Under clear, starlit skies in a remote corner of Botswana's Kalahari Desert, the orange refletion of the fire illuminated the medicine man as he danced. Bare to the waist and moving in short, measured steps, he was nearing a state of altered consciousness.
Around him, fellow San Bushmen, clad in leather loincloths and ostrich egg necklaces, stamped their feet. The women around the fire clapped and sang. With a horsehair whisker in one hand and a digging stick in the other, the medicine man's arms flailed wildly.
With every move, the sound of the rattles attached to his ankles echoed through the night. Suddenly, his footing became less sure; his breathing more erratic. He appeared in pain, perhaps in response to the spirits that had entered his body. The healer had slipped into a trance.
Slowly circling the flames, he methodically placed his hands on those seated around the fire. With a sudden shriek, he expelled sickness from some while protecting others from evil spirits. His face, beaded with perspiration, glared in the firelight.
When his rounds were finished, he slowly approached the fire's edge. Falling to his knees, he leaned over the flames, almost touching them. Finally, utterly exhausted, he stumbled backwards, collapsing into the sand.
Just a few days earlier, I had travelled by bush plane to the far western edge of the Central Kalahari Game Reserve. I had come to visit the Grassland Safari Lodge, an attractive remote outpost that would be our base for the first several days of our adventure.
This same area was also home to some of the few remaining Bushmen clans that continue to pursue a traditional hunter-gatherer lifestyle. The way of life for these incredibly resilient people is made possible, in large part, by the wild and undeveloped state of this part of western Botswana. But it's also increasingly aided by the fact that, each year, a small but growing number of tourists, like myself, pay to observe and partake in a once-in-a-lifetime cultural experience.
My interest in San culture was first sparked by an encounter with several Bushmen on a previous trip to Botswana 20 years ago. Formally recognized by the United Nations as the First Peoples of the Kalahari, they have successfully inhabited one of Africa's most unforgiving and arid regions and, as the world's oldest culture, they have a history that dates back almost 30,000 years. They are the ultimate survivors.
Yet, of the 90,000 Bushmen that remain in all of southern Africa, only 1,500 or so continue to follow the old ways. In Botswana, the reasons for this include a government intent on modernizing their lifestyle, the expansion of cattle ranching and diamond prospecting, the elimination of traditional hunting rights and increasing contact with the western world.
But against all odds, the Bushmen clans in this part of the Kalahari have refused to abandon their way of life. In addition, a growing interest in cultural tourism is providing some hope that their traditions and customs will survive to be passed down to future generations.
Shortly after arriving, I met the owner of the lodge, Neeltjie Bower, who has developed a very special relationship with the nearby San. She is renowned for dealing with locals in a sensitive and respectful manner. As a result, they are all too willing to give visitors like me a special insight into their world.
During my time there, local villagers taught me much about their daily life. I learned about dozens of plants used for various culinary or medicinal purposes. I was shown how bush foods are prepared using the most basic of tools and how to make a fire by rubbing sticks together in a bed of dry grass.
On various outings, I watched them build snares, make rope from the strands of a branch and search for grub beetles used to poison the tips of their arrows.
As evening approached, we'd gather around the fire for a mix of traditional singing and storytelling -- always a highlight. I was particularly fascinated by the language of the San, which is made up of a selection of clicking sounds created by the sucking action of the tongue just behind the teeth. I did my best to learn a few words but found the clicking technique difficult to grasp. My efforts mostly generated some smiles from our hosts.
The San Bushmen by nature are very friendly people and, as time went on, I came to believe that we could learn much from the way they interact with each other. Having no chiefs, the San learned long ago to govern themselves through group consensus and their efforts at mediation and conflict resolution are as effective as any I've seen.
Before I knew it, it was time to head to my second destination so I bid a sad farewell to both my San hosts and the owners of Grassland Lodge. I then hopped on a bush plane bound for the legendary Jack's Camp.
Located on the edge of the Makgadikgadi Pans (the largest salt pan in the world), Jack's is renowned as a classic desert safari camp combining a bit of 1920s wast African panache along with a host of activities focusing on desert-adapted wildlife, stone-age archeology, scientific exploration and Bushmen anthropology.
Comprising several lavishly appointed walk-in tents in a stunning palm grove surrounded by more than 60,000 square miles of sand and grass, the camp is run by Ralph Bousfield, whose father, Jack, lived among the San people for many years. Several Bushmen continue to live and work at the camp, playing a key role in various cultural activities centering on the San's traditional ways.
I had come here in the hope of learning from them. After getting settled in my tent, I met Xuma, Xixae, Nxexao and Xaashe, all related Bushmen who would act as my guides and, just as I hoped, my time with them turned out to be a great journey of discovery.
The patriarch of the group was Xuma, a spry 70-year-old with many stories to tell. He had survived a savage lion attack in his youth and proudly bore the scars.
He said lion attacks still occur on occasion; something we were painfully aware of given that there had been a serious mauling at a Bushmen camp we visited just a few nights before.
As I walked with Xuma and the others, I learned much about their ancient traditions and ways. During our rest stops, I even learned some Bushmen games, including one that reminded me of our own rock-paper-scissors.
They also had skills to show off as hunters, something they had practised using bows and arrows since they were children. And while they are not allowed to kill animals in the reserve surrounding the camp, hunting continues to be practised elsewhere by many clans and holds an important place in Bushmen culture.
Not surprisingly, Xuma also possessed amazing tracking skills. From the faintest sign, he could gauge the speed, direction and time of a passing kudu, a large antelope with twisting antlers. He could even determine its age from its droppings (the more roughage, the less efficient its digestion; a sure sign of an older animal).
I was also fascinated to learn that the eland, the largest of all African antelopes, is considered the most important animal to the Bushmen, not only for its meat and skin, but also as a spiritual symbol.
To the Bushmen, the eland has attained a deity-like status; so much so that the rite of passage from boyhood to manhood was once sanctified by a successful hunt of this beautiful antelope. When a kill was made, the hair from between the eyes of the animal was removed and inserted into incisions cut between the hunter's eyes, instilling within him the power of the eland.
As my trip finally came to an end, I felt my time with the Bushmen of the Kalahari had been one of the great experiences of my life. On many occasions, I felt as if I had returned to a time when the San people lived as they always had -- as clans in the desert hunting and gathering. There was a large part of me that wished it was still that way -- but the pressures of the modern world are clearly conspiring against that.
For those remaining Bushmen that choose to pursue the old ways, my hope is they will be given the space and freedom to do so. And I took some comfort knowing that cultural tourism, if done in a dignified and sensitive way, could provide an additional means and incentive by which the incredible culture of San might be preserved and passed on to future generations.
Mark Angelo is the chairman of the Rivers Institute at British Columbia Institute of Technology. He is a recipient of the Order of Canada and the Order of B.C. for his environmental and river conservation efforts and is the founder of B.C. and World Rivers Day.
-- Postmedia News
IF YOU GO
Most visitors travel to the Kalahari in the peak months of June through August. But the best time to visit may be the months of April and May when temperatures are not as hot and the desert retains a glint of green from the earlier rains.
Details on the lodges mentioned in this article can be found at www.grasslandlodge.com and www.unchartedafrica.com