Published in Wanderlust
My torch worked earlier. I remember using it to check my tent for snakes, scorpions baboons or anything else that might have been crouching in a corner waiting to ruin a good night’s sleep – just as I always do when I find myself camping in the middle of Bushmanland, 200km from the nearest main road and quite possibly at the furthest point in Namibia from anything remotely resembling a bedside light switch.
Being a hardened, savvy traveller I remain calm while weighing up the most sensible course of action. Then I bang the torch on the metal frame of my bed, at which point I hear a pinging sound, followed by the depressing thud of two AA batteries falling to the floor and rolling into some spider-infested corner.
By now the pain in my stomach is becoming unbearable. Malarone pills always do this to me. They should put a warning on the box saying ‘On the seventh day of taking these anti-malarials do not stay anywhere that doesn’t have a clear, unobstructed and well-lit path to the nearest toilet.” As it happens, I now have approximately ten seconds (possibly less if the sounds emanating from my bowels are anything to go by) to unzip my tent, stumble outside into a moonless African night, dodge innumerable slavering hyenas and find the ensuite – a thatched affair out back where there’s bound to be something nasty lurking in the shower.
I’ll spare you the details, but twenty minutes later, I am still sitting there feeling weak, pathetic and thoroughly ashamed of myself. If Arno Oosthuysen, my guide, could see me now he would probably shoot me on the spot.
I don’t think I made a very good first impression when I met him earlier in the day. The burly Namibian is built like Desperate Dan from the Dandy comic – not that he is in any way desperate or dandy. In fact, please forget I even mentioned that. Stubbled chin, sun-pinched eyes and forearms that resemble mating pythons, Arno doesn’t suffer fools (particularly those who can’t take their malarone like real men). I made the mistake of engaging him with small talk and possibly the worst opening one-liner ever heard this side of the Sahara: “So, what brought you here originally?”
“My car,” Arno replied, flashing me a look that made me giggle nervously like Mr Bean. Of course, I was hoping for some deep and meaningful insight into why he now organises trips for tourists to visit the Bushman, or San, group known as the Ju/’hoansi (pronounced ‘Dju-kwa-si’) who live in this remote northeastern corner of Namibia. But as I sit on the toilet, it suddenly occurs to me that I should be asking myself a similar question – why have I come here to visit the Ju/’hoansi?
On previous trips to Africa I’ve seen wonderful rock art by related Khoisan groups in the Cederbergs of South Africa and in Namibia’s Damaraland. I’ve read Laurens van der Post and Wilbur Smith, and once met a Basarwa Bushman in Botswana’s Makgadikgadi Pans.
Anyway, the point is that I’ve always wanted to visit the Ju/’hoansi, the largest remaining, most traditional of the Bushmen groups, uncontacted by the outside world until the 1950s. So, that’s it? I’ve come to have a good look before it’s too late? A last chance to gawp at one of the world’s most persecuted, maltreated, threatened cultures before its ancient, authentic way of life is finally ground into the Kalahari dust by the unsympathetic boot of modern Africa?
“What an experience that’ll be,” people said to me before I left the UK (and now I think about it, the woman at Boots handing me my packet of malarone did have a malicious glint in her eye at the time). But what was I hoping to learn from this experience? Would I return home a changed man, lighting the oven by rubbing sticks together and obtaining the Sunday roast by pursuing sheep across the Cotswold Hills with poison-tipped arrows? I can’t honestly imagine my hunter-gathering ever extending much beyond blackberry picking or shooting dagger eyes at elderly people who block the aisles at Tesco’s with their trolleys.
I suddenly feel like a fraud. A voyeuristic one at that. No wonder Arno hates me.
The next morning I hobble to the dining tent feeling like I’ve ridden ten back-to-back Grand Nationals on a malnourished donkey. Sunlight is raking the woodland below our camp and the Cape turtle doves are chiding me with their incessant calls of “Work harder, work harder”. I cringe as I lower myself into a canvas chair.
“So, what’s the plan today?” I ask Arno.
