Namibian wilderness: Self service
Creature comforts were thin on the ground when Matt Carroll headed out into the Namibian wilderness to fend for himself – helped by one of the last remaining tribes of hunter-gatherers
Saturday 20 September 2008
Whoever said the life of a travel writer was glamorous should see me now. Forget the boutique hotel with restaurant and swimming pool – I've been dumped in the middle of the Namibian bush and left to scratch around in the dirt and elephant dung for my lunch.
OK, so "dumped" is perhaps a bit harsh. It's day one of a week spent living with a community of bushmen and women whose lifestyle has hardly changed in 40,000 years – and I'd pestered my guide, Arno, to let me live out the bona fide experience. However, I didn't reckon on him leaving me alone out here, and as his pick-up truck departs, I'm beginning to re-think my decision.
There's no agenda. I'm simply going to hang out with the tribespeople and do whatever they're doing. Today, as is often the case, it's foraging for food. Located in Bushmanland, in the top right-hand corner of Namibia, the !Kung people (click your tongue on the roof of your mouth and say "loong") are one of Africa's last-remaining groups of hunter-gatherers. They'll often spend up to 14 hours a day roaming the sparse scrubland surrounding their village looking for berries, bulbs and birds – catching the latter in home-made traps or shooting them with a bow and arrow.
And if all else fails there's always the mengetti nut, which you'll find buried in piles of elephant dung (yes, really). Too solid for their unsophisticated digestive system, these nuts pass straight through the huge beasts intact, forming a readymade snack. According to Arno, who has worked with the bushmen in this region for about 16 years, along with his wife, Estelle, the nuts contain 80 per cent protein. On my arrival at the camp the previous evening, he'd given me a crash course in the day-to-day lives of the !Kung over a cold beer around the campfire.
"Although they'll be out hunting from dawn until dusk, when they do go out, the average bushman only works 2.6 days a week," he said. "Different guys go out hunting each day, and bring back whatever they find to share with the rest of the village."
It might sound like an idyllic communal lifestyle, but subsisting here is tough. Driving up from the south of the country, I'd watched tarmac roads turn to dust before becoming a barely discernible trail through the sand and scrub. This is about as Middle of Nowhere as it gets, with the nearest town around three hours away.
Generally, visitors spend their nights in one of 10 safari tents scattered around Nhoma camp. These are akin to anything you'll find on a regular luxury tented safari – with double bed, chest of drawers and an adjacent bathroom with flushing toilet. What's more, if you're not up to spending the week subsisting on elephant-dung-nuts, the chefs – who also hail from the village – rustle up delicious meals every night.
The camp is perched on a hill with a commanding view of the surrounding countryside. I sat back and watched the last of the sun's rays stain the sky a raspberry sorbet colour. Once I'd got over the shock of leaving behind my urban safety blanket, with its 24-hour shops and nightlife on tap, the peacefulness of this place hit home.
For the first part of my morning, Arno had come along with me as an interpreter and guide, which is the way it works with most guests. Once I'd been introduced to the men I'd be hunting with – Rinus, Jonas and Ukxa – we'd headed out into the wilderness on a mission to feed ourselves (and the rest of the village).
Within minutes, tracks had been spotted: they belonged to a caracal, a species of big cat. As if it wasn't amazing enough that my co-hunters could distinguish its tracks from the other anonymous prints in the sand, they could even work out when it passed by (about three hours earlier) and the fact that it was carrying a daker – a small deer. This was big news. If the predator had yet to finish its meal, there might be meat on the menu back at the village later.
As I struggled to keep up, Rinus, Jonas and Ukxa raced off into the bush, judging which way the caracal had dragged its prey by the position of disturbed leaves on nearby bushes. Excited shouts from up ahead announced that Ukxa had found what we were looking for (minus the cat, fortunately). All that was left were the forlorn remains of the daker's hind quarters, but it was enough to make a stew that would feed half the people back home. It went into the sack and we carried on.
As we walked, we spread out over a wide area, scanning the surroundings for anything else that could be eaten. "This place is a shopping mall," said Arno. "You just need to know what to take."
A seemingly anonymous plant turned out to be "wild sweet potato", which can be roasted; eaten raw it tasted like green beans. The next thing I knew, I was on my hands and knees helping to dig up a water bulb – a valuable source of hydration in the searing heat. My bushmen companions then started poking around in some nearby holes with long, thin sticks. "They're looking for spring hares," said Arno. "Those hooks on the end of the poles are used for holding the animals in place while the others dig them out." Luckily for the hares, they weren't at home when we called.
After giving up this particular avenue of research, Ikun darted up a nearby tree to look for some honey; he poked around in the hive seemingly without any fear of being stung. This was another task that I was encouraged to help with. I barely made it up to the first branch, much to the amusement of all concerned.
However, thanks to the "share and share alike" philosophy that abides here, I still got to taste the spoils of Ikun's plundering. The honey was about as organic as it gets; I tried not to notice the maggot swimming around in the middle of my helping. It was at this point that Arno gave in to my request to be left to fend for myself. "You want it, you got it," he said, slamming the truck door and bouncing off down the track.
So here I am. Just me, a bunch of bushmen and a pile of elephant muck. Let's hope we catch something...
The writer travelled to Nhoma Camp with Expert Africa (020-8232 9777; www.expertafrica.com). The camp is owned and operated by Arno and Estelle Oosthuysen.
A 10-day trip including one night at Okonjima Main Camp, three nights at Nhoma Camp and two nights fly-camping in Khaudum National Park with Arno as an expert wildlife guide costs from £1,835 and includes scheduled international flights with Air Namibia from London Gatwick, car hire, all accommodation, most meals and activities as well as National Park entrance fees.
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