From Hounslow East to wildebeest

Two days after commuting on the Piccadilly Line, Rupert Isaacson was hunting with southern African Bushmen

IT WAS winter in the Kalahari, European summer: the grasses were yellowed by sun, the trees black and bare, the sky an unremitting, dazzling blue.

The three Ju/'hoansi Bushman hunters - lean brown men, whip-thin, with sharp features, quick eyes, and hair that grew in isolated but regular rows over their scalps - climbed down from the thorn tree in whose spiky branches they had just secured the haunches and fore-quarters of the wildebeest they had killed. The rest of the meat, cut into thin strips, was stuffed into sacks cut from the wildebeest's own hide and strung together with the dry, tough reeds that grew hereabouts, ready for the long walk home.

The two older hunters, Bo and Fanzi, took the knapsacks while Xau, a lad of perhaps 18, used one of the sharp-ended digging sticks to spear the two heavy racks of ribs and swing these over his right shoulder. On the ground, where the wildebeest's carcass had lain, all that remained was the dung cleared out of the intestines. Then we set off, six miles through the dry bush to the village that, tonight, would feast.

It had been a day like none I had ever known: up at dawn and into the wide, singing bush behind the three hunters who had begun tracking almost immediately, walking fast. Unerringly, they brought us to within yards of their antelope prey. Then the hunters would begin to stalk, with my friend Tom and I crawling along behind, trying to keep silent, pinching ourselves to make sure we weren't dreaming: after all, just two days before we'd been sitting on the Piccadilly line.

To go out hunting with the Bushmen was, for me, the fulfilment of a childhood dream, nourished by my South African mother, who used to tell me stories of the hot, wild land of her youth. Yet the Bushmen, to whom international borders mean nothing, have traditionally avoided contact with the outside world. That they are now willing to take in tourists reflects a common crisis faced by all the remaining Bushman clans of the five countries of the Kalahari.

For the great grassland's last remaining pockets of wilderness are being steadily encroached upon by aggressive groups of cattle herders. In the Nyae Nyae region, where the Ju/'hoansi live, the invaders are the Herero tribe, whose herds have overgrazed their own lands to the south. Benjamin Xishe, an English-speaking Ju/'hoansi, outlines the problem: "The Herero come, they say to one of the village headmen 'Look after my cattle for me and I will pay you and give you meat and milk'. And the headman is afraid and agrees. Then the Herero do not pay, and they kill off the game and the cattle trample out the wild foods and then the Ju/'hoansi have nothing."

Benjamin and the other Ju/'hoansi hope that tourism will help to stem the Herero encroachment. The idea is that if Bushmen can earn money simply by practising their traditional culture, the Hereros' initial bargaining power would be taken away. But the Ju/'hoansi also realise that the mere presence of foreigners makes it harder for the Herero to openly abuse the villagers, shames the local authorities into taking action, and demonstrates to the Botswana government (whose view of Bushmen has traditionally been, at best, dismissive) that the hunter-gatherer way of life can attract much-needed tourist dollars into the country. Since Tom and I went out, a steady trickle of other travellers have come to Nyae Nyae, and the Namibian government has taken notice. In 1998 it acceded to the Ju/'hoansis' request for the area to be declared a game conservancy, with severe restrictions on livestock-keeping. The Herero have been moved back to their own lands to the south.

However, if the experiment seems to be working at Nyae Nyae, other bushman attempts to harness tourism have resulted in exploitation. In Botswana's Central Kalahari Game Reserve - where for the past three years the government has been relocating bushmen into permanent settlements against their will - the Ganakwe Bushmen report abuses at the hands of unscrupulous safari operators bringing Western clients in. When I visited the region, the villagers of Malopo, the largest Ganakwe settlement, said that they still wanted tourists, but on their own terms, with their own representative body - an organisation called First People of the Kalahari - making the arrangements. And at two white-owned reserves - Intu Afrika in Namibia and Kagga Kama in South Africa, I found "display" Bushmen brought in by the reserve managers from areas where encroaching cattle herders had made it impossible to live traditionally. Both these groups said that the reserve owners had reneged on their terms of employment, had withheld pay, and said that they would abandon the reserves within the year.

But fortunately Nyae Nyae is not the only success story. At Ghanzi, in western Botswana lie a set of vast ranches owned by a half-Nharo Bushman, half-English family called Hardbattle, whose English father married a Nharo woman and, after his death, willed the ranches to their children. The extended family that lives on the ranches have opened up their homesteads to small groups of tourists. When I visited, the experience was more intimate even than at Nyae Nyae; I was invited to a healing trance dance in which an old woman was cured of angry red swellings in her legs. When, several months later, I dropped by the remote ranches while researching a guide book, I was treated like a long-lost relative.

It is impossible to overstate the magic of spending time with the Bushmen. At Nyae Nyae, during the long walk home from the hunt, the three hunters Bo, Fanzi and Xau stopped to rest every few kilometres; Tom and I sharing our tobacco and water with them until our supplies of both ran dry. Seeing this, Fanzi, the second-oldest hunter, pointed to a small twig poking up from the dry, cracked earth. Taking a digging stick he began to hack away at the ground and in less than a minute unearthed a large round tuber, whose flesh, when he cut into it, dripped with moisture. He handed the pieces round, allowing everyone to quench their thirst.

Much later, bellies full of the meat we had brought back, the whole clan came to our camp to dance, the women clapping and singing, the men weaving slow, stamping patterns in the shadows of the firelight until the moon had passed its apex, and hyenas began to whoop in the distance. Then, like moths, like birds, the Ju/'hoansi rose in a fluttering rush and drifted off into the darkness, leaving us alone. Long after they had gone, Tom and I sat up, listening to the night-sounds of the Kalahari, wondering how we would ever describe it when we got home.

FACT FILE

kalahari

Getting there

Take Flight Travel (tel: 0990 561532) offers return flights on TAP (Air Portugal) to Gaborone in Botswana via Lisbon from pounds 475 plus pounds 30 tax.

Further information

To arrange a stay with the Ju/'hoansi, contact the Nyae Nyae Foundation in Windhoek, Namibia (tel: 00 264 26 13 63 27). For neighbouring clan the !Kung, contact The Working Group for Indigenous Minorities in Southern Africa (fax: 00 264 61 22 98 65). The Nharo Bushmen near Ghanzi, Western Botswana, can be contacted through Andrea Hardbattle, PO Box 651, Ghanzi, Botswana. For the Ganakwe contact First People of the Kalahari (tel: 00 267 596 439). For stays with the Xhomani (South Africa's last remaining Bushman clan) contact the San Institute in Cape Town (tel: 00 27 21 686 0795). To arrange vehicle and other logistics, contact Safari Drive UK, (tel: 01488 681 611).

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