The San have been roaming the Kalahari since roughly 44,000 BCE. © Uncharted Africa

Combing The Kalahari With The San

This unforgettable San experience is an interpretive guided walk led by members of a clan, and it provides insights into the traditional lifestyle of these ancient people. When you go walking with the San, you’ll learn about their hunting skills, the art of gathering herbs and medicinal plants, and witness the magic of a trance dance.

We’d come to the Central Kalahari Desert to experience the wide open spaces and wildlife of this remarkable land … and to go walking with the San. Our luxury camp overlooked an immense pan with endless horizons. It comprised eight en-suite, canvas units with a sleep-out above each, from where we could savour the star-studded nights. I found it unbelievably romantic.

Our camp was set in a remote area that offers some of the best summer wildlife viewing in Africa. The previous day, we’d spotted one of the legendary, Kalahari black-maned lions; now we wanted to go walking with the San.

Our guide, John, introduced us to two trackers, Malaki and Nǃxau. Both men wore traditional attire: xai loincloths, kudu-skin sandals, steenbok-hide sacks, bows and arrows. They spoke to each other in Naro, a San language of hollow clicks, guttural swallowings and impossible throat exclamations – the only human language that truly fits this landscape.

We set off through a golden landscape of yellow grass, acacias and stunted thorn bushes. We moved in single file, every now and then halting as our guides pointed out a plant, tuber or animal. Here was the lavender feverberry – great for alleviating flu symptoms; this tree was good for making a quiver; that one for a knobkierie club. Here was a porcupine hole. ‘Don’t eat his liver,’ confided Nǃxau, pulling a face. ‘It tastes very bad.’

We nibbled on the bitter fruit of a brandy bush and searched for the shepherd’s tree whose roots can be ground to make bread or porridge.

‘Listen!’ said Malaki. ‘That whistling sound. It’s a korhaan. Whenever you hear its whistle, look up. You’ll see vultures.’ Sure enough, they were circling high above us on the thermals.

John explained that water is, of course, vital to survival in the desert and great emphasis is placed on finding and storing it. One source, demonstrated by Nǃxau, was to use a grass straw to drink water caught in the hollowed fork of a tree.

It’s also necessary to stockpile water in such a way that animals won’t find it. At one point, Malaki stopped to dig in the sand and Nǃxau explained that they’d buried an ostrich-egg shell filled with water when they last passed this way. He unearthed the ivory sphere, lifeblood gourd for many a wandering hunter, popped the stopper and drank.

A little further on, we came upon another source of Kalahari water. The bi! bulb was dug up and our trackers scraped off a handful of its white flesh. Then, holding the pulp above his lips and squeezing it, an astonishing amount of liquid poured into Malaki’s mouth.

Suddenly, Nǃxau spotted a steenbok. It was clearly alarmed, but also intrigued by us. Limpid brown eyes, flicking ears. Malaki slowly reached for his quiver and withdrew an arrow. I took my partner’s hand, our hearts pounding. Would we witness a kill?!

Malaki’s body began quivering. Down onto his stomach, he slithered towards the buck, snaking on elbows through the long grass. Up into a crouch. The animal was transfixed. A bow was drawn. The cicadas were shrill. Malaki rocked forward and released the arrow.

The antelope had no time to react as the shaft clipped a twig and sailed harmlessly over its back. In a flash, the steenbok was gone.

Late afternoon, we arrived at a tiny camp: two grass huts in a clearing. My partner and I sat on the sand and watched as our San guides demonstrated aspects of clan life: how to poison an arrow with the lava of a crimson beetle, how to make fire by rubbing sticks together or with a flint stone.

As the light grew softer, they turned to the recreational aspects of San life. Nǃxau plucked a dongo (thumb piano) while Malaki played a karonga (mouth bow). Then, with caterpillar-chrysalis rattles strapped to his ankles, Malaki began to dance, both feet leaving the ground as he shuddered in a circle, hammering the sand into a thin veil of dust that soon enveloped us. I was enraptured! If we’d let him continue, chances are he’d have slipped into a trance.

It’s so easy to romanticise and stereotype, but both my partner and I were struck by how precious was the scene we were witnessing. No matter the fact that it was laid on for visitors; the bush knowledge, sensitivity to the environment, their ancient way of life taught us so much about ourselves, and how we humans had gone wrong as a species. Many anthropologists and geneticists consider the San to be the oldest surviving culture on earth. As such it’s a mirror on who we all once were.

Walking back to camp, I thought about what an astonishing and uplifting experience this short walk in the wild had been. There’s no doubt it was the highlight of my trip to Botswana.

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