Imprinted beneath a rock overhang close to the towering cliffs of Lanner Gorge is the signature of the disappeared: Bushmen paintings. When were Bushmen last in this wedge of land between the lazy Limpopo and the cascading Luvuvhu? Or anywhere in the Lowveld, for that matter? Perhaps three hundred years ago. Nobody knows.
Today there is only one pocket of San in the whole of Southern Africa who still have command of the full hunter-gatherer survival suite: the Ju/’hoansi (pronounced ‘Juun-kwasi’ with a soft ‘J’ and a click for ‘kw’) of Nyae Nyae in remote north-eastern Namibia. They alone across the Kalahari Basin have access to wild land, the right to hunt using traditional methods, the right to gather bush food and a knowledge bank that stretches back, unbroken, for millennia.
It’s wonderful to view the landscapes and creatures of the Greater Kruger biosphere from the back of an open vehicle. Better still to go on a wilderness walk; see the tracks, touch the trees and (safely) encounter the animals. The trail guides do a great job of interpreting all you come across. But what if you had someone who could take the experience to a seriously intimate level?
28 June 2018: Dam Debe, ¹oma Daqm, Clive Thompson, /ui-G/aqo and /ui-Kxunta arrive at the Pafuri Gate
There are but three recognized Master Trackers in the whole of Namibia, /ui-Kxunta, /ui-G/aqo and ¹oma Daqm. They take bushcraft to a seriously intimate level. They have the pedigree, the memory and the passion. Some reconnaissance work was done with them and their community, including their venerable chief, Ou Daqm. The upshot was that on 28 June 2018, accompanied by one other tracker, Dam Debe (last seen in The Gods must be Crazy, as a child), the big three arrived at the Pafuri Gate, on their way to RETURNAfrica to give wilderness walkers a special experience.
What to expect? Well, above all, they can track. Most guides feel they are doing a good job if they can identify and distinguish most of the spoor plain to see on the criss-crossing dustways of ‘Makulekeland’. The more skilled amongst them feel confident enough to follow a leopard spoor as it traces its way around a waterhole. But for most the show is over at the point the leopard, much earlier that morning, turned left into the grass or right onto stony ground. Then the guide switches to talk about the quaint behaviour of the dung-beetle.
Not so with the Master Trackers. Not once over four trails in Pafuri and then two across the river in Kruger’s Nyalaland wilderness zone did they lose the tracks of any animal they locked onto. Lion, leopard, eland, kudu, buffalo, snakes – it was all in a fluent day’s work. Definitely not effortless; rather, a demonstration in mindful intuition and cerebral concentration. Amazing but not magical.
Serpentine stuff: RETURNAfrica’s Kewan with ¹oma Daqm and Dam Debe tracking a snake at Palm Vlei
A shiny scuff on a stone in the earth was all the confirmation they needed that the lion did indeed head that-a-way. A faint compression on a patch of grass told them the eland passed this way. Lift up the tuft and you will see beneath the imprint of the eland’s cloven hoof.
The tracking process comes with live commentary, which becomes softer as we approach the quarry, and turns to hand-signals as we close in. ‘The buffalo knows we are following it. It has stopped behind this bush; it half-turned in its tracks to look in our direction, then it went off in a new, looping direction. It’s not safe to track this animal any further. We must break away to higher ground and leave the area.’
The leopard has changed to hunting mode, they tell us. Why do you say that? ‘Because the size of the track is now ever so slightly smaller.’ And what does that mean? ‘It means the leopard is tensing all its muscles; its paws are beginning to grip the ground more tightly as it prepares to launch itself.’
For good reason, /ui-Kxunta give the sign for a lion: curled thumb and pinkie (cat’s ears) [Clive Thompson]
Code-breakers. Not far from Pafuri Luxury Tented Camp, near Little Nwambi, we came across a very odd set off marks. Something had moved or been dragged in a perfectly straight line for at least a hundred metres across a flat stretch of veld. The ‘tracks’ were about a foot wide and had wavy lines in them. Not much else was visible. Not apparently any kind of kill. No blood spatters. Certainly not a python. Too broad for porcupine quills. Human intervention, maybe? Everyone was baffled, and the guides a little embarrassed. Surely something this prominent must come with an explanation? The Ju/’hoansi did not know either but decided to go walk-about. A minute later they called us over to a spot some thirty metres away. There on the ground was the smoking gun. A large broken-off Lala Palm frond, with its jagged leaf perimeters. Something had dragged it along. Elephant eat the frond bases, but no elephant spoor could be seen. Subtler detective work was needed on the grassy, slightly sandy ground. And then they found them: the faint tracks of … a large male baboon!
