Sam and the Kalahari San

In the morning, we left Windhoek for Botswana. A cold snap had hit the city; it was going to be 26 degrees maximum, as distinct from every other day we had spent here at 27 degrees. Actually, we hadn’t seen a cloud since Etosha.

A comfortably small group of eight troubadours were in the truck that would be home for the next nine days; an older German couple, two young women, English and Swiss, two men, a middle aged American aid worker, an elderly Chinese woman with next to no English, and an Australian doctor with his quirky kid in the backseat, the latter of whom was reading (out loud) Harry Potter on his Kindle.

The B6 soon took us across the semi-arid plains of central Namibia. Quiet, flat, smooth and gun barrel straight. Over time, the crimson Cambrian chalk dotted with desert shrubs gave way to cream grasses and dense coarse scrub; dirty and paled leaf-green, mauves and greys. A warthog patrolled the fence line, a family of baboons crossed a dry river bed, falcons hovered over a potential meal far below in the grass like Harrier jets.

Our last small town stopover before the border was our last chance to get personal supplies before the camping sites. I was worrying about Sam’s aversion to long sleeves and malaria. I thought I’d give it another shot.

‘Sam, how about I buy you a long sleeved shirt that is very light so you can hardly feel it.’

‘No!’

‘It helps protect you against malaria.’

‘I will just use spray. I won’t get malaria. I won’t die.’

‘No you won’t die. But it will reduce the chance of you getting sick. Come on..’

‘No! No long sleeves.’

The Botswanan border post staff moved like they were in treacle, which only added to a long day for Tuhafeni, our guide and driver, and his assistant Alfeus. After entering what was our fourth African country, the dense scrub shortened to a height where you could see across the flat landscape. We were getting nearer to another desert, the Kalahari.

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Farm animals started to appear beside the now unfenced road, causing Tuhafeni to take a bit of care and slow down at times. Sam started to get anxious about the possibility of a tent. We were going to attempt to upgrade to accommodation on arrival at each stopover during the safari, but this would depend on availability. The most risk of a tent was the first night, as this was the first time this site had been used by the company we were travelling with and Tuhafeni was unsure about the facilities available.

The sun set behind the truck as we journeyed forth, each of us in our own thoughts, Sam included. The olive landscape lit up with orange tips for one last hurrah, before the grip of the evening shadows took hold. Headlights on the road. Ten hours after we left Windhoek, the truck pulled off the bitumen onto a 4-wheel drive road which it then bounced up for another half hour. Finally, we rolled into our destination, Dqai Qari San Bush Farm, Ghanzi.

Tuhafani negotiated with the very accommodating hostess of the facility. As he talked, I was anxious to get some insect repellent on both of us, but particularly Sam with his exposed arms and legs in the cold evening air as he lay on the sand next to the truck and the packs.

The rooms were booked out. Boo. However Sam and I could take a room that was empty but had a broken toilet for free. Yay! After settling in, the group then watched a talk and dance show from the local San people who also owned the farm.

Around a large fire, two traditional stories were relayed, firstly in the twinkling clicks of the San language, then in English and then in song and dance. They told of a race between an ostrich and a tortoise, and an attempt by a Jackal, disguising himself as a teacher, to woo away lion cubs from their parents. They reminded me of Roald Dahl stories.

The dancers wore strings of stone beads on their ankles, rattling like tambourines with each stomp on the soft sand. The men in loin cloths, coloured headbands and twirling wands of elan tail hairs; the women swaying more gently with neck beads, head scarfs and flowing robes. Gentle melody, soft harmonies. I am not sure if Sam got much out of it; the long drive had worn him out.

The group trundled up from the dancing to where our indefatigable guides had prepared dinner. After dinner, heading back to the room, I noticed the cold and was secretly glad Sam was so keen on avoiding tents. The generator switched off at eleven. Lights out, power off, wait for dawn.

The breaking light revealed a landscape full of colour, beauty and birdsong. This part of the Kalahari featured candle thorn bush, acacia and bush willow, all of which hosted many noisy and beautiful birds. A flash of scarlet from a red breasted booboo, and loud cacophony emanated from scrub nearby from two red billed spear fouls, and three cape grass starlings had a dog fight in the sky above.

After breakfast, one of the dancers from the previous evening, Tshabu, took us for a bush tour and walked the group over the ochre sands pointing out plants and their various uses, animal tracks and droppings, and how they would trap and kill birds and animals. He told stories of how the traditional San survived in such a harsh environment.

Tshabu was slightly built, and the same height as Sam. His scalp was a maze of centimetre length braids, and he had a gentle voice and manner with a lyrical dance to his African accent. He wore a loin cloth made of steenbok hide, leather sandals, and a faded striped polo shirt. A quiver made from African wildcat hide carried bows, spears and firesticks made from bush willow.

With each discussion of a plant, a rock, a track, he would first describe it in his own language. He was clearly connected to his culture and his land. The traditional San lifestyle was truly nomadic; home was where the animals went.

One of the plants Tshabu showed us was the source of the poison they would tip their arrow heads with. Toni, the English woman asked how quickly the poison work would.

‘Quite quickly.’

His answer was a bit vague. Tshabu didn’t wear a watch.

Elan tracks in the sand, wildebeest droppings on it, and the early morning angled light dancing across it. Sam was moderately engaged and reasonably patient but got a bit antsy towards the end. We navigated back to the farm and truck, following the noise of the generator in the disorientating endless scrub.

Back on the truck, Sam back to reading Harry Potter, back on the long roads of Africa again.