Namibia is best known for its majestic desert landscapes and rewarding game-viewing, but it’s also home to one of the largest concentrations of rock petroglyphs in Africa. This ancient rock art site is located at Twyfelfontein, an arid valley set around a natural spring in northwest Namibia’s Kunene Region. Here, you can learn about the hunting practices and shamanistic rituals of the tribes who lived in the valley between 6,000 and 2,000 years ago, through the medium of their own detailed engravings and paintings.
The site now known as Twyfelfontein has been inhabited by people for over 6,000 years; first by San hunter-gatherers during the late Stone Age, and then by Khokhoi herders some 4,000 years later. The Khoikhoi gave the valley its indigenous name, ǀUi-ǁAis, which roughly translates as “jumping waterhole.” Sandstone table mountains flank the valley on either side and the landscape is dominated by flat, upright slabs. Its ancient inhabitants used these flat surfaces as an enduring canvas, using quartz tools to chisel through the surface patina and reveal a lighter rock underneath.
There are at least 2,500 groups of rock carvings at Twyfelfontein, representing approximately 5,000 individual depictions. Thirteen rock painting sites add to its value, as having both engravings and paintings in the same place is very rare. Most of the engravings and all of the paintings are attributed to the earlier San people, although the Khoikhoi also left their mark on the valley’s desert landscape. Its arid climate and remote location helped to preserve the artwork through the following millennia.
In 1921, German topographer Reinhard Maack reported the discovery of rock engravings at Twyfelfontein. Maack had already earned renown for discovering another of Namibia’s famous rock art sites, the White Lady at Brandberg. The valley remained uninhabited by Europeans until after World War II, when a severe drought led farmer David Levin to explore the possibility of using the valley spring to sustain a farm in 1947. Levin was concerned about the reliability of the spring, earning himself the Afrikaans nickname David Twyfelfontein, or David Doubts-the-spring. When he established his farm a year later, he named it with this nickname.
In 1950, Ernst Rudolph Scherz conducted the first scientific survey of Twyfelfontein’s rock art and two years later it was declared as a National Monument by the South West African government. The valley continued to be farmed until 1965, when the land was designated as a Damara bantustan, or black homeland, under apartheid rule. It was only in 1986 that the entire area was declared a nature reserve and given formal protection. In 2007, Twyfelfontein was designated as the first UNESCO World Heritage Site in Namibia.
What to See
The rock engravings are Twyfelfontein’s star attraction and can be divided into three categories: iconic imagery (mostly of animals and their footprints, with a few representations of human figures and mythical creatures), pictograms (geometric patterns created by the Khoikhoi), and functional engravings (including grinding hollows and board games). The animal carvings are perhaps the most interesting for casual visitors, including amazingly life-like representations of rhinos, elephants, giraffes, and ostriches. Look out for depictions of penguins and a sea lion, which prove that the San traveled as far as the coast (some 60 miles away) to find food.
Amongst the most iconic images are the Dancing Kudu and the Lion Man. The latter is of particular interest because the handprint at the end of its tail and the number of digits on its paws suggest that it is meant to depict the transformation of a human into a lion. Experts point to this engraving as proof that the Twyfelfontein artworks were created during ritual ceremonies to represent the spiritual journey of the tribe’s shaman or medicine man. There are 13 rock painting sites at Twyfelfontein where predominantly human figures are depicted using red ocher.
How to Visit
The rock art can only be explored on foot in the company of one of the Visitor Center’s knowledgeable local guides. Choose from a variety of routes ranging from 30 to 80 minutes in length, remembering that the terrain is uneven and temperatures are often scorching. Whichever you choose, make sure to take plenty of water and wear sun protection. Your guide will tell you all about the site’s history, lead you to the most famous engravings, and explain the theories about how and why they were created. If you enjoy their commentary, be sure to tip the guide as for most, these tours are their only source of income.
The center is open from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. every day. If you can, try to arrive before the midday heat. Admission costs N$80 per adult while children are free.
Where to Stay
Many visitors stop at Twyfelfontein en route to other destinations in the Kunene Region; however, there’s much to explore nearby if you choose to stay longer. Make your base at Twyfelfontein Country Lodge, built into the mountainside out of natural stone and thatch. All 56 African-themed rooms including ceiling fans, en-suite bathrooms, mosquito nets, and electric safes, with floor plans available for everyone from solo travelers to family groups. The resort has a swimming pool (perfect for hot desert days), a restaurant, and a bar with a deck providing magnificent views of the Huab Valley.
In addition to guided tours of the Twyfelfontein rock art sites, the lodge offers geological tours to Organ Pipes and Burnt Mountain, game drives along the dry Aba-Huab River valley, and cultural visits to the Living Museum of the Damara.
The closest small town to Twyfelfontein is Khorixas, located approximately 60 miles away. If you are traveling from there, drive along the C39 district road for just over 45 miles, then turn left onto the D2612. After 9 miles, turn right onto D3254, then right again onto D3214 approximately 3.5 miles later. You will see signposts to Twyfelfontein along the way. Driving distances and times from other popular Namibian destinations are as follows: 200 miles (3.5 hours) from Etosha National Park, 210 miles (4.25 hours) from Swakopmund, and 270 miles (5.25 hours) from Windhoek.