Bushmanland: a journey into north-east Namibia

Can a stay with Namibia's Bushmen help to preserve their fragile culture? One pioneering traveller struggles with his conscience, his malaria pills and some very challenging terrain

6 mins

My torch had definitely worked earlier. I remembered using it to check my tent for snakes, scorpions, baboons or anything else that might have been lurking - 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 remained calm while weighing up the most sensible course of action. Then I banged the torch on the frame of my bed, only to 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 was becoming unbearable. Malarone pills always do this to me. I reckoned I had approximately ten seconds to unzip my tent, stumble outside into a moonless African night, dodge innumerable slavering hyenas and find the en suite - a thatched affair out back where there was bound to be something nasty hiding in the shower.

I'll spare you the details, but 20 minutes later I was still sitting there feeling weak, pathetic and thoroughly ashamed of myself. If Arno Oosthuysen, my guide, could see me he would probably have shot me on the spot.

Nature reserve, Namibia (Shutterstock)
Nature reserve, Namibia (Shutterstock)

The guide's view

I don't think I'd made a very good first impression when I'd met him earlier that day. The burly Namibian was built like Desperate Dan - not that he was in any way desperate or dandy. In fact, 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). I made the mistake of engaging him with small talk and possibly the worst opening line 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 north-eastern corner of Namibia. But as I sat on the toilet, it occurred to me that I should be asking myself a similar question - why had I come here?

I've read Laurens van der Post, and I once met a Basarwa Bushman in Botswana. But the point is 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'd 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 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. But what was I hoping to learn from this experience? Would I return a changed man, lighting the oven by rubbing sticks together and obtaining the Sunday roast by pursuing sheep across the Cotswolds with poison-tipped arrows?

San bushman going hunting (Shutterstock)
San bushman going hunting (Shutterstock)

I can't honestly imagine my hunter-gathering ever extending much beyond blackberry picking or shooting dagger-eyes at people who block the aisles at Tesco. I suddenly felt like a fraud. A voyeuristic one at that. No wonder Arno hated me.

The next morning I hobbled to the dining tent feeling like I'd ridden ten back-to-back Grand Nationals on a malnourished donkey. Sunlight was raking the woodland below our camp and the Cape turtle doves were chiding me with their incessant calls of "Work harder, work harder". I cringed as I lowered myself into a canvas chair.

"So what's the plan today?" I asked Arno.

"Don't ask me - ask them," he replied, jerking his head towards the Ju/'hoansi village, a cluster of thatched, domed huts obscured by trees a few hundred metres away. "I don't tell them what to do or where to go. It's up to them to decide what happens each day."

Life in the bush

An hour later I was squatting next to a man scraping the half-cured hide of an antelope. His name was 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, reckoned he was probably around 80, but no one knows for certain because the Ju/'hoansi don't measure age. "He used to be a very good hunter, especially of eland," said Steve, "but now his eyes are not good."

It was hard to even see old G/aq'o's eyes. They were glinting somewhere deep within the wrinkled maze of his elven face. When he smiled at me, the wrinkles faded as his leathery skin stretched over high cheekbones. His teeth were wonderfully wonky, like the keys on a piano that's been pushed down a long flight of stairs, and I found myself gaping at him.

"How long does it take to hunt an eland?" I blurted, suddenly feeling self-concious.

"Maybe a whole day," said Steve. Then he conferred with G/aq'o who launched into a long stream of soft, almost birdlike, speech. "Maybe three hours," translated Steve.

Nearby, one of G/aq'o's daughters was cracking mangeti nuts between fist-sized rocks, while his wife drew heavily from an old gun cartridge stuffed with what may or may not have been tobacco. Fortunately I was only offered the nuts. /Koece Ghau snuffed out her gun cartridge and then dug out some flat breads that had been baking in the ashes of a fire. Her bare feet were hard and black from soot and there were tiny coloured beads dangling from braids on her forehead.

San bushmen family (Shutterstock)
San bushmen family (Shutterstock)

"They can't decide what they are going to do today," Steve told me. "The men say gather mangeti before the elephants get them, but the women say the men must go and get porcupine."

