Khanta Ganagohuduga wears a permanent grin on his face. As with most ancient cultures that flourished in a time before writing existed, storytelling is a valued art and this 68-year-old is a master performer. With eyes twinkling, he speaks passionately – in this case, about how to hunt an eland – peppering his story with gestures, onomatopoeic sounds, and downright theatrics. Even before Qomanase Gaotlhobogwe, our translator, has stopped laughing long enough to explain, we can already guess at the meaning or at least laugh along at the sheer enjoyment Khanta seems to derive from his story.
Wilderness Safaris’ Kalahari Plains Camp is a tiny dot of a settlement in the northern part of the Central Kalahari Game Reserve – at 52,800 km² it is Southern Africa’s largest game reserve, but possibly one of its least explored. Due to its sheer size and its desert extremes (daytime temperatures can range from 50 °C in the hottest months of the year, down to night-time temperatures of -10 °C in winter), it has not attracted the hordes of tourists or proliferation of lodges that Botswana’s Okavango Delta has, but then this is also a huge part of its magic.
Other than this Wilderness Safaris’ lodge, there is only one other in the reserve and so you pretty much have the entire place to yourself. And what a playground it is, with its swathes of yellowed desert grass as far as the eye can see, dotted here and there with scrubby bushes and trees that. Here, the plains animals excel – cheetah have unimpeded space to truly show off their speed, while others, like Oryx, jackals and bat eared foxes, have adapted well to the desert conditions.
The guests often fare less well in the desert heat but the pool serves as welcome respite. So do the cool tented suites complete with fans and cold showers, not to mention a seemingly never-ending supply of icy drinks provided by the lodge’s lovely staff, who seem to have infinite patience and sympathy for the us ill-suited desert interlopers.
Accessible via a 55-minute flight from Maun, Botswana, on Wilderness Air, the nearest “settlement” of any kind is the tiny village of Rakops 100 km away, followed by the comparatively larger bushman settlements of Malapo, Old Xade and New Xade, also several hundred kilometres away. In these bushman settlements, life still has traces of bygone times. The people live in traditional huts, some of the older men still hunt for food using their bows and arrows, and the songs and stories of their forefathers are passed down to the next generations.
It is perhaps because of this long held cultural tradition of continual passing down of information that Khanta and the two other members of his family, Xhayaha Xhwekhwe (44) and Keeta Sego (34), enjoy interacting with the guests at the lodge so much. “I like to meet new people and to teach them my culture,” Khanta says, as he sets about demonstrating how to set a snare for a bird – perhaps a Kori bustard or a korhaan (both good eating apparently) with a “lollipop” of tree sap as bait. “It helps to keep our way of life alive.”
It is a way of life that is intimately entwined with the Kalahari itself – a landscape that may seem desolate to us, but which is abundant with food, stories and possibilities for these earliest of inhabitants. This is a realisation that quickly dawns as you follow these three animal-skin-bedecked Bushmen as they walk sure footedly into the bush.
Mother Nature provides all of the tools one needs to thrive here – if only you know where to look. Keeta shows us how she digs for tubers and searches out plants that have medicinal qualities. Khanta and Xhayaha act out how they catch scrub hares and snare steenbok. Khanta was once a “great hunter”, explains Qomanase. Xhayaha may still be honing his skills, under the tutelage of the older man, but he easily locates a scorpion’s burrow and digs up the displeased creature with little fear for its large pincers.
I get out my phone for a selfie with the ever-grinning Khanta and then show him some of my Snapchat filters. He laughs uproariously when he sees himself complete with dog ears and a long tongue. It’s an interesting juxtaposition of modern and ancient cultures, but as I later watch their obvious enjoyment at playing a game that can best be described as a Bushman form of “rock, paper, scissors”, it is pretty obvious that they are better off without our technology.
Theirs is a simply life dictated by tradition and in symbiotic harmony with the great Kalahari around them. They live and breathe the culture of their ancestors and enjoy the company of their community. We could learn so much from them.
For more information, visit www.wilderness-safaris.com.
Text: Nicky Furniss | Images © Wilderness Safaris & Nicky Furniss