Portraits and punctures

Just before dawn I heard a distant lion roaring and felt pleased that we had at least HEARD one of the elusive desert lions.

The room was fairly chilly – it is winter here after all and we were at around five thousand feet in the old money so it took a while for the sun to heat the clear air. It did though and T and P played monopoly on the terrace for a bit after breakfast (South African version where “Vine Street’ in the London edition becomes “Nelson Mandela Park” etc).

Soon we were creeping down the steep 4×4 track and heading towards Twyfelfontein. There was one more foot-and-mouth roadblock to pass through where the guy in charge sold Philippa a pretty wooden necklace made (we assumed) by the family camped behind the road-block. He noticed that we had a soft rear tyre and it struck me that I hadn’t checked them this morning so couldn’t be sure how bad the situation was.


We drove a little further down the road and attached the compressor, but when we’d finished
pumping it up we could hear it hissing so there was not much we could do but change it.

We have two spare wheels with tyres and another spare tyre so we fished one out, jacked up the truck and popped the new wheel on. We were off again without too much of a problem. We were fairly sure we would get a puncture at some stage given the roads we’ve been driving for the past couple of weeks and I was glad it was on a flat gravel road rather than one of the tight, steep, rocky/sandy tracks we’d been driving on in Kaokoland.

We stopped for big unusual rocks, and a flock of goats which appeared to be herded by three dogs. There was no sign of a person.

We looked about for a shop to buy some bits and pieces but our travel guides were unanimous: there ain’t one. Not for miles and miles and miles. Well actually there is one, a breeze-block and chicken-wire hut at a t-junction. We went in and found a big friendly lady with a small boy who pointed out a chuntering fridge in the almost completely dark recesses of her earthen-floored shop. There were rickety shelves too with tinned vegetables, baked beans, crisps, toothpaste and deodorant. We had hoped for bread and maybe eggs but that was pushing it. We got some bits and pieces and said goodbye. I gave the one-armed man standing outside in the dust a few coins, ostensibly for watching the car but actually because I felt bad for him in that desolate place.

Twyfelfontein has one of the largest – perhaps the largest –  collections of rock engravings in Africa. They were carved by Bushmen between two and six thousand years ago, when the area was filled with rhino and elephant and big cats, most of which have since been hunted to almost complete eradication, but then re-introduced. You have to have a guide and we paid for one at the visitor centre run by a rather curt young woman with an exaggerated sense of her own importance. She summoned a guide, who could barely have been more bored or monosyllabic. All the guides have to wear what looks like a rather uncomfortable army uniform and maybe it makes them irritable. Anyway she took us along the trail and pointed out a range of engravings, though only a small fraction of what is there.
There were lots of giraffe which (were were told) were seen as having the power to bring down rain with their long necks, and so they were never hunted. There was a splendid lion with a bird in its mouth and a five fingered hand at the end of its tail.
Apparently some of the animals were depicted with some human features as a sign that shamans could take their forms. We were also told that the Bushmen left the carvings as a guide for others about where to find animals.

I have to say that all of this strikes me as guesswork given that no-one even knows exactly which people were living in the area before about 1940. Even when the Damara who’d moved in were cleared so that the land could be given to white settlers there was no-one around who understood what the engravings really meant (according to the guide anyway). They were lovely though. A beautifully rounded elephant and spiky nosed rhino and – extraordinarily – a couple of seals. That suggested that the Bushmen were used to going to the coast to trade.  It was well worth the trip despite the annoying staff.

In the late afternoon light we sought out the “organ pipes”; tall columns of dolomite which had formed a small gorge. Then to Burnt Mountain a couple of K further down the track which supposedly glowed astonishingly in the late afternoon light, but apparently not this afternoon as it just looked a bit like a slag heap.
Last stop, the wonderful Mowani Lodge campsite, set amid a jumble of big red boulders. Its beautifully done with a proper bathroom in a cave and hot water, courtesy of the man who lit the fire under the water tank as we pulled in. As I write there is something yipping very loudly in the dark behind us. Fox? Hyena? Philippa? Who knows. Quite a place to celebrate our sixteenth wedding anniversary… Night all.

Author: Richard Lister

Chasing horizons...

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