The women - naturally - got their own way. Arno, who had been standing nearby, watching me and sharpening his knife, said he'd get his car. It turned out that we were going to give the hunters a lift to a promising spot for porcupine.

But hang on a minute - van der Post never mentioned anything about the Ju/'hoansi running down their quarry in 4WD Toyota pickups did he?

Four lithe hunters, clad only in leather loincloths and armed with bows, arrows, digging sticks and 4m-long hooked poles scrambled onto the roof of Arno's 4WD. I climbed into the passenger seat next to Arno. He'd read my mind.

"Did you see their quivers?" he said. "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. 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."

"But aren't you speeding up that process by driving them around?" I asked.

Arno snorted and shook his head as he cajoled the Toyota along a scant track littered with vast mounds of dung.

Snaring lunch, the Bushman way

Our route was blocked by a Transvaal teak that had been toppled by an elephant. "Lovely to look at, horrible to live with," Arno muttered as the four hunters, Sao, !Amace, N!aici and N!ani fell upon the tree in a frenzy of axe strokes.

"They're opportunists," said 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 flushed a pair of warthog. An arrow was instantly loosed by one of the hunters. It missed - but only just.

"So, what is their future?" I asked.

"They'll turn to cultivation."

"Can't tourism help maintain their traditional way of life?"

Arno nodded. "Everyone has always looked down on the culture of the Bushmen," he explained. "Or tried to wipe it out. Even they 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 instill pride."

San bushmen family (Shutterstock)
San bushmen family (Shutterstock)

While N!ani and the others finished reducing the fallen tree to woodchip and resumed their positions on the roof, Arno explained 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 £7,700) annually from cultural tourism.

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 self-drive there.

The further we probed wild, elephant-trampled Bushmanland, the more I began to feel relieved in having Arno as my guide. Not only did he have a deep empathy and understanding of the Ju/'hoansi, but he had a very large gun - "big enough to do the job," he told me cryptically, as we parked 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. But there is something truly magical and altogether spine-tingling about walking in an African wilderness with Ju/'hoansi hunters.

I know it may sound like nostalgic drivel, but these guys looked magnificent striding ahead, pausing now and then to pluck a handful of Kalahari raisins, alert to every sound and sign in the bush - whether it was 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.

Leopard, Namibia (Shutterstock)
Leopard, Namibia (Shutterstock)

It took us two hours to reach a cluster of aardvark burrows which, confusingly, is where N!ani expected to find a sleeping porcupine. As the four hunters gathered around the entrance to one of the large holes - their bodies tense, bows drawn, whispering urgently to one another - I crowded forward for a closer look.

"Watch out," warned Arno. "There's a leopard in this one."

My bush survival instincts are so well-honed that it took me barely a second to put Arno and his big gun between me and the innocent-looking hole.

"Look at this," said the unfazed 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 stepped on a puff adder. This time it was N!ani, the leading hunter, who recoiled like a vegan faced with a black pudding when he suddenly heard a loud hiss and realised he was inches from stepping on a snake thicker than my thigh and almost as wide as Arno's wrist.

We returned to the village empty-handed, except for a small leopard tortoise that N!ani found. "That's just a Cup a Soup for him," Arno noted.

Thankfully, the next day the hunters were told by the women to nip out and get nothing more dangerous than honey. After a three-hour hike, N!ani shinned up a tree and within minutes I was sipping delicious, sweet honey dripping from the tip of the stick he'd inserted in a hive.

Looking to the future

By now I'd also learned how to quench my thirst by squeezing moisture-laden shavings from a kambro tuber. I'd seen how string can be made by twining grass fibres together, and how arrows can be fashioned from light-weight stalks of elephant grass tipped with sharpened bits of old fence wire.

I'd laughed with the others at N!ani's mime of a duiker being hunted, I'd played the Dama game (where men have to intercept a melon as it's passed between the women) and I'd watched the men stomp around the communal fire while the women sang the bewitching descants that accompany a healing trance dance. I'd stared, photographed and scribbled notes. I seemed to have taken a lot for myself - but I'm not sure I'd 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.

The author travelled with Expert Africa

Main image: San bushmen family (Shutterstock)

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