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Roadtripping rock art near Twyfelfontein

Roadtripping rock art near Twyfelfontein

Hunter-gatherers once congregated in the rocky reaches of Namibia in the drier times of the year, when the last drops of water had evaporated from the earth, but there were mountain springs. It was a different time then, when life was governed by the seasons, the abundance of wildlife and the blessings of rain. Stars lit up the night and a vast, blue sky ruled the day. Daily priorities were finding food and water, and life revolved around the health and harmony of kinfolk.

A desolate coastline

Brandberg and Twyfelfontein

The road into Brandberg, Namibia’s highest mountain and home to the famous White Lady rock painting. Formed 130 million years ago, Brandberg consists predominantly of different types of granite.

More than a decade ago, I gained a new understanding of the hunter-gatherers of old and their rock engravings at Twyfelfontein, from Twyfelfontein Country Lodge’s long-time guide Sigi Jazbinšek. Although the animal engravings are sometimes thought to have been merely communication with other groups, or lessons given to the young, through Sigi I realised they might rather have had an important ritual and religious significance.

His explanations transformed the engravings in my mind’s eye from naive renderings of animals into thousands of prayers etched into the red sandstone rock, and the mountains of Twyfelfontein became an ancient cathedral of prayer. Around me were the etchings shamans had made as they beseeched the gods on behalf of their people, for rain, for luck on the hunt and for healing. Remembering the experience, I feel the call to go roadtripping for rock art once again.

I begin the journey from Swakopmund, hugging the desolate coastline to the popular fishing town of Henties Bay and then veering inland, following the C35 in a north-easterly direction toward Uis. Leaving behind the desert plains, and the mist that often hangs in the sky like a theatre curtain about to descend, I feel the heat of the interior. Even mid-year, the sun is determined to show who’s boss.

White lady rock paintings

Brandberg and Twyfelfontein

In the Twyfelfontein surrounds, the Living Museums of the Damara introduce visitors to their traditional way of life.

Shredded tyres litter the sides of the dusty, well-travelled road and, as I near the old, tin-mining town of Uis, stalls marked with creative sculptures, and selling colourful gemstones, start to appear. I pull over at one with a large ostrich expertly made out of black plastic, a beaded worm in its beak. Ferdinand Matsuib, a cool ‘cat’ with dark glasses and an Adidas T-shirt, is happy to find an appreciative audience.

“Let me show you how it works,” he says, and pulls a string on its rump that makes its head bob up and down. More ingenuity awaits further on, where Brandberg Mountain View Craft has walls ingeniously made from empty plastic bottles that glint in the sun.

Most places in Uis are named after the nearby Brandberg mountain (Namibia’s highest), its endemic Brandberg acacia (Senegalia montis-usti), or its famous White Lady rock painting. A favourite stop in Uis is the Cactus & Coffee Tea Garden, run by Mike and Pam van der Meer, and a place that grants respite from the road plus some of the best coffee in the Erongo Region. On the wall are quotes like the one by Dr Seuss, particularly relevant if you are on your way to Brandberg, ‘You’re off to great places. Today is your day. Your mountain is waiting, so get on your way’.

Rough rock and poison

Brandberg and Twyfelfontein

A two-hour guided walk leads through the mountainous terrain to the Maack Shelter and the White Lady rock painting.

Before I make my way to the mountain, I pay a quick visit to some roadside graves that have an interesting story. As I hop out of my car, I am met by Robert Simon Petrus and Jakobus Babalus selling stones displayed in old six-pack boxes. They tell me the story.

“In the 60s, about 20 men came to Uis from the north. They didn’t know about the poisonous Damara milk-bush (Euphorbia damarana) and had a braai using the wood.” The men didn’t survive the night. I take a photo of the line of rocky graves and buy several stones from the pair, including a magnificent Brandberg amethyst crystal. And we all go on our way, smiling.

