how would one gain access to the original meanings contained within the engravings? How could one begin to interpret signs that were produced by a people from a culture and time so vastly different from our own? Would there be only a single meaning, or rather many meanings, resulting in the signs and the landscape becoming polysemic, reflecting the various relationships different people had with it over the years?

Learning to read the landscape

Knowledge is to know and understand something by developing the ability to situate information in the context of perceptual engagement with the environment. People, during their lives, develop a capacity to ‘know’ (situating information in relation to perception) through having things shown to them, undergoing an ‘education of attention’ or a sensory education. Knowledge, or access to meaning, is therefore gained by individuals when they move about in the landscape, exploring it, directing their attention to it, and being alert to the signs by which it is revealed. An individual’s perceptual and interpretive skills are then gradually attuned to reading the meanings contained in and through the landscape (Ingold 2000:21).

Ann Whiston Spirn states that landscape has all the features of language, containing the equivalent of words and parts of speech (Whiston Spirn 1998:15). The ‘words’ are the clues to the meaning of a landscape’s story which expose the qualities that make a place iconic. The reading of the landscape is not only through the eye, but also through bodily perception, by walking through and on its features, discovering its clues, and teaching our eyes to recognise these clues as ‘words’ that expose the meaning of the place.

Understanding landscape as a transmitter of meaning emphasises that every feature in it is vital to understanding the narrative of the landscape and ultimately its iconic quality, as in the case of Biesje Poort. Every feature, then, is a potential clue, a key to meaning (Ingold 2000:210). It is however not only by being in the landscape that allows one to perceptually engage and gather knowledge but specifically by moving through the landscape that the full spectrum of body sensing in conjunction with perception allows one to gather the clues to meaning (Casey 2000 and Ingold 2000:224). Thus, the process of walking the landscape involves a gathering together of synaesthetic material and social sensory experience as they unfold in the sequence and duration of the walk.

Fig 10: Oeliset Org walking the land, honing his perception to understand the narrative of the landscape

Through walking the land and using one’s perception to pick up the clues or keys to meaning, the landscape tells – or rather, is – the story (Adam 1998: 54). The real test of one’s ability to walk, and consequently read the landscape, is whether an individual can illuminate its story, by guiding the attention of listeners or readers into it and by narrating its meaning and sharing the memorable, iconic aspects of the landscape to the uninitiated viewers. A person who can ‘tell’ is perceptually attuned to picking up clues in a specific type of landscape that others, not having undergone sensory education to develop their skills of perception, might miss. The teller, in sharing his or her knowledge, guides the attention of the audience along the same paths as his/her own (Ingold 2000:189 - 190). During the research project, the author was honoured to engage with two quite different, but similarly eloquent storytellers.

Fig 11: Oeliset Org initiates the author on the subtleties of the Biesje Poort landscape narrative

Kalahari participants: the ≠Khomani San Bushmen

The concept of reading the clues contained in the landscape was clearly illustrated by the Kalahari participants. They were able to quickly assimilate knowledge of this landscape and become perceptually attuned to its subtle nuances and clues due to years of being taught and practising how to “see” as part of their culture. During the first field trip in 2010, even though the co-researchers were asked to help interpret and trace the engravings, Jan Org, Lydia and Izak Kruiper would often deviate from the group’s path. They would walk around, over or under landscape features, often talking, gesturing and discussing. During our second field trip, it became clear to the research team that their extensive walking of the site was much more than just walking, it was an act of reading the clues in the landscape, building up an internal map of the landscape features and the location of engravings within it.

During the first fieldwork session, the Kalahari participants schooled themselves in the clues and keys of the landscape and where engravings might be. They also surmised what the engravings could mean. The subsequent internal map was based entirely on perception, specifically a bodily awareness, that was created through the act of walking the land.

Fig 12: The ≠Khomani San Bushmen walking the landscape
Fig 13: Oeliset Org noting the dead Kokerboom landmark leading the way to an engraving site

The Beukes family and Euodia Engels

The original engravers were not the only people to have established a relationship with the Biesje Poort landscape. The Beukes family had owned Biesje Poort for almost 80 years, since 1896. During this time, they became one with the landscape and the meanings embedded therein were deeply engraved into the lives of the first Beukes descendants, especially the youngest of the seven children, Euodia Engels.

In her old age, Euodia’s yearning for the farm is eloquently communicated in various forms, especially poetry (Engels n.d.).. Her books opened an entirely new chapter in reading the landscape by narrating the story of the Beukes family and their relationship to Biesje Poort. What struck me most was the strength of the vicarious memories and values she transferred not only to her family (her son Louis and his daughter), but also to strangers (as in my case).

