Guy Grieve on hunting with the San people of the Kalahari and the lessons learned and applied to his own business
What was the idea behind new programme The Hunger Death Race?
The aim was to spend time with a hunting and gathering community who still use the same tools and tactics that have been depicted on cave drawings that date back to 36,000 years BC. Essentially, I wanted to go back in time, by hunting and gathering with the San people.
You’re a bit of a modern day hunter and gatherer yourself.
Yeah, I dive for king scallops off the Isle of Mull and run a small fishing company called the Ethical Shellfish Company. My form of fishing is very old fashioned too. The roots of what I do go back thousands of years. People have been diving to gather shells for a very, very long time. So, that’s what I do. I swim, I work alone in the wilderness, finding pink shells.
So basically you do what the San do, but under water?
Yeah! It’s so wonderful and it’s so reassuring, the commonality that exists between all outdoorsmen in the world.
Is that why you were asked to present the show?
Yeah. I got this call saying, “Hey, we see you as someone who is out there doing this. We think you might be the best person to interpret various hunter/gatherer lifestyles throughout the world.”
What makes a good outdoorsman?
If you’re going to go out into a great wilderness, to earn your keep from it, the same characteristics apply to everyone. You need humility. The San were some of the most humble people I’ve ever met. You also need a sense of humour. The San have a huge sense of humour. You need to be able to read the countryside. The San walk through the land reading it like a book, following the stories in the trails along the ground.
The ability to adapt is vital, above everything else. Intelligence and strength, that’s second to adaptability.
Tell us about your time with the San.
I spent time with the women, gathering, out in the bush. I tracked guinea fowl with the kids and cooked it on a fire. And then went on an endurance hunt for a kudu with one of the male hunters.
What was that like?
We were following a hunter called Farni. He got within 35 yards of a kudu and darted it with an arrow dipped in poison he’d made from beetles. The kudu started to run and the hunt began. The tactic was to make the animal run in the hottest part of the day so that it overheated.
It was like going back in time, witnessing what the human body was made for – covering great distances, really efficiently. Humans are actually perfect for this kind of hunting. The human can drink, the human can pour water over their head, they haven’t got fur, they can let off heat. The hotter and the meaner it gets, the easier it is for humans to run and hunt. We’ve been doing it this way since the beginning of time.
Anyway, after a very long period of running, the kudu collapsed and we came back with hundreds of kilos of meat. Returning to the village with the slaughtered kudu was the most amazing experience of my life. The San don’t have guns. And all the commercial hunting is dominated by safari companies anyway. Yet we were able to bring this beast back to feed the entire village.
It was a big deal for Farni too.
That’s true. Before the hunt Farni had been having real problems. He was going through a really bad spell with his marksmanship, really failing. In a village that defines itself as a village of hunter/gatherers, to be a failure as a hunter is universally bad news. He was under intense pressure to come up with something. So he really went for it and, thankfully, came up with the goods.
Were the San interested to hear about your “hunting”?
They loved hearing about the sea. They’d never seen the sea, but they loved hearing about the world that I lived in and how similar our lives were, in some ways.
Is the modern world having an impact on the San?
Yes, unfortunately. And once again, there were similarities with the problems I have here. Here, I have issues with big boats coming in and pulling away the fertility of our fishing grounds – the classic battle between industrial fishing versus the small scale artisan fishermen. With the San, their issue is cattle – the encroachment of cattle farming and the fencing that comes with it.
If you hunt and gather, you need to cover the ground. And once, they would cover huge areas. They can’t anymore. They’re discovering that the world is not as big as it once was for them.
Did you learn anything from your time with the San that you’ve applied to your life since?
One thing that really struck me was the way the men really supported each other when they were out hunting. They’re constantly talking to each other, rolling around ideas about what they are doing. I thought, “I’m going to do this on my boat.”
Here in Britain we have a tradition of taking the piss out of each other. Now, when one of my guys come up, we talk about the reef where he has just been swimming, what’s the current like and so on. Everyone is feeding in the knowledge they got to everyone else.
I hear the San cured you of sinus problems...?
It was during an ancestral dance. The guy who does it goes into a trance. In the middle of it he came over to me, grabbed my head and placed his lips on my forehead. Just as I’m thinking “Oh God! What the?” he made a growling noise, pulled away and symbolically threw something into the fire. After the dance I asked him what it had been all about and he said when he dances, he sees little spots of blue appearing on people that need to be dealt with. And there was a blue bit, up near my sinuses. He then touched my head again and said “There was something here stopping your hunting.”
The odd thing is that just before that I had been having really bad problems with my sinuses when I went my diving. There was a lot of blood and it was stopping me from doing what I had to do. I haven’t had any sinus issues since.
What struck you most about the San?
The San have a great sense of humour. I’ve always hated liver. And when they found out they offered me porcupine liver. Thankfully I had my universal ingredients, which are salt and pepper. If I have salt and pepper, I can eat anything. But I have to have salt and pepper.
Tell us about Tuca...
Tuca was the village elder. He was the Google of the San world. If someone wanted to download information they would sit with Tuca at his fireplace and Tuca passed on the knowledge. Anything that needed to be known, he knew.
He made me a snare to catch a guinea fowl. He got some leaves and twisted them and made this beautiful snare. Later on I was looking at a book featuring photographs of bushmen making snares, taken in the 1920s, it was exactly the same. Exactly the same!
I hear there was a tragedy in the village shortly after you left.
Tuca, Farni and Joseph, another one of the hunters, were killed in a bushfire. They were out with a female photographer when the fire overtook them. These three guys dug a hole with their sticks, put this woman in and then surrounded her in a protective cordon to protect her. They gave their lives for a stranger. She was just there for the day. With them went the villager’s source of knowledge and two of their best hunters.
How do you think they’ll cope? Are there young guys there who can take up the mantel?
Yes. But they’ll suffer for a very long time because of it. It’s brutal.
I guess the upside is that you’ve captured these guys on film. There is a record, something to remember them by.
One of the reasons we did the show was to capture, or at least bear witness, these cultures before they disappear. I didn’t think it would go that quickly.
The Hunger Death Race will be broadcast at 9pm, 2 May, on the Discover Channel UK.