After the featureless desolation of the Skeleton Coast, entering Damaraland feels like emerging onto another planet. Under an improbably vivid sky, a prehistoric landscape of massive conical granite kopjies and mountaintops flattened by an eternity of erosion rises from barren gravel plains to an endless horizon.
Life in the Desert
Yet occasional patches of dusty vegetation hint at water somewhere below the parched ground. In a land that receives less than 150 millimeters (5.9 inches) of annual rainfall, and sometime none at all, camel thorn acacias outline the bed of an ephemeral river quickly absorbed into underground aquifers for storage. Beneath the trees, a family of kudus methodically munches on the sparse shrubbery. Further on, we come across clumps of euphorbia, their spindly grey stems toxic to all living things except oryx and rhinos. Then Jimmy Limbo, our outstanding Wilderness Safaris guide, points to something that has to be one of the most bizarre plants on the planet.
At first glance, it looks like an old tire blown to shreds, with rubbery red berries growing out of it. It’s the welwitschia, two strap-shaped leaves growing from a woody center (or caudex) to reach up to two meters (6.5 feet) in length. Like blades of grass, the leaves grow from the base, so that they can keep going even when their tip gets worn off. The oldest living specimens are estimated to be between 1,500 and 2,000 years old. Long before the plant, which traces back to the Jurassic period and is endemic to Damaraland, was “discovered” in 1859 by Friedrich Welwitsch, it was known as onvanga (desert onion) to the Herero people.
Mountains of Burnished Gold
We have been driving for a couple of hours, Jimmy unerringly stirring our custom-built land cruiser through the unchartered immensity of a scenery that keeps getting ever more dramatic. The setting sun is turning the mountains into a colossal backdrop of burnished gold by the time we reach our small, semi-permanent private camp of domed tents tucked within the spectacular boulders of a sandstone ridge. After dinner, a braai (southern African barbecue) under a canopy of stars, a spectacular full moon rises, as if on cue, over the ridge.
Morning comes early, and most of the day is spent bouncing on the back of the land cruiser, tracking rare desert-adapted elephants through an ever-changing scenery of rock and sand. Incredibly, this sun-baked land is able to sustain small populations of creatures who have adapted their life-style to survive in these almost waterless conditions. We sight small herds of springboks, oryx, ostriches and even the occasional zebra and giraffe, as well as desert squirrels and birds.
The elephants, although they have left a number of clues of their recent passage, keep eluding us. These pachyderms, who can travel up to 70 kilometers (over 40 miles) per day in their quest for food and water, seem to have headed for the hills. But Jimmy will not be stymied. We follow their uphill tracks onto a rocky terrain that lends a whole new meaning to off-road driving, to the base of a ridge where we abandon the car. It’s on foot from here on. I stumble my way to the top in his wake.
By the time I have caught my breath, a small line of elephants are moving toward us on the path below, three adults and three calves in various stages of maturity, bronzed with desert dust. Even from up here, they appear visibly leaner that their brethrens of the savannah, and with longer, thinner legs that enable them to travel long distances to reach a water source. They browse sparingly, without tearing off the trees like elephants living in higher rainfall areas. From our perch, we observe them for some time in detail, until they continue on their ponderous way up and vanish over the opposite ridge.
An Uncertain Spring
The next day, we visit Twyfelfontein (or Uncertain Spring in Afrikaans), so named by a settler, David Levine, who bough land there in 1948 in hope that the spring on the property would provide sufficient water for his family and livestock. Today, the name, along with a couple of crumbling walls from his tiny homestead, are all that remain from his twelve-year experiment.
However, the Twyfelfontein valley, has been inhabited by Stone-age hunter-gatherers, the first Damara people, since approximately 6,000 years ago. Then 2,000 to 2,500 years ago came the Khoikhoi herders, an ethnic group related to the San (Bushmen). Both groups used the valley, then known under its Damara name of |Ui-||Aes (or jumping waterhole in Bushmen click language), as a place of worship to conduct their chamanist rituals. On the slopes of the sandstone table mountain that flanks the valley, these early Damara left us one of the largest concentration of petroglyphs (rock engravings) in Africa. All are chiseled in exposed locations on the massive rock face of free-standing boulders. The Khoikhoi also produced some rock engravings that can be clearly differentiated from the earlier ones. In all, over 2500 engravings have been identified so far, making the valley one of the oldest and most important open-air art galleries in Africa. UNESCO declared Twyfelfontein a World Heritage Site in 2007.
The images depict an astonishing diversity of animals, elephants, rhinos, giraffes, oryx , kudus, zebras and more, as well as foot prints. There are also a few instances of animals that do not occur in the area, such as seals and flamingos. Did some of these hunter-gatherers come from the coastal area more than 100 kilometers of arid desert away? Some graphics are also believed to be maps showing the location of waterholes. Originally, the theory was that people simply depicted what they saw around them and the game they hunted. Could they have also served an educational purpose? Today these engraving are thought to represent the transformation of humans into animals, an important aspect of the belief system and shamanist rituals of their authors.
One of the most notable is the Lion Man. This lion is represented with a prey in his mouth, five toes on each foot (whereas lions only have four), and a very tall tail that ends with a six-toed footprint. Could this deliberate combination of human and animal features indicate that this shaman has transform into a lion? All these unanswered questions only add to the magic of Twyfelfontein.
Good to Know
- Twyfelfontein is easily accessible by road. From the main (paved) road C39 betweem Sesfontein and Khorixas, take the secondary (gravel) road D3214 for approximately 20 kilometers (12 miles) to the site. The visitor Center is open from 8:00 am to 5:00 pm daily, with last admission at 3:30 pm. The engravings can only be visited with a local guide following a predetermined itinerary. Admission is N$ 50, or approximately $ 4 US, guided tour included.
- Wilderness Safaris is a major ecotourism tour operator with a significant presence throughout eastern and southern Africa over the past three decades. They offer private access to some 2.5 million hectares (six million acres) of Africa’s finest wildlife and wilderness areas. While they do not take direct bookings, they work with a global network of destination specialists, including Wild about Africa, who I selected to arrange this journey around Namibia.
- Wild about Africa is an established destination specialist focusing on moderately-priced, solo traveler-friendly small group safaris (maximum 7 participants) in Bostwana, Namibia and Zambia. Wild about Africa, 10 & 11 Upper Square, Old Isleworth, Middlesex, TW7 7BJ, U.K. Contact: e-mail enquiries @ wildaboutafrica.com, +1-800-242-2434 (U.S.), +44 (0) 20 8758 4717 (U.K.).