by Jean Fischer
A visit to Ai Aiba is a pleasurable one. I am standing in an open-air ‘art studio’ surrounded by vast slabs of sun-baked rock, admiring a perfectly executed painting of a giraffe. A slight breeze is ruffling the golden grass on the endless plain below. There’s that special kind of silence that only pristine beauty can create.
Ai Aiba Lodge on the farm Anibib in the Erongo Mountains is known as the ‘Rock Painting Lodge’ for good reason. In a setting rich in geological splendour, early artists have left a bountiful heritage of ancient rock art. The mountains have protected their treasures since an earlier period of history. Visitors can now enjoy viewing these works of art in a setting that is also a memorable excursion into unspoilt nature.
This vast collection of tantalising relics from the past was first recorded by no less a person than Abbé Henri Breuil, the French cleric, pre-historian and archaeologist who was especially noted for his studies of cave art. He first visited the area in 1948, and the fruits of his labour, a book titled Anibib & Omandumba and other Erongo Sites containing a detailed topography and copies of numerous rock-painting sites, was published in 1960.
Activities at the lodge are geared to exploring the abundance and diversity of the rock paintings, combined with a scenic nature tour. A short hiking trail quite close to the lodge is a good introduction to the rock art. A guide is optional, and four sites can be visited in a nature walk of about 45 minutes. The Ai Aiba Rock Painting Drive of approximately three hours is like a treasure hunt, as more and more rock-art ‘masterpieces’ are discovered. A visit to a neighbouring farm, the Ai Aiba Etemba Picnic Drive of about five hours, highlights the paintings in the well-known Hain Cave.
The cosmic bond that connects man and animal becomes apparent in these paintings, whose exact age, contents and purpose, and the origin and fate of the remarkable artists, remain a matter for speculation.
The mystical atmosphere of these art works is well described by Abbé Breuil: “This curious feeling of breaking in on a world which, for all the vividness of its pictorial records, we could never hope to understand fully, was always present in me as long as we were in the Erongo. It was as if, in this lonely region, an immense illustrated book had been left open, only to be forgotten and the key to its contents lost.”
At Sundowner Mountain there are sweeping views of the surrounding countryside, with the landscape of piled and balancing rocks glowing red in the setting sun. As we start the homeward journey, this blends into pastel shades of moody blue and mauve. At the Braai Place, a cosy, rocky venue serves as an informal restaurant and bar for barbecue dinners.
Ai Aiba is a Khoekhoegowab word meaning ‘the person who walks in front to show the way’. The logo was designed to incorporate the slender figure of a Stone Age hunter complete with bow and arrow, part of a rock painting in the area.
Guests are housed in twenty spacious thatch-roofed chalets with en-suite double bedrooms, each with a private patio offering splendid scenic views. The restaurant, which forms part of the garden and palm-fringed swimming-pool area, generates a pleasant feeling of dining alfresco. There is a dramatic jumble of giant boulders in the foreground and views of hazy mountains in the distance. At night, strategically placed lighting focuses on massed granite boulders, accentuating the dreamy silence of the mountains.
This relatively new lodge first opened its doors to guests in August last year, with Alexandra Sacharow as general manager, and Martin Steppe as executive chef. Both are well versed in the Namibian hospitality industry, and – in tune with the rock-painting environment – both display artistic talents. With Alexandra, these talents come to the fore in the attractive ambience created by the decor of the chalets and public areas. Another field of expertise is that of guiding visitors along the rock art trail.
Martin Steppe’s particular brand of international cuisine and local game specialities is accented by imaginative presentation and eye-catching garnishes.
During my stay, a candle-lit dinner consisted of butternut soup flavoured with ginger and honey and served with freshly baked bread, followed by a grilled minute gemsbok steak with onion and red-wine sauce served with potato Rösti and vegetables. Dessert was a lavish chocolate mousse tartlet on forest berries with fruit garnish and whipped cream. A special touch was a tiny chocolate replica of the Stone Age hunter featured in the logo.
A Bushman Bar forms part of the restaurant area. There is a TV room as well as a collection of reference books focusing mainly on flora and fauna. Visitors arriving in light aircraft, land on a 1.3-km airstrip.
Ai Aiba is a member of the Erongo Mountain Nature Conservancy, an association of farmers dedicated to the protection and preservation of the unique fauna and flora and magnificent granite landscape of the Erongo Region. The lodge is owned by Fritz Flachberger, owner of Okapuka Lodge situated 30 km north of Windhoek on the Okahandja road.
This article appeared in the Feb/March ‘05 edition of Travel News Namibia.