Trekking: Long life in the bush of ghosts

The Tsodilo Hills of Botswana are unusual. Some are male and some are female. And they are home to extraordinary art and stroppy spirits
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The Independent Travel

For thousands of years, southern Africa's arid interior has been dominated by the Kalahari Desert. In relatively recent years this great sand face has attracted anthropologists, adventurers, archaeologists and authors alike, many of them captivated by the San, or Bushmen, who inhabit its more fertile areas.

For thousands of years, southern Africa's arid interior has been dominated by the Kalahari Desert. In relatively recent years this great sand face has attracted anthropologists, adventurers, archaeologists and authors alike, many of them captivated by the San, or Bushmen, who inhabit its more fertile areas.

The San, the original hunter-gatherers, are believed to have been in the area for at least 30,000 years. The effects of disease and inter-marriage have somewhat diluted the San culture but one piece of heritage that remains San is the region's rock art.

This may soon change. The recent completion of the Trans-Kalahari Highway, which snakes its way steadily through western Botswana, means that the mystical heartland of the San is now more accessible than ever - once you've completed a 500-mile drive from Gaborone, the country's capital, that is. It is the kind of journey that induces a mesmerising respect for the sheer enormity of the Kalahari Basin.

Half-way along this "Bushman route" to the hills you begin to sense the presence of an indigenous culture. In the sand-swept intersection town of Ganzi, the souvenirs in the local craft shop and in the D'kar community on the outskirts of town, are more than mere knick-knacks. Alongside the jewellery and other traditional crafts you can take home with you a lesson in local culture - by watching demonstrations of hunting techniques, gathering skills and water-finding exercises.

These demonstrations are not just played out for the tourists. Ganzi lies on the fringes of one of the last great wildernesses of southern Africa, the Central Kalahari Game Reserve. Here, the remaining San still hunt to survive. If you are a Crocodile Dundee type, with a PhD in Axle Repair, it is possible to traverse this wilderness yourself. Most people, though, prefer to join an organised safari, albeit of the more adventurous kind.

Ganzi's Kalahari Arms Hotel is the usual starting point for any such safaris in the region. Its hacienda-style cocktail bar and swimming pool upgrade an otherwise strictly Seventies residence into an oasis of contemporary luxury. But, it is when leaving Ganzi behind (and hot showers) that the journey really begins.

On the route north-west, travelling close to the border with Namibia, a sharp left turn suddenly brings you onto one of the worst roads in Botswana. On the map it looks like a dotted line. On the ground, it's simply a sandy trail. Fortunately, you can't miss the track's final destination.

Near the end of the Trans-Kalahari Highway you pull up at one of southern Africa's most spectacular sights. In the Tsodilo Hills the brilliance of human expression has remained painted onto the landscape since the Stone Age, in the form of 3,500 rock paintings.

The Hills are not huge - at just over 400 metres high they aren't even as tall as Ayers Rock - but what gives them height is that they are the only topography as far as the eye can see. And, in the all-penetrating desert light, the Hills transform themselves into a chameleon-like range of colours, depending on the time of the day. In fact, the crumbled mica from these hills was once reputed to be so dazzling that women from several nomadic communities would come here to decorate their faces with this ancient sparkle dust.

The beguiling appearance of the Tsodilo Hills and the sudden breezes that stir, as if from nowhere, lend them an eerie aura. One story relates Laurens Van Der Post's arrival here in the 1950's and how his vehicles, then cameras and eventually his crew stopped working, one by one. Locals put this down to his lack of respect for the spirits of the Hills and Van Der Posts' guide warned the intrepid author that "the spirits of the Hills are not what they were. Ten years ago they would have killed you all for coming to them in that manner". Van Der Post buried a hand-written apology, signed by all, in a lime cordial bottle at the base of the "inglebergs".

Today, the spirits seem more welcoming. Fans of rock art can head for the "female" Hill, rather than the "male" or "child" Hills. The walking trails that wind around "her" clearly denote the predominant panels of giraffe, eland, tortoise, hare and dancing humans but, at certain points, you glimpse tiny, child-sized hand prints dating back to the first millennium. It was the San who painted these images. Apparently they believed that the gods of the Ncae Bushmen who once also resided here guided their hands to form the pictures.

Among the colourful images there are plenty of abstract geometric drawings, mostly criss-crossed, basket-shaped designs. My guide told me that this is what the eye sees while in trance.

Ascending the 400-metre high, "male" Hill brings you to the highest point in the Kalahari. Venturing up the rocky footpath just before dawn, the sun pours its first molten light over the landscape and, beneath you, gradually illuminates a 360-degree panorama across one of the least changed habitats on the planet.

Watching this sunrise, it is easier to forget the turbulence of more modern African history and to begin to comprehend the magnitude of human, or even geological, time. Jolting back along the teeth-shattering Trans-Kalahari Highway, I wished that all the world's wonders were as peacefully isolated as the Tsodilo Hills. But, for now there remained just one final thought: would it be north or east - to the Okavango Delta or Namibia?

* There are no direct flights to Gaborone. The fastest connections from the UK are from Harare or Johannesburg. Before 10 December, Bridge The World (020-7911 0900, www.bridgetheworld.com) has a return fare of £533 from Heathrow, on South African Airways via Johannesburg

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