The desert doesn’t hoard the sun: it is generous with it, profligate. But it keeps nothing in store for the darkness: the nights are cold, often bitter. The desert lives in the moment. It is opportunistic, it has no plans, no expectations. Drink when you can, eat when you can. Follow the sundial of shade, and then shiver in the monochrome night.
The desert isn’t for everyone: for a creature with a memory and the ability to plan ahead, it can be a deeply worrying place.
The desert is amoral. It doesn’t care: you’re as useful dead as you are alive. Your position at the top of the evolutionary tree, your money, your cultured good taste, your hopes and expectations mean nothing here; you’re just another roll of the dice, a stumble and a sting away from being a mass of skull minerals.
Part of the Kalahari was once a primeval lake fed by four rivers. The whole place is now a flat, pristine jumble of sand and thorn that has a beauty that beggars the four walls of language. It is the birthplace of the supermammal and possibly — probably — man. As a species, we grew up and moved on, and if your particular adaptation is to be able to plan the future and remember the past, then getting out of the Kalahari will be something of a priority. Run, don’t walk. In a blink of 10,000 years, you can be in downtown Manhattan with air conditioning and internet pizza delivery. Phew! But some people stayed behind.
MY FIRST introduction to the Bushmen of Botswana comes just before dawn. It is still cold, and the light is a clear rose-grey. There are no circling kites or eagles yet, but the thorn trees are already alive with finches and pied crows. The camp is a collection of small, beehive-shaped huts woven out of twigs and thatched with grass. Around the embers of last night’s fires lie the sleepy, wriggling forms of children. Dogs stretch and scratch under a spiky acacia tree.
Around one of the fires, recently kicked into life, a group of men stand warming themselves. They are the hunters, and they’re expecting us.
However quiet you are, the Bushmen are always expecting you. These are the people who call themselves, without hyperbole or bragging, the First People. They are short, with amazingly wrinkled baggy skins. Bushmen are said to have loose skins so that they can stuff themselves in rare times of glut. Their faces are vaguely Mongolian, flat with high cheekbones; they have sparse, tightly curled hair and they smile with smoky, tea-coloured, almond eyes. A lot of things have been said about the Bushmen: that they are a separate species (no human could live here); that they can channel themselves into animals; that they have extrasensory perception; that the men have permanent erections, and the women have labial aprons that hang to their knees. Most of this is the kind of hokum that allows more advanced, aggressive tribes first to distance themselves from the Bushmen, then to exterminate them. This little gaggle of ragged-looking chaps dressed in fifth-generation Oxfam rags — including one tweed suit, a Surrey cardigan and a collection of skiing hats — is the very end of an unbroken line that stretches back 30,000 years.
They are, like their forebears, hunter-gatherers. Men hunt, women gather. By the end of an exhausting day, we’ve got a collection of roots, some salad and nuts, and I’ve got a pocketful of huge yellow-and-black jewel beetles. These things fly like barely aerodynamic Liquorice Allsorts, and when the women catch them, they pull their legs off, which they don’t like, but which stops them going anywhere. I learn that breaking legs off things is a Bushman trait. The first rule in the Kalahari cookbook is: “Don’t catch anything twice.” I also learn that the beetles can give you a nasty nip with the joint between their head and their thorax carapace.
I’M INTERESTED in what, and how, the Bushmen eat, because therein lies the link between us and our past. The bit of our brain that deals with taste is the oldest part of our cerebral cortex. Bushman societies are a loose collective, and work like a pyramid of cards: everyone relies on everyone else, and the structure only stands with everyone bearing the weight of the whole. All food is collected individually, but it is owned and consumed collectively. The communal sharing of food is the only way a clan can survive intact: it eats as a unit or it dies as competing individuals. The Bushmen are endlessly tolerant of each other and strangers; they rarely argue or fight; their children are never punished. In fact, childhood is a special time: children are adored and marvelled at, they are a constant source of joy and concern, which is made all the more achingly poignant when you know that the infant mort-ality rate can be as high as 40%.
At the end of the day, we make a fire under a thorn tree and prepare dinner, sitting in a circle and stripping the leaves. The women hull nuts with their teeth, making fearsome cracking sounds, and spit the kernels into a hardwood mortar. Teeth are used as scissors, tin-openers, Magimixes. To the nuts are added salad greens that taste like spinach. These are pounded together, and then my beetles are raked into the fire.