Why did the baboon take the palm frond for a walk in the park? If they knew, they weren’t telling.
Lala Palm frond: smoking gun
/ui-Kxunta, walking at the back of a trail party in Nyalaland, called everyone to a halt and pointed to the upper reaches of large Acacia overhanging a waterhole. High-up, in the forked branches, was the carcass of a buffalo calf. No one else had seen it. How had he come to spot it? Well, he said, I thought that if I were a leopard, this sloping tree would be a good one to climb.
Do you get aardwolf along the Luvuvhu landscapes, north and south? A very rare beast anywhere in Kruger at the best of times. The Ju/’hoansi know the answer. Yes, you do, for they identified their scat on two separate rocky outcrops in different parts of the Park.
Ever lost your car in a shopping mall parking lot? The Master Trackers would come in handy. Towards the end of each sortie, the trackers were asked if they could navigate us back to our vehicle. They had never been before in each of the areas we walked. The Nyae Nyae terrain is very different to what’s on show in Pafuri and Nyalaland. The Kalahari is your typical arcing, sky-swept savanna; not a hill in sight. Makuleke can be a topographical maze: hills, valleys, cuttings; Mopane and Acacia thickets.
The Bushman paintings are in an obscure part of the Clarens sandstones, well off the beaten track. Frankly, we got a little lost in walking there, but we made it. We asked our path-finders if they could take us back, across the broken, wooded countryside. They did, without back-tracking and on a steady bearing, and in half the time. They did the same every other time as well. Clearly, they have sub-conscious GPSs built into their slight frames.
Rock art explanations, Makuleke
They brought with them from distant Nyae Nyae the soft-wood sticks of the Manketti tree. These are their fire-making sticks, and they needed a local ingredient to kick-start the flame: scrub hare dung – pretty much pure, ground, desiccated grass. And then came lots of elbow grease and cries of /oah-Khoe! (come, fire!). And soon a glowing coal speck was transformed into a soaring flame.
They also brought their bows and arrows, and showed their great marksmanship against a spot on a stoic Baobab tree. Wisely, they left their terminator juice behind at home: the poison extracted from the Diamphidae beetle larva. But, with great excitement, they discovered the beetle’s host bush – a Commiphora – not far from the Bushmen paintings. Centuries ago, millennia ago, that bush’s forerunners would have been tapped by their kith and kin.
A different language structure reflects the character of their interaction with the environment. For us, it’s all about nouns and adjectives: the black-collared barbet, the white-crowned lapwing. For them, it’s all about verbs: the raptor with the double-jointed knees is Ari/ai!uru (die tarentaal-vanger/the guinea fowl-catcher, aka the African Harrier Hawk).
Their campfires stories of their life and times were captivating but also sobering. The Old Way is dying. The Ju/’hoansi, like so many other remnant San communities in and around the Kalahari, are stricken. Their arts imperilled.
The Master Tracker trails are a delight and revelation to those wilderness walkers who are looking for a deeper, longer account of nature and the wilds. They also represent a potential lifeline to beleaguered San communities. There is a next generation that needs to be schooled in the old ways, but then there must be reasons – and arrangements – for keeping the skills alive. There is a match here. Reconnections for the modernists, estranged from the natural world. Recognition and reward for the keepers of the ancient knowledge.
The Masters will be back with RETURNAfrica in 2019. Make a date.
Photos by Simon Sephton unless otherwise stated.
Clive Thompson of Discovery Trails and RETURNAfrica have provisionally scheduled further Master Tracker trails for July 2019. Contact either RETURNAfrica email@example.com or Clive at firstname.lastname@example.org to register your interest. Let us know if you’d prefer alternative dates. Six guests make up a trail, operating out of a riverside bushcamp.
And think about visiting Nyae Nyae should you go to Namibia. We can help you connect there, too.
Lead Guide Zane with/ui’G/aqo, ¹oma Daqm, ui-Kxunta Dam Debe,, Lanner Gorge
Biff, Clive and the team – spying the land for Eland
A strip of Terminalia bark – good for dealing with headaches, says /ui-G/aqo