Fig 14: The original Biesjepoort Farm sign displayed in the farmhouse. It was replaced with the surname of the new owners
Fig 15: The "Skooltjie op die bult" school building, now a dwelling. Original packed stone animal kraal in the foreground

Euodia walking the land, learning to see

Previously, the process of walking the land was discussed and how, as in the case with the Kalahari participants, to read and understand the subtle clues contained in the landscape, they had had to learn to see, or undergo an education of attention (Gibson 1979:254). What fascinated me about Euodia’s narrative is that this same process occurred on the farm while she was growing up. As a child, she not only participated in family outings to various parts of the farm but also often accompanied her grandfather and father on their daily activities. The two men both had a strong connection and understanding of the land, knowing how to read its language to ensure farming success.

Another example of the education of attention is the method of teaching children at the farm school, the Skooltjie op die bult (school on the hill), which was established by Euodia’s parents in the 1930s. The visionary schoolteacher incorporated quarterly nature study expeditions, where all the children were given a specific task of documenting a pre-selected landscape element based on an unsupervised walk across the farm. It is quite evident now that the excursions fine-tuned Euodia’s perception of the environment and that her childhood built a memory repertoire of names, words, places and stories that imbued the farm environment with meaning. It can be argued that her inner landscape mirrored the outer landscape of Biesje Poort.

Signs, multiple interpretations, or readings of the landscape

The early engravers, herders, hunters, inhabitants, travellers, and the Beukes family left signs of their relationship with the landscape. Images carved on rock, artefacts (pieces of pottery and stone tools of various ages), ruins of buildings, roads, fences, patroondoppies (cartridge cases) from the hunting of dassies (rock rabbits) and patches of pioneer vegetation are all evidence of previous cultivation or intense grazing. These different layers of signs, tangible or intangible, allude to there being several relationships between various groups of people and the environment. Thus, representing a multivocal and polysemic landscape. As discussed previously, the knowledge we gained should be seen in relation to its location in the landscape for it to be interpreted holistically i.e., broadly speaking the rock engravings are a representation of the spatial relationships between the original artists’ ideas and the actual object being represented. Therefore, accessing the possible meaning(s) contained within the engravings is to understand this knowledge about the landscape that contains it. However, understanding this relationship more fully requires investigating signs, semiotics, and the role of the interpreter.

Fig 16: Oeliset Org explaining his interpretation of the engraved images of animals
Fig 17: Lydia Org sharing her knowledge and interpretation

Signs and semiotics

According to the Phaneroscopic Table compiled by Keyan Tomaselli (Tomaselli 1996), a sign comprises the representamen, the interpretant and the object. A representamen is the signifier and “stands to somebody for something in some respect or capacity” (Peirce in Short 2007: 164). An interpretant is a mental image or “mental equivalent of the representation” (Peirce in Short 2007: 29) produced by the representamen. The object is the physical matter referred to by the representamen. Objects qualify the existence of representamens (Peirce in Short 2007). In Peirce’s semiotics, the text cannot exist in and of itself – as with landscapes there is always an interpreter doing cognitive work, from within his or her conceptual framework.

The Phaneroscopic Table also explains the process of observation and interpretation of signs as moving down orders of significance. The initial level of signification, Firstness, comprises the immediate encounter with no semiosis (the landscape exists in-and-of-itself). At the level of Secondness, the sign enters the cultural framework of the interpreter, where the sign is interpreted through denotation or secondness. Denotation refers to what the sign represents. However, unique cultural frameworks give the sign further meaning through connotations that arise from the interpreter’s social experience (Bignell 2002: 16 in Dockney 2011:45). Through the process of connotation, a variety of divergent readings emerge amongst individuals (Tomaselli 1996: 38). Subsequently, at the level of Thirdness, the sign becomes part of the mythic and interpretive frameworks of the individual and society. It is at this point where a sign has greater universal (mythical) meaning and is symbolic i.e., it is iconic in that it is widely known and acknowledged as a distinct representation of something else.

A central characteristic of the term “landscape” is that it is first a schema, a representation, a way of seeing the external world, and, based on one’s point of view, such schemata vary significantly (Schama 1995). Landscapes are thus the inevitable result of cultural interpretation and the accumulation of representational sediments over time; they are thereby made distinct from nature as they are constructed or layered. Simon Schama studied this concept in-depth: ‘we consequently perceive, understand, and create the landscape around us through social and cultural filters and specific time, place, material and historical conditions (Schama 1995:12). The concept of landscape denotes a mental construct and the role of the image, or perception, in change (Ermischer 2004:380). Thus, the image of a landscape, that which is determined by the cultural or social background of the viewer, determines the way it is perceived, observed, or treated.

Fig 18: Oeliset Org and a sign as part of a larger engraving believed to be a location map of water points

However, as in the case of Biesje Poort, the landscape exists not only in the mind of the people that inhabit or visit it but also in physical matter. The landscape can therefore be understood as the relationship between its people and the environment (Secondness), and it is within this relationship that meanings are embedded (Thirdness). The previous examples of the poignancy of sensory education or sentient ecology (Ingold 2000:189 - 190) concerning reading landscapes, illustrates that it could be possible to educate or fine-tune the cultural filters required to read a specific landscape holistically. Through the processes of walking the land, sensory education and vicarious memory, the relationships between the representamen, interpretant and object could be strengthened so that the meanings contained in the engravings at Biesje Poort could be better understood. Furthermore, using this process, resulted in the construction of the narrative that is closer to the original or true intent of the engravers and in so doing, Biesje Poort emerges as an iconic landscape.

Walking/drawing the landscape and mapping

During the second field trip, our rudimentary GIS (Geographical Information System) documentation was augmented by walking expeditions, spatially connecting the various engraving sites and their location within the larger landscape. Also, the landscape architects employed drawing and mapping as part of analysis and landscape investigation, as the act of drawing is a knowledge building activity.  Drawing the landscape becomes an eidetic and generative activity, one where the drawing acts as a creating agent or ideational catalyst (Corner 2002:144) in Swaffield (2002). Drawings thus can reveal the consciousness of a place, revealing relationships that may not be obvious to a viewer at first glance. They are learning tools that aid in the understanding of underlying spatial relationships, patterns, proportions, and systems (Sullivan (2008:63 – 73) in Treib (2008)). The act of drawing can thus be considered a method of obtaining “thirdness”, accessing the meanings contained in a landscape and representing it in a way to “tell” its story.

Fig 19: ! Klankie Org using the handheld GPS device to document an engraving site
Fig 20: Lizette Verwoerd mapping the landscape

According to James Corner (Corner in Amoroso 2010:94-112) mapping contains dual characteristics – the first is an analogue representation of ground conditions and the second is the abstraction of these conditions (codification, selection, or projection). This dual function of mapping presents quantitative and qualitative ‘markings’ of the site. This leads to maps being eidetic, referring to a detailed and vivid recall of visual images contained within the landscape. The act of mapping (and drawing) is then also considered a way of producing a landscape, allowing one to see and to begin to understand the form – or morphology – of the physical landscape being mapped. In particular, the act of producing a landscape representation Mitchell (2002) allows one to consider landscape as both a material and representational creation’ (Lilley 2002).

The maps illustrated in Figures 21 and 22, were drawn on site by myself and Lizette Verwoerd. Fig 23 is a rapid map drawn by the son of Euodia Engels, Louis, to guide me to a hidden engraving site. These are not conventional maps but are rather an expression of maps in the sense described earlier i.e., they contain information about the landscape that was obtained through perceptual engagement and thus are a representation and creation of it. In every instance, the person drawing underwent an “education of attention”, becoming attuned to the narrative of the landscape and being acutely aware of its iconic nature. Drawing maps brings the physical and metaphysical qualities of the landscape together and allows the reader to access its significance.

Fig 21: Landscape map by Lizette Verwoerd, 2011
Fig 22: Landscape map by Liana Jansen, 2011
Fig 23: Landscape map by Louis Engels, 2011 (on a paper plate on his way back from camping at Biesje Poort)


Landscapes are in their essence the relationship between people and the environment. Centuries of human engagement with Biesje Poort have imbued it with a multitude of meanings. Signs or representations of these meanings have been left for others to discover and read in conjunction, leading to an understanding and meaning of the landscape.  During the research project, I became conscious of how walking, drawing and mapping the landscape gradually taught me to become perceptually aware of the various clues to meaning that are contained in the landscape. Through engaging with the Kalahari participants and Euodia Engels, this process was strengthened, as their knowledge of the landscape was gradually transferred to me and other members of the research team, who drew images and maps to reinforced our understanding and perception of the landscape.  Through the processes of walking the land, sensory education and vicarious memory, the relationships between the representamen, interpretant and object were strengthened so that the meanings contained in the engravings at Biesje Poort could be revealed and better understood by a larger audience.

These activities, or methods, were the tools we used to expose the narrative of Biesje Poort. A narrative that reveals the story behind an iconic landscape that served as a home, a hunting ground, a place to collect and store water, and a grazing area. A place that for centuries, was poised at a critical point along a movement route to the north, serving as a waypoint, a place for orientation, a place for connection, and a place to find meaning in being alive.  This research process culminated in a narrative that is closer to the original or true intent of the engravers and in so doing Biesje Poort emerges as an iconic landscape.

The research team’s engagement with the landscape has demonstrated that sharing with others – both through the acts of physical exertion, language (spoken and written) and drawing, enriched the experience and understanding for both, and lead to a holistic understanding of the landscape. It is through this engagement that the landscape at Biesje Poort is considered to be iconic in the truest sense, and where the inner and outer landscapes become one.

Fig 24: The multiple layers of Biesje Poort


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All images by Liana Jansen