Africa's Vanishing Art: Kondoa Rock Paintings

I have often wished over the years that Tanzania’s rock paintings might be better known and more widely appreciated. They are so beautiful and disappearing so fast.
Mary Leakey, 1983

In central Tanzania, high on an escarpment overlooking the Maasai Steppe, are some of the world’s oldest paintings.  Hidden among woodlands or inside shallow caves – or sometimes brazenly on cliff faces or stone overhangs – are some of our ancestors’ earliest experiments with artistic expression. We do not yet fully know what the paintings mean . . . and may never know.  But these rock ‘canvasses’ contain critical clues to understanding the distant lives and beliefs of our predecessors.

Rock art is found on every continent on earth except Antarctica, scattered across an estimated half a million sites in the “the largest open-air art museum ever known” - the natural world.  In Africa alone, some 200,000 sites are home to 10 million or more images, an awesome collection stretching from the Cape to Cairo, and from the Atlantic to the Pacific.

There are many passionate disagreements as to the origin and purpose of these ancient paintings and engravings.  Some suggest that rock art evolved as a way of teaching or passing information to the next generation; others that these are just pictorial representations of everyday life – our ancestors recording how they lived or what was around them.  Still others suggest that the art may have been created for religious or magical purposes.

Looking at the ‘canvasses’ a little more closely, we can find ‘evidence’ to substantiate all these theories.  Within the African oeuvre, for instance, one can see depictions of some of the continent’s most important historical events.  In Egypt, rock art informs us of the invention of the wheel; in South Africa, it records the migration of the Trek Boers; in Tanzania, a chilling painting appearing to show a group of people fastened together by the neck may just be, as Mary Leakey speculated, the first visual representation of slavery.

Yet these historically situated images are unusual; the exception rather than the rule.  It is much more common to see, as we do in Kondoa (Tanzania’s central art site), what appear to be initiation ceremonies, hunting scenes and dances – events that have probably taken place at regular intervals over millennia.

Yet lest we fall into the trap of complacently labelling these images ‘scenes of everyday life’, let us look at them more closely.  When we do, we find that the paintings lack critical details of the natural world.  Plants and trees, for example, are rarely depicted, horizons and the ground are absent, and proportion is often hugely distorted.  These then are not simply naturalistic representations of what our ancestors saw in the woodlands around them.  Something else is going on.  

In Kondoa, some creatures (giraffes, eland, humans) feature much more than others (wildebeest, birds); some images (elephants, antelope) are painted again and again, whereas others (reptiles, insects) are seldom or rarely drawn.  This means that our ancestors were making choices about what they represented.  They chose sometimes to portray sexual organs, but never facial parts or expressions.  They chose to paint what appear to be hunting and dancing scenes, but not images of children playing or women cooking.  They did not depict sex or child birth or breast feeding. And although animals feature again and again, rarely do they include details of the landscape they would have roamed in.  

The artists were thus making choices about what they drew, not randomly or arbitrarily copying what was before them.     

Many archaeologists believe that we can only begin to unpick the secrets of the paintings by understanding the artists who produced them.  But how can we do that when there are no living practitioners of rock art around?  Who can we talk to, and who can we ask? 

The Sandawe are one of the two remaining hunter-forager tribes of Tanzania, and they claim that it was their ancestors who created most of the ancient paintings we see in Kondoa.  Although the tribe no longer paints, the few surviving accounts we have of Sandawe artists from the last century all link the creation of their art to certain rituals, and in particular to the Simbo, a trance dance in which local shamans imaginarily assume the power of the lion in order to communicate with the spirit world.  Certain painted elements within the Kondoa collection make sense in terms of what we know of shamanistic rituals, and certain features can perhaps best be understood by reference to altered states of consciousness.

Other academics, however, have very different explanations for the art of Kondoa and elsewhere, and in truth there may not be a single purpose or meaning to the amazing images produced by our ancestors.  The many paintings in Kondoa appear to have been executed over thousands of years by different cultural groups using different styles and materials, so that the art may indeed have – as archaeologists like Eric Ten Raa believe – “multiple motives” and “multiple uses”.   The secrets of the paintings are, therefore, as excitingly mysterious as ever, and the search for their meanings goes on. 


