Bushman’s Holiday

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This morning at seven, I was called to the gate to find two men and three horses waiting for me. Two of the horses were Appaloosas; one was a very pretty bay whom I was later told was a celebrity horse: he had been featured in a Taylor Swift video. I felt that the two appies deserved some love too, so I told the guide the romantic story of the Appaloosa and the Nez Perce people who bred it, along with the horses’ role in the Nez Perce war. He was really interested to hear it, and I hope he’ll pass it on to other people who ride their Appaloosas sometimes.

This wide, vast territory, with zebras in the distance and jackals playing underfoot, is a perfect environment to see from horseback. My horse, Kambuku, was one of the appies — his name means ‘Leopard’ because of his spots. He was a good horse for what I was trying to do this time… he was fairly slow and easily controllable, good for somebody who hasn’t been riding in years, but not so slow that I couldn’t get him past a walk. We didn’t try to canter, but we spent a fair amount of time at a trot — and I did a bit more trotting than the guide in front of me, whose horse walked faster than mine, so I kept having to catch up. This suited me fine, as it gave me more chances to break out of a walk and have fun.

The guide tried to tell me details about the desert and its creatures while we were riding, and I did catch some of it, but there was a sweeping high wind the whole time that roared in my ears and made it very hard to hear what the guide was saying. Words spoken forward just whip away in that kind of wind, and I was behind him, so in order for me to hear him he pretty much had to stop and turn around to face me while he talked. It was a little frustrating, but the wind did keep everything nicely cool, which was great. The guide said all the desert animals like it when the wind blows like that, because it cools everyone off. I believe it. It certainly cooled me. I felt completely comfortable, even out under the desert sun.

We returned to camp by riding through one of the salt-pan lakes. They’re only lakes during the rainy season; the rest of the time they’re dry salt flats, and even when it rains they’re only a few inches deep. It was weird to ride through them, because they look like ordinary lakes — you can’t see the bottom, for some reason; maybe because of the salt? I would have expected, just from looking at them, that they’d be deep enough in the middle that we’d have to swim the horses. But the water never actually rose past their hooves.

Naomi riding an Appaloosa horse -- white with black spots -- looking toward the camera. One of the guides is behind her riding a bay.
Just came through the shallow lake. It doesn’t even show our hoofprints. My horse’s name, Kambuku, means ‘Leopard’ because of his spots.

After lunch, I met up with the massage therapist, Gosego (pronounced “khosekho” with the same harsh kh sound familiar to Hebrew speakers as a khet or a khaf). She trained in Gaborone, the capital of Botswana, with teachers from India, Zimbabwe and the UK, and all of the different sources show in her work. She’s really good, and of course we got to talking craft. She’s going to come back tomorrow morning to trade demonstrations of technique with me — whenever you get two massage therapists together, they want to learn from each other, and I know we’re going to have a great time.

In the afternoon, I went on the bushman’s walk activity. I had been a little worried about that — I mean, I’m a lady who uses wheelchairs for airport distances, and I wasn’t at all sure how far the bushmen would take us. But it all worked out fine, because there was so much for them to show us in a small area that we never actually went very far… while learning an enormous amount.

We met up with the current tribal representatives of the Zhu/kwazi tribe. The Zhu/kwazi still live according to the old nomadic ways, but have modernized enough to send a handful of members at a time on rotation out to the Kalahari near Jack’s Camp. These live there for three-month stints, teaching travelers about their ways and making money they can use to buy beads for their craft work, and tobacco — among the few items they use that they don’t make or find themselves. They had built a model village, a handful of small houses made in their traditional style, out of a frame of wooden sticks and covered with grass thatching. Houses are not something they normally put a huge amount of time into building, because they move on as soon as the game gets scarce due to hunting or seasonal transition. The houses get left behind, to disintegrate back into the natural world they came from.

The Zhu/kwazi took us on a short walk through the surrounding desert. They normally live in the Naamib, which is a bit different, but they know the Kalahari just as well. There were five of them; three women and two men. I only heard the men speak English. I’m not sure if the women knew how or not, because even those who could speak English tried, when possible, to use their own language with us and show us, through pantomime and expression, what they meant by it. It was great fun to try and figure out what they were showing us, and I always felt triumphant when they didn’t have to revert to English after all. Usually after we’d picked up the basics through their mime, they would switch over to English to fill in the details. The women did understand a good deal of English, pretty clearly, because when we asked them a question they would answer matter of factly in their own language; then, if we couldn’t understand them through mime and gesture, one of the men would translate for us.

All five of them were great mimers, and we could often get what they were saying. I wouldn’t be surprised if the whole tribe were great mimers, or at least all of the hunters, because they also showed us the sign language they use when they’re around an animal — such as elephants, which they don’t hunt because they’re just too big; they avoid them instead — that they don’t want to let notice them. Their sign language relies heavily on mime, and so I expect that all their hunters get much more experience in the art than we do.

The walk itself was a loose ramble among the many things they use from the desert in their daily lives. It was unstructured… we simply wandered, in a loose grouping, and when any of the Bushmen spotted something they wanted to tell us about, they’d stop and show us how they’d obtain it if they were actually collecting at the moment, while explaining what it was used for. I don’t know whether they had fixed subjects they wanted to cover, but were confident that we’d run across them, or knew to a T exactly where each thing was and therefore we really leading us on a deliberate route while making it feel like a casual ramble… or just varied their talk each day based on what the desert gave them.

