Tsodilo is a prehistoric archeological site in the Kalahari desert known for its outstanding rock art.
It comprises a group of rocky hills that hold over 4,500 rock paintings. The rock art is considered to date back from the Stone Age til the 19th century. The area has provided shelter for humans for millennia, and it still is a place of worship for the local San communities.
Community Perspective: Randi describes her visit arriving by car from the Caprivi Strip, Els ‘did’ it on a day trip by helicopter from Maun, and Stanislaw shares how he managed to exhaust the local guides.
Map of TsodiloLoad map
Visited February 2020
As almost everything what’s important was said in Randi’s review, I can just add only some practical hint for those starting their journey into Botswana from Mohembo/Shakawe.
Indeed, there’s no bank, no ATM service in Shakawe, but to get some local currency, go to the supermarket in Acaciamall, buy anything you need and while paying ask the cashier to withdraw pulas from your credit/debit card. No charge. If you want to exchange $US into pula, it is more tricky but doable, although I am not sure if it works every time or we were just lucky… Go to Botswana Defence Force Camp and ask the soldier at the gate; he called his supervisor for us, we were taken to a small shed where the transaction was done. And the rate was much better than at Shakawe River Lodge where we stayed for three nights.
Road to Tsodilo – as most roads in this part of Botswana the tarred roads have potholes everywhere so it is much better to drive on sideways than the main ones. The road to Tsodilo is pretty well signposted from the main A35. When you get to the gate of the Tsodilo park (look to your right), buy the ticket and leave your car there – the gravel path to the museum and the site itself was… or it is better to say – there’s was no road, water and mud everywhere. From the entrance take the 600-metre long trail through the bush that leads to the museum where guides are already waiting for you.
If you arrive in the morning, you can visit the site ‘twice’, I mean first you can chose the Rhino trail which is not very difficult but it is much easier to start it at the end of the loop; it takes about 2 and a half hour. The guide is the only solution to follow the trail, and the one he accompanied us gave us a lot of information and showed places and rock arts we would never notice if walking alone. When we got back to the museum, I wanted to go to the Child Hill to do the tour around, but… our guide was already tired… so the second guide came with us but he was so unhappy because this was mid-day and we interrupted his nap… This trail takes less than two hours and with the unhappy guide was less interesting than the first one. Each trail has its own price.
If you are hungry… Don’t be! And bring a lot of water!
Tsodilo currently ranks 953rd out of 1092 on our list of most visited WHS. That low position has at least 2 reasons: it isn’t a well-known site among the general travel audience and it lies somewhat out of the way from Botswana’s main tourist zone between Maun and Kasane. Those difficult logistics almost beat me as well: the only logical route is when you’re coming from Namibia (the Caprivi Strip) with a rental car like Svein & Randi did last month - then you’ll pass it. However, I had no car and was staying in Maun. The company that I booked my safari with proposed to fly me north and put me in a “fishing lodge” for 2 nights – I could take a day tour from there. But I found a tantalizing alternative: a half-day tour by helicopter from Maun to Tsodilo!!
So on a Saturday morning, I reported at Maun airport at 6.30 am for my flight up there. They fly with small helicopters, there’s only room for the pilot and 3 guests. It takes about 1 hour and 15 minutes to get to the Tsodilo Hills. The pilot had to yell a few times to wake up Maun air traffic control – we were the first to leave just after sunrise. The flight was relaxing, flying rather low over first the farmlands with cattle and then the Okavango Delta. We saw some wildfires but no water at all in this southwestern part of the delta. Only elephants could be seen moving around.
Already from dozens of miles away the Tsodilo Hills appear on the horizon. The rest of the landscape is very flat and these hills do stand out as a beacon. There are some nasty winds blowing around them and the pilot wondered aloud why the helipad was constructed at the backside of a mountain. But we made it to the ground safe and sound. At the Tsodilo airstrip, a jeep from Nxamaseri Lodge was waiting for us. The driver had driven all the way from the Okavango panhandle over an hour away just to transport us 10 minutes to the entrance of Tsodilo, from the so-called 'Male' hill to the 'Female' hill. Important as well though he brought the food for brunch - there are no amenities at Tsodilo (except toilets).
We (the pilot, the driver, myself and a local guide) however first started out on the Rhino Trail. This is the most commonly chosen path along the major rock art, at the foot of the ‘Female’ hill. At just after 8 am, it was still very cool, especially on the shaded side. The path is mostly flat and sandy. The panels with rock paintings are signposted with numbers and are easy to see. Some are so close to the path that you could touch them (it does damage them so that’s forbidden and also one of the reasons you can only walk around with a local guide). Others are higher up the impressive coloured rocks of this mountain. It is recommendable to bring a camera with a good zoom, as that’s the only way that you can see details like hand paintings.
