In the valley of Twyfelfontein in northwestern Namibia, some 2,500 petroglyphs are carved on more than 200 rock slabs. The oldest of them date back to the Stone Age.
Twyfelfontein (from Afrikaans literally "source of doubt") is the name given to a spring and valley in the extremely arid Damara Mountains in northwestern Namibia. The white farmers who settled in the Kunene region in 1947 found the spring unreliable and therefore named it Twyfelfontein. This designation was later extended to the entire valley.
Since 1952, the valley about 90km west of Khorixas is considered a National Monument of Namibia and is one of our top 10 sights of Namibia. In 2007 it was declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO.
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2500 rock paintings and engravings at Twyfelfontein
The attraction of Twyfelfontein, however, is not its dubious source, but a plethora of rock paintings and carvings, some of the oldest images on the entire African continent.
About 2,500 images are carved or painted on more than 200 rock slabs. Most of them depict hunting scenes in which people equipped with bows and arrows attack giraffes, zebras, antelopes, rhinos and lions, but there are also abstract figures and human footprints.
The most famous petroglyphs are the "Great Elephant", the "Dancing Kudu", a mythical creature about 20cm tall, and the "Lion Plate", which shows a lion with powerful paws and a bent tail.
Somewhat unusual is the petroglyph of a seal, since the sea is more than 100 kilometers away from Twyfelfontein. It is assumed that the petroglyphs had no ritual purpose, but rather served the education of children and hunters.
Origin of the rock paintings of Twyfelfontein
The spectacular rock images come from cultures from the Middle and Neolithic Ages and are many thousands of years old. It was not until 4,000 B.C. that the rock paintings could be attached to cultures. They were first attributed to the Wilton culture and from about 500 BC to the Khoikhoi. It is not clear who "discovered" the images or made them accessible to European culture.
The age of origin of the petroglyphs can only be estimated from the surface weathering of the rock, as the iron in the sand takes on a darker and darker red color over time due to oxidation. However, it is assumed that the oldest graffiti are over 10,000 years old and the youngest still date from our time.
The carvings were probably made with quartz tools, which must have been quite laborious. Rock paintings are much less to be found, but perhaps they have simply not survived the millennia as well as the incised images.
Visit the rock paintings of Twyfelfontein
The petroglyphs are a good two hours drive from the Skeleton Coast. To reach the valley of Twyfelfontein, turn off the C39 onto the D3254. Passing spectacular rock formations, an easily passable dirt road leads to a parking lot.
At the visitor center you pay a small fee and then you can visit the site accompanied by a guide. Exploration on your own is not possible.
There is a short and a long route through the site. A signposted circular trail leads to the eight most beautiful stone slabs, for which you should allow about 2 hours. This also leads past the stone "Lion's Mouth".
The path is partly steep and difficult to walk, so good footwear is highly recommended. In the heat of Namibia is also to think of enough water and sunscreen.
Tip: The guides take mostly the short route. If you want to see all the petroglyphs and also the famous rock formation - the Lion's Mouth, you should insist on the long route. The guides speak mainly simple English.
Strict protection of the petroglyphs
Many of the engraved and painted rocks have already been stolen, which means that Twyfelfontein is now strictly protected. It is probably superfluous to mention that taking stones from the historically valuable valley is not allowed. Any other disturbance of the engravings is also strictly forbidden.
Tip: If you want to visit the petroglyphs in peace and quiet and avoid large crowds of tourists, you should spend the night in nearby Aba Huab. From there you can leave in the morning to the petroglyphs and avoid the bus groups.
Sights near Twyfelfontein
On the way from Twyfelfontein to Khorixas it is worthwhile to pay a short visit to some other natural phenomena in this area. They are also witnesses from times long past, but some of them were not created by humans.
With the burnt mountain lies about 10km or 8 minutes by car south of the valley of Twyfelfontein another - although less spectacular - national monument. The burnt mountain, in the local language the "verbrande Berg", was formed about 80 million years ago from a lava flow that slowly cooled down.
Although there was never a fire here, the burnt mountain does indeed look scorched. Due to its gray-black color, it is also so conspicuous amidst the beige-sandy slate rock of the surrounding area that it was even named a national monument of Namibia on September 15, 1956.
Play of colors at sunset
Shortly before sunset, the burnt mountain is most interesting to look at. Then the evening twilight elicits from the ancient lava a red-purple play of colors worth seeing, with which the dark, about 200-meter-high hill stands out even more intensely from its surroundings. During the day, it looks more like an unspectacular pile of rubble, which is only worth visiting under the scorching sun if you are driving past it.
By the way, the burnt mountain should not be confused with the Brandberg a good 100km further south, which by the way holds the title of the highest mountain in Namibia!
A little further south lie Namibia's "Organ Pipes". These fascinating rock formations were formed about 150 million years ago when molten lava penetrated the existing shale rock. Within the basalt, the lava cooled very slowly and evenly, forming the artificial-looking rock spires whose vertical surfaces resemble building blocks.
As the softer rock around the solidified lava was worn away by weathering and erosion over millions of years, a veritable forest of organ pipes became visible. The largest of them reach a height of up to 2 meters, even if skillful wide-angle shots in various brochures make them look higher.
Hiking trail in the dried up riverbed
A river once flowed between the organ pipes in Damaraland, which probably also contributed to the exposure of the angular basalt columns. This has now dried up and kindly left its stream bed as a comfortable walkway that winds through the fascinatingly shaped rock walls over a length of about 100 meters.
Incidentally, a similar freak of nature can be seen in Northern Ireland, almost on the other side of the world, at the Giant's Causeway.
The famous "Petrified Forest" is located behind a fence directly on the C39 about 30 kilometers west of Khorixas. The gigantic tree giants, which are between 240 and 300 million years old, are also among our top 10 sights of Namibia. Even after this long time, the trees still look as if they were made of wood, but if you touch them, they are as hard and cold as stone. The trees are ancient witnesses of the era when coal was formed on our earth, immeasurably long before humans populated our planet.
The "official" petrified forest
The official area of the petrified forest covers an area of about 300×800 meters. Here are 50-60 trunks on the ground, of which the largest fossils are over 30 meters long and up to one meter thick. However, the trees were probably much larger when they were alive. This natural phenomenon is so unique that it has been declared a national monument in Namibia.
The petrified forest in Namibia invites like no other place to a journey into times long past. The trees are incredibly well preserved. They were sealed airtight by fortunate circumstances and fossilized by silica over millions of years.
Despite their breathtaking age, even the individual annual rings of the trees are clearly recognizable, just as if they had just fallen over. That's why, at first glance, you wouldn't believe that the petrified forest has so many millions of years under its belt.
The "private" petrified forest
Besides the official area, there are also some "private" providers in the vicinity. On these areas locals are waiting for tourists. For a small fee, they guide visitors to the stone giants lying on the ground.
The number of petrified trees is relatively manageable at these private sites, but you usually have the fossils to yourself.
In addition to this fascinating testimony to prehistoric times, the nature lover will also find many specimens of a particularly curious plant among the trunks: the giant Welwitschie grows only in the Namib desert and in southern Angola and is considered a living fossil. With their thick, meter-long leaves and cone-like inflorescences, the giant plants not only look very bizarre, they also live up to 2,000 years.
Named after its discoverer, the Austrian physician and botanist Friedrich Welwitsch, the Welwitsch is found only in western Namibia and southern Angola and has adapted perfectly to desert life with its thick, fleshy leaves. It consists of only two stem leaves, which sometimes unfold, giving it the appearance of multiple leaves. The Welwitschie grows only 0.5m tall, but its leaves can grow to nearly 3m long. The largest welwitschia even had a circumference of 8.5m. The "welwitschia mirabilis" ("wonderful welwitschie") is depicted in the coat of arms of Namibia, Kunene and Swakopmund. The London botanist William Jackson Hooker once described the plant as "the most wonderful ever brought into this country (England), and one of the ugliest".