Jul 232014

Sunset Bushman

Sunset Bushman

Haina Kalahari Lodge

by David Bristow

In the 1950s it was estimated there were around 60,000 people in Southern Africa living a hunter-gatherer lifestyle, people who – then as now – we commonly refer to as “bushmen”.

In the mid-1970s that number was recalibrated to around 6,000. Then came civil wars across the region, with indigenous people caught in the cross-fire; after that came veterinary fences that blocked natural migrations across the arid interior where these people lived. Then boreholes, rag-tag villages, necessary employment on cattle ranches, ready alcohol and all the social pitfalls that followed.

Today the number is, maybe none at all. The sun seems to have set on the Earth’s oldest human culture and way of life – the oldest line of human DNA on the planet, living very much as humans did at the dawn of time. For a lucky few, however, a small door of opportunity has opened at various private game reserves and lodges across the Kalahari. We were extremely lucky to visit one such place, Haina Kalahari Lodge, adjacent to the Central Kalahari Game Reserve and not far from Deception Pan and Deception Valley where we also spent a night.

The “bushmen” who work at the lodge (including the women), previously worked on cattle farms in the Ghanzi district, but were given a chance of at least partly recapturing their subsistence way of life. They like nothing more than to share what they are and what they know of the land with visitors, who go there to be a part of that sharing. Some of their veld food is not immediately to every visitor’s taste, but to our guides, each item dug up or plucked was consumed with relish and joy.

Haina Kalahari Lodge

Haina Kalahari Lodge

Surely you wouldn’t go all that way (and pay all that money to get there) and not at least try some veld food. The grewia or brandy-bush berries were tart and bit like blotting paper. The bitter-tasting bi (milk) bulb, Raphionacme burkei, which provides large quantities of liquid in dry times, did take some getting used to.

But what to call these people? Dutch settler-explorers who were the first Europeans to make contact with them, coined the word bosjemans, bushmen. Academia declared that a derogatory word, and substituted it with the word San. But some researchers believe “san” was used by stock-herding Khoikhoi as a slur for people who had no stock, i.e. poor people, so maybe not the best appellation for the world’s “first people”.

In truth they have no collective name for themselves. There are many bands, or clans, each with its own language. If you are Naro, or Khomani, or Khoenkhoen, everyone else is simply a stranger. The last pure hunter-gatherer clan of the Kalahari were the /Gwikwe around the Tsodilo Hills. /Gwi means bush, and kwe people, so they called themselves the Bush People.

That seems to be as good a name as any, and so it is the one we will use in African Icons to describe all hunter-gatherers of southern Africa. Even though, technically speaking, there are none left.

Haina Kalahari Bushman showing their craft

Haina Kalahari Bushman showing their craft


Poetry in Motion

 Botswana  Comments Off
Jul 092014

African Horseback Safaris, Okavango Delta

When conquerors on horseback first arrived in pre-industrial lands, the natives bowed to them as god-like centaurs. It’s this same perception that alllows horse riders in the Okavango Delta to move easily among the wild animals. There is indeed something almost divine about person and beast when they ride in perfect harmony.

There is no other animal that will give its life as willingly if urged by its human rider: knights on horseback careening into spears and stakes; cavalry regiments charging into the fiery jaws of canon fire undeterred. Or one rider and horse riding to bring news of battles lost or won. Dick King riding from Durban to Grahamstown to warn of imminent attack; Joris, Dirck and the “I” who carried the good news from Ghent to Aix, as told by Robert Browning.

On our stay at African Horseback Safaris, which we chose to portray the Okavango icon, the steady pace of my big grey horse Boteti recalled, as we rode hard day after day, of the staccato rhythm of that poem:

African Horseback Safaris, Okavango Delta

African Horseback Safaris, Okavango Delta

I sprang to the stirrup, and Joris, and he;
I galloped, Dirck galloped, we galloped all three;
‘Good speed!’ cried the watch, as the gate-bolts undrew …

And so it was that, as we rode, I composed our own poem based not only on Browning’s meter but also copying his rhyming scheme as closely as I could. For maximum effect you can say it aloud:

We stood in our stirrups, Anthea, Chris, Hannah then me;

They cantered, I cantered, we all cantered with glee;

“Follow those lechwes,” said leader John, as we rode through,

Into a reed bed, then into a deep lagoon they slew;

We raced alongside them, no time for a rest,

Till over the floodplain we all galloped abreast.


Across the wide-open Delta, bay Macateer set the pace;

Grey Boteti, white Livingstone and Palamino kept apace;

At a crossing guide Bongwe checked for crocs left and right;

“Can’t stop to drink now, and make your girths tight.”

I checked my mount’s cheek-strap, loosened the reins,

Hitched my boots clear of the water and dove in after black Baines.


On the far bank game scattered as we thundered near,

Giant trees joined sky to water, equally clear;

“I think there’s two giant owls,” called John, “could it be?”

But off they flew from a mangosteen before we could see;

“Take heart, for I know a place that is sublime;

If we ride hard towards Pom Pom there is still time.”


The day was receding, trees lit by a low sun;

But we were keen, crossing leagues, islands one by one;

We rode past tssessebes, kudus and past

Giraffes loping, geese flying, till we came at last

To a wild, lonely place where large herds were at bay;

And with joy, at full speed, we kicked up cascades of spray.


The last sun lit up ilala palms like streetlights and burnished our tack,

While from Pom Pom to Xudum ran a silvery track;

Our mounts pushed through the game; I gave a back glance –

Zebras, I saw following, observed us askance!

We turned back for camp when dusty twilight was gone,

And the keenest among us went galloping on.


On a deep-water crossing John Ellis urged, “Use spur!”

But keep your mounts reined in” – and in line behind her;

The sight of the sodden riders all made us laugh;

Even our hardened guides enjoyed a good chaff;

When all of a sudden a herd of impalas took flight,

And “Gallop,” cried I, “we can head them off to the right!”


Single file through mopane we rode, watch a solitary roan

Or, at a pan, a crocodile looking dead like a stone;

Far off some vultures bent a tree with their weight,

Grisly undertakers of evolutionary fate;

Elephants drinking, filling bellies to the brim,

Trumpet trunks, cymbal ears, dim eyes in teared rim.


All afternoon we rode, counting hoof beats rise and fall;

Hammer sun, anvil ground and urgent babblers t’was all;

Then frisky Baines reared and cocked a keen ear –

We slowed, and into dense combretum thicket did peer,

And there, in our path lay, but ten metres good,

Six lions, crouched, then full ready stood.


“Steadiee!” cried John at front, “and go easily around;

“Don’t run, don’t panic, but make quickly your ground.”

Heart pounding, tight rein, I urged that brave mount of mine;

And later, round the fire, we measured out the wine,

Told and retold and agreed (by common consent)

We toasted our mounts, horses, all heaven sent.

David Bristow

African Horseback Safaris, Okavango Delta

African Horseback Safaris, Okavango Delta