EXTREME NAMIBIA - One of Africa's LARGEST Concentrations of Rock Art

This is the last of our EXTREME NAMIBIA blog posts! In this weekly series we have explored some of our country's extremes, and shared with you practical information on how you can come and discover them for yourself.

In the bleak expanse of Damaraland, huge red sandstone boulders are piled high against deep orange cliffs - a dramatic sight even before you take a step closer and discover what has been etched onto the surface of these rocks. This is Twyfelfontein - home to over 2,500 unique engravings (some estimates are as many as 5,000) and numerous paintings, believed to date back some 6,000 years. Twyfelfontein has attracted people for millenia thanks to the presence of water. The Khoekhoe - ancestors of the San - named the site /Ui-//Ais, meaning "permanent spring". The current name, Twyfelfontein, means "doubtful spring" in Afrikaans, suggesting a less reliable source of water.

Twyfelfontein is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and must-see for any visitors to Damaraland, as the engravings have much to teach us about Namibia's earliest inhabitants, their beliefs and the wildlife that was found here.


Reading the Stones: The Art of the San

At first glance, the engravings and rock paintings found at Twyfelfontein are similar to prehistoric rock art found around the world. Figures, footprints, strange geometric shapes and animal-like figures cover the stones, telling the story of hunter and prey. But what is unique about Twyfelfontein is that the ancestors of the people who created these works are still living. Although life has changed for them, they still share similar beliefs, rituals, hunting techniques and understandings of the world around them - allowing us a unique insight into the meaning behind the rock art, and what our ancestors were trying to say.

Here are some of the stories behind one of the largest rock art sites in Africa.

The San are able to put themselves into trances by means of dancing and hyperventilation. This is often carried out by a shaman, who will perform various acts while in this "spirit world", such as healing and making rain. Much of the rock art is believed to be depictions of what the shaman saw while in the spirit world. This is also why many of the engravings are positioned next to fissures and crevasses - it was believed they were entrance points to the supernatural world.

One of the most famous figures in Twyfelfontein is the Lion Man. This lion has five toes on each foot (instread of four), and at the end of his bent tail is what looks like a human hand. The Lion Man represents a human who has turned into a lion while in the spirit world. A giraffe with five "horns" is also believed to be a Giraffe-Man. However, the four-headed ostrich is believes to be a very early example of "animation"!

Twyfelfontein Lion Man 

You may be confused by the images of seals, dolphins and penguins! However, these creatures were never present here; instead, the San travelled over 100km to the coast to collect salt, and drew what they saw while there.

Twyfelfontein seal

Some of the engravings may have been used to educate - children could learn to track animals by looing at the footprints etched into the rocks, and engravings of pregnant animals - such as the "Dancing Kudu" - indicated which ones not to hunt. An early example of conervation, perhaps?!

Twyfelfontein Facts:

  • The sandstone rocks here are around 180 million years old. When fissures developed and they separated from the main cliff, they were left with almost perfectly flat faces - making them ideal for engraving and painting.

  • The engravings were discovered by topographer Reinhard Maak in 1921. He also discovered the famous White Lady painting at Brandberg.

  • The San inhabited this area until the 1930s - when they were moved on by Damara herdsmen.

  • Twyfelfontein became Namibia's first UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2007.

Practical Information:

  • Twyfelfontein is open from 8am-5pm, visitors in summer should aim to arrive early in the morning as it cann get very hot and there is no shade. This is also the best time for photography. Entry is N$30 for adults and N$25 for children.

  • A 30-minute trail near the visitors' centre can be completed independently, though there is no information about the engravings. Longer trails must be completed with a guide (included in the entrance fee).

  • Visitors should bring a hat, walking shoes, sunscreen and a long-sleeved shirt.

  • Sites of interest near Twyfelfontein include the Organ Pipes,Burnt MountainDoros Crater, and the Petrified Forest.

  • Nearby accommodation includes Twyfelfontein Country Lodge, Camp Kipwe, Madisa Campsite and Mowani Mountain Camp.

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