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.

As 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.

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