Considered to be the highest point in the Kalahari, the Tsodilo Hills rise above the surrounding desert © Russell Fowler
Discover this UNESCO-listed gallery of ancient Bushman art.
Rising to 400m above the bush-covered undulations of the western Kalahari, the Tsodilo Hills consist of four hills, roughly in a line, with names from San folklore: the Male Hill, the Female Hill, the Child Hill and a smaller unnamed kopje. Highest is the Male Hill, rising to 410m above the surrounding bush, and – at over 1,400m in total – often considered to be the highest point in Botswana. The San believe that the most sacred place in the hills is near the top. Their tradition is that the first spirit knelt on this hill to pray after creating the world, and that you can still see the impression of his knees in the rock there.
The Female Hill, which covers almost three times the area of the Male, is a little to its north, but reaches only about 300m above the plain. This is where most of the main rock art sites can be seen. Then there’s the Child Hill, 2km further north again, and smaller still at only about 40m high. And another 2.2km northwest of the Child is a yet-smaller kopje that is said by the San to be the first wife of the Male Hill, who was then left when he met the Female Hill.
Archaeologists say that the hills have been sporadically inhabited for about 60,000 years – making this one of the world’s oldest historical sites. For only about the last millennium has this included Bantu people; for thousands of years prior to that, the San lived here, hunting, using springs in the hills for water, and painting animals (over 2,000 of them) on the rocks.
For both San and Bantu, the Tsodilo Hills were a mystical place, a ‘home of very old and very great spirits’ who demanded respect from visitors. As told in The Lost World of the Kalahari (essential reading before any visit here), these spirits created much trouble for some of the first Europeans to visit – and were still doing so as recently as the 1950s. Long ago it must have been, in van der Post’s words, ‘a great fortress of living bushman culture, a Louvre of the desert filled with treasure’.
Held sacred by the San, the Tsodilo Hills are home to a number of remarkable rock-art paintings © Oliver Vass, Wikimedia Commons
The Tsodilo Hills remain a remarkable place, an important national monument which, in 2001, was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Whilst this should help to safeguard the hills for future generations, I can’t visit without wondering what it was like when the San were here. What we regard now as the high art of an ancient people is remarkable, but it’s very sad that our understanding of it is now devoid of the meaning and spirituality with which it was once imbued.
Visitors are no longer permitted to explore the Tsodilo Hills alone, but it’s still worth spending several days searching out the paintings along the marked trails with a guide. Visitors often experience a captivating feeling of spirituality in the hills, far more than simply the images of the paintings, however remarkable. This disturbs some visitors profoundly, leaving them uneasy to the point of wanting to flee the hills, while others find the hills entrancing and completely magical.
So if you come here, then do so with respect and take your time – don’t just come to tick it off your itinerary and leave.