by Sharon Tshipa
GABORONE, March 20 (Xinhua) -- Thebe Sekora is beaming with pride when pointing to a rock painting depicting a man chased by an eland. "These white paintings appeared later than those red ones, they are only 1,000 years ago," he said in his seemingly casual and calm voice.
He has reasons to be proud. He lives in a small village adjacent to Tsodilo Hills, the only one UNESCO World Heritage Site which is home to over 4,500 rock paintings left by the ancestors of San People and Bantu thousands of years ago.
Rising majestically at 1,395 meters above sea level from Botswana's North-West Kalahari white sand dunes, the Tsodilo Hills, consisting of four major hills -- the Male, Female, and two Children -- are home to over 4,500 rock paintings dated back as early as 20,000 years ago, and most of them were between 850AD and 1100AD.
A local legend says that a long time ago when rocks were still soft and animals could talk, Tsodilo was a family consisting of husband, wife and two children. There were conflicts between the husband and wife. The wife then divorced the husband and moved away with both children. The younger child later on returned to the father whilst the elder child remained near the mother. This is why the family is found today in the form of hills in their positions and their names.
"The name Tsodilo means damp earth in local language," said Sekora.
With one of the highest concentrations of rock art in the world, Tsodilo has been called the ''Louvre of the Desert''. Over 4,500 paintings are preserved in an area of only 10 sq km of the Kalahari Desert.
The archaeological record of the area gives a chronological account of human activities and environmental changes over at least 100,000 years.
Sekora said local communities respect Tsodilo as a place of worship frequented by ancestral spirits.
During the laborious journey up the cliffs and grassy trails on the Female hill, Sekora knows how to keep tourists enthused despite the fact that he sometimes walks these trails at least seven times a day, guiding peoples from of corners of the globe including local tourists.
"There are about 15,000 visitors every year to this place," Sekora said.
San people were the original residents in this area, but they abandoned this place very long time ago and left behind them their traces of life here: pottery fragments and hollows on stones on which they sharpened weapons and tools.
Tourists can not expect any modernized facilities here as in other well developed or commercialized tourist attractions across the world, to facilitate their journey along several trails in the hills. One has to fight a way through cliffs and long grasses before seeing the amazing rock art.
"The trail is called Rhino Trail because of its several rock painting of rhinos, some of which have since become famous," Sekora said, adding that the trail happens to be the most popular trail with the visitors as it houses most of the 4,500 paintings.
"It has both red and white paintings. The red ones are the oldest while the white are newer. This trail starts at the base of the female mountain and climbs up till it goes through the flat terrain up the mountain, past the spiritual water point and then all the way down again; to the caves," he said.
Proving him correct is the fact that Rhino Trail consists of red and white images which portray wild and domestic animals, geometric patterns, humans and even what appears to be a whale.
"These images were finger-painted using blood and animal fat," explains Sekora. Other products used were pigments ground from haematite (red), charcoal and calcrete (white) and possibly mixed with, egg white, honey, sap or urine.
Other than the various paintings that compel one to ponder on human origin and their subsequent development, Tsodilo's timeless cultural heritage is matched by its natural beauty. Sekora said that they are usually visited by animals such the leopard, vervet monkey, antbear, warthog, brown hyena, kudu, wilddog, elephant and the Tsodilo Rock Gecko that apparently is found nowhere else.
Tsodilo is also said to be a great source of honey as there are also many species of birds and insects. There is also a diversity of plants such as sengaparile, a tuber marketed as the Kalahari Devil's Claw; the plant is used to cure high blood pressure.
The expedition on Rhino Trail takes a sweaty and exhilarating two hours to complete, but not before one has the chance to see hill's rock shelters.
"The rock Shelters are the White Painting Shelter, Depression Rock Shelter and Rhino Cave which have since been excavated and remains such as pots, metal, spearheads, stone tools, glass beads and even fish bones," explains Sekora.
Inside one of the caves, he introduced that it was used as the bedroom by the royal family as well as a games room shown by the stone dice game area still existing today within the cave, while the other cave was used predominantly for cooking by women.
The archaeological record of Tsodilo gives a chronological account of human activities and environmental changes over at least 100,000 years, although not continuously.
Unlike the Rhino Trail, the Lion Trail in the Male hill runs mostly at the base of the mountain with only a few paintings requiring one to climb up the high cliffs to view them; even then the climb is not that high.
"Though it's called the Lion Trail, there is only one lion painted on this mountain. Other paintings are of elephants, and snakes," said Sekora.
Though Tsodilo was listed as a World Heritage Site in 2001, the government of Botswana did not isolate the villagers but let them be an active part in preserving the ancient heritage for future generations to see. Today there are two communities living close to the Hills. These are the Ju/'hoansi (San) who came to the area around 1860 replacing the former inhabitants the Ncae (Kwe San) who moved closer to the Okavango.
These were joined by the Hambukushu who moved there permanently over the last 50 years. The two local communities have strong traditional beliefs and connections that involve respect for Tsodilo as a place of worship and ancestral spirits.
"At times community churches hold all night prayers here in the caves," Sekora said.
But despite this religious connection based on creation myths, Sekora says the villagers have an economical relationship with the site as it has always provided them with edible plants, water and a variety of game animals, hence the spiritual significance of the water point on the Female Hill.
With the help of the villagers the government is doing all it can to preserve the site and has since come up with an Integrated Management Plan implemented by the Botswana National Museum and their Museum office at the Tsodilo Hills.
According to the Tsodilo World Heritage Cultural Landscape Core Area Management Plan 2010-2015, the move to review the plan was started in 2002 with the auspices of varied and multiple stakeholders including residents of Tsodilo. As a result, the Tsodilo Integrated Management Plan (TIMP) was formulated in 2005 and accepted by cabinet in 2007.
The main objectives of the 2005 TIMP are to ensure that the community becomes integral in the management of the areas custodians of intangible heritage, and to develop internationally recognized, comprehensive and quality tour experience through provision of archaeological, cultural and wildlife components as well as protect and manage the biodiversity resources of the core area and manage buffer area in a sustainable manner.
The main goals of the plan targeting 2015 is to maintain and conserve the Outstanding Universal Value of Tsodilo World Heritage Site by March 2015 as well as to undertake preventive and inventive rock art conservation measures for all sites along the visitor trails by March 2015.