At a time like this, when half the world is on lockdown because of the pandemic, when civility and decency and the very foundations of democracy seem at risk in the face of racist populism and rabid know-nothingness, when the planes are grounded and we can barely venture out of our houses, when our ‘advanced’ societies are humbled by a virus, there is something to be learned from stories on stones.
The World Heritage Site at Twyfelfontein, in Namibia, is a moonscape of waterless rock and stone, tones of orange and black against a blue relentless sky. The name – Twyfelfontein – means ‘fountain of doubt’ or ‘doubtful fountain,’ a reference to the spring that sometimes ran, and sometimes didn’t, somewhere near here. A name for our times, perhaps, and a reminder of our dependence on air, water – the simplest, yet irreplaceable things – for our very existence.
Yet people lived here, in this inhospitable landscape, somewhere between a thousand and two thousand years ago, people who possessed an art and culture, the traces of which are written in stone, in rock engravings, which are now a world treasure.
The engravings at Twyfelfontein offer a record of more than just a people, however. They offer a window on a natural environment, a world of mountains and grasslands that has long disappeared.
Look at the engravings, then look around, and think what has changed, what has been lost – how this barren terrain of sharp stones and rock once was home to elephant, giraffe, antelope, lion, rhino, hyena.
And think, that as this world has vanished, so too may our world, unless we face up to a challenge that is even more of a threat to us than the Covid-19 virus, the existential threat of climate change. A threat which – whether you are a head-in-the-sand climate change denier, or a believer in science and evidence – will take its course regardless of our opinions, just as the virus has, unless we take action.
But looking at these photographs also brings with it a simpler and more obvious message, a narrative of freedom and travel, and a reminder how travel shows us that our taken for granted worlds are not necessarily the worlds that everyone else lives in, and that the present is not the same as the past, nor is it the future.
More simply still, I look at these photographs, from our trip to Namibia in 2016, and I want to get out on the road again, big skies overhead, and the warm wind blowing.
Then I think of the heat – stunning, and the light – blinding – the hot climb stumbling over boulders, the views of the shimmering plains and the fortress-like mountains, the being intensely present in the moment, and I remember John Lennon’s saying that life is what happens when we are busy with other things, and I look down at the stones, and they tell me stories.