After driving half a day yesterday on unpaved roads with the final 40 or so kilometres along the bumpiest road I have ever been on (my puffy-coat-in-a-bag made the perfect lumbar pillow), we were stunned to arrive at the gorgeous lodge. After seeing almost no-one on the roads, here was a full parking lot. The entrance was a beautiful winding walkway to the lodge in a gorgeous setting.
Today we had the full day to explore this area and we set out for the ancient San rock paintings. The big sky has its own beauty and we passed this farmstead typical in the local countryside.
The San people inhabited this place because of the spring and the need for water, and named the place, “ǀUi-ǁAis,” meaning “waterhole.”
This place was uninhabited by Europeans until a severe drought after the end of WWII. David Levin studied the feasibility of farming in 1947. He rediscovered the spring but struggled to extract enough water to sustain his family and his herd. Slowly becoming obsessed with doubts about the capacity of the spring an Afrikaans-speaking friend began calling him David Twyfelfontein (David Doubts-the-spring) in jest. When Levin bought the land and registered his farm in 1948 he gave it the name Twyfelfontein. While commonly being translated as doubtful spring, a more accurate translation for the word twyfelis therefore “questionable” or “uncertain”. History suggests that the San people knew very well the value of the spring and how to extract the water.
There are more than 2,000 rock engravings and paintings of animals and people here at this amazing UNESCO world heritage site. The paintings are made with red ochre which has been used as a painting substance around the world and suggests the San bush people who created them were involved in trade with the outside world.
Genetic evidence suggests the San people are one of the oldest, if not the oldest, peoples in the world, going back perhaps 70,000 years. They have genetic traces that no one else in the world has, that put them at the root of the human tree – we are related to them, but they are not as closely related to us. They have unique markers that we don’t have. The petroglyphs have been dated back to this age as well.
As part of the UNESCO world heritage site designation, UNESCO has authenticated the engravings and paintings. They state that: “all the rock engravings and rock paintings within the core area are without doubt the authentic work of San hunter-gatherers who lived in the region long before the influx of Damara herders and European colonists. The setting of the Twyfelfontein rock art is also authentic and complete other than one small engraved panel which was removed to the National Museum in Windhoek in the early part of the 20th century, no panels have been moved or re-arranged.”
I’ve seen quite a few engravings in BC and I recently attended a seminar about ancient BC rock paintings by Canadian Indigenous people using red ochre. My sister and I also got up before sunrise to see rock paintings at Zion Canyon in Utah. But I’d never seen a site like this before.
We took a 45-minute guided clamber over the rocks to see some of the engravings. They appear to have a range of purposes. This one is thought to be a map of active water sources in the area.
Another was likely used to train young hunters of the various animal footprints, including those of humans.
Others depict animals not from this area at all, suggesting either very wide nomadic range or contact with other peoples, such as the image of a crocodile and one of a penguin.
And many clearly depicting the various animals in the region:
Possibly the most famous engraving is that of “White Lady,” which we did not see due to a lion roaming in that area. Her lower half appears white with masculine features and clothing while her top half is black and is clearly a woman. There are several interpretations of her, but I couldn’t help wondering if, like Pharaoh Hatshepsut of ancient Egypt, she was a tribe leader who had to disguise her female gender to gain respect. She certainly looks like a powerful huntress.
The Petrified Forest is a group of at least 50 fossilized Cordaites trees between 240 and 300 million years old, making our ancient rainforest on the Canadian west coast of 1,500 year old trees, seem young. Scientists have determined these trunks haven’t grown in today’s Namibia but were washed down a river in ancient times when one of the many Ice Ages ended on the Gondwana continent. Due to enormous pressure and over a period of millions of years, even the finest structures of the wood have been dissolved by silicic acid and replaced by quartz, resulting in perfectly conserved and completely petrified trunks.
These were pine trees – and you can clearly see the knots. The petrified wood looks just like a normal tree but feels, weighs and sounds like rock.
Twee-blaar-kanniedood – “two-leave-can’t-die”
We finally saw the Welwitschia mirabilis, the plant unbelievably comprised of just two leaves, arranged so they can store water. Like many of the desert plants of this arid region, the Welwitschia is thought to obtain most of its moisture from very fine mist blowing off the cold Atlantic Ocean. This allows the plants to survive but they grow very slowly. Considered a living fossil, the plant is actually a tree that has been dwarfed and lives up to 1,500 years. We saw some considerably younger, but older plants do exist. Like the holly tree, the Welwitschia requires the cross-pollination of a female plant with a male.
This was not where our day ended, oh, no. It was only warming up!
Desert Elephant Safari
We had the rest of the afternoon free and some of us took advantage of the time to take one of the tours offered by the Lodge. We mounted our 12-seater 4×4 and headed off into the sand in the hopes of seeing some of the uniquely adapted elephants. They are rare – there are only two groups of elephants, here and in Mali, North Africa. They can survive several days without water and are capable of walking up to 70 km per day for water. I’ve always associated elephants with water so I was curious to see these amazing animals that can live in a desert.
We would not have another chance to see them, so we climbed aboard our vehicle with our guide and drove for about an hour and a half crossing dry river beds and passing from the red desert we’ve become used to seeing, into the almost black, surreal landscape of Damalaland.
This is the land where the Damala speak the most beautiful language I had ever heard, with clicks and three other sounds depending upon where the tongue clicks in the mouth. The sounds represent our x, q, etc. We heard a number of the staff speaking to each other in the musical language.
We arrived at a small village with a water hole where we hoped to see the elephants.There was no sign of an animal but there were tracks and some fresh-looking scat.
We carried on through a Baobob grove with their roots poking out haphazardly.
It wasn’t long before we saw in the distance a large grey shadow. Success! We found 3 elephants and were given lots of time to take photos and observe their behaviour.
The desert elephant has longer legs than other elephants and a broader foot.
They feed off off of the fruits of the acacia tree, stretching their trunks up to smell for fresh fruit before violently shaking the fruit loose from the tree. It was an awesome sight.
We drove on parallel to a dry river bed. Suddenly, a head popped up in the bushes and I was instantly swept back to my favourite childhood program, The Friendliest Giant. A giraffe, not a puppet! Here!
Our driver left his tracks and we moved into the trees to get a better look. As we watched, more and more of these striking creatures appeared. These would have been passing through – they are nomadic. We watched them for awhile before they moved on.
It was time to head back to the Lodge for dinner, but on our way back we spotted a large herd of ostriches and some baboons.
We stopped for refreshments watching the sun go down behind the hills and the incredible African light seemed to follow us home.