Blog: WHS #651: Twyfelfontein

Twyfelfontein or /Ui-//aes is a rock engraving site in northern Namibia, supposedly the best of its kind in variation and number in Africa below the Equator. My non-Dutch trip mates had already great difficulty in pronouncing ‘Twyfelfontein’ (which is a perfectly normal word in Afrikaans and Dutch, meaning ‘doubtful fountain’). But try its alternative name ‘/Ui-//aes’: the slashes represent two different clicks in the local Damara language.

Rocky area near the entrance

The site lies deep into a barren valley, surrounded by pretty rock formations made out of sandstone. All of a sudden you’ll end up at a car park and a visitor center – Twyfelfontein caters to 40,000 visitors a year so things are organized quite well. It conveniently lies on the route between Etosha and Swakopmund, and as there is not a lot else to see in the area many tour operators schedule stops here.

We are assigned a guide and after a short walk on the main road in the burning heat, we start our tour at the remains of the house of David Levin. He was a white farmer who settled in the area in 1946 to start a sheep farm. He was the one who named the site ‘Twyfelfontein’, and up against the rocks this unreliable but still delivering water source can be seen under a shelter. He showed the rock art to an archaeologist, and in 1952 Twyfelfontein already was protected as a monument.

Penguin to the left

The area is covered by two guided circular walks, the Lion Man route and the Dancing Kudu route. The guides seem to randomly do one of those with the group, and ours was the Lion Man route. The routes are equally long (both take about an hour) but do not intersect. The first panel of rock engravings that we are lead to see shows a number of common animals in this region (giraffe, oryx) and their corresponding footprints. A boulder a little further away shows circles: it is assumed that this was a kind of map, indicating the location of the more or less permanent water sources in the area. A second panel depicts the usual animals, plus what appear to be a penguin and a seal.

On most rocks, human footprints are depicted next to the animals. These could be the 'signatures' of the makers of the rock carvings. Elsewhere in the world, you often see human handprints in the prehistoric petroglyphs. It then requires some climbing over the rocks to reach the highlight of this route: the image of the Lion Man. It has the body of a lion and human feet with 5 toes. It is assumed that this drawing had a more ritual significance.

The Lion Man panel

In all, the visit was a bit too short and superficial for me. I read in a guidebook that the guides aren’t really motivated, and I wouldn’t say that was the case but they just cater to a very generic bunch of tourists passing every day with little or no interest in rock art. To enjoy the area a bit more, I can recommend staying overnight at the pretty spectacular Twyfelfontein Country Lodge. This lies at the other side of the rock and in the buffer zone of the WHS. Its construction made ICOMOS cringe in its evaluation (“severely compromised the integrity of the rock engravings in this area “). It has some rock art as well on its premises.

Published 15 January 2018

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