The trail also shows some of the caves the San hunters would hide in. A large one was used as a kind of refrigerator, to store meat and cool water in ostrich egg shells. In the early morning sand we also saw footprints of a leopard and kudu – a clear sign that the wild animals depicted in the rock paintings are still out there. The oddest rock art panel is the one with a penguin (could be a duck as well) and a whale. They are said to have been made by San that came from the Namibian coast.
Back at the entrance, I had a quick look at the museum. Besides the paintings the Tsodilo site is also known for its archeological findings: at the top of the mountain there were two settlements. Lots of fish bones and ostrich eggs have been discovered, but they all seem to have been whisked away to museums elsewhere. Only a few pots are shown now at the site museum, probably because the safety of the objects could not be guaranteed here. We finished our tour at the picnic site, among the squirrels, with a well-deserved brunch and cool drink.
Read more from Els Slots here.
We visited Tsodillo Hills in April, a very green and lush period. This is a remote and desolated area of Botswana.
From the Caprivi strip Namibia we took a “detour” through Mohembo border crossing down to Drotsky cabins just south of Shakawe where we spent two nights.
The drive from Drotsky to Tsodilo takes about 1,5 hours, the first part on the road is tarred with potholes, then 36 km on a fairly good gravel road to the park entrance. From the entrance it’s another 5 km to the museum on a bad gravel road.
Tsodilo Hills are roughly four hills, Male, Female, Child and Grandchild and there are 5 different hiking trails. We chose the Rhino trail around the Female mountain. This trail is supposed to be the most rewarding one. You need a guide accessing the site now, and the museum will provide you one. Our guide spoke good english and was knowledgeable about both the hills, the people and the nature, and of course the rock art.
There were several very nice panels along the trail, mostly with paintings of animals in red oker color made by the San people, but also the Bantu people made some in white. A lot of the paintings were clearly visible, while others were more faded. There where a few panels with geometric patterns and a few with people. One of the few people panels is The Dancing Penises, a simple line sketch of men with erected penis. A panel with two Rhinos is really nice and strong in red oker colors. Along the trail there are also remnants from the San people, in caves and on the plateau.
The hike is about 3,5 km, and one part is very steep and rough, but most of the hike is in sand. You will need some good shoes. We used about about two hours to do the hike.
The museum was minimalistic, not especially much to see.
We really enjoyed to visit this remote site. Great nature, quiet and peaceful, and interesting rock arts. It’s a holy place to the San people. We can understand why they called it “Mountain of the Gods”.
You will need a car to get there. It cost 50 pula pp at the entrance, then you have to pay for the guide. Price varies for each trail, the Rhino trail was 120 pula. We had some issue getting hold of Botswana Pulas. There are no banks, atms or exchange booths neither at the boarder nor in Shakawe. We ended up getting cash from the hotel to pay at Tsodilo.
Drotsky Cabin is a great place to stay, right by the Okavango river. That part of the river is called the Okavango Panhandle and is in the core zone of Okavango delta WHS. We did two great boat trips on the river, lots of birds and a few other animals, and in addition we got beautiful sunsets! So basically you are able to visit both Botswana sites in one day! We are, however, visiting the swamp part of the delta later on our trip. The “panhandle” was just a teaser for us.
### Randi & Svein
Did a solo visit in Nov 2014 and managed 34 mins to the top with two big cameras. Going back again in Jan 17 to beat this record.
Wondrous place which needs a week visit to fully explore and photograph.
Botswana needs to do a lot more to look after and celebrate this unique site and the surrounding villages
I was at WHS last month for a week. It was one of the best camping experiences i have ever had. The hills, the flora, the fauna is just so breathtaking. Being there makes one appreciate the beauty of nature and how i wish nature could just be forever natural. Special thanks to UNESCO Botswana for the oportunity
I have been to Tsodilo hills several times but I still cant get enough of the natural beauty of the place. I encourage Batswana and everyone around the world to find time to visit this place and get the real experience. The site is rich in spiritual heritage that makes it exceptional from other historical sites.
My best experience was when we went hiking up the male hill in 2012 and we managed to set a 35min record, being the best time taken to reach the peak. Still up to date we still holding the record.
'I was at the tsodilo heritage site 2015'courtersy of UNESCO youth forum...
There is an interesting, perhaps sacred cow stories about Tsodilo hills. That being undocumented mysterious sightings which can maybe only be rivalled by the loch ness mystism. This crptozoological properties of the hills are quite compelling and the line between the truth and fallacity about them must be done justice by being documented.