“Don’t ask me, ask them,” he says, jerking his head towards the Ju/’hoansi village, a cluster of thatched, domed huts obscured by trees a few hundred yards away. “I don’t tell them what to do or where to go. It’s up to them to decide what happens each day. Fried eggs for breakfast?”
“No thanks,” I reply. “Bit of a dodgy stomach this morning.”
An hour later I am squatting next to a man scraping the half-cured hide of an antelope. His name is G/aq’o Kaeqce (the ‘/’ representing one of four distinctive ‘tongue-clicking’ sounds) and he is the elder of //Nhoq’ma Village. My translator, /Ui Steve /kunta says he’s probably around 80, but no one knows for certain because the Ju/’hoansi don’t measure age or have birthdays. “He used to be a very good hunter, especially of eland,” says Steve. “But now his eyes are not good.”
It’s hard to even see old G/aq’o’s eyes. They’re glinting somewhere deep within the wrinkled maze of his elven face. When he smiles at me, the wrinkles fade as his leathery skin stretches over high cheekbones. His teeth are wonderfully wonky, like the keys on a piano that’s been pushed down a long flight of stairs, and I find myself gaping at him.
“How long does it take to hunt an eland?” I blurt, suddenly feeling self-concious.
“Maybe a whole day,” says Steve. Then he confers with G/aq’o who launches into a long stream of soft, clucking, almost birdlike, speech. “Maybe three hours,” says Steve.
Nearby, one of G/aq’o’s daughters is cracking mangeti nuts between fist-sized rocks, while his wife draws heavily from an old gun cartridge stuffed with what may or may not be tobacco. Fortunately I’m only offered the nuts. /Koece Ghau snuffs out her gun cartridge and then digs out some flat breads that have been baking in the ashes of a fire. Her bare feet are hard and black from soot and there are tiny coloured beads dangling from braids on her forehead.
“They can’t decide what they are going to do today,” Steve tells me. “The men say gather mangeti before the elephants get them, but the women say ‘No, you must go and get porcupine.’”
Then two things happen. The women naturally get their own way and Arno, who has been standing nearby, watching me and sharpening his knife, says he’ll get his car. It turns out that we are going to give the hunters a lift to a promising porcupine place. But hang on a minute. Van der Post never mentioned anything about the Ju/’hoansi running down their quarry in 4x4 Toyota pickups did he?
Four lithe hunters, clad only in leather loincloths and armed with bows, arrows, digging sticks and 12ft-long hooked poles that Steve says are used for snagging spring hares from their burrows, scramble on to the roof of Arno’s 4x4. I climb into the passenger seat next to Arno. He’s read my mind.
“Did you see their quivers?” he says. “Some are bark, some are PVC. What you see today will be gone in 15 years. The hunter-gatherer way of life will disappear entirely. These guys are the last batch of hunters. They have a ridiculously hard life. Everything is about survival – and the young people don’t like that. This is a culture in transit. It makes you sad, but there’s nothing you can do about it.”
“But aren’t you speeding up that process by driving them around?” I ask.
Arno snorts and shakes his head, his bear-like shoulders hunched over the steering wheel as he cajoles the Toyota along a scant track littered with vast mounds of dung, fussed over by clouds of yellow butterflies.
Our route is blocked by a Transvaal teak that’s been toppled by an elephant. “Lovely to look at, horrible to live with,” Arno mutters as the four hunters, Sao, !Amace, N!aici and N!ani fall upon the tree in a frenzy of axe strokes.
“They’re opportunists,” says Arno, returning to my question. “Always have been. Why would they want to walk all day when I can drive them there in an hour?”
A few minutes later we flush a pair of warthog. An arrow is instantly loosed by one of the hunters. It misses, but only just.
“So, what is their future?” I ask.
“They’ll turn to cultivation.”
“Can’t tourism help maintain their traditional way of life?”
Arno nods. “Everyone has always looked down on the culture of the Bushmen,” he says. “Or tried to wipe it out. Even they, themselves, have not always been proud of their culture. To begin with they couldn’t understand why people would want to come here and see how they make fire, or hunt. But now the elders and a few bright young sparks, like Steve, are trying to instil pride.”
