Hence the name; Tsodilo means 'damp earth.' The area has been inhabited by humans for millenia as the remnants of ancient villages, iron-working furnaces, mines and rock art testify. A 4x4 is no longer necessary to reach the 'Mountain of the Gods.'
Some three hundred odd kilometres by road from the tourist crossroads of Maun, up the western panhandle of the Delta, dry woodland succumbs to savannah and grass covers the sand. The dust and the donkeys give way to reeds, water and loamy rich soil.From Sepupa on the edge of the Delta a further 64km of tar and smooth calcrete carries us from the wetlands to the 'highlands.' The bushveld is dry in the late winter heat and the sky is smoky with fires that have been burning in the Delta as new channels are cleared for the passage of the local dugouts or 'mokoros.' A wind is frothing up the dust.
These hills shelter over 4000 rock art images at some 400 sites. The earliest rock art known to have been painted at Tsodilo is estimated to be over 10 000 years old. However, these ancient images can no longer be seen as they have been irreversibly damaged by time.
The oldest visible works are around 3 000 years old but most date from 700-1100 AD. The red images are older than the white. Most are finger paintings wrought from ground haemitite, charcoal and calcrete possibly mixed with animal fat, blood, egg-white, honey, sap and urine. Animals may have been painted because they embodied certain powers.
For example, the snake was an important rain animal.South African writer and explorer, Laurens van der Post, in his search for the last of the San, came to Tsodilo in 1958 but didn't find the dying race of Africa's 'First People.' Van der Post's guide was a traditional healer called Samutchoso who told him: 'The spirits of the hills are not what they were, master. They are losing their power.'
Scholars agree that some of the images were painted by the Ncaekhoe people around 650 AD. They lived at Tsodilo until the 1850's when they moved to the Delta. The current residents of Tsodilo, the !Kung and Hambukushu, arrived to take their place and settled at the foot of the Male Hill in the mid 1800's.
Xhao Xuntae is the eldest son of chief Xuntae of Tsodilo: 'I was born in Tsodilo but my elders never informed me about our culture. Our customs have disappeared.' Today, Tsodilo is home to leopard, ant-bear, wildebeest, lion, brown hyaena, python and the inevitable domestic livestock of sheep, goats and cattle.
The on-site museum doesn't have maps but the Rhino Trail is well-marked and has the most paintings. The circular route takes about 1 ½ hours depending on how long you linger. The other walking trails are longer and require guides.
The first paintings you come to on the Rhino Trail are not very distinct. Over the aeons, some of the images have been painted over. The route then leads up the hill and a beautifully formed rhino endorses the name of the trail.
Other faded figures share the rhino's rocky canvas; an eland and another pair of antelope with long straight horns. We sit where the ancient artist would have perched to paint, overlooking the plains below for inspiration.
The paintings glow in the afternoon sun, visible metres up above in the krantzes above the path. Enticing smudges lure us to yet another rock face, nook, cranny, crevice, hoping to find another discernible image of ancient man or beast.
The wind is gathering momentum and swirls through the trees as it has done since time immemorial. For me, the highlight of the Rhino Trail was a painting hidden underneath a rocky overhang. In this depiction of a trance dance, elemental figures, hinting at a disappearing line of such figures, stand like crucifixes with their arms outstretched, their distinctive San buttocks clearly protruding, and their male members proudly outstretched. Other images and grid-like patterns remain in traceries on the rock where long forgotten artists sought to bridge the gap between this world and the next.
As night blankets the Mountain of the Gods, Botswana's own Ayres Rock turns ruddy in the setting sun.Copyright © interACTnow - Laurainne Claase 2004