Damaraland is a vast, beautiful wilderness in north-west Namibia.
DamaralandOutside of any national park, the huge tracts of Damaraland’s semi-desert wilderness are spectacular. This is home to the country’s famous desert-adapted elephants and black rhino, and also to a few small communities who are benefiting from the visitors who come here.
Attractions for holidays & safaris in southern DamaralandIn the south, bare granite domes spring up from gravel plains like sentinels; walk amongst them to find caves and shelters adorned by a wealth of Bushman rock art.
SpitzkoppeAt the far southern end of the Kunene Region lies a small cluster of mountains, rising from the flat gravel plains that make up the desert floor. These include Spitzkoppe, Klein Spitzkoppe and the Pondok Mountains. Of these the highest is Spitzkoppe, which at 1,728m towers 600m above the surrounding plains: a demanding technical climb. Its resemblance to the famous Swiss mountain earned it the name of the Matterhorn of Africa, while the extreme conditions found on its faces ensured that it remained unclimbed until 1946.
BrandbergMeasuring about 30km by 23km at its base, and 2,573m at its highest point, this ravine-split massif of granite – Namibia’s highest mountain – totally dominates the surrounding desert plains. Designated a national monument in 1951, and now under consideration for World Heritage Site status, the mountains contain one of the world’s richest galleries of rock art, dating from 1,000 to 6,000 years ago. Of these, the most famous – and fortunately for visitors among the most accessible – is the White Lady.
Walking alone into the mountains is no longer permitted, so travellers visiting on holiday will need to take a guide from the Dâureb Mountain Guide Centre on the eastern side of the mountains.
Rock paintings on Brandberg MassifThis area has been occupied by Bushmen for several thousands of years and still holds a wealth of their artefacts and rock paintings, of which only a fraction have been studied in detail, and some are undoubtedly still to be found. The richest section for art has so far been the Tsisab Ravine, on the northeastern side of the massif.
The White Lady of BrandbergThe figure of the ‘white lady’ stands about 40cm tall, and is central to a large frieze which apparently depicts some sort of procession – in which one or two of the figures have animal features. In her right hand is a flower, or perhaps an ostrich egg-cup, whilst in her left she holds a bow and some arrows. Unlike the other figures, this has been painted white from below the chest. The colouration and form of the figure are reminiscent of some early Mediterranean styles and, together with points gleaned from a more detailed analysis of the pictures, this led early scholars to credit the painters as having links with Europe. Among the site’s first visitors was the Abbé Henri Breuil, a world authority on rock art who studied these paintings and others nearby in the late 1940s. He concluded that the lady had elements of ancient Mediterranean origin.
More recent scholars consider that the people represented are indigenous, with no European links, and they regard the white lady as being a boy, covered with white clay while undergoing an initiation ceremony. Yet others suggest that the painting is of a medicine man. Whichever school of thought you prefer, the white lady is well signposted and – though somewhat faded – worth the 40-minute walk needed to reach it.
Climbing BrandbergWith the highest point in Namibia and some good technical routes in a very demanding environment, the massif attracts serious mountaineers as well as those in search of a few days’ interesting holiday scrambling. It’s very important to remember to take adequate safety precautions though, as the temperatures can be extreme and the mountain is very isolated. Unless you are used to such conditions, stick to short trips in the early morning or late afternoon, and take a long siesta out of the scorching midday heat.
The CratersIn the remote west of southern Damaraland, these two craters are close to accessible areas, and yet themselves very remote. The only practical way to get in here is with a guide who knows the area – as for safety’s sake you need back-up in case of problems.
Messum CraterSouthwest of Brandberg, straddling the boundary of the National West Coast Tourist Recreation Area, Messum Crater is an amphitheatre of desert where once there was an ancient volcano, over 22km across. Now two concentric circles of mountains ring the gravel plains here. It’s possible to climb down to the salt pan at the bottom of the crater, where there are also rock engravings.
Doros CraterNorthwest of Brandberg, and south of Twyfelfontein, in southern Damaraland, is the remote Doros Crater (or Doros Craters, as it is sometimes called). The geology’s interesting here, and there’s evidence of early human habitation.
VingerklipFor years now the Vingerklip, or ‘rock finger’, has been a well-known landmark in this area, east of Khorixas. Around it are flat-topped mountains, reminiscent of Monument Valley (in Arizona), which are so typical of much of Damaraland. They are the remains of an ancient lava flow which has largely now been eroded way Amidst this beautiful scenery, Vingerklip is a striking pinnacle of rock, a natural obelisk balancing vertically on its own. It’s an impressive sight, and similar to the (now collapsed) Finger of God near Asab.
Twyfelfontein rock engravingsTwyfelfontein was named ‘doubtful spring’ by the first European farmer to occupy the land. Formerly the valley was known as Uri-Ais, and seems to have been occupied for thousands of years. Then its spring, on the desert’s margins, would have attracted huge herds of game from the sparse plains around, making this uninviting valley an excellent base for early hunters. This probably explains why the slopes of Twyfelfontein, amid flat-topped mountains typical of Damaraland, conceal one of the continent’s greatest concentrations of rock art. When you first arrive, they seem like any other hillsides strewn with rocks. But the boulders that litter these slopes are dotted with thousands of paintings and ancient engravings, only a fraction of which have been recorded.
Declared a World Heritage Site in 2007, Twyfelfontein was unusual amongst African rock art sites in having both engravings and paintings, though today only engravings can be seen. Many are of animals and their spoor, or geometric motifs – which have been suggested as maps to water sources. Why they were made, nobody knows. Perhaps they were part of the people’s spiritual ceremonies, perhaps it was an ancient nursery to teach their children, or perhaps they were simply doodling.
Organ Pipes and Burnt MountainThe Organ Pipes consist of hundreds of tall angular columns of dolorite in a most unusual formation. They were thought to have formed about 120 million years ago when the dolorite shrank as it cooled, forming these marvellous angular columns up to 5m high in the process.
Nearby the Organ Pipes, you’ll see what is known locally as the Burnt Mountain. Seen in the midday sun this can be a real disappointment, little more than a heap of black shale amidst the dominant sandstone, but when the rocks catch the early morning or late afternoon light, the mountainside glows with a startling rainbow of colours, as if it’s on fire.