Zhu/kwazi man in front of a truly gigantic termite mound!
Zhu/kwazi man in front of a truly gigantic termite mound!

We learned about a lot of plants and other substances — the ash from burned elephant dung, for example — that they use for medicines. They don’t actually eat much plant food, they told us… they eat meat, and they use plants for medication or for making things. They showed us how they made beads out of the seed pod from a certain kind of tree, and how they dug out the roots of another tree to hollow out and harden in the fire. That hollow root became the quiver in which they carry their arrows and a lot of other tools, such as the notched sticks with which they made fire. They showed us the tree from which they made the poison that tipped their arrows, and explained how they hunted with poison without tainting the meat so it couldn’t be eaten. They mostly hunt various types of antelope, and use the skins for clothing and for the leather wraps they all wear, that can be taken off to use as mats when they sit down on the ground. They showed us the different colors of leather they all wore; some of the variations due to dye, some due to species.

They showed us how to identify a scorpion den in the ground, and a ground squirrel hole. They explained that meerkats, though they’re great diggers, don’t like to dig their own tunnels; they save their skill for digging out prey. Instead, they take over abandoned ground squirrel holes to live in. Sometimes they’ll add a few rooms, as the colony gets bigger, but they really won’t dig a whole new den unless they have no choice.

One of the men holding a scorpion by its tail and claws.
Holding a scorpion for our inspection.

The Zhu/kwazi men told us how, when they were children, a favorite game was for each boy to dig up a scorpion and set them to fighting each other, to see whose arachnid would win. They actually dug one out for us, held it by the tail so it couldn’t sting, and showed us where its eyes are (it has eight, just like its legs) let us touch its belly, and one of them even held the scorpion briefly in his mouth! Then he released what was doubtless a very relieved scorpion to go back into its hole in the ground. I’m sure it believed it was about to be eaten, and I can’t blame it a bit. I never thought I would feel sorry for a scorpion, but I did for that one. We put the poor thing through a lot. But it did finally get to go home.

Making fire using sticks.
Making fire.

The last thing they did was to show us how they made fire sticks from a certain type of tree, and then built an actual fire to show us how they used those fire sticks. It was impressive. I’ve seen people build a fire by rubbing two sticks together before, but never with the easy speed and certainty that these folks showed. The five of them took turns and had a merry little blaze going in less than a minute. Then they played a traditional game among themselves over the fire. Neither the other guests nor I could understand most of what was happening in the game… the Zhu/kwazi said it worked along the same principle as rock/paper/scissors, but it also involved a lot of singing and clapping, and the actual moves of the game didn’t seem to happen simultaneously. I think part of the goal was to psych the others out about when exactly you were going to move. It sure looked like a lot of fun for those who understood it, though. They played men against women — two on two, while the third woman set up the jewelry display. This time, the men won, though they joked that they were still far behind in the ongoing contest!

Zhu/kwazi game.

Just before they walked us back to the model village, where our safari van was waiting with Fabio in it, they showed us some of their beaded jewelry that was available for sale. I picked up a gift for somebody; and since I wasn’t carrying cash, I made arrangements to leave payment with the Jack’s Camp management before I depart. They’ll get it to the tribe.

Man wearing a beaded headband, mostly blue with orange around the edges, and an orange zig-zag bordered in black.
Beaded headband.

We didn’t do the intended night drive on the way back — Fabio had gotten one safari van stuck in the mud around here already that afternoon, and we decided we didn’t want to risk being the second. But we did have sundowners on the beach of one of the many shallow lakes created by the rains around here. It was beautiful, and I got a photograph that I really like of Venus, in her role as the evening star, just before nightfall. By half an hour later, it was full dark and the stars were as beautiful as I’ve ever seen them. It’s the southern sky, of course, and I don’t know their constellations, but just the dizzying number and brilliance of them, filling up the enormous desert sky like searchlights from very far away, was magnificent. I wish I could have gotten a picture of that but neither my phone’s camera nor the GoPro was good enough in low light to capture it well.

The planet Venus in its role as the Evening Star, in a deep-blue sky that gradually lightens toward the remains of a sunset on the horizon.
Evening star.

Next morning, Gosego, the massage therapist, came to my tent and we neeped anatomy and technique for an hour and a quarter. It was loads of fun. I haven’t gotten to talk technique with another massage therapist in ages. She’s excellent at technique, and has tools I’ve never learned… I’m trying to remember them so I can use them myself. But she’s weak on anatomy, because her school — which was very much focused on spa massage, not medical massage — never gave her the strong anatomical foundation that mine did. So I showed her how being aware of the structure under the skin can help you work that area best, and recommended that she get herself some self-study materials and learn that, while I want to broaden my technical knowledge so I’ve got more tools than my current set. We both came away delighted with the exchange, and we’re planning to stay in touch. I hope she does get to start the spa she wants to create someday… she’s a super talented therapist, and I think she’d put together a great one.

And now I am waiting, bags packed, until it’s time to go to the airstrip and get my flight to Maun. I’ll be in Maun for one night to get my Covid test done, and then tomorrow I fly from Maun to Entebbe by way of Johannesburg. (Yes, for those of you who know the map of Africa, or have one in hand, that is going south in order to go north. But it’s the way the flight arrangements could be made.) I land tomorrow night super late — actually into Monday morning — and then have the next day off in Entebbe to relax. Tuesday, I set off on my tour of Uganda.

The first real stop in Uganda is Murchison Falls, at the head of the Nile. Stay tuned!

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