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Twyfelfontein – Namibia’s First World Heritage Site

Another stop on a fantastic Nambia journey, join Dale of The Maritime Explorer as he takes a deeper look at Namibia’s first world heritage site: Twyfelfontein. 

 


 

 

This is my fifth post from a recent trip to Namibia with Canadian travel company Adventures Abroad and will feature the prehistoric rock carvings at Twyfelfontein in the Damaraland region of that country. But first we need to get there from the Skeleton Coast where we have spent the last two days in the very unAfricanlike city of Swakopmund, away from the heat of the Namibian interior. Our journey starts with a drive north along the perpetually foggy Skeleton Coast, past a modern desalination plant which I suspect will become a lot more common method of providing water to African countries as global warming creates more droughts in more places. Just before Henties Bay we spot the remains of one of the many ships that have foundered off this coast over the centuries.

This is the wreck of the Zeila which ran aground in 2008 as it was being towed from Walvis Bay to the infamous boat wrecking yards of Mumbai, India. I guess she had no desire to be pried apart by underpaid and underage children and teenagers working in hellish conditions. Now she provides perfect nesting conditions for three types of cormorants.

Wreck of the Zeila, Skeleton Coast
Wreck of the Zeila

Turning northwest just after Henties Bay and saying goodbye to any pavement for the next few days, I watched as the sun reappeared and the temperature began rising by the minute. We were now headed for the region of Namibia known as Damaraland which was once one of the infamous Bantustans or ‘homelands’ established by the apartheid regime that controlled Namibia (then South-West Africa) from after WWI until independence in 1990. There were ten in all in Namibia and they were abolished at independence. Now, quite rightly, all of Namibia is a homeland to all who live there.

Damaraland is, not surprisingly, the ancestral home of the Damara people who inhabit much of north central Namibia. One of guides, Gerhardus Jansen is from Damaraland and during our two days there he pointed out numerous places associated with his growing up in this parched and sun-baked landscape.

Soon, coming into sight was one of Namibia’s most prominent landmarks, the Brandberg, which is the highest mountain in the country at 2,573 metres (8,442 feet). What makes it so unusual is that it is a granitic intrusion that was thrust upwards from an otherwise quite flat landscape so that it can be seen from many miles away in all directions. The name translates from the Afrikaans as Burning Mountain. The Damara name is Dāures which also translates to Burning Mountain. The name comes from the fact that in certain conditions at sunset it does actually look like it is on fire. No doubt because of this characteristic, which it shares with Uluru (Ayer’s Rock) in Australia, it is considered a sacred mountain by the Damara, the Herero and the San (Bushmen) people of this area.

Brandberg, Damaraland
Brandberg

Those up for a rugged walk in the blazing sun make the trek to see the famous White Lady of Brandberg which is a prehistoric rock painting under a rock ledge that has been the subject of much controversy. Now thoroughly discredited, the theory once was that the painting was of Mediterranean origin and proof that white people were the first to inhabit the southern part of Africa. Somehow, the fact that there were hundreds of other rock paintings in the Brandberg area that clearly depicted black and brown skinned people, was overlooked.

Not far after stopping to take the Brandberg picture, Gerhardus slammed on the brakes and made a U-turn. He rushed out of the Land Cruiser and started peering into the grass, while beckoning us to come over quietly. Somehow he had spotted a chameleon on the side of the road. We would never have seen it, but for it breaking cover from the grass and heading for a nearby shrub. Gerhardus was quite excited as it was the first Flap-Necked Chameleon he had ever seen in this area of Namibia. I was even more excited because I’m pretty sure this was the first chameleon of any species I had ever seen in the wild.

Flap-Necked Chameleon

It’s not a great photo as he was running like a bugger, but it’s proof that I can check off Flap-Necked Chameleon on the Namibian Wildlife Checklist we were provided with at the start of the tour.

This area of Namibia is known for its many varieties of collectable semi-precious and other brightly coloured stones.  Outside the town of Uis we came across a great number of roadside stands selling rocks that had been collected in the Brandberg area. Neither Gerhardus or Perez, our other guide, seemed inclined to stop and I sensed a certain level of disaffection with these roadside rock vendors. Or maybe they were just adhering to Adventures Abroad’s policy of not taking their clients to craft vendors unless expressly asked and no one demanded that we stop. In retrospect I kind of wish we had.

