Wild gems of Botswana

Manyana rock paintings sandstone cliff face
Manyana rock paintings sandstone cliff face

In a series of articles, MIKE and JEREMY BROOK introduce some of Botswana’s archaeological, historical and scenic beauty sites, which are now classified as national monuments. Botswana has over 2,500 such sites, of which more than 100 have been gazetted. The National Monuments and Relics Act of 2001 ensures that the sites are adequately protected; most are free to visit, and some have full time guides. We start the series with a look at two wonderful sites, Mogonye Gorges and Manyana rock paintings, both within a one hour drive from the capital, Gaborone. Taken from a new book called, Wild About Botswana, to be released at Christmas.

Mogonye gorges

Just 40 minutes’ drive from Gaborone, these spectacular gorges show a refreshingly different side to the typical and relatively flat bushveld areas of                     Botswana.

Thirty-one kilometres south-west of Gaborone, between Boatle and Manyana, the rivers, Molapowamodimo, Metsimaswaane and Mmamotshwane, begin.


The main gorge and best attraction is the Mmamotshwane Gorge fed by the Mmamotshwane River; the other six gorges are at Birds Spring, Marete Spring, Leopard Valley, Aardwolf’s Valley, Hammerskop’s Valley and Tamboti Spring.

The main gate house and campsite were built by the Mogonye community and the national heritage site was opened by Tshekedi Khama, Minister of Environment, Wildlife and Tourism on August 12, 2014.  The heritage site is managed by the Letloa Trust.

The combined force of these rivers has led to the erosion of the hard igneous rock bed and has created the deep, striking gorge walls that you see today, the best of which are found at the Mmamotshwane Gorge.

 The Bahurutshe of Mogonye village settled in the year 1852 after moving from Lehurutshe and Motswedi villages in South Africa due to war between the Boers and Ndebele. The name Mogonye is derived from the rich fertility of the soil in the area, which can be seen along the gorge river side.  The gorge receives heavy rainfall during the summer months. 

This results in high water flow in the gorge during this time, leaving the many rock pools and waterways full, lively and energised.

Conversely, during the dry winter months, little rainfall leaves the gorge relatively dry, with the water flow winding down as the rock pools slowly reduce in size, sometimes drying up completely during periods of drought. In the dry winter, flows are at a minimum.  This constantly changing environment provides a habitat for a wide variety of plants and animals, such as freshwater crabs, frogs, myriad insects and birds, as well as larger animals, which may find themselves in need of a cool drink.

 Entrance to the facility is P50 and a guide will take you all the way to the head of the gorge if you like.  If you prefer to stay over, there is a campsite and a new ablution block.

Animals seen, especially early morning and late afternoon, include: kudu, mountain reedbuck, duiker, steenbok, baboon, vervet monkeys, hares, jameson’s red rock rabbit, hyrax, jackal, porcupine, leopard, ant bear, warthog and numerous snakes, including python, cobra and mambas.

Half way up the Mmamotshwane Hill is a site, which includes the remains of a small stonewalled prehistoric village belonging to the Iron Age (AD 600- 950).

The area is typical hardveld and the main tree species are red bush-willow, weeping wattle, umbrella thorn, silver terminalia, sickle bush, sand olive and sweet pickle pear.  These species, framed amongst the large igneous rock formations, combine to form a cool, temperate woodland atmosphere along the gorge river, with ample shade and fertile riverbanks providing a pleasant path to walk.

The mountain fern is found at a place called ‘Ko Puleng’.  The fern is believed to be ‘the breath’ of the gorge and removing it from its original place means ending the life of the gorge.

Several plants produce edible fruit, and include the wild medlar and morula. Other plants, such as wild camphor and the abundant mountain aloe, are used for medicinal purposes.

As you venture further into the gorge, there are various small openings and caves lining the gorge sides as the trees give way to a more rocky terrain, with species like the wild rock fig tree taking centrestage as they battle with the gorge rocks for position on the steep sides.

Manyana Rock Paintings

About an hour’s drive south-west of Gaborone, there are three different attractions at Manyana; the rock paintings and the famous explorer and missionary, Dr David Livingstone’s Tree, which provided shelter for his mobile clinic and school. In Manyana, a Department of National Museum guide will facilitate your tour. The rock painting site is located on the southern extreme of an 8metre-high rock over-hang about 500m north of the village. The five different sections of rock paintings are dated between 1100 and 1700AD and are painted by late stone-age people, ancestors of Basarwa.

The site was occupied by people using stone tools until about 1000AD when they were joined or replaced by people who made pottery. Pottery found at the site is dated at 1300AD.

 The monument is especially important because it is the only known site in Southern Botswana of rock paintings of the same era as those of the Tsodilo Hills in the north. The sandstone cliff face provided a perfect canvas for their paints, which comprised animal fat, bone marrow, honey and even urine.  The paint was applied with ostrich feathers, sticks and fingers.  The rock paintings are of kudu, rhino, a rainbow, hunters, gemsbok, giraffes, herb plants, a sign for poisonous snake venom (smeared on the tips of Basarwa’s arrows used for hunting), zebra, wildebeest and an anteater.

The giraffe, rhino, most animals and designs are attributed to stock-owning hunter-gatherers. The human figures were painted by farmers and date to about 1600AD. Artifacts dating back to the Late Stone and Iron ages have also been found at the site. Due to the permanent presence of water from the Kolobeng River nearby, it is probable that Manyana was a site of ritual for the San or Basarwa and this would explain the richness of rock art. Climb the cliff face at its northern end and be rewarded with a spectacular view of the village and, in the distance, the site of the Battle of Dimawe, fought between the Bakwena tribe and the Boer Farmers regiments on the granitic Dimawe and Boswelakgosi Hills.  At the third and middle positioned series of rock paintings at the Manyana cliff face is a cave with a very small entrance where it is said that the pregnant Mma Sechele, Queen mother and third wife of the Chief of the Bakwena tribe, hid for a month during the battle of Dimawe.

The Bakwena won the battle. But the Boers’ hatred of Livingstone’s friendship with them eventually resulted in Livingstone leaving for Zambia in 1852, never to return to the then Bechuanaland.  In the centre of Manyana village lays David Livingstone’s Tree, a wild fig or ‘Motlhatsa’. 

Livingstone used the tree for shade for Bible School and a health clinic for the Bakwena people, held twice a week when he visited from his Kolobeng base 5km to the north. He found the tree there in 1847, making the tree at least 200-years-old.

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