Until recently, rock art was being regularly created and renewed.  But no longer.  The Sandawe largely stopped painting in the 1960s for reasons we do not fully understand.  Elsewhere on the continent, the fashion for creating pictographs and petroglyphs has also died out.  It seems, then, that the environmental, spiritual and cultural forces that led the human race to draw and doodle on rocks have disappeared, along with the last practitioners of these ancient arts.  The collection of images we have left is thus extremely precious . . . one of our only connections to extinct worlds.

Despite the excellent work being done by organisations at an international, regional and national level, so much is still needed to protect the art of Kondoa.  Old and new threats cast a shadow over the future of the paintings, and expedite their destruction.  Some are the ongoing effects of natural weathering, deforestation and an expanding human population.  Others who have damaged the pictographs are the very ones we might have expected to revere them: rock art aficionados who clamber over painted panels to reach less accessible images, or who splash coca cola on the paintings to bring up their colour for a moment, or who steal painted fragments.

The ancient paintings of Tanzania are an amazing resource for historians and archaeologists, and open windows onto vanished worlds.  Within the paintings may be important evidence about our human past, information that only time and further research will help us understand.  Rock art is naturally robust – if it was not, it would not have survived for millennia – but humans seem to have changed their relationship to it so that it is no longer guarded and protected as something sacred.  

For the past half century, Tanzania’s paintings have been vanishing at such a frightening rate that some archaeologists predict they will have been entirely destroyed within a decade.  Certainly, some of the paintings that Mary Leakey recorded in the 1950s have already disappeared or been damaged beyond recognition, and all that now survive are the tracings made by her team half a century ago.  Unless we protect them now, the Kondoa paintings will not survive for future generations to access and enjoy.  And should we continue to treat them roughly and without regard, we shall have to accept the end result: that they will disappear forever.    

For more information on how to visit Kondoa or help protect the rock art of Tanzania or Africa please contact or 

This article is an abridged version of ‘Land of Paint and Rock’ a chapter on the Kondoa paintings which can be found in my book, Seven Wonders.

Wild about Dogs: my Seven Year Search for an Endangered Species

“I’ve seen zebras crossing the Grumeti; I’ve seen hyenas bring down a baby elephant; I’ve seen a croc take a lion cub.  But I’ve never seen the wildest of all the wild creatures, those damned elusive wild dogs.” I nod my head mechanically at the man talking next to me on the four-seated Cessna, but say nothing.  We are flying over southern Tanzania and the small plane is making terrifying plunges through the turbulent sky. “They used to live everywhere,” he continues, undeterred by my silence, “all over this land, half a million they say south of the Sahara in packs of up to 100 dogs. Today there are only 6,600 left, and most of those in relict population.  This,” he gestures to the vast woodlands below us, “is probably the best wild dog country left in Africa.”

That conversation on my first trip to the Selous Game Reserve, seven years ago, began a friendship that has continued long beyond that cloudy day. The safari had barely begun and I was already in love with places that I had never heard of before meeting Nick: the names Samburu, Machakos, Filtu, Isiolo and Bubye-Bubiana rolled off his tongue and came to sound like just about the coolest places on the planet. I have added to the list since then, telling him of my visits to Chobe, Tsavo, Katavi, Ruaha and Okavango. Between us we have visited almost all the surviving provinces of the African wild dog. By email and skype we have swapped stories of tracking dogs through the continent’s last wildernesses.  But for me, sadly, despite many tantalising near misses, I have not yet seen the dogs.  It’s become a sort of joke between us: I’m not looking properly; I've seen them but keep mistaking them for hyenas.  Then the homespun wisdom comes: ”Nothing found easily is worth looking for,” Nick tells me, “success is in the searching”.  This trip back to the Selous Game Reserve is my final pilgrimage. “This is your last chance, Hoole,” he tells me.  “This is Wild Dog Mecca. Don’t mess it up.”

