If, as I do, you reserve a special place in your heart for wild and lonely places and for those who inhabit them, then what you need is an expert to take you there – somebody who knows every inch of the land, who understands its ways, who can illuminate its story and lead you safely through it. And if it is the pristine deserts of Botswana and Namibia and the fast-disappearing traditions of the San people that you are drawn to, then Ralph Bousfield is your man. Born in Tanzania and brought up in the Kalahari, his father was the legendary Jack Bousfield, the man who many years ago first introduced me to the desolate wonders of the Makgadikgadi salt pans and the surrounding desert.
A legendary crocodile hunter who then turned to catching birds, Jack was Botswana’s very own Crocodile Dundee – a man who came to the Kalahari because he had heard there was nothing there. “That,” he said, “makes it the place for me.”
He made it his home with a few simple tents in a magical location among palm trees that faced the setting sun. It was with Jack that I first learnt to tell a Stone Age tool from an ordinary piece of rock. Jack it was who explained to us that millennia ago the Makgadikgadi pans formed the largest lake in Africa, and how when the rains come (as surprisingly they sometimes do) the little shrimps that lie dormant in the dusty brine spring to life and provide vital nourishment for the flamingos that come flying in. It was Jack who talked of one of Africa’s least known and most extraordinary migrations – when, after the rains, hordes of zebra, wildebeest and accompanying predators trek through; and Jack who first made me “listen” to the silence in the pans – a silence unlike any other, that at night seems to spread almost deafeningly into the vast expanse of nothingness and enfold one like a blanket.
Today, Jack’s Camp – named after him because his spirit is still evident wherever you turn – and his son are known to Africa aficionados around the world. But though we love the camp, its glamorous tents and seductive comforts, it isn’t why we’ve come. We’ve come because Ralph has promised to introduce us – me and a group of my more intrepid friends – to a band of San people he has befriended. Though for many years Ralph has taken guests on walks with them, he has devised a very special programme for us, one that it has taken many months to organise (so if you, too, would like a similar experience, you will need to plan months – if not a year – in advance). Ours is to be a trip Bousfield himself has never done before; the aim is to give us a much more immersive and authentic experience of the San way of life than is offered anywhere else – a profound interaction with one of the world’s oldest, most precious and most endangered cultures.
We will spend days with Zu’hoasi people, whom Bousfield has known for most of his life. We will walk with them in the bush, eat out under the stars at a mobile camp, join them round the fire as they sing and dance, and sleep out in the bush with nothing more than a thin mosquito net between us and the world around us.
Their home for perhaps as many as 70,000 years has been in the northwest corner of Botswana, hard on the Namibia border, and it’s their remoteness that has kept their culture relatively intact. Like all the San in Botswana, they are no longer allowed to hunt, but crucially, they still have their songs. Far more than pretty tales, the songs are allegories and metaphors aimed at illuminating the keys to their universe, and so to the natural and spirit worlds. Through song and dance, men are transported into a trance, and through the trance they can tap into their healing powers – so if they lose their songs, they lose something integral to their culture. “While there are many San language groups, the songs are very similar,” Bousfield tells us. “When I’ve introduced one group to another very different one, even if they can’t understand each other’s language, they instantly recognise the songs. ‘Ah,’ they will say, ‘that is the eland song or the tortoise one.’”
As we walk through the bush, they converse among themselves, the soft clicks wafting on the air (Bousfield tells us there are more than 140 different phonemes in a typical San language, while ours has a mere 44). They check the land for signs of game (we’ve heard a black-maned Kalahari lion roaring round the camp). They look for berries, bulbs and melons, herbs for their medicines and through a Herero interpreter they share their extraordinary body of knowledge, the result of thousands of years of survival in the dry thirstlands of the Kalahari. Many remember the old hunting-gathering days, and when they see the signs of kudu they become quite excited; they show us how they would first track it, then shoot a poisoned arrow into it and run it down as it wilted, finishing it off with a spear. Then they would honour it and thank it for giving them life.
That night we sit round the fire; the women clap and sing while some of the men begin to work themselves up into a trance dance. “It is physically taxing, very painful and requires extreme concentration,” Bousfield tells us. “No drugs or alcohol are used, but they restrict their oxygen intake, the endorphins kick in and they reach a transcendental state. Here they believe they can contact the spirit world and have access to healing.”
He then tells us an extraordinary story of how a San man who knew nothing of Bousfield’s history had, in a trance dance, enacted exactly the aeroplane crash that killed Jack and in which Bousfield himself was badly burnt. The man danced the crash, with Bousfield rescuing his girlfriend and then pulling his father out of the plane, and then him lying in agony on the ground, peeling off the burnt flesh, trying to put out the fire. Only in his trance state, Bousfield said, could the man see these things.
It is clear that though their world is changing fast, for this group of San people parts of their culture are still a living reality. We spend the night sleeping out on the Makgadikgadi pans – they stretch away into nothingness, but up above the skies are laden with a zillion stars, and though the air is as chilled as only the desert air can be, it is a night none of us will ever forget.
Bousfield wants us to understand that this isn’t a charity project. “It has to pay its way – for their sake as well as mine. It has been a challenge from a tourist point of view, because they live so very far away from everything, but it has been an enriching experience for us all.” These San came to him themselves; they see in tourism the potential to bridge their painful transition into the modern world and offer them the chance to still celebrate their culture. “If we put a value on it, it can survive,” says Bousfield. “And it gives them status and respect.” They are eager to share their extraordinary knowledge, which, he points out again, is “survival knowledge, gleaned from thousands of years of living in a hostile environment. It can’t be acquired overnight.”
We then cross the border into Namibia, to Nhoma Safari Camp, to spend time with another group of San people – the last to be allowed to hunt. Hunting, we learn, never played a key part in their diet, but is a vital social, bonding and cultural exercise; running down a large antelope is a young man’s rite of passage.
The camp itself is rough and simple, but the food is ample, the San village is a mere five minutes away, and Arno Oosthuizen, who runs Nhoma, knows the bush and the people intimately. He proves a wonderful guide as we walk with them through their hunting grounds, not far from the Khaudum reserve. “It’s their larder,” says Oosthuizen, “but sadly, it’s rather like a Russian supermarket – very badly stocked shelves.” And indeed, we see little to hunt – merely porcupine, honey badger and aardvark holes – but it is an illuminating experience all the same. The San are gentle, but there is resignation in their eyes: their way of life is passing and they know it. Under the trees in the village sit young men – disparagingly referred to by some “the owners of the shade” – who have some rudimentary education, but not enough to bring them anything more than menial jobs. Tourism, Oosthuizen and Bousfield agree, is one way to help these embattled people weather the storm of modernisation.
My father, the writer Laurens van der Post, first brought the San people’s plight to the attention of the world almost 70 years ago. When he revisited Botswana some time in the 1980s, he found that even then, “Stone Age man, as I had known him, had vanished… and the pathetic remnants we found no longer lived in their traditional way, though the memory of it was still so near and dear to them that they acted it out for the cameras with a great relish and conviction.”
So, too, did our San in Nhoma, and we found them extraordinarily moving. There is an ineffable sadness about them, but the experience is also somehow uplifting. Their grace, their capacity for joy, for singing and dancing, their lack of material wants, the importance they place on things such as their songs and the need for storytelling to remind themselves of their history and to bind their communities together, show us that these things matter to us all.
The Tuareg of the Sahara – that other vast African emptiness – believe that “God created an abundance of water on earth so that man would live happily everywhere, and he then created the desert so that man would find his soul”. In the deserts Bousfield showed us, we didn’t find that difficult to believe, and when we left we knew we would remember these people forever.