Rising to 400 m 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 410 m above the surrounding bush, and – at over 1 400 m 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 300 m above the plain. This is where most of the main rock art sites can be seen. Then there’s the Child Hill, 2 km further north again, and smaller still at only about 40 m high. And another 2,2 km 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, 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’.
̶ Source: Botswana: Okavango Delta, Chobe, Northern Kalahari (Bradt Travel Guides)
We were not at all disappointed when we arrived at Drotsky’s Cabins on the banks of the Okavango River. Big, shady, level campsites with clean bathrooms; a camper’s dream. For the first time in many weeks, the children could ride their bikes to their hearts’ content. The previous places we’d been to shortly before either before forbid it (Kruger), or the conditions there were too dangerous (Moremi) or sandy (Nxai, Khama).
But we were disappointed that the restaurant didn’t serve snacks or meals during the day; it only served pre-arranged breakfast or dinner. How hard is it to sell a packet of nuts to visitors while they use the Wi-Fi? That, however, was our only complaint.
On our second day at Drotsky’s, we drove about 70 km south to Tsodilo Hills. The first part of the road was just backtracking to Maun, and then we turned west on a sandy track. This was slow going in very thick sand. I reckon we took almost two hours to reach the hills from Drotsky’s.
It was quite a sight to see these little hills after only ever seeing water, salt pans and other flatnesses (yes, I know it’s not a word). The highest of the four hills are, at 410 metres high, considered to be the highest point in Botswana. See? Very flat.
At first sight, the area is not very impressive. I was glad we opted to camp at Drotsky’s rather than over there. When we arrived, we prepared sandwiches for a quick lunch, watched by a few sick-looking beggar dogs looking for scraps.
Fortified, we started on our two-hour hike. We were not allowed to do the more difficult climbs, as Gustav and Sophia aren’t old enough. Fortunately, most of the best sightings were where we could go.
Excavations in this area indicate habitation going back almost 60 000 years, with evidence of both San and Bantu presence. In 2001, Tsodilo Hills were declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
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. However, after several visits over the years, I am left remembering the captivating feeling of spirituality in the hills far more than simply the images of the paintings, however remarkable. I’ve known this to disturb some visitors profoundly; they were uneasy to the point of wanting to flee the hills, and couldn’t wait to get away, whilst 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.
A word of warning: in The Lost World of the Kalahari, you can read Laurens van der Post’s story of his first visit to the hills: of how his party ignored the advice of their guide, and disturbed the spirits of the hills by hunting warthog and steenbok on their way. Once at the hills, his companion’s camera magazines inexplicably kept jamming, his tape recorders stopped working, and bees repeatedly attacked his group – and the problems only ceased when they made a written apology to the spirits.
So perhaps the spirits here are one more reason why you ought to treat the Tsodilo Hills with the very greatest of respect when you visit them.
I don’t know whether I felt any specific spiritual presence, but I suspect it was because I felt hot and thirsty. There were areas where it was cooler with no wind, a little eerie, but nothing more. I guess we didn’t anger anyone!
The children were impressed with the small cave and tunnel, and the kitchen that was quite a distance from where they slept, the little ones up high where predators couldn’t reach.
Back at the camp, we baked a bread in a pot on the fire. Gustav, Sophia and Hugo still claim that our home-made bread is the best ever. That night we had vegetable soup with it; perfect for a cold winter’s night.
On Thursday we had to get up early. It’s a difficult thing for us, because by now we are used to getting up when it’s light and warm enough. By the way, when did it get so cold? Our appointment was to meet our guide, Zebra, around “eight o’ clock-ish”. I think they expected us closer to 8:30 or 9:00, so they weren’t quite ready for us when we arrived at 8:00 on the dot.
And then we were off – tiger fishing! Zebra took us some distance upstream at a speed that froze us all over, but when the boat stopped, the sun was just perfectly balmy. The fishing did not go as well as my tanning. Hugo didn’t catch anything, but he thoroughly enjoyed being on the water and casting the bait and bringing it in, over and over. I think it’s almost hypnotic. Sophia quickly lost interest, but Gustav kept at it.
After a while, Zebra felt sorry for the children and started fishing himself, hooking a small tiger fish. Sophia got to reel it in and was very proud of herself. Next was Gustav’s turn to reel in a tiger fish, again courtesy of Zebra. And after some time, Sophia got another turn with a decent-sized bream. All the fish were released again.
It was a tranquil few hours on the boat and we all went back to camp quite content.
In this camp ̶ as in so many others ̶ the bloody monkeys ran amok. These ones were especially cheeky. After the fishing, Hugo went for a nap in the tent and I hung my hammock in trees near the trailer. At one stage I got up to go to the toilet and I wasn’t 10 metres away when I heard Sophia scream ̶ one monkey stole the packet of Marie Biscuits from right next to her. Usually they don’t come that close to people, but this lot had no fear of children. So, out came the catapults. It’s a good thing my laptop was very far away, as in Johannesburg. As Drotsky’s doesnʼt have any rocks, Hugo had to collect his ammunition from Tsodilo. But after a while you could just show them your catapult and they would take off.
Later that afternoon we had visitors. Douglas and Menoli arrived after two days in Moremi and another day in Maun. They parked their Cruiser next to us and we had another lovely evening with them. Sitting next to the fire. Listening, like every other night here, to the calls of the hippos.
On Friday, 29 May, we said goodbye to our friends for the last time. They were off to Namibia and then Europe, and we were heading towards Zambia. I do hope our paths will cross again. It was fun travelling with them through parts of the Kruger and Botswana…