Some 40 kilometres from Uis, the C35 north passes the imposing Brandberg massif or Dâureb (‘Burning Mountain’ in Damara-Nama). I turn in and feel as if I am driving into the heart of the granite mountain. At the entrance, where the road ends, the Dâureb guides offer visitors a two-hour walk to view the White Lady rock painting.

Although Brandberg has thousands of paintings found in open shelters and under rock overhangs eroded by wind and water, the guided walk to the White Lady in the Tsisab Gorge is the only route easily accessible to visitors. The White Lady was found by Reinhard Maack, a topographer surveying the upper slopes in 1918.

I don my walking boots and sunhat, carry water and a camera, and head out with two German tourists. After walking on a rough path over and in between granite boulders, punctuated here and there with dolerite and dotted with Brandberg acacias, leadwoods, shepherd trees and mustard bushes, we reach the Maack shelter.

The drifting elephants

Brandberg and Twyfelfontein

he Twyfelfontein engravings are predominantly of animals that occur in the area. The smooth surfaces of the red sandstone provided an ideal canvas for the early hunter-gatherers.

Our guide Thomas Angula points out the info board before we reach the overhang. The name ‘White Lady’ was coined by Abbé Henri Breuil in 1955, who thought it was a young Mediterranean girl. It is now understood to represent a healer or medicine man holding a bow and arrow in one hand and a cup or wand in the other. These San paintings are dated at about 2 000 years, relatively younger than the 2 000- to 6 000-year-old Twyfelfontein rock engravings made by their predecessors.

Unlike the Twyfelfontein engravings that focus on animals, the Brandberg San rock paintings largely depict people involved in everyday events from dancing to hunting, and are thought to be more informative of nature. They are painted from earth pigments mixed with egg white or animal blood, daubed onto rock with animal hair.
Back on track, I spot my first elephant caution signs as the C35 north crosses over the usually dry Ugab River. I can feel that I am in desert elephant territory, where the hardy pachyderms use the ephemeral river courses in north-western Namibia as animal highways.

Several interesting road stalls punctuate this section of the route. I bypass the Himba stalls – recent entrepreneurship endeavours by the Himba folk from up north – favouring the Herero doll stalls on either side of the Ugab. Herero women, resplendent in their traditional dress of layered, long skirts and ‘cow-horn’ headdresses, wave down passers-by or sit at their Singer sewing machines making the colourful dolls that fill the shelves.

I meet the Muheua family. Elizabeth introduces me to her sister Franziska and her two nieces Maria and Enethe, all busy at their sewing machines. “I was bitten by a puff adder,” Enethe tells me, “and had to have my leg cut off. It took a week to get to a hospital and I’m lucky I didn’t die.” Elizabeth and Franziska taught the daughters how to sew and they joined Elizabeth in 2003 at the Ugab, making about ten dolls a week.

I can’t resist asking them about the elephants. “When it rains, they come through looking for water,” the younger sisters tell me casually as they wave me off after scrawling their postal addresses on a piece of paper in expectation of deliveries of old clothes to use for fabric.

Fossilised forests in the sand

Brandberg and Twyfelfontein
It’s been a full day, so at Khorixas I head east for 20 kilometres and overnight at the novel Damara Mopane Lodge, a literal oasis in a belt of mopane woodland, where every chalet has a garden of greens. Sunflowers peer at me from neighbouring yards and a bevy of healthy beetroot and spinach plants brighten my garden that is fringed with marigolds. I use my last bit of energy to stroll up to the sundowner deck to toast the day and drink in the view all the way to distant Brandberg, before returning to the lodge for a delicious supper.

The Twyfelfontein rock engravings are my main destination the next day, but there are several interesting stops along the way, and it is, after all, about the journey. Once again, roadside stalls line the road, with arid-region gems like necklaces and mobiles made from seedpods, as well as desert roses and an array of stones.

I make my way to the Petrified Forest (the official one) and walk through the area that has several fossilised tree trunks lying on the sand. The trees are thought to be extinct conifers that became uprooted and floated down ancient rivers or on floodwaters millions of years ago, from further north, possibly central Africa, and fossilised over time.

