The Lost Spirits of the Kalahari

The Lost Spirits of the Kalahari

“If I know a song of Africa, of the giraffe and the African new moon lying on her back, of the plough in the fields and the sweaty faces of the coffee pickers, does Africa know a song of me? Will the air over the plain quiver with a colour that I have had on, or the children invent a game in which my name is, or the full moon throw a shadow over the gravel of the drive that was like me, or will the eagles of the Ngong Hills look out for me?” Isak Dinesen / Karen Blixen

This quote has always resonated with me, raising a question I have often thought about. In our quest to hold onto that ‘song’, perhaps we bring souvenirs home as a way of keeping a tangible memory of a place, or reexperiencing a time in our lives. I’m less keen on postcards and mugs, preferring to bring only something truly meaningful home. Sitting looking at a San bow and arrow set on my wall this morning inspired this column. On a trip to Tsodilo Hills, many moons ago, a group of San traded the set – and it has been a treasured possession ever since.

The San people have various methods of hunting, the first of which is using bow and poisoned arrows. The poison is made from grubs. In Botswana, the poison is obtained from three species of flea- beetle. Two feed on Commiphora trees and the third feeds on the Marula tree. All three flea-beetles are parasitized in the larval stage by the larva of a host-specific ground beetle. They attach themselves to the fully grown larvae of the flea-beetle by penetrating the hard, rounded cocoon. The San dig for these grubs, and after rolling the cocoon between their fingers to liquify the contents, they carefully apply the goo to the tips and/or the gut-binding between the shaft and the arrowhead. Approximately 8-10 grubs are required to make the arrow lethal. (Roodt, V. 1998, Trees & Shrubs of the Okavango Delta). On larger animals the poison can take up to a day to take effect, which the creates a rather long walk home after the fact. The poison does not affect the meat. There is no known antidote for this poison, and the hunters are extremely careful when working with it. When children come to my home and ask if they can play with the bow and arrow set, I smile quietly and gently explain why it really isn’t the ideal toy ?.

The second method is “The Hunt by Running”. Whilst it is not necessarily an easy movie to watch (unless you are perhaps a hunter), The Great Dance, directed by Craig and Damon Foster in 2000, is an incredible piece detailing this method of hunting (see link in block). Effectively, the San wait for a really hot day, then choose their quarry and begin the chase. They make no sound, using their hands to ‘talk’ and transfer information. The real hunt begins when the running starts. They can run for hours, until the animal is almost dead on its feet and stops moving. The San too are at the extreme limits of their endurance at this point in time. They approach the animal and use a spear to end the hunt. In a separate insert in the film, they run for six hours chasing a gemsbok. The animal, rather intelligently, eventually runs into the Wildlife Reserve, and the San are obliged to break off the hunt. Killing an animal in a reserve would land them in jail. 

It is my personal opinion that this is perhaps the purest form of hunting. Food is required for the family, and a human pits his physical ability directly against an animal. The entire process is filled with respect and spirituality. “Tracking is like dancing, and your body is happy. It tells you hunting will be good. You feel it in the dance. When you do this, you are talking with God.” When the female kudu dies, the hunter reverentially sprinkles sand on her body.

“You think how hard the Kudu is working, you feel it in your own body. You see it in the footprints, she is with you and your legs are not so heavy. As it tires, you become strong. You take its energy. Your legs become free, and you run fast.” They have an intimate understanding of their environment and are almost able to insert themselves into their prey’s minds, following tracks as though they are that animal. Whilst I’m not going to use the words “shape shifting”, there is certainly some sense of spiritual connection between the hunter and the hunted. 

The site of the kill is only the halfway point of the journey, and they still need to carry the meat all the way home, protecting both their spoils and themselves from hyaena and lion. They often dry the meat of a large animal first, which makes it lighter to carry. There is much celebration when they finally reach their village. They are great storytellers, and each hunt is recreated around the fire in intricate detail and with great animation.

To hunt another living being, knowing that if you don’t succeed, you and your family will starve, is a harsh life. They hunt in a sustainable way, with taboos often providing guidelines which are based on valid conservation principles. This knowledge is passed down from generation to generation. They are completely at one with nature. 

This way of life is disappearing at a rapid rate, and the sad reality is that this culture is likely to become veritable lost spirits of the Kalahari in our lifetime…

Another treasure is a first edition copy of Veronica Roodt’s “Trees & Shrubs of the Okavango”. I use it almost weekly when I write. Veronica quietly passed away whilst sitting in her armchair on the deck in her camp in Moremi, overlooking the Okavango Delta in February 2022. She was a conservationist, a photographer and an author. Her books completely enchant me – they are written for the lay person to understand, and her illustrations are works of art. She had a BSc (Zoology & Botany), with an Honours degree in medical physiology (BSc (Med) Hons). She lived an incredibly rich life, and the scope of her work was phenomenal. She prepared survival guides for the military based on her knowledge of the San’s utilisation of medicinal and food plants. Many adventurers will know her from her original Shell series of maps and books. It was Veronica who originally enabled many of us to reach magical places such as Kubu Island. She also knew and loved the San people. I was lucky enough to get to know her, visiting her at her home in Hartbeespoort. She was driven and had so much passion for her work. Her attention to detail was phenomenal and she loved what she did. More than anything though, she loved the wilderness in general and Moremi in particular, where she lived for 34 years. Her passing leaves a gaping hole for so many. Whilst she may now be lost to us, I have no doubt her spirit flies free, most likely in the region of her camp in Moremi. Too young, too soon. She will be missed. 

Jacqui Ikin & The Cross Country Team

#moremi # #santribe #botswana #Kalahari #hunting


The Great Dance (Not for sensitive viewers):

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