Inside Tsodilo Hills' sacred cave

Cupules on the rock inside the cave PIC: THALEFANG CHARLES
Cupules on the rock inside the cave PIC: THALEFANG CHARLES

Mmegi’s intrepid staffer THALEFANG CHARLES has finally cracked the jinx that denied him access into the revered White Rhino Cave in Tsodilo Hills. This is the cave that 10 years ago changed the world’s understanding of human ritual history, as archeologists unearthed that it is the World Oldest Ritual Site.

Tsodilo is a very special place. A trip to Tsodilo Hills has been a very emotional journey for yours truly lately. This is because it has been a decade of failed attempts to re-enter the revered White Rhino Cave in Tsodilo Hills.

The White Rhino Cave is mankind’s oldest known ritual site. A colossal discovery by Associate Professor Sheila Coulson, from the University of Oslo in 2006 presented that the modern human, homosapiens, have performed advanced rituals at Tsodilo for over 70,000 years. The cave was named after a large white rhino painting that was discovered on its eastern wall.

Despite numerous researches in Tsodilo, the White Rhino Cave itself was not known to modern science up until the 1990s.

This is because it is so secluded and access to it is so difficult that archaeologists only discovered it in 1996. According to Coulson’s research paper, “It was during the course of an audit of the rock art that Ghao Xontai, the headman of the local Ju/’hoansi San, revealed the existence of this cave to archaeologists”.

Two years ago, guided by Xontai Ghao, the son of Ghao Xontai, a guide and present headman of the local San, I once again strangely failed to access the cave after our vehicle got stuck in the sand. After a couple of hours of painstakingly digging the vehicle out of the sand, Ghao called off the quest to the cave because we had run out of sunlight.

He said it was not ideal to attempt the cave at night without prior arrangements.

In 2010, our then guide called Kanyingi mysteriously got lost while trying to guide us to this sacred cave. We ended up calling off the hike because inexplicably Kanyingi could not find the cave despite the search.

Last Sunday during a great trip with BTC weekend getaway winners at Jumbo Junction near Gunotsoga I requested a small but significant detour to Tsodilo Hills on our return journey. Although my entourage initially did not seem to understand the Tsodilo Hills significance, they eventually agreed on the detour.

On our drive to the hills I started to feel anxious about the trip. There were more of ‘what ifs’ coming to my mind. What if I fail again? What if something happens and I put these happy young tourists in danger over some remote cave?

What if the gods violently shut me out this time? Although I could have taken some whiskey shots to clear my anxiety I chose not to drink. I believed that embarking on a short fasting of alcohol would be a good effort to demonstrate my determination to be allowed in the cave.

The Botswana Tourism Organisation (BTO) billboard at Nxamasere turn-off, which announces Tsodilo Hills as ‘The Realm of Ancestors’, heightened my anxiety. The precarious gravel road heading to the Hills made it even worse. When we finally made it to the area, watching the imposing Tsodilo Male Hill rising out like a giant from flat sand I was a nervous wreck. As my travel-mates watched the male hill in awe and greeted by a board saying ‘Tsodilo Hills - The Mountains of the Gods’, the gravity of the moment finally weighed down on them.

At the Tsodilo Museum on the foot of the Female Hill, guides welcomed us and I told them my specific interest of my trip. “I’m here to visit the Python cave,” I explained to them. They corrected me saying, “You mean the White Rhino Cave,” and said it would take more time depending on our hiking fitness. Our guide was Moronga Kopepa who is from the Bambukushu tribe.

I then decided that I would travel with my entourage only up to the Horned Serpent Natural Cistern that is at the beginning of the Cliff Trail. I knew very well that it was going to take us a long time to attempt to access the White Rhino Cave.

It was also my plan to eliminate any margin of error. The hike to the cave involves hiking some scary and treacherous cliffs and then climbing down and walking on sand before another ascent to the cave.

After fetching water from the Horned Serpent Natural Cistern, Kopepa and I continued with the hike while the rest of my travel mates climbed down to wait for us at the foothill.

Hiking in the heat with loads of camera gear and shot up nerves one might be refused access by the spirits of the Hills and make the short hike strenuous.  But I am an experienced hiker, I have set foot at Mount Kilimanjaro’s highest peak, Uhuru Peak 5,895m (the highest point in Africa) and Lesotho’s Thabana Ntlenyane (highest point in Southern Africa), so I knew that I was super fit for it. I even asked Kopepa to move much faster but he told me there were leopards and some big snakes that live in the hill and he must keep looking out for them.

I consciously chose to drink less water, since we were carrying only a litre between us. Water was therefore very precious and I anticipated that if we ever got lost that litre was our only hope for survival.

As we finally went up on the final ascent, the plan of drinking less water backfired. I felt dizzy and nearly fell from thirst, but I managed to catch a breath and got a few gulps in.

It is easy to understand how the site evaded detection, even after many research works in Tsodilo. The cave is perched high on the northernmost ridge of the Female Hill and can only be approached by scrambling over, or squeezing between, massive boulders.

When we finally reached the cave entrance, Kopepa went straight in while I took a moment to catch a breath and recollect myself.

Before I started photographing the cave, I took a moment and tried to find my own connection with the First People of the Kalahari. Maybe I would find answers why it took me 10 years to arrive.

This was the revered temple of my ancestors. Those whose beliefs we have neglected and went astray with other people’s. With my cameras on the rock by the entrance, I imagined the people that I should dearly and proudly call my ancestors approaching here with some grave religious caution that today my people practice only inside modern churches. I tried to listen intently if I could hear these ancestors’ voices and songs as they perform their Modern Stone Age (MSA) rituals.

When I finally started photographing I felt joy and success. It has been 10 years coming. Inside the cave I could see the figure of the giant snake-like rock on the west side to the cave.

It is slightly under seven metres long, two metres high and approximately one metre thick. I stroked the rock and let my mind transport me back to 70,000 years ago when the First People of the Kalahari performed rituals in there.

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