The drive to Twyfelfontein passes the Living Museums of the Damara, part of the Living Culture Foundation Namibia (LCFN) that includes the living museums of the Ju/’Hoansi-San (on the road to Tsumkwe), the Mbunza (near Rundu), the Mafwe (near Kongola), the Ovahimba (near Opuwo) and the Little Hunter’s Museum on the outskirts of Tsumkwe.

I have visited most of them before, and appreciate that the groups run the living museums themselves, an initiative that provides a livelihood in areas where there is not much opportunity for employment, and simultaneously strengthens their cultural heritage. This is especially pertinent to the Damara people who, through assimilation with other ethnic groups, have lost most of their traditions.

I enter the boulder enclave to be shown indigenous healing plants, watch blacksmiths at work, learn how fire is made and be treated to an exuberant display of singing and dancing.

Maps of waterholes and solar systems

Swakopmund to north-western Namibia

Maria Kutaa makes small Herero dolls on her old Singer machine.

Twyfelfontein was recognised for its cultural importance, gaining World Heritage status in 2007. It has one of the largest concentrations of rock engravings in Southern Africa, with more than 2 000 petroglyphs. The burnished Etjo Sandstone formations, created over hundreds of millions of years of geological upheaval, were fractured along natural fissures revealing flat surfaces that were ideal canvases for the ancient hunter-gatherers.

The softer, porous, wind-laid (aeolian) rock could easily be engraved by a harder rock, and the similar size of the sand grains allowed a clear image to be created without other particles breaking up around it. The dark patina of iron and manganese oxides known as ‘desert varnish’ is a thin layer that has enabled us to determine the age of the engravings. Initially whitish-grey on a red background, they would have darkened over time.

Although the engravings are predominantly of animals, there are some with symbols, lines, dots and circles in the lower reaches. One rock with circles within circles is thought to represent either a map of waterholes, or even the solar system.

After lunch at the Country Lodge, I join a guided hour-long walk called the Lion Man Route into this area once known by its Damara name /Ui-//aes which means ‘place among packed stones’. The name Twyfelfontein stems from the time of farmer David Levin, who persevered with farming in the arid environment despite little available water.

Neighbours who visited would often find him digging at the trickling spring, hoping to open it up to provide more water for his family and animals. They started to call him David Twyfelfontein, David ‘Doubtful Spring’ and
the name stuck.

At the time of the Odendaal Commission in the 1960s, the farmers in the area had to vacate their farms and the land became part of Damaraland, set aside for the Damara people. The spring is still visible at the beginning of
the walk to the rock engravings, as are the ruins of the old farmhouse.

Along the rock art walk


Along the rock-art walk, I notice a repetition of certain animals on the burnt-red sandstone slabs. The giraffe, its neck reaching heavenward, was believed to be the rain-giver. The ostrich was associated with food, the rhino possibly with protection, and the zebra represented luck for the hunt. Because these animals were symbolic, they could have been regarded as power animals, and the specific sites as doorways to the spirit world or points of power.

I imagine the shamans – or medicine men – hammering into the rock as they focused their energy, and entering a trance state to commune with the spirit world. I also notice specific rock surfaces, where engravings overlay engravings. Some engravings reveal the merging of forms, like the Lion Man that has a human handprint at the end of its tail, and the Dancing Kudu that has a human torso. And, always when I visit these days, I imagine a group of people conversing with the gods and living in direct contact with their ancestors.

For hunter-gatherers living without any modern comforts or conveniences, simple daily life was not just about earthly concerns but significant matters for discussion with the gods. And here, in this vast arena of table-topped mountains, history has been recorded in rock and kept alive courtesy of the dry Namibian climate.

I take off my hat, literally, wipe away the sweat and pay reverence to that time when life focused on the essentials. And I hope that some of that luck from the gods rubs off on me for the rest of my roadtrip through this country of spectacular desert scenery, fascinating people and free-roaming wildlife.

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