Well me i remember like yesterday that sometime in 1990 i we were in a school wildlife trip to the hills. And two girls in our group fainted when we approached the male hill. When they came to the two amazingly made compelling similar revelations that they saw a giant mysterious two headed snake like creature on the hill.
Later we met an oldman who was approached by our teacher to help the hysterious girls. The oldman testimony was quite compelling; his account being that what the girls saw is common occurance in the hills. He said that on top of the male hill "what one see is not what others see".
As someone who has keen interest in matters of tswana spirituality i wish to network and with others out there who want to preserve this faculty about tsodilo hills. Please email at: email@example.com
I am currently writing a complete 4x4 guide to visit Tsodilo from Johannesburg South Africa. Included are a great number of photographs and maps. I have spent nearly two years research on the art of Tsodilo. This ebook will first be available in my native language - Afrikaans and then I will start the translation of it. Bushmen or San rock art has been in the news lately and new views of their meanings has seen the print. Some of this is captured in my ebook; Tsodilo, Berg van die gode, 'n 4x4 Veldgids.
During my recent visit the main road or the middle road was transformed from a two-spoor (1996) to a grade road, however, building roads on moving Kalahari sand is not easy and this road is slowly busy changing to a two-spoor. Do not be fooled by the obvious condition, drive slowly and be alert. Currently a fence is been erected between the nearby village and the hills - western side, to keep domestic animals away from the campsites and especially the ablution block near the Museum and office. Still not sure if entrance fees are asked or camp fees. No need to book as there are plenty campsites. No public transportation from the main road to Tsodilo. During spring of 2005 I want to explore a route from Dobe to Tsodilo, anyone interested to join me?
I had a really fascinating encounter with nature and culture in Tsodilo. The painting are magnificent and they provide an insight into what art in context really is and what it can do to one's imagination. The landscape is beautiful in its own context especially in the mornings and late afternoons. The site museum adds to the mystery of the hills in that it isolates itself as a piece of art (in the form of architecture) which blends, not well but mysterioulsly with the natural landscape.
And the people from the two communities are welcoming and their interaction with this space that has come to be known as World Heritage site is fascinating in many ways. Its a combiination that no one would like to miss!!!
As a landscape Archaeologist and reseacher (and therefore a regular visitor) at the Tsodilo hills, let me share with you the following abstract the full paper of which may be presented at the October Icomos general Assembly whose theme focuses on 'Intangible Cultural heritage'.
The reason I share this with you is so that next time when you visit Tsodilo you should take time to experience the intangible as experienced by the local community and pilgrims to the site.
"Mapping and Managing the Intangible Heritage at World Heritage sites-the case of Tsodilo"
By Phillip Segadika, Landscape Archaeologist-Botswana National Museum
"'Criterion 6' of the cultural properties of the World Heritage is one of the reasons why Tsodilo is recognised as being of 'outstanding Universal value'. This is because the Ju/hoasi and Hambukushu communities living at Tsodilo know that Tsodilo is the ancestral home to the spirits of all living creatures. As prove to this, the local shamans, guides and herbalists point to specific areas, which are testimony to the marks of the first animals, the first people, the first sex spot as well as the first and eternal water spring in the Tsodilo landscape. An ongoing study suggests that the apparent conflict on te interpretation of the history of the Tsodilo rock art by Jo/huasi and Hambukushu communities converges into a conservation plan rooted in the cosmology which supercedes and unites the politics of ownership. This paper also analyses the nomination dossier and current management plan of Tsodilo in terms of the intangible cultural heritage. Recommendations are then made for managing the intangible heritage of Tsodilo and a model proposed for managing the intangible heritage of African World heritage Sites."
I am a tour operator from Windhoek Namibia and visited Tsodilo on 12 May 2003.
We were advised that the road to Tsodilo was extremely bad and sandy and we were warned that it was definitely not safe for two women to travel that distance into the bush to visit "just a few hills"
We were very surprised to find a newly built gravel road leading to the vicinity of the hills. Only the last 5 km was hard sand driving, but anyone with a 4 x 4 vehicle could enter with out much trouble.
There were camp sites on strategic places where you could utmostly enjoy the views around the hills. The ablution blocks were clean and with running water. We had a chat with the camp manager and he informed us that they will have telephone lines and internet ( thus reservation possibilities ) acess by the end of August.
In the morning we were taken onto the Female by a local guide and shown the most interesting paintings and pictures, although he could not speak a word of English, he gave us an insight on the lives of the little Bushmen in the early days. Upon arrival back at camp were visited the museum where some of the artefacts and tools found are on display.
It was a realy wonderful experience to visit the hills, and I will surely return soon for a few days to explore the hills more intensively.
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