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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

In the World of the Hunter-Gatherer

In the fading light of the late afternoon, a group of Ju/'Hoan Bushman hunters and their wives are out walking with a small number of tourists in a far-flung corner of southwest Africa. They move through an area dominated by the fairy tale baobab tree, stopping frequently when a Bushman notices one of the many edible plant species which form the greatest part of their diet.


The tourists gather around an old woman who is using her digging stick to extract a large bulb, the only visible sign of its presence a thin wisp of dried stem. She carefully loosens the earth surrounding the bulb, removes it, and hands it to one of the hunters. He cleans it with his knife and deftly cuts into it, offering small pieces to the tourists to try. It tastes like potato, but holds an extraordinary amount of moisture which is the key to its value. The old woman places the remainder of the bulb in a carrying skin, the hide of a small antelope decorated with ostrich egg shell beads, and the group moves on.


This is Bushmanland in northeastern Namibia, the area where the movie "The Gods Must be Crazy" was filmed. During a 10-day safari, my fellow tourists and I were given a real insight into the world of the hunter-gatherer: walking, gathering bush foods, tracking leopards and making traditional tools, weapons and jewelry. The Ju/'Hoansi still depend upon their bush skills for survival; far from being a showpiece, the safari was a window into the reality of their lives.


The trip was led by the former warden of Namibia's most famous wildlife area, Etosha National Park. Allan Cilliers knows the people of Bushmanland well and has 20 years experience in wildlife conservation. Five days are spent in the company of the Bushmen, with Allan as translator and guide, and the remainder at the Kaudom Game Reserve.


On the first day of the tour, we were immersed in the culture of the Ju/'Hoan people; the food gathering session was followed by a traditional dance in the evening.


We were summoned just after nightfall, and, as we walked through the bush, we were guided by voices floating through the evening air and by the glow of a great fire. Stepping into the clearing was like entering a magic circle. Gathered around the fire were a large group of Bushmen, all in traditional dress: The men wore loincloths, the women were covered in skins decorated with colored beads. They were talking and laughing in between bursts of song, children dancing about among them. The men stood apart, preparing themselves in a small group. It was like a large family party.


We approached and sat a little distance back on the sand. Suddenly the atmosphere intensified and the whole group began in synchrony. The women's voices rose and fell in extraordinary rhythms, which five men picked up in a dance, moving in a circle around the fire. The singing was mesmerizing, the rhythm maintained by clapping and the stamping of feet.


Allan sat with us quietly explaining the context of the songs as they began. Each told a tale of some aspect of traditional life, giving us an insight into the Bushmen's daily activities. There was a song about the search for honey, a song about the collection of mangetti nuts, and songs for every animal that the Ju/'Hoan people hunt.


The dance continued long after we had left, and later, as I lay in my tent, I was lulled by the chorus of voices.


Most of our time in Bushmanland was spent with a small group of Bushmen who form the project team for zoological research in the area. They monitor the movements of leopards and lions in Bushmanland, and they took us out on a tracking day. We followed the trail of an individual leopard, following the tracks and signs it left behind as it moved. At times we could see a clear line of marks in the sand, but often they became invisible to our untrained eyes. The Bushmen, however, could not only follow the trail, they could also mimic the movements and behavior of the leopard as it hunted. The hunt and kill were reconstructed for us with one Bushman assuming the part of the unsuspecting antelope as it fed, another playing the stalking leopard.


As we followed the trail, the Bushmen pointed out minute details of interest: One man showed me a bird's nest in a bush, and Allan approached to explain and translate. The nest was made of spider's web that a tiny bird collects as building material. When the nest has been abandoned, the Bushmen collect it to use as a small carrying bag. This bag is used by hunters to hold beetle larva, which is the essence of the poison they use on their hunting arrows. We were constantly astounded by the Bushmen's depth of knowledge of their surroundings, and their practical application of such knowledge.


We always traveled at a gentle pace, the Bushmen slowing to allow for our level of fitness. Though a fair amount of the time in Bushmanland is spent walking, you do not have to be a particularly energetic person to cope with it. Allan takes only small groups, and everything is geared toward the needs and wishes of the people he has with him at the time.


Tracking a leopard by day may be followed by the opportunity to watch it at night. The leopard is the most elusive of cats and its stealth and ability to camouflage itself are legendary. But if the chance to catch a glimpse of one arises, two tourists can watch with Allan from a small mobile hide.


The experience is unparalleled. We were instructed not to move in the hide, not to speak, to remain as quiet as was humanly possible. We waited for more than two hours. Muscles I did not know I had started to ache and my entire body cried out for movement, but we did as we were told and keep still. At last, from the darkness outside, we heard something -- a crunching noise. The leopard was there, just 15 meters away from us, feeding on its kill. Allan lifted his flashlight with infinite care, and, as the light came on, we were confronted with an awesome sight: A large male -- overwhelmingly beautiful and powerful -- so close to us we dared not breathe. I had a camera on the shelf in front of me, but I had no desire to lift it, only to watch. We were transfixed for more than half an hour before the leopard slipped back into the darkness as silently as it had arrived.


After five wonderful days in Bushmanland, the tour moved north to the beautiful and unspoiled Kaudom Game Reserve, which is a magnificent refuge for many of Africa's large mammals. The park is isolated and little known; we spent days there without seeing another vehicle.


Allan is the perfect guide, having worked in the area when it was first set up as a reserve. We spent our time on game drives with Allan or relaxing at camp as we chose. We were fortunate in that we saw a great deal, elephants drinking and playing at a waterhole, lions lazing in the winter sun and even a brief glimpse of a pack of wild dogs racing through the bush.


The tour was the perfect combination of wildlife viewing and interaction with a unique people. It was a camping safari, but a comfortable one, and we were beautifully fed and looked after. Altogether it was an exclusive and unusual experience for those interested in an in-depth view of a unique area and its people.


Booking the Tour


The best way to get to Windhoek, Namibia, is via London. From there, flights depart for Windhoek three times per week on Air Namibia (on Monday, Thursday and Saturday). Roundtrip flights cost $850 until the end of May, thereafter they go up to $920 roundtrip.


Aeroflot also flies direct to Johannesburg once a week from Moscow, with roundtrip flights costing around $1,900.


The cost of the tour per person depends on the size of the group. For five people on the 10-day Ju/'Hoan Bushman Adventure Safari, the tour cost per person is $1,900. This includes vehicle travel, accommodation, food, soft drinks and park entry fees. It also includes a contribution to the Tsumkwe Conservation Trust, which ensures the financial security of the Bushmen.


To book the tour, contact Allan Cilliers, !Ha N!ore Safaris, PO Box 5703, Windhoek, Namibia. Telephone and fax: +264 61 220124.