Camp with the Bushmen 7 days
Deep in the Kalahari desert we will learn directly from the descendants of the First People, the Ju/Hoansi San bushmen, the oldest sustained and continuous culture on earth, these nomadic hunter-gatherers have lived here for over 100,000 years.
Though the modern world has inevitably weaved its influence to this remote corner of the world, and few, if any San peoples are still truly nomadic, some still maintain many of their cultural practices and skills. Bow hunting with arrows using poisoned tips from beetle larvae still forms an important part of their sustenance, along with foraging plant materials from the bush.
Most Ju'Hoansi now live in settled villages but in the old times bands would move around following the food and water sources, setting up their camps in just a few days, staying for a while and then moving on. Typical hunter-gatherer band sizes ranged from twenty to fifty people. With both Westerners and Bushmen our camp will number about fifty including children and elders: two bands brought together independently through a shared interest in tracking. This temporary hunter-gatherer camp is perhaps closer to an authentic nomadic hunting camp than anything else Westerners are likely ever to experience.
The Ju/Hoansi people we will be meeting come together from all corners of the Nyae Nyae Conservancy, an area of Namibia designated to bushmen peoples. They travel to this wild spot because they are passionate about the arts of tracking and bowhunting and have been brought together by the vision of Louis Liebenberg, author of The Art of Tracking: the Origin of Science and the brains behind Cybertracker.
The San Tracker Project
Louis has been surveying Southern Africa to find out just how many master trackers and bowhunters are still alive; he considers that human consciousness is where it is precisely because of our reliance on tracking for survival. Now that survival is possible without tracking not many people bother to learn the old ways and they are dying out with the few elders who remember. It would be a sad state of affairs if human beings no longer knew about the very things that have made them human.
So Louis hopes to re-incentivise people to hone these arts and to pass them on to the younger generation. Cybertracker incorporates an evaluation system that can gauge trackers’ skill level and identify people as master trackers. It's an incredible privilege to be in the presence of people who can read the landscape with such ease.
This gathering has several purposes: to recognise the master trackers and let them utilise their skills to earn a living; to cross- pollinate different ideas from around the Nyae Nyae and build a support network; to inspire the children and mentor them in hunting and gathering; to show Westerners an alternative way of life that has worked for millennia.
A Hunter-gatherer Day
Days in the Kalahari in October begin and end in twilit paradise: that’s when everything happens. We will be spending our time soaking up and and participating in their culture, whilst trying to understand the life-ways and modern challenges they face. You'll have the chance to make a hand drill friction fire using wood from the mangeti bush, gather roots and find water in desert plants, craft ostrich shell jewellery in the joyful company of the women and children, set snares and learn to track and trail the stories of leopard, kudu and lion in the sand.
We'll break into small groups and head off into the bush at dawn to shadow the bow-hunters on the trail of antelope, occasionally they will shoot an animal with their poisoned arrows and then begins the long wait for the poison to take effect before the trailing begins. It is an extraordinary honour to witness these skills that humans have honed over millennia and that still survive in this remote corner of the planet.
We all eat together in the evening in a big circle made up of small huddles of enthusiastic conversation, as the days go by our two groups become more and more integrated thanks to the layout of the camp and the food sharing. The food gives way to informal singing and storytelling from whoever wants to offer something; there’s a party every night.
Having spent a week immersed in the ancient lifeways of the Ju'Hoansi San, we will have become very familiar with the tracks and signs of the African animals. We will have sensed them around us, but may not have glimpsed many of them.
A trip all the way to Namibia isn't complete without visiting a national park to see these animals up close, so after a day or so re-adjusting back into modern life, we embark on a self-drive safari in Etosha where we're likely to watch most of Africa's incredible fauna in its natural ecology.
A note on travel
Namibia is a huge country and in order to have the opportunity to feel the true wilderness of the Nyae Nyae and meet this unique group of bushmen, as well as experience the majesty of African animals up close, we need to cover fairly large distances. We will limit driving time as much as possible to make it as comfortable as possible. This means that we take a couple of days to arrive at our destinations, which happily also gives us the chance to acclimatise and decompress.
We are privileged to have Louis Liebenberg, the esteemed South African anthropologist as our guide. Louis has been visiting and working with the Bushmen for over 30 years, knows these communities as well as anyone and is a highly skilled tracker himself. He is the author of several books related to tracking, citizen science and philosophy, his seminal work being The Art of Tracking, Origin of Science.
/Ui Kunta, Old /Ui, Di//Xao and several others, our tracking guides, can read the tracks and signs of the sand like we can read a newspaper. These bushmen who are masters of their craft, have been certified by Cybertracker as Master Trackers and are the latest in their ancestral line to practice this truly ancient art. It’s hard to put into words what an incredible opportunity it is to experience the Kalahari with these trackers and storytellers, surrounded by the rich ecosystems of southern Africa.
Dam is our main interpreter and the village hub He is also an excellent tracker in his own right, having grown up walking the local bush.
We also learn and form beautiful connections with the families of these trackers, and for some the real magic happens in the camp.
"As someone who has chosen not to fly for many years it took a lot of deliberating over whether this adventure was worth the cost for myself and the planet. My intuition said yes and out the other side I can say I am incredibly grateful to have been on this adventure and continue to reap the harvest from it." Participant 2019
"When I joined the Old Way year course last year I wasn't aware of how significant its role is in the continuation of the culture and indigenous skills and wisdom of the San Bushmen in Namibia. It is pioneering a model of cultural exchange that honours their incredible depth of connection to the land and skill in reading it and living in harmony with it. It is initiated by and co-created with their community to inspire their younger generations to learn these skills too so they can creatively evolve their culture to their new reality, maintaining as much connection as possible. It is an incredible honour to be able to spend time with these elders in potentially the greatest concentration of these skills in the world, particularly as many of the master trackers with these skills are dying without having passed these skills and ways of being to the younger generations." Participant 2019