Tsodilo won’t let me in the Python Cave, again

Xontai Ghao guide at Tsodilo in the mouth of Horned Serpent Natural Cistern PIC: THALEFANG CHARLES
Xontai Ghao guide at Tsodilo in the mouth of Horned Serpent Natural Cistern PIC: THALEFANG CHARLES

Last week Mmegi’s intrepid staffer THALEFANG CHARLES went back to Tsodilo Hills on his third attempt to enter the highly revered serpent cave that 10 years ago changed the world’s understanding of human ritual history. He reports from the place dubbed ‘Mountains of the Gods’

The Python Cave is mankind’s oldest known ritual site. A colossal discovery by Associate Professor Sheila Coulson, from the University of Oslo in 2006 revealed that the modern human, homo sapiens, performed advanced rituals at Tsodilo over 70,000 years ago. Up until Coulson’s sensational discovery, scholars had largely held that modern man’s first rituals were carried out just over 40,000 years ago in Europe.

In 2010 when I first entered Python Cave, I had no information about the significance of the cave and I did not follow proper courtesy to accordingly pay respects to this ancestry of human rituals. It was the year that I had walked to Tsodilo Hills from Samuchima near Shakawe, on a charity walk organised by Y-Care Charitable Trust. The walk was a grueling 40 kilometres that left me with sore muscles and gory blisters. I still vividly remember the pains and emotions when I reached Tsodilo Hills that evening before I collapsed due to what the medics diagnosed as low sugar levels. It was under such severe exhaustion that I first met these Mountains of the Gods.

The second time I visited Tsodilo was a year later in 2011 while on a Finding Motswana expedition – a road trip around Botswana. That visit was not as emotional as the previous year and we planned to just race through the Cliff Trail and Male Hill Trail before returning for cold beers in Shakawe. But I guess the Gods did not entertain the hushed visit because they somehow decided to hide the revered Python Cave from us.

After reading about its significance, in 2011 I grew even more eager to photograph Python Cave and try to meet the spirits of this big rocky snake that is the cradle of human rituals. But it was not meant to be as the Gods of Tsodilo decided not to show us the cave. Our guide simply got lost.

My disappointment and naivety about the workings of the spirits of this place played out as I vented my frustration on the guide. I questioned his professionalism asking how he could lose a way as a guide and telling him that he must know where the cave is.

I later learnt that at Tsodilo, there are things that even the locals cannot explain – the “Mountain of the Gods” is not just a fancy monicker. There are revered artifacts that the guides only show visitors when they feel they (the tourists) are ready to see – when the gods have given their permission.

Last week I was back in Tsodilo with Diamond Trust during the launch of the staircase they built on Rhino Trail. Once again I tried to enter the Python Cave. The museum gave us an old Mosarwa guide called Xontai Ghao who knows the mountain very well – by heart and spirit.

Before we embarked on the trail, I made it clear to the three other journalists in my group that the other reason I was going to enter the serpent cave was my own spiritual purposes.

As we approached the northwestern foothills of the Female Hill our vehicle got stuck in the sand. When we finally managed to dig it from the unrelenting sand after over two hours, we were running out of sunlight and the guide suggested that we call off the Python Cave expedition. Although I was once again disappointed I did not argue with the guide because I knew that it was probably for our own good to return, than to test the gods and intrude when there are clear signs that we were not welcome on the day. I have learnt to regard Tsodilo as a temple and I follow the guidance of the people of the area.

On our way back we stopped by the Horned Serpent Natural Cistern that is at the beginning of the Cliff Trail in a rock grotto near the imposing cliffs that could make our own version of sculptures like Mount Rushmore National Memorial that has carvings of faces depicting the U.S. Presidents; George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt.

The natural cistern (I believe we were denied to proceed to Python Cave because we violated the protocol by not coming there first) holds water year-around and the people there believe it is inhabited by a great serpent with twisted horns. But our guide Xontai insisted there was “only” a big python. The water from this cave is revered and is also believed to have medicinal purposes. Many African churches usually come and fetch the water to use in their various rituals.

The water was so low and deep that Xontai warned that it was too dangerous to attempt to fetch it because of the slippery slopes. This too was a source of frustration as I was hoping to use the water’s medicinal powers in my own challenges, such as the impending restructuring at work!

Although I returned without entering the Python Cave or fetching water from the Horned Serpent Natural Cistern, I know I will be back.


Diamond Trust Tsodilo Project

Diamond Trust, a partnership between Debswana and De Beers, has so far pumped P14.9 million into the development of both the museum and community of Tsodilo. The Trust has dug boreholes for the community and built campsites for tourists, a gatehouse into the museum, a curio shop for the community to sell their crafts as well as staff accommodation and capacity building exercises for the Tsodilo youth to understand tourism business. Last week they invited President Ian Khama to officially open the staircase on the Rhino Trail. The staircase would make it easier for tourists to climb to access a number of rock paintings on the hills. Tsodilo Hills was listed as UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2001 because of its unique religious and spiritual significance to local people, as well as its unique record of human settlement over the years.

It has over 4,500 rock paintings dating back 24,000 years. With the support of the Diamond Trust, Botswana has envisioned to make the hills a major tourist site with additional staircases, canopy walkways and lodges.

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