Rock Saleswoman

After Uis we turned onto a road that put the Land Cruiser’s suspension to the test. We were now in Desert Elephant country according to this sign blazoned with a rather jaunty looking pachyderm.

Elephant Crossing

Shortly after we stopped for another al fresco lunch under the shade of a camelthorn tree and sure enough there were signs of elephants everywhere. It’s pretty hard to miss elephant shit.

Lunch Break

However, our goal today was not to seek out elephants, that will come tomorrow, but rather to get to Twyfelfontein to see the rock carvings, so we didn’t attempt to track down the ones that left evidence of their presence all over the place.

Twyfelfontein

I have no idea how you would find your way to Twyfelfontein on your own. There are no signs indicating that there is a major tourist attraction somewhere out there in the burning sandstone hills. It’s on a road that’s off a tertiary road that’s off a secondary road that’s a hundred kilometres or more from anything that could be called a main road. I’m just glad Gerhardus knew where to look.

Visitor's Centre Sign, Twyfelfontein
Visitor’s Centre Sign

I’m a sucker for UNESCO World Heritage Sites and will go a long way out of my way to visit them. At last check I think I’ve been to over 135 sites out of 1,092 so I’ve got lots more to see. However, none of the previous 135 were anywhere near as remote or as hard to get to as Twyfelfontein. It was designated as Namibia’s first World Heritage Site in 2007. In case you are wondering, there’s just one more in Namibia, a place we’ve already been, the Namib Desert, particularly the sand dunes of Sossusvlei.

World Heritage Site, Twyfelfontein
Twyfelfontein World Heritage Site

So what’s the big deal with Twyfelfontein? As I usually do, I’ll let the official UNESCO reason for designation speak for itself:

The rock art forms a coherent, extensive and high quality record of ritual practices relating to hunter-gather communities in this part of southern Africa over at least two millennia and, eloquently reflects the links between ritual and economic practices of hunter-gatherers in terms of the value of reliable water sources in nurturing communities on a seasonal basis.

The first thing to know is that Twyfelfontein means ‘doubtful or occasional spring’. As noted above it is not just the presence of the rock engravings, of which there are over 2,500, but the fact that there was a source of water in an otherwise extremely arid landscape. It was the availability of water that obviously drew the San people to the area to create what is not just a collection of petroglyphs created for art’s sake, but rather a teaching tool and maps of available waterholes. What is amazing to me is that there is no consensus on how old these rock engravings are. UNESCO concedes that they span a period of at least 2,000 years, but other scholars contend they could date as far back as 10,000 years.

One final point to make is that what you see at Twyfelfontein are petroglyphs and not rock paintings. Both are found throughout the prehistoric record on all continents except Antarctica. The petroglyphs at Twyfelfontein were carved or probably a better term, incised by the use of hard quartz on soft sandstone. With this modest background knowledge let’s visit the site.

Visitor's Centre, Twyfelfontein
Visitor’s Centre

After parking the Land Cruisers under a covered shelter there is about a 100 yard walk to the Visitor’s Centre which has information about the creation of the rock engravings and their various meanings. There is also a canteen and a shaded area to sit.

All visitors to Twyfelfontein must be accompanied by a guide and Perez has reserved one for us. The walk to the rock engravings is not long, but the actual viewing areas entail some climbing and scrambling so anyone with mobility issues would be wise to settle for remaining at the Visitor Centre with a cold drink. Several in our group choose that option.

Heading to the Rock Carvings at Twyfelfontein
Heading to the Rock Carvings

Here is our ragtag group along with our guide heading for Twyfelfontein.  The landscape is austere to say the least, but there’s no shortage of red sandstone upon which to carve.

Valley of Twyfelfontein

Our first stop is not at any rock engraving, but rather at this abandoned homestead. Apparently eight children were raised in it by a Jewish farmer by the name of Levin who finally gave up the ghost in the 1960’s because the spring was just not reliable any more.

Levin Homestead, Twyfelfontein
Levin Homestead

To be sure the Twyfelfontein is still there and occasionally does produce water we are told. That’s it up the side of the hill underneath a protective cover.

Original Spring, Twyfelfontein
Original Spring

At last we arrive at the first rock engraving and learn that is actually a teaching instrument. What at first appears to be just a bunch of random carvings is anything but. If you look closely you will set a number of various animal tracks and even a set of human footprints. Beside the track is an engraving of the animal that would make those tracks. So imagine you are a San youngster and you have come across a set of animal tracks. You would then consult in your mind what you’d learned from studying this petroglyph and decide if the animal was worth pursuing, like a zebra or maybe you should go the other way in the case of say a lion.

