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By Cindy Carlsson

What is Tsodilo?

Tsodilo is a small area in Botswana where a few massive rock formations rise above the surrounding desert. Inhabited for at least 100,000 years, these hills are sacred to the local Hambukushu and San. They are also home to one of the largest concentrations of rock art in the world.

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A view of a mostly flat rock wall with red images of animals of various sorts at Tsodilo Hills.

Why is Tsodilo a UNESCO World Heritage site?

Best known for its incredible gallery of rock art, Tsodilo is important for the site’s long habitation. The rock art is just the most obvious and fabulous sign of that.

UNESCO explains: “The [Tsodilo] Hills have provided shelter and other resources to people for over 100,000 years. It now retains a remarkable record, in its archaeology, its rock art, and its continuing traditions, not only of this use but also of the development of human culture and of a symbiotic nature/human relationship over many thousands of years.”

A close-up of a flat rock wall in Tsodilo Hills with several figures painted onto it in a darkish red. Three of them seem to be giraffes, while the rest seem to be cow-like forms. All face to the right.

What can you expect on a visit to the Tsodilo Hills?

The Tsodilo Hills would be an interesting area to explore even if there weren’t thousands of pictographs here. But, of course, the paintings are the reason to come this far.

Designated trails take visitors past the pictographs and into caves that once sheltered those living or traveling through here. The rock art is located all over – some hidden in sheltered spots, a few right in the open at eye-level, and many high up on exposed rock faces. And, while many are worn and faded, a surprising number still retain their bright color.

A small museum on the site provides information on the paintings and the cultural significance of the hills.

See what it’s like to visit the Tsodilo Hills here.

A view of two of the hills at Tsodilo. The nearer has red marks on it that may be paintings but from this distance it is hard to tell.

Is Tsodilo worth visiting?

Tsodilo is an amazing place, but you really need to make an effort to get there. For most people, it won’t be worth the time and cost.

However, if you are traveling in Botswana or northeastern Namibia and want to do something beyond the usual safari activities, Tsodilo is worth the time it takes to get there. A San guide can connect you with the life and stories of the people who lived here for thousands of years. And, if you are lucky, they will also tell you how their people live today.

While the accommodations at the site aren’t great, if you are going to come this far, it is worth spending the night. An overnight at the site lets you watch the light change on these amazingly colorful hills, explore during the coolest part of the day immediately after sunrise, and visit the local village and its small crafts market. It also gives you time to hike more than one trail, each of which offers views of different petroglyphs.

A large flat-sided rock outcropping with a clearly visible drawing of an antelope of some sort on the left - it must be quite big given the distance to the stone - and a somewhat less clear image on the right, also of an antelope. At Tsodilo Hills in Botswana.

Tips for visiting the Tsodilo Hills  

You can visit without a guide, but this is a site where having a San guide adds so much. (Not all guides are San, so be sure to specify that you want a San guide.)

Mid-day is very hot. Bring sunscreen and lots of water.

Do not touch the rock paintings!

Several marked trails of varying difficulty run through the site, all of which let you see the rock paintings.

The campground at Tsodilo is pretty primitive. Better lodging options are available in Shakawe, but if you want to spend more than a few hours in the park, you really need to stay overnight. Just have plenty of water and whatever else you might need, as the site’s restrooms apparently don’t always have water.

Text: Tsodilo Hills, Northwestern Botswana. Images: top, view of a rock face with two figures of antelopes on it; bottom, a close-up of figures of giraffes on a rock face.

Where is Tsodilo?

Tsodilo is located in a very isolated area of north-western Botswana near the border with Namibia. The nearest international gateway is Maun, 385 km (240 miles) south of the UNESCO site. It may be possible to arrange a private flight to Tsodilo from Maun.

  • Maun has commercial air service via Gaborone and Kasane; Johannesburg and Cape Town, South Africa; and Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe‎. Some routes are seasonal.
  • If you are coming from Victoria Falls, the drive is over 600 km (375 miles) and more than 9 hours from Livingstone, Zambia.
  • It’s 730 km (450 miles) and more than 9 hours from Etosha National Park in Namibia.

The nearest town with lodging and other facilities is Shakawe (70 km or 40 miles) and up to a couple of hours north of the Tsodilo UNESCO site.

Accommodations in Shakawe

This is a remote area at the edge of the Kalahari Desert. Plan for far longer travel times than expected on dusty roads with few to no services. And, unless improved very recently, the track into Tsodilo from the main road usually requires a 4×4 vehicle.

For more information about Tsodilo, see the Botswana Tourism website.

Have you been to Tsodilo? If so, do you have any additional information or advice about this UNESCO World Heritage site? Please add your comments below!

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