Rekindling the flame of the ancients with Ju/’hoansi master trackers in Kruger
This tracking art is a rare skill with only about a dozen masters of the intact African lineage left alive
There is a great deal of mystique surrounding the Bushman/San and their tracking prowess. Fuelled by storytellers from Laurens van der Post to latter-day mythologists, the legends live on, rendered now deeply poignant by the plight of the remaining ancients. People on the brink.
The Ju/’hoansi of Nyae Nyae in Namibia are the last standard-bearers of Southern Africa’s hunter-gathers. For, uniquely and tragically, only they have the full suite, however precarious: their striking click language, access to wild land, the legal right to hunt and gather by traditional means, and a slender, unbroken knowledge bridge to millennia upon millennia of savanna-attuned living.
They hold the flinted keys to surviving and thriving in a pre-agricultural, pre-industrial world. With lessons, perhaps, for a grasping post-industrial world.
I went to the remote //xa/oba settlement in north-eastern Namibia because there, Louis Liebenberg* told me, I would find three old-way geniuses, /ui-Kxunta, /ui-G/aqo and #om Daqm.
Indigenous master trackers: the only three formally recognised as such in Namibia, although there are others out there, scarcely known, talents unseen.
In the scrubby grasslands of "Bushmanland" they showed me how they could stay on the tracks of Gemsbok for as long as my water bottle lasted in the scorching heat (a couple of hours). They pointed out in soft sand two sets of blurred parallel tracks of some four-legged creatures. Probably different creatures, I thought, because of their slightly different gait lengths. Or perhaps an adult and a youngster?
A bat-eared fox and black-backed jackal, they said. "How do you know?" I asked. Because they are, they replied. How do you know that’s Nelson Mandela? Because that is what Nelson Mandela looks like. You don’t need calipers or a DNA kit to know.
Impressed and abashed — this is not the way I had been taught in my trail guide apprenticeship. Anyone who has walked through mopane thickets in Kruger knows how maze-like they can be. One tousled bush looks very much like every other. A good place to get lost. It is the same with the terminalia scrub of Nyae Nyae.
We set off following roan tracks and see a mamba disappearing away. Some hours later, as the trackers threaded their way unerringly back through the uniform bushveld to wherever we had left the vehicle, we passed yet another indistinguishable bush. ‘That’s the mamba bush’, they said.
And so it has been for more than 100,000 thousand years on the sub-continent, the genetics and archaeology tell us. A resilient formula for human survival through glacial and interglacial periods. Probably a decisive part of what kept the hominin story going from the descent till the ascent (the cliff). The last 12,000 years have seen the emergence of a different cocktail. Technological triumph, population explosion, best-living standards ever. But an ecological disaster looms.
This tracking art is a rare skill: probably only a dozen masters of the intact African lineage are left alive. And yet the bearers of this long and riveting history, the //xa/oba community, face constant food insecurity and are burdened by wholly treatable diseases — tuberculosis, foremost. There is little by way of employment — hunting and gathering has its limits in depleted Nyae Nyae. Poverty is their crushing condition. Across the Kalahari Basin, this is the 21st century signature of being San.
About 1.5-million tourists visit the Kruger National Park each year. About 10,000 of the more serious devotees go on wilderness walks. Driving through the Park is a feast and challenge for the eyes. Walking though the bush brings all the senses into play, the full symphony. And a sense of trepidation. You are back where it all began, on the African savanna. Predators, prey, dust.
And so on 28 June 2018 the three Namibian masters plus another tracker, Dam Debe (last seen in The Gods must be Crazy, as a child) arrived at Kruger’s northern Pafuri Gate.
The first day in Makuleke was for orientation. Civets, white-tailed mongoose, bushbuck, and nyala were all unknown to them, but not for long — once seen they were firmly imprinted.
They tracked an eland – totem of many a Bushmen clan. They narrated an eland: "Here the bull stopped, half-turned and looked back at us. Then it went on. Here it nibbled at the end bits of the mopane. See the moist twigs. See the crumbs on the ground. Now it has trotted off at speed. We won’t be seeing it again."
This was a dense mopane outing. I asked them if they could take us back to the Land Cruiser. Sure, and off they went. No back-tracking; they walked on a straight heading. A bit too much to the right, I knew, being familiar with the lie of the land. I stopped them to offer some polite directional advice. They ignored me just as courteously, and pressed ahead on their original bearing. And came out directly at the vehicle. I was impressed and abashed, again.
The next day we went far off the beaten track to Makuleke’s bushman painting site. The last San walked this precipitous sandstone terrain perhaps 300 years ago. Our local lead guide went a little astray, as she wound her way overcircuitously though heavily vegetated gullies and ridges to the gallery; but we got there. The trackers cautioned of the buffalo in the thicket ahead before we heard or saw them, although they were walking behind us. No oxpeckers around to give us their rasping warning chirrups.
That figurine on the cave wall, which everyone had seen as an eagle, was in fact a person wearing a kaross, they told us. That which we thought was a human was an animal, but the forelegs had been washed away by centuries of seepage.
In jest, I asked one of the trackers to take us back to the vehicle, hills and dales away. Nyae Nyae is boundlessly horizontal. Plains and pan country, without rocky outcrops. The occasional baobab spears the distant perimeter. Makuleke’s bushman paintings are tucked away in the hills, just before the land plunges down to the Luvuvhu River. Clarens sandstones, basalt ridges, thick vegetation, mosaic topography — an utterly alien 3D world for a 2D Kalaharian.
Sure, he said. It had taken us 45 minutes to labour away through the crumpled landscape to the paintings. It took our tracker 20 minutes to cut his way directly back to the road, just short of the vehicle. We could have come out at the vehicle, he said, but it was quicker to hit the road first.
Then, a bonus near our wheels: a Commiphora tree and a Grewia bush intertwined — the very Commiphora that produces the beetle grub that exudes the deadly poison for their arrows. The very Grewia they use to craft their bows. And so there was an on-the-spot lesson on the making of the killer app of the ages.
The Bushmen of old had a pact with lion: we don’t hunt them, they don’t hunt us. It had worked for /ui-G/aqo years ago in Nyae Nyae when, alone on a hunting trip and sleeping up in an acacia thicket, he was surrounded in the middle of the night by a pride. The lions of human spirit told the others to leave him alone. They did.
I was wondering about the currency of that pact as we tracked lion in Kruger’s Nyalaland wilderness. Two lions, they said, "a mannetjie en ’n wyfie" