Botswana / Namibia:
Cultural Sojourn

Bicycle Africa / Ibike Tours


Dispatch 9 - Tsodilo Hills


Tsodilo Hills sign, BotswanaTsodilo Hills, BotswanaOur destination for the day was Tsodilo Hills, the highest point in Botswana, home to thousands of rock art images, a sacred area for the !Kung people  (the "!K" combination is a click sound), and a World Heritage Site.


Tsodilo Hills road, BotswanaThe small detail in getting there by bicycle is that it is forty kilometers off the highway, there are no accommodations, restaurant or store there.  And as it turned out, there is also no water.  The road itself was scenic, had little traffic, was quite passable and at times the surface was excellent packed clay.


!Kung women selling jewery, Tsodilo Hills, BotswanaTraditional !Kung jewelry, Tsodilo BotswanaAt the gate to the site were a group of entrepreneurial !Kung girls selling locally made jewelry.  The photo to the right, taken in the site museum, allows you to compare how the traditional style has evolved into the styles currently being sold to tourists. 

The girls, besides being personable, but firm business woman, spoke at least their own language, Mbukushu and English.  This should be where I have an introduction to !Kung greeting, but it is a "click-language" and the greetings include click sounds.  Despite some effort, I failed miserably at learning even a single greeting.  I couldn't tell where in the mouth the click was formed (there are five kinds of clicks, each is initiated by the tongue in a different part of the mouth), let alone figure out which Latin consonant to assign to the sound.

Here is a very short course on symbols and sounds for the five clicks:

¤ Bilabial click (kiss)
 /  Dental click (tisk)
≠ Alveolar click (pulling blade from alveolar ridge)
// Lateral click (release along cloak cheek)
!  Palatal click (retroflex, popping cork)

Our guide through the hills was Phetolo, which translates into English as “reply” and is how he introduces himself to English speakers.

Female Hill, Tsodilo, BotswanaMost Tsodilo paintings are finger paintings.  Red images are older than white images.  The pigments used are made from ground haemitite (red), charcoal (black) and calcrete (white).  The pigments are possibly mixed with animal fat, blood, marrow, egg-white, honey, sap or urine to help them adhere and last.  The art is scattered around a complex of craggy hills that require some scrambling to get around.  Of the 4,000 individuals works, wild animals are the most dominate at Tsodilo. Images include, among others, eland, rhinos, sable, giraffe, elephant, and perhaps most interesting penguin and whale, which indicates that the artist traveled quite considerably.

Eland, rock art, Tsolilo Botswana

Man's first foot prints, according to !kung tradition, Tsodilo, BotswanaOral tradition states that Tsodilo is where man first came to and walked on earth, and that it is the home of the spirit of each animal, bird, insect and plant that has ever been created. Both the !Kung and the local Mbukushu consider the hills sacred.  There are foot-print-like shapes in several rocks that are used as evidence of man's first steps (right.)

Seed game called Diketlo (Setswana) and Morabaraba (Mbukushu)Harder archeological evidence shows that Tsodilo has been visited and lived at for thousands of years.  There are a couple large caves that would have been particularly comfortable living spaces.  In one of the caves is a rock with fairly uniform sized hole worn into.  We were told that this is the playing surface for a version of the seed game, of which variations are found all over sub-Saharan Africa.  The game is called "diketlo" in Setswana and "morabaraba" in Mbukushu. Unlike other examples of the game, the layout of the holes on the playing surface is quite random. If it is in fact a game board, it is not clear what the order of play would be or which "side" would belong to which player. There must be some local ground rules that have been lost in time.

There was in fact no water at the site at the time of our visit.  A wire on their solar voltaic powered pump had broken several months earlier and a fix didn't seem to be imminent.  There was some water in springs in the hills and villages three miles away had some traditional wells.  In the end we were rescued by a family of Canadian campers, from Toronto, who had a five liter jug of water they could spare.

For dinner we cooked fish curry and rice on a stove at the staff housing, and shared it with our benefactor.

The sleeping arrangement was more interesting.  The section of the campground that we choose seemed to be co-located with where a herd of cows wanted to spend the night.  Most of the bovine were reserved and kept there distance, but there was one white cow that wouldn't be cowed.  And so started the "cow war."  In the coarse of several skirmishes, over a couple of hours, the cow ate a cycling glove and a pair of socks, and provoked considerable cussing from a couple members of our group.  Eventually the cow stopped returning and most of us got a good nights sleep.



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