Brandberg Pioneer Reinhard Maack Discovers the White Lady - Namibia Safari and Lodges - Gondwana Collection

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Brandberg Pioneer Reinhard Maack Discovers the White Lady

Avatar of inke inke - 08. January 2016 - Discover Namibia

Rock painting with the White Lady of the Brandberg. (Photo: Harald Süpfle)

Reinhard Maack was the first European to conquer Königstein (2573 m), the highest peak in Namibia in the Brandberg massif. He also discovered the famous White Lady, which together with other rock paintings testified to the fact that indigenous people had been there long before him. Maack and his friend A Hofmann set out on an expedition to the Brandberg in February 1917 in their private capacity, driven solely by youthful idealism. They wanted to confirm beyond doubt the highest peak in South West Africa and they planned to carry out topographic and trigonometric surveys and then to draw up exact maps. All this required a second expedition which Maack led to the Brandberg in December 1917.  

Reinhard Maack has his base camp pitched in the dry Ugab River that has enough waterholes. On 30 December 1917 he and his companions, Professor Dr A Gries, the headmaster of the Realgymnasium (high school) in Windhoek, and former Schutztruppe lieutenant Georg Schulze from Keetmanshoop, are on their way to the entrance of Tsisab Gorge, from where they plan their ascent of the Brandberg. 

Maack, born in Herford in 1892, arrived in the German colony in 1911. He was a qualified surveyor and began work at the colonial surveying office. When the First World War broke out he joined the Schutztruppe. In 1915 he was interned, but he was able to escape from the POW camp. He assumed the name Karl Ritter and went to live in Swakopmund as a landscape painter. His friend, A Hofmann, was working there as a cartographer for the German Colonial Society. Together they made plans to explore the Brandberg in depth.   

The arduous ascent to the highest peak of the Brandberg starts in the early morning hours of 31 December. The three men are laden with provisions and basic technical equipment.

“All we could think of was to just keep going and make it to the top. No unnecessary word was spoken. Thus our advance into the Brandberg turned into a silent struggle with the maze of rough obstacles in an aloof and reticent nature.”

In the heat of summer, with barely enough water, the three of them clamber and leap across the confusion of boulders and rock debris for three days on their way to the summit. They are, however, very lucky and discover water dripping into a rock crevice. The following day they are also able to replenish their water bottles, this time from a puddle. On the evening of 2 January 1918, Maack, Gries and Schulze are standing on the summit, enjoying the incredible view, the awesome silence and the infinite peace of nature around them. Maack writes in his diary:

“If you want to make it to the top of Brandberg (...) three things are indispensable: firstly water and practice in going thirsty, secondly a thick skin which allows you to rest comfortably on bare rock and thirdly indefatigable energy to cope with the seemingly endless hike across the savage rubble of rock.” 

After a miserably cold night Maack, the qualified surveyor, records data for establishing the height of the Brandberg summit. The three men leave a note in an empty tin with the barometric pressure and their signatures. The tin is found 25 years later, in 1943, by one Denis Woods from Cape Town who is the first to climb Königstein after Maack’s party. He leaves the tin in place so that others too can add a note. A few years later the tin is replaced by a summit record.  

Maack’s party starts its descent that same morning and makes good progress. When they stop for their final break at the Brandberg massif on 4 January at nine o’clock in the morning their provisions and water supply have long been depleted, but the exit of Tsisab Gorge is only about an hour’s walk away. Maack has a special interest in prehistoric art and asks his companions to look around for rock paintings in typical places. Gries and Schulze do not show much perseverance, however, and soon head back to the mouth of the gorge where they left water supplies. Maack continues to scramble around the granite boulders, looking for rock paintings. 

“Even though I had high expectations it came as an incredible surprise when I crawled into the shelter and let my eyes wander. My movements stiffened as my eyes happily feasted on the most beautiful painting of the Palaeolithic cultural sphere which I had ever encountered in South West Africa. Human and animal figures painted in so many colours and so stylistically accomplished – so far I had not come across anything similar, not at the Spitzkoppe, nor in the Erongo Mountains or in Namaland.” 

Maack fires a shot to call back his companions. They look at his discovery in amazement. Maack copies the whole panel into his notebook and writes down the colours. He is particularly enthralled by a figure, about 40 cm high, in the “last colourful group of dancers” which has since become known as the White Lady. In his diary he describes the figure as a “male dancer”. Maack, Gries and Schulze stay in the rock shelter for about an hour, and then hunger and thirst drive them out of the Tsisab Gorge to their base camp in the Ugab River. 

Thirty-nine years go by before Maack finally comes back to the shelter, which in the meantime has been named after him. He is an internationally acclaimed scientist. In 1921 he left South West Africa and returned to Germany. Two years later he emigrated to Brazil and visited Germany only for occasional research trips. He became a professor of geology at the University of Curitiba. In 1969 he died in his adopted country at the age of 76. 

Research on the White Lady and the other rock paintings in the Brandberg massif has kept scientists engrossed. The White Lady was named in the fifties by Henri Breuil (1877-1961), a French priest and prehistorian. He compared the figure with paintings found on the island of Crete, in the Palace of Knossos for example. Even though the White Lady does not have any typically female features Breuil concluded that the figure had to be female because of “her” posture and the objects in “her” hands, which he saw as a vessel or lotus flower. Current thinking is that the figure is a hunter or shaman carrying hunting equipment. 

Hosting some 50,000 rock paintings and engravings, the Brandberg massif is seen as a treasure trove of prehistoric art. Names closely linked with research on the treasure are Ernst Rudolf Scherz, who has published three books on the subject, and Harald Pager, who made drawings of 45,000 figures at 879 sites. These depictions of prehistoric culture are unique historic documents. Deciphering and dating them could produce important clues for the reconstruction of cultural history in Africa.

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