Small trees and grasses and shrubs emerge from reddish-yellow sand for as far as you can see. Occasionally we saw a Kudu, a red Hartebeest and other creatures as they crossed the road and ran into the bush.
We are in the fabled Kalahari Desert in Western Botswana. Home to the infamously fierce black-maned lions of the Kalahari. The huge expanse of dessert that encompasses most of Botswana, and it is mostly empty to our eyes with the exception of occasional livestock grazing free-range and one straight-line road heading East across the southern continent. To me it looks beautiful as a large expanse, but monotonous as the miles roll on and on.
We have just left Windhoek, Namibia on our two week camping safari. We are in a comfortable vehicle with two other guests – a fun couple from Australia – and our Namibian guide Marcus and the camp assistant/cook Joseph. Our first day was a long drive, and we rolled into our campsite a couple of hours before dark, set up tents, and settled in for a tasty supper.
This camp is actually a game hunting camp that is owned by a South African and where people pay to come and hunt – ostrich, Kudu, springbok, etc. We have passed many similar game farms on our drive – there are clearly a lot of people willing to pay well to hunt these animals to support all of these hunting venues. This farm is managed by a local San headman, one of the well-documented Bushmen we have all seen so frequently featured on National Geographic. He comes to our campfire to tells us stories of his people the night we arrive (see the post “A Bushman’s Tale: The Lion and the Jackal”.)
He came back at 7 AM to take us on a bush-walk and share with us how his people – the San – have traditionally lived here – in the hard desert – for many generations. While now the local Bushmen mainly live in a village 40 km away where they live in houses and can buy clothes and go to the supermarket and go to the hospital, they still prefer to go to the bush first for their traditional ways and foods.
They bring their children to the bush to teach them their traditional ways starting very young. Many still prefer to wear animal skins over western clothes. They still come and harvest berries and fruits and hunt in the ancient way. And they still maintain a healthy separation from outsiders and prefer to be apart from outside influences.
We roll out of the tent early after a cold night and dress and get ready for our walk. Our guide – his name is un-writable in English and starts with a click sound distinct to the local languages in this part of Africa – is waiting for us. He is dressed a fleece pullover, with his long bare legs sticking out from under the shirt. Feet in Tevas. He wears traditional skins under the fleece. He carries an animal skin quiver with a bow, a spear and various sticks slung over his shoulder. And has a patient smile as he waits for us to get organized and accumulate all of our comforts and cameras and pack up luggage and assemble all the complications of modernity as we get ready for our walk.
And he’s the real deal, not someone who puts on the costume for the tourists. His gear is well used. His body is lean and tall. His skin is copper-brown and pulled tight across high prominent cheekbones and hollowed cheeks. And he is clearly at home here in this desert.
“This tree – we dig the roots and make poison for our arrows. This bush – we eat the berries, and harvest them and dry them for stored food, but the leaves we chew and put on wounds. This plant heals liver problems. These plants we dig the root tubers for medicines. The god decides who among us will be our doctor and practice traditional medicine.”
And so we slowly walk the bush seeming to stop at every plant, tree and pile of dirt, while he patiently opens our eyes to the life here in the Kalahari, and to the uses his people make of everything we see. And he ends each explanation with the simple, lilting and soft-spoken phrase of a patient teacher, “And for the Bushman people, this is how we live.”
He shows us the tree where you chew the leaves and spit out the juice to chase the spirits away before dancing. The succulent that is the source of fibers for ropes that the set into snares. The two wooden sticks carved to work together to make fire, and the two specific trees used to make each part of the fire-starter. A specific bush is used to make pointed digging sticks, something all bushmen carry in their quiver along with a spear, a small wooden bow with a gut string, and the small poisoned arrows that kill big game like a giraffe in under an hour from a tiny arrow.
“Cooking the animal gets rid of the poison so it’s safe to eat,” he says. “But if you have an open wound on your hands you can’t touch the raw meat.”
“Animals are very clever, and very hard to catch.” The men go hunting in the winters for three months – June, July and August – and hope to kill four or five big animals and dry the meat so they have meat the rest of the year. They hunt in the winter so the raw meat doesn’t spoil. They have hand signals mimicking the horns of their game used to silently communicate the type of animal tracks they see, how many days have passed since the tracks were left.
And astonishingly to me, when they are out in the bush they get all of their water from plants … there are no streams or pools.
A few hundred feet away from our camp he points to a long smooth trail across the sand. “Snake”, he says. “Probably a black Mamba”. He knows this because the Mambas’ tail is pointed and you can see the thin indentation in the sand pitting the center of the broader snake-trail where the tail passed through last. We hear the cry of the jackal that all of us would have mistaken for a bird had he not told us otherwise. And we saw a large hole in the sand left behind by an Anteater looking for termites. A small crescent shaped hole that is home to scorpions. “But scorpions only cause pain … they don’t kill. Snakes are the only animals here that kill humans. Very dangerous.”
And so in less than an hour, what was a large, monotonous desert suddenly became a place where filled with food and medicine and creatures and life. And more, it came alive as the home to a remarkable people who still protect their traditional way of life, while adopting to the modern world. These same people – the San – who many archeologists believe hold the common genetic heritage for all humans alive today.
And as we climbed back in the truck to head North to the Okavonga Delta, we could look out the window and really see this desert. Which just reminds us again how we often need a guide to open our eyes to what’s in plain sight.