Why do wild dogs so catch the imagination? Is it the apparent variety, freedom and excitement of their life? Their constant search for what’s over the mountain, across the river, beyond the trees?

They appear to live everywhere and nowhere. Whole packs appear for a moment in the wilderness, vanish the next day, then reappear again months later. No one is certain where they come from or where they go, for it is impossible to keep up with them in these unroaded landscapes. They can run for hours, their rangy legs propelling them forward on relentless quests for exciting sights, new possibilities, fresh prey. They take over the abandoned dens of warthogs or aardvarks, too lazy, indifferent or impatient to build their own. Why build anyway? The pups will soon be grown, in 12 weeks they’ll be running with the pack, and then the brief stillness is over and the journeying can begin again.

“Why do wild dogs thrive in the Selous?” I had asked Nick seven years ago. “Here, above all places in the world?” “They’ve got 50,000 square kilometres to run around in ,” he had answered immediately. “Not many places on the planet still this wild. But ever here, they’re battling with lions, humans and disease. The sad truth is, Hoole, even here they’re endangered and may not survive.”

The chilling words of my friend echoed in my ears as I booked into Siwandu camp that noon. Yet it was hard to feel sad seeing the splendid suite assigned to me and gazing out at hippos yawning on the distant lake. I lounged on my veranda during the heat of the afternoon and watched all the animals of the savannah wander past my veranda: a dazzle of zebra grazed just a few feet beyond; a fish eagle soared past; a phalanx of giraffes paused, looked in on me, then ambled on. At four, my personal butler arrived to deliver tea, apple cake, and the mouth-watering dinner menu, and to tell me that the next morning my quest to find the wild dogs could resume.


We gathered together at dawn the next day to begin tracking with the great Mzee Mtambo a man born into this wilderness and with 33 years experience of guiding walks within it.  If anyone knew the wild lands of the Selous or where to find the elusive Lycaon pictus it was Mtambo. 

Bertie Wooster’s rival ‘Stilton’ Cheesewright was a man reputed to move so silently and stealthily that he could crawl through an entire jungle without snapping a single twig: well, here was his living incarnation. Yes, Mtambo answered in his soft voice, walking silently through the bush, he had seen the wild dogs many many times; yes; those were its footprints; yes, the denning season was the best possible time to see them.  No, the dogs had not been seen for ten days.

He answered the questions of the other guests with just as much patience and respect, those equally obsessed with birds or insects or plants: Yes, raptors circle the sun to confuse their prey; yes, that plant is used as a sort of local Viagra, yes, dung beetles navigate using the Milky Way. And then he told us about things we had never thought to notice or ask about: why cats were colour blind; pangolins toothless; dik diks monogamous; hippos sun-sensitive and lions didn’t purr. He pointed out the lipstick tree, the bright white dung of hyenas, explained why giraffes didn’t faint when they bent their heads to drink and why crocodiles could go months at a time without food.  

He invited us to sniff leaves, rub bark, drink the water from elephant dung. Who knew elephant dung water could cure fever? Who knew it smelled so sweet? He showed us the stories written in the sandy soil of the Selous: the hippopotamus that had lain down to have clandestine sex with a non-dominant male far from the prying eyes of the river; the family of jackals that passed this way through the bush last night; the lioness that had stalked an impala just a few hours earlier.  It’s amazing what hooves and paws and claw imprints can tell you.  There’s a whole world of stories written on the ground if only you have the key to decipher them. We had only been walking for a couple of hours and already I was lost in the joy of learning again about this extraordinary ecosystem.  As we emerged beside a river replete with crocodiles and hippos, a chef and a waiter jumped out and beckoned us towards a breakfast table groaning with freshly brewed coffee, fruits, bacon and eggs, and it began to dawn on me that it might be ever so slightly silly to keep harping on about wild dogs when there was so much more to see. I surrendered to the whole for a moment; to the beauty of a Selous breakfast surrounded by the earth and river and air.

