Twyfelfontein: penguins in the desert

Before arriving at the rocky cliffs and red sand of this UNESCO World Heritage site, we knew exactly two things about Twyfelfontein.

The first was that its Afrikaans name translated to “Doubtful Spring”, referring to the unreliable freshwater spring that attracted nomadic peoples to this place for millennia. The second was that here in the desert, hundreds of miles from the coast, someone had engraved the image of a penguin into a rust-coloured rock. This was more than enough to pique our interest.

It took a few minutes to tear ourselves away from Twyfelfontein’s well-stocked souvenir shop, leaving only once we’d promised to return after our tour, but we soon began our trek amongst the great piles of rocks. Our local guide Arthur told us the history of the site, and informed us that the sandstone engravings we were going to see were between dated at a mind-boggling 2000 to 6000 years old.

Although it was still morning, the sun was already beating down upon the desert. We glimpsed colourful lizards, some scurrying around busily, others basking in the warmth. Arthur also pointed out signs of a much larger visitor. Dung and loose stones indicated where a thirsty elephant and her calf had some days ago made the same journey we were now undertaking, seeking the water of the Doubtful Spring. His tone indicated that this was not unusual, which, of course, made it more peculiar still.

The first engravings we happened upon were arresting – perfectly preserved relics of lives lived unimaginably long ago – but Arthur’s explanation of the stories behind these artworks was crucial. With only the creations they left behind, he gave us an insight into the rich culture of the San people, one imbued with deep faith and mysticism. We discovered why giraffes were revered as bringers of rain, how a strange-looking lion actually represented a shaman in the midst of a ritual, and why symbols and animals were drawn near or over cracks in the rock.

During our hour under the Namibian sun, we spotted the carefully-etched giraffes, rhinos and elephants that we’d expected to see in this dry landscape. However, the strange figures of seals, dolphins and penguins we came across indicated the nomadic lifestyle of the San people. They travelled a great distance to the coast in search of salt, and returned to this place to draw the starkly different creatures they had seen along the way.

After being exposed to the history and magic of this dry, unforgiving landscape, we will strive to emulate the adventurous spirit and creativity of the San people and their artwork.

Sophie Butcher and Olivia Bland