Now, I have no particular rules about beetles. In general, I will eat anything that anyone else will put in their mouth — as long as it doesn’t involve a bet. The beetles are baked for two minutes in medium-hot sand (that’s gas mark 6, or 200C), then the hard wing- cases are pulled off and you pop one in your mouth, just like that. How to describe my first taste of beetle? They’re gooey, a bit like meatier soft-shell crab, and utterly delicious. I’m not just saying that: they’re really, really good, with a big, fresh flavour. I asked for more, but they were for the salad, and were pounded with the nuts and spinach and, finally, a touch of seasoning. Salt is rare in this part of the Kalahari, but there are quite a lot of ants that taste very salty, so if someone asks for the salt, you can say: “There’s some crawling up your leg.” The salad was fabulous: sophisticated, fresh, moreish. If you were served this in Harry’s Bar, you’d want to know the recipe. But then you’d wish you hadn’t asked.
HUNTING WITH the men was altogether different. After four fruitless days out with the boys, I realised why there isn’t a Garrick Club in the Kalahari: if they didn’t let women in, the men would starve. Hunting is man’s work. It’s also the measure of Bushman social structure — a good hunter is a Kalahari tycoon. The chaps set off early in the morning, led by Albert (not his real name), a wiry, nicotine-coloured man who looks as if he’s well into his second century. He’s probably about 40. He’s wearing a pair of baggy chef’s trousers. “I’ve got a pair of those at home,” I say through the interpreter. “Oh, are you a hunter too?” he replies, and beams with camaraderie.
The Bushmen’s ability to track even small insects is remarkable; their ability actually to catch anything isn’t. As Americans say, they have problems closing the deal. Bushmen hunt by stealth; they get very, very close to their prey and then shoot it with tiny poisoned arrows. They hunt antelope like this, and they can crawl right up to a sleeping animal, but more often than not it gets away.
In the end, our bag was one bullfrog with teeth that could shear through steel bolts and eyes out of The Omen, which I had to carry in my pocket, and something called a spring hare, which is the most risibly pathetic excuse for an animal I’ve ever seen: legs like a small kangaroo, the body of a guinea pig, the face of a gremlin and ears like babies’ bootees. We cooked it in the ashes, and it actually tasted like a cross between chicken and rabbit. The bullfrog was so wholly disgusting, I’ve never been so pleased to see something beaten over the head and buried in red-hot coals. Bullfrog, if you’re thinking of trying it, tastes of old newspaper soaked in a hot gutter.
What the chaps really like doing is sitting and smoking. Smoking is the great national pastime, and they all carry pipes made from bone, which they fill with ferocious tobacco. They don’t play football, go to the pub, play dominoes, make matchstick models of the Golden Hind or visit prostitutes, they just sit in any bit of available shade and do real, grown-up, Olympic smoking, which I reckon is deeply civilised. We have a thing or two to learn from this ancient culture.
THE CENTRAL mystery of Bushman life is the trance dance. This is part religious ceremony, part party, part out- patients’ clinic — it can go on all night, and few people outside the loose-knit groups of the Kalahari have seen it. As the sun goes down, the women sit round one end of a fire and sing rhythmically as the men move about, chat, prepare skins, then sit opposite them. Some men wear rattles made of moths’ pupa casings, and they slowly start circling the fire. As the chanting becomes hypnotic, sparks gust into the purple sky like swarms of iridescent insects and the circling and stamping becomes more frenetic, you notice that one man is losing control, like a drunk or a sleepwalker. He’s slipping into the trance. When this happens, another man will stay close. Anything can happen: the dancer can dance into the fire, run into the bush, fall into a thorn tree. During trance dances, the Bushmen believe that they become imbued with animal potency and enter a spiritual realm where they can contact God, fight evil spirits, gain healing powers and see visions. The trance is dangerous and exhausting. One Bushman I spoke to said it was so frightening he couldn’t do it anymore.
The clapping and chanting sounds like the song and heartbeat of the desert. In the black night, the fire casts long, flickering shadows, the moon is so huge you see every dry sea- bed and mountain range on it. A trance dancer grabs a woman. He’s seen she’s sick, and as he holds her, his body goes into terrible spasm. He’s taking her illness and her pain into himself, and it makes the hair on the back of your neck prickle. Hour after hour, it goes on. Eventually, on the edges of the fire’s halo, I fall into a fitful sleep and wake in the chilly morning, the pink light, the twittering finches, the children snuffling under blankets, dogs stretching. The fire is a white pile of smoking ash and weary tongues of flame. The women are still chanting, and a trance dancer still circles, feet numbly stamping the sand, rattle crackling out its rhythm. His eyes are glassy, his limbs rubber. He’s been dancing for nine hours. The ceremony is older than bricks and mortar, older than handprints on walls, older than memory; it has in it the seeds of all future religion and belief.
Walking with the Bushmen isn’t just another safari, with wild people instead of wild animals. This isn’t some sort of reverse anthropomorphism. The Kalahari Bushmen are our oldest relatives, the people who stayed behind. Visiting them is coming home.