Reclining on my vast bed after the sort of repast that would have satisfied Lucretius the Epicurean, I couldn’t resist playing over in my mind the Planet Earth aerial footage of wild dogs hunting. It was only broadcast in 2006, yet was the first time that audiences had seen a full hunt captured on film.

How different life was just a few decades ago! I thought to myself.  When I was a child, few people had heard of African wild dogs, little was known about them, they had hardly been studied, and the few facts that scientists then reiterated about them have virtually all now been disproved. Now, even without setting foot in their continental homeland you might have seen images of their extraordinarily successful synchronised hunting, of their elaborate greeting rituals. You may have listened to them twitter, whine, howl, alarm bark, and yelp.  Watched on high definition their extraordinary pre-hunt rituals. Seen them defer to the young at kills and invite young pups to the choicest parts of the impala. Observed on film that they are affectionate to each other, rarely aggressive, never fight over food, lick each other’s wounds, look after their sick. You may have seen and heard and read all this even before you have had a glimpse of their bushy white-tipped tails.

There are still mysteries, of course, things that aren’t yet understood. In 1962, the explorer Wilfred Thesiger saw a pack of dogs on Mount Kilimanjaro in the thin air of 16,000 feet.  What were the dogs doing in the oxygen-deprived environment?  Why did they not retreat or get sick? Why did they watch Thesiger and his team sign the visitors’ book on the summit and then vanish over the crater rim, never to be seen again?  Why did the wild dogs of the Serengeti disappear in the 1990s? Why do warthogs and wild dogs sometimes share a den? Why did a dog in Botswana form friendships with hyenas and nurse baby jackals? Mysteries flourish around the dogs and there is a lifetime of wondering for those enraptured with Lycaon pictus.

We tracked on foot and by vehicle for three days. There were mornings following spore for miles through the bush, before the prints perplexingly disappeared beside the river. There were afternoons where we picked up nothing: neither scent, nor prints nor droppings. There was a dog-shaped hole in our life, and yet it was still a glorious time, the anticipation of encountering the canines interspersed with sumptuous meals, roaring pre-dinner fires, siestas in palatial tents, and endless thrilling close encounters with the other creatures of the reserve. Zebras ambled past our table during lunch; an elephant barked the tree outside my tent; we shone our torches on the river at night to see hundreds of crocodiles – “a river of still eyes” someone called it.

On the second day, we had a radio call alerting us that there had been a sighting nearby: Haraka, haraka the voice crackled on the radio, and we sped off through the bush, being thrown around by each bump and dip in the road for a mile or so. By the time we arrived, bruised but exhilarated from the chase, the dogs had gone, and we could only curse out ill luck. A mile away, I sighed to myself. I had never, as far as I knew, been that close. Yet my beloved creatures seemed as far away from my life as they had ever been. We saw tantalisingly fresh tracks the next morning – Mbwa Mwitu! Mtambo exclaimed, pointing them out – and we followed them for hundreds of metres until they too vanished into thick thorn bushes and were lost to us.

So as I came to climb into the Land Rover on my final morning, it might have seemed that my seven year odyssey over thousands of miles had come to nothing. Yet as we bumped along the rough tracks to the bush airstrip I was surprised to find that I wasn’t sad. The bush shows you what it chooses to, I thought, quoting again Nick’s homely wisdom, you mustn’t make demands. It had never been a certainly that I should see the dogs and, after all, I had seen a whole living thriving ecosystem, the one in which my beloved wild dogs lived. It was enough, I told myself; I was content.

At the end of the bush airstrip, lost in happy reflections, the Land Rover suddenly stopped “Louise! Look!” And there they were, lolling under a tree, five beautiful painted dogs, hiding from the African sun.  ”Look at them! You see their unique patterns?  As individual as a fingerprint! Look!” The dogs raised their heads and looked at us; then watched as the little plane coming to collect me swooped out of the sky like a vast bird of prey and set itself down on the rough earth airstrip scattering impalas and giraffes to either side as it landed.