While N!ani and the others finish reducing the fallen tree to woodchip and retake their positions on the roof, Arno explains how, in 1999, he was asked by the //Nhoq’ma villagers to set up Nhoma Camp (wholly owned by the Ju/’hoansi) in order to attract tourists to the area. The community of about 120 is now the wealthiest in the area, earning up to N$105,000 (about £8,200) annually from cultural tourism.
It turns out that Arno himself, has lived in Tsumkwe, a small settlement 80km away, since he was six. In addition to Nhoma Camp, he splits his time between running safaris into offbeat Khaudum National Park and rescuing “stupid bloody South Africans” who think they can selfdrive there.
The further we probe wild, elephant-trampled Bushmanland, the more I begin to feel relieved in having Arno as my guide. Not only does he have a deep empathy and understanding of the Ju/’hoansi, but he has a very large gun – “big enough to do the job,” he tells me cryptically as we park in the middle of nowhere and set off on foot.
I’ve walked in wild parts of Africa before – and I don’t just mean downtown Nairobi. I’ve tracked lions on foot in South Luangwa National Park (which, now I think of it, was an odd thing to do) and have staggered almost to the top of Kilimanjaro (again, don’t ask me why). But I have to say that there is something utterly magical, exhilarating and altogether spine-tingling about walking in an African wilderness with Ju/’hoansi hunters. I know it may sound like nostalgic, romantic drivel, but these guys look magnificent striding ahead of you, pausing now and then to pluck a handful of Kalahari raisins, alert to every sound and sign in the bush – whether it’s fresh oryx tracks, distant circling vultures, the call of the honeyguide bird or the grunting and cursing of the tourist ensnared on a buffalo thorn acacia half a mile behind them.
It takes us two hours to reach a cluster of aardvark burrows which, confusingly, is where N!ani expects to find a sleeping porcupine. As the four hunters gather around the entrance to one of the large holes – their bodies tense, bows drawn, whispering urgently to one another – I crowd forward for a closer look.
“Watch out,” says Arno. “There’s a leopard in this one.”
My bush survival instincts are so well-honed that it barely takes me a second to put Arno and his big gun between me and the innocent-looking hole.
“Look at this,” says the unphased Namibian. “Here are the tracks it made sliding into the burrow. Now show me the ones it made climbing out.”
But if a leopard disguised as a porcupine in an aardvark burrow isn’t cunning and deadly enough, five minutes later we nearly step on a puff adder. This time it’s N!ani, the leading hunter, who recoils, like a vegan faced with a black pudding, when he suddenly hears a loud hiss and realises he’s just inches from stepping on a snake that’s thicker than my thigh and almost as wide as Arno’s wrist.
We return to the village empty-handed, except for a small leopard tortoise that N!ani finds. “That’s just a cuppa soup for him,” says Arno.
Thankfully, the next day the hunters are told by the women to nip out and get nothing more dangerous than honey. After a three-hour hike, N!ani shins up a tree and within minutes I’m sipping delicious sweet honey dripping from the tip of the stick he’s inserted in a hive.
By now I’ve also learned how to quench my thirst by squeezing moisture-laden shavings from a kambro tuber. I’ve seen how string can be made by twining grass fibres together and how arrows can be fashioned from lightweight stalks of elephant grass tipped with sharpened bits of old fence wire. I’ve laughed with the others at N!ani’s mime of a duiker being hunted, I’ve played the Dama game (where men have to intercept a melon as it’s passed between the women) and I’ve watched the men stomp around the communal fire while the women sing the bewitching descants that accompany a healing trance dance. I’ve stared, photographed and scribbled notes. I seem to have taken a lot for myself, but I’m not sure I’ve given much back.
All I can offer in return, perhaps, is to encourage you to think about visiting yourself. If tourism revenue can help the Ju/’hoansi maintain even a tenuous link to their traditional culture, then it’s got to be a good thing. Just be sure to go with the right attitude and expectations and try to spend as much time as you can getting to know these gentle, fun and remarkable people. Oh, and if you’re taking malarone, don’t forget to pack a spare torch.