At the head of the shallow Huab Valley in southern Kunene, large sandstone slabs that have broken off the flat-topped escarpment lie in jumbled piles, their smooth surfaces covered with one of the continent’s greatest concentrations of rock engravings. They are collectively referred to as Twyfelfontein, meaning “uncertain spring” in Afrikaans, reflecting a farmer’s fears about the local water source, though the local Damara name |Ui-||Aes – meaning “place among the rocks” – is now also used, in recognition of the earlier nomadic Damara communities that made seasonal use of the land. Many of the petroglyphs date back to six thousand years ago when San hunter-gatherers inhabited the region, drawn by the availability of water. Note that the name Twyfelfontein is also often used to refer to the general area, which encompasses several other geological curiosities; the Organ Pipes and Burnt Mountain are worth a quick detour if you’ve got your own transport and forty minutes to spare.
The rock engravings
In all, an estimated 2500–5000 rock carvings were created, as well as a few paintings, though the latter are not for tourist consumption and only a small proportion of the rock engravings can be visited. These predominantly depict humans or animals and animal spoor – including images displaying a mixture of animal and human features – as well as geometric shapes. The choice of imagery and the siting of the petroglyphs and paintings are now thought to relate to the societies’ belief systems, shamanic rituals and the spiritual world that shamans had access to while in a trance, rather than straightforward depictions of the world around them (see San rock art in Namibia).
Now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the rock engravings of Twyfelfontein are firmly on the tourist trail, attracting around fifty thousand visitors annually, so to miss the crowds and the heat, you should aim for early morning (though some of the rocks are in shadow then), or late afternoon, when the light is at its best. Since there’s no shade at the site avoiding the midday sun, especially in summer, is imperative. To visit, you need to take a guided tour: the generally well-informed guides offer three circuits, involving varying degrees of physical exertion, which last thirty, sixty or eighty minutes. There is also an excellent information centre and a small café.
Damara Living Museum
A few kilometres back up the valley is one of Namibia’s living museums: the Damara Living Museum gives some insight into traditional Damara skills, crafts and practices, though if a large tour group is visiting, it can make you squirm.
The Organ Pipes, which, with a little imagination, vaguely resemble the eponymous church instrument, are actually two walls of densely packed polyhedral dolerite pillars at the bottom of a shallow sandy gorge. They make a good subject for photos – mid-morning and mid-afternoon are the best times to catch them. Peer over the edge of the parking area and you’ll see the path that leads you down into the gorge.
A kilometre further along from the Organ Pipes, on the opposite side of the road, the Burnt Mountain can often be less impressive: the compacted shale resembles a bleak, black industrial slag heap for much of the day, though the manganese coating gives it a purplish hue in the early morning or late afternoon light, which together with the golden glow of the neighbouring sandstone, can sometimes make the mountain appear to be on fire.
If you’re expecting something akin to a scene from Lord of the Rings, you will be disappointed, as the Petrified Forest is not a forest per se, but a fascinating collection of some two hundred fossilized tree trunks, some fully exposed, others partly buried in sandstone – the largest collection in southern Africa. Only two are almost full length, at around 45m; the rest are segments but they are incredibly lifelike – you can see the bark and even count the growth rings. The process of petrification began over 200 million years ago, when the trees are thought to have been washed down the valley in a flood and buried in alluvial deposits. Over time, deprived of air and under extreme pressure, rather than decay, the trunks were permeated by aqueous silica, which gradually replaced the organic matter; then, as the water was lost, the wood finally petrified.
On the compulsory guided tour, you’ll also take in a number of welwitschia specimens. Note that a few local entrepreneurs have also established their own petrified forest sites in the area, signposted off the C39, but this one has an official sign and operates with trained guides. A craft shop is also on site.