“Hello dogs,” I said quietly. “It’s been quite a journey to see you.”  One gave a perfunctory lick to a paw; then allowed her heat-tired eyes to close. The pilot in the distance gave a shout and beckoned us: Come on! Time to Leave!

And so after seven years, and thousands of miles, I saw them for an amazing seven minutes.  I took the obligatory blurry photo – that bad shot with the wrong lens from a moving car, already too far away. Looking back, as we hurtling along to the plane, I said goodbye to the dogs and gave thanks to something or someone – to god, the universe, the Selous, the spirit of wild dogs – I didn’t quite know what – for those seven minutes.

Then we bumped along the edge of the runway to the plane that would take me home.

High in the air, I saw the new guests speeding along the airstrip to get their glimpse of the dogs still lying under their tree. Imagine, I thought, on the ground for just two minutes, and already seeing some of the continent’s most endangered creatures!  Well, I sighed with contentment, that’s the Selous for you: full of surprises.

I wrote to Nick, of course.  And sent him that bad blurry photo which is now my screen saver.  I could have downloaded a crisp stock image, some fabulous close up of dogs hunting or barking or playing. But they wouldn’t have been my wild dogs.  The dogs that I was connected to: the ones that had looked me in the eye and sniffed me on the breeze. The photo is a memory of a quest realised despite the odds. And evidence, as perhaps it might be in the future, of a vanished species.


A Moveable Feast: the Serengeti

The Maasai named them the Siringet, the Endless Plains. Speculated that a man might walk his whole life and never pass beyond them; might move his cows to the horizon without ever glimpsing their edge. In the Good Old Days, the Maasai did not cross from Tanzania to Kenya, and from Kenya to Tanzania, because there were no borders then, no boundaries or fences. They moved around the endless plains following the new grasses, spreading out after the rains and congregating in the dry season around life-sustaining water holes. These were the days of milk and honey – or rather, for the Maasai, milk and blood: this land was Maasailand; these cattle were Enkai’s gift to his chosen people; and life was lived as it was meant to be surrounded by the wild animals of the plains, and the birds of the air, and the insects of the ground. And then something happened . . . and everything changed. 


If you drive from Lake Lagarja to Lake Victoria, from the southern to the western gates of the Serengeti, you will journey for hundreds of kilometres across grass plains and wooded savannah. For many hours you can watch the landscape pass. You might start at dawn and still, with a few stops, be driving near dusk, have moved through a landscape of such exquisite beauty that it is akin to being mesmerised – hypnotised by shades of gold and fawn and cream and green and blue and sand. At some point, a great sense of peace enters the mind. For no matter how urban one’s workaday life, and no matter how superficially strange to be surrounded by wild animals, on some levels our bodies seem to recognise what is before us and to respond to this life of vistas and endless horizons and open lands. This, after all, is part of the Great Rift Valley, the place where humanity evolved, and perhaps its memory is hard wired into our DNA, and exists within us all.

The mind is soothed by the earth’s palate of colours, the heart calmed by the unobstructed horizon, and you feel that you might drive forever and abandon everything you left at home . . . only at that moment, you’ll see a gate, and as soon as you pass through it you’ll find yourself in a little village and then a town, and without warning there will be children and nuns and shopkeepers crossing the road, mamalishe cooking chapatis, women munching on cassava, men selling bolts of cloth: a maelstrom of human activity, an intensity, a density of pregnant women and teenagers and babies and old men, goats and domestic dogs, chickens and restaurants, tyres, coca cola signs, corrugated iron roofs and tarred roads . . . and you’ll suddenly remember how many people there are on our planet and your heart rate will speed up.

Few things illustrate as well as that junction, the pressure that the human population puts on the natural world. Here, crowding up to the perimeter fence of the Serengeti, living cheek-by-jowl with it, passing diseases to and from it, it becomes clear why a barrier has become necessary. For without it, expanding humankind would nibble away at the wild world inch by inch, until eventually not a metre of the endless plains would remain. “What we must face, all of us – poachers, tourists, farmers, conservationists and pastoralists – is the difficult truth that the land does not go on forever.”