Teaching Carving, Twyfelfontein
Teaching Carving

This is a closer look.

Footprints

The rock engravings contain likenesses of a great number of animal species and most are readily identifiable.

Animals, Twyfelfontein
More Animals

Rhinos are still found in Damaraland, but they are very rare and hard to find. Given the great number of rhino engravings at Twyfelfontein they were obviously far more prevalent in the past. Along with giraffes they are probably the most common animal depicted on the petroglyphs.

Three Rhinos, Twyfelfontein
Three Rhinos

Speaking of giraffes, here is a very clear example of one along with human footprints – some think these might be the equivalent of an artist’s signature.

Giraffe, Twyfelfontein

Remember I mentioned that some of the petroglyphs are actually maps? Here is one that has been interpreted as a map showing the location of various springs in the area including designations as to whether or not they are permanent or seasonal.

Spring Locations Map, Twyfelfontein
Spring Locations Map

We are 70 kms. (40 miles) from the ocean and that is through some of the most hostile terrain on earth. So what’s the last thing you would expect to see engraved at Twyfelfontein? How about a seal? That’s him in the lower right.

Seal Petroglyph

Or how about a penguin? Seriously. This gives us real evidence that the San people had much wider knowledge of the areas outside their traditional territory then was once believed.

Penguin Petroglyph, Twyfelfontein
Penguin Petroglyph

Finally here is the Mona Lisa of Twyfelfontein. This petroglyph not only has realistic depictions of over a dozen species, but it also has what at first take is a male lion. However, if you look at his tail you will see it ends in a human hand. This has been interpreted to be a depiction of a San shaman taking on the spirit of a lion.

Lion Man, Twyfelfontein
Lion Man

I know there are some, including one who sits in the White House, who would dismiss the petroglyphs of Twyfelfontein as just a bunch of stupid rock doodles, but they are much more than that. They represent a period of human development before writing was invented and a method of communication that was ingenious and effective for thousands of years. Twyfelfontein may be well off the beaten path, but I do appreciate that Adventures Abroad included it in the Namibia itinerary.

Now we’re off to our next desert lodge Doro Nawas from where we will go in search of the elusive desert elephants of Damaraland. I hope you’ll join us.


Many thanks again to Dale of The Maritime Explorer for allowing us to share his amazing insights of our tours. Want to join in on the fun of Namibia, click here:

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Mitla, Markets, Mezcal & the Mammoth Tule Tree

Continuing on with our Central Mexican excursion with Dale of The Maritime Explorer, this time he takes us with the Adventures Abroad group to a fun day in the Oaxaca province.

 


 

This is post number eleven from my recent tour of Central Mexico led by Adventures Abroad’s veteran guide Victor Romagnoli. Today we are going to visit Mitla, the ancient capital of the Zapotec culture that existed in central Oaxaca state for over a thousand years before being completely destroyed by the Spanish in the early 1500’s. Before reaching Mitla we’ll stop at the Tule Tree which is as old as the Zapotec civilization and still growing. We’ll also visit the Sunday market in Tlacolula and drop into the ornate church there. After lunch I’ll be challenging my fellow tour members to drink true Mexican Mezcal the way the Mexicans do – with a worm as a chaser. No, cancel that, it’s actually the tourists who get sucked into doing that. But hey I’m a tourist right, so let’s give a try.

The Mammoth Tree of Santa Maria del Tule

Tule Tree

Our first stop after leaving the city of Oaxaca and heading southeast on Highway 190 is at the small town of Santa Maria del Tule where you’ll find this absolutely massive Montezuma cypress known as the simply the Tule Tree. A closer look at the trunk reveals that it is the widest tree in the world, almost 12 metres (40 feet) across. It also happens to be as old as the ruins we are headed to see in Mitla, over 1,500 years and still growing. One thing I can honestly say about Mexico is that I never expected to see world record trees, but it’s just another sign of actually how diverse central Mexico really is.

Tule Tree Trunk

Tlacolula

Our next stop is the fairly small city of Tlacolula which Victor advises has one of the best and most authentic Sunday markets in all of Mexico and we just happen to be here on a Sunday. The bus stops just where the streets are blocked off for the market and we get out and follow Victor into an almost impenetrable maze of humanity. What is immediately apparent is that many of the women of the city, including even the younger ones, dress in traditional floral embroidery that is a feature of the Zapotec culture. In Tlacolula the term ‘local colour’ has an actual meaning.

Traditional Zapotec Dress

As noted in my last post from Mexico, one of the main reasons for being in Mexico at this time of year was to partake in the Day of the Dead celebrations that are a very important part of the lives of most of the people who live in the Oaxaca area. That is quite apparent from many of the items for sale in the market including this offering of skull candles which people will use to adorn the altars they build either at home or in the local cemetery.

Skull Candles, Tlacolula

Also for sale by the thousands are the two flowers that are essential for Day of the Dead ceremonies – huge orange marigolds improbably referred to as Inca varieties and the pink to purple variety of celosia that we call cockscomb.

Cockscomb & Marigolds, Tlacolula

Also very popular are stands selling homemade Pan de Muerto (Day of the Dead bread) for which Tlacolula is justly famous. In fact, Oaxacans often eschew what is for sale in their city markets to drive the 30 kms. (18.5 miles) to Tlacolula just to buy its festive bread.

Bread Vendor, Tlacolula

If you look closer you can see that one version of Pan de Muerto features little faces that represent various religious and other figures.

Pan de Muerto

Of course no self-respecting Mexican market would be without a large selection of chilis for sale.

Chilis for Sale

As well as something you will usually only find in Mexican markets – chapulines or dried salted grasshoppers as we would call them. During my time in Mexico I came to be very fond of these as a condiment in tacos, burritos and any Mexican egg dish like huevos rancheros. Trust me, they are actually very good.

Chapulines

Exiting the street market into the main city plaza we stood in front of La Ascunción de Nustra Señora, the principle church of the area which dates back to the 1500’s.

La Ascuncion de Nuestra Senora, Tlacolula

It was gayly decorated with streamers made from papel picados, the Day of the Dead paper cutouts that are ubiquitous in Oaxaca at this time of year, along with the customary altar around the entrance.

Tlacolula Altar

Inside is the Catholic church’s attempt at creating an empyrean setting by covering every possible square inch in gold and silver gilt. These over the top interiors in small places like Tlacolula remind one of just how much wealth there was in pre-Columbian Mexico and how much of it was misappropriated by the church in the name of God. If there is a God and I severely doubt it, I cannot think that he/she/it would approve of this type of adoration at the expense of keeping the average Mexican in a state of poverty and powerlessness for centuries.

Tlacolula Church Interior

However, I can appreciate the artwork in these churches, particularly the usually wood carved statues of saints, martyrs and the Holy Family. This is St. Peter of Verona who was an opponent of the Cathar heretics that were prevalent in southern France and northern Italy from the 12th to the 14th  century before almost all were killed by Inquisitors, of whom good old St. Pete was one. In return for just doing his duty as a good Catholic the Cathars had him assassinated by way of hatchet to the head and dagger to the heart. This may be where the idea for that gruesome Halloween gag that features an axe to the head originated. You learn the strangest things in the strangest places.

Hatchet in the Head

Why a gentlemen from Verona would be venerated in a church in Tlacolula, Mexico is beyond me. I’m sure there is another story lurking behind the scenes.

OK, that’s our daily dose of religion, time to move on to Mitla.

Mitla

Two days earlier we visited the amazing Zapotec city of Monte Alban which may have the most beautiful setting of any archaeological site in Mexico. It was the fortress city from where the Zapotecs and later the Mixtecs were able to exert control over the central Oaxacan valleys, among the most productive in pre-Columbian Mexico. Mitla rose to prominence from around 700 – 900 after Monte Alban began to decline, for reasons no one can say with any certainty. Mitla is located in the valley of Oaxaca state and not atop a mountain like Monte Alban. It was still occupied by the Zapotecs when the Spanish arrived in the early 1500’s. Between the church and the conquistadors it is hard to say who did more damage. The bottom line is that the Spanish pretty well destroyed Mitla which they apparently viewed as a centre of paganism and barbarity.

Today very little remains of Mitla and frankly I was quite disappointed at how little there was to see considering the relative importance that is attached to it as a Zapotec city. This is the entry point not far from the small parking lot. There were very few other tourists around, not even as many as the few we ran into at Monte Alban.

Mitla Sign
Alison in Mitla

The first thing you see is this and its symbolic implications are glaringly obvious. To stamp out an old religion you literally build a church on top of the temple you have just destroyed.

Mitla Temple Church
Church Atop Mitla Temple

The one thing Mitla is renowned for are the various stone friezes that line the interior walls of a number of the surviving buildings.

Courtyard MitlaMitla Courtyard

The friezes are made of individual small stones set in geometric patterns and held together without benefit of mortar. Let’s have a closer look at a few of them.

Mitla Motif & Church

I couldn’t help but notice how similar this pattern is the Greek key or meandros that you find throughout the ancient Greek world.

Mitla Motif 2

This one reminded me of a much more modern style you see in Soviet era portrayals of marching soldiers.

Mitla Motif 3

I wonder what the Spanish made of the crosses in the centre of this frieze? The cross was a common motif in many cultures and had nothing to do with Christianity.

Mitla Motif 4

Are these stairways or just an eye-pleasing pattern?

Mitla Motif 5

More marching men or just a bit of trompe l’oeil?

Mitla Motif 6

Every frieze is different and they found nowhere else in Mexico. Why they developed as a decorative art form in Mitla and only Mitla, is unknown and probably always will be. I’m just glad I was able to see and appreciate them. At least the Spanish didn’t destroy everything.

By now we’d already had a pretty busy day and I think most were glad for a stop at a large roadside Mexican buffet which featured a great variety of Oaxacan specialties including a number of varieties of moles. The guisados you see advertised in this photo are braised meats that you put on tortillas and then add either mole or salsa (or both) to enhance the flavour. Washed down with one of the craft beers that Oaxaca is rapidly becoming known for, you have a tasty, authentic and inexpensive lunch in a typically Mexican setting.

 

Mexican Buffet, Mitla
Mexican Buffet

Time for Mezcal

Victor had promised us that we would drop into a small mezcal distillery before heading back to Oaxaca and as usual he was true to his word. To set the record straight, mezcal is not a type of tequila, in fact it’s the other way around. Tequila is only made from the blue agave plant and the distilling process involves steaming the agave first. Mezcal can be made from any of a number of agave plants, also called maguey just to make things a bit more confusing. The mezcal process involves placing the agave hearts in a pit of hot stones and smoking them before the distillation begins. This gives mezcal the smoky, caramelized taste it is prized for.

Mezcal Raw Material – Agave Hearts

The mezcal distillery is in a small mostly open air space where there is this pitiful looking horse in a circular pit pulling a grindstone. I didn’t take a picture because I was not sure if this was meant to be a demonstration of how they used to make mezcal or it was how they were still making it. Either way it didn’t seem fair to the donkey, although I don’t believe he actually moved the grindstone during the entire time we were there.

We were provided with samples of three different aged mezcals from fairly young to well-aged. Obviously the deal was that the older stuff was supposed to be better. It was, but not appreciably so. We were also given the b.s. about the worms. Properly I’m told, mezcal should be chased with an orange slice that has been salted with a mixture of ground dried worms that live in the agave plants. How that evolved into chasing the mezcal with an actual worm on an orange slice, I don’t know. But after a few shots of mezcal I fell for it and ate the worm as well.

Trying Mezcal

I’m not sure if the picture is fuzzy because Alison, who took it, had had one too many shots or if I had too many and was weaving. Most people would bet on the latter.

Anyway, it was a fun way to end a day of exploring the Oaxacan countryside.

Next we are off to the colonial city of Puebla which I understand is beautiful. Hope you’ll come along.

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Sossusvlei – Namibia’s Wondrous Sand Dunes

Underrated, yet utterly beautiful, Namibia is one of the world’s most interesting destinations. Continuing on with his wonderful descriptions, Dale of The Maritime Explorer takes us with him on a recent Namibia tour with Adventures Abroad. In this post he explores the stark beauty of the Namib Desert and the impressive Sossusvlei sand dunes.

Star Dune Sossusvlei Namib Desert Namiba

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Day of the Dead – Mexico’s Unique Celebration

Ever wondered what activities are involved for the Day of the Dead celebration held annually in Mexico? Good news! One of our fantastic group members on a recent journey to Central Mexico with us has summed up his experiences during a Central Mexico tour with us. Thank you to Dale of The Maritime Explorer for allowing us to share this interesting summary.

Day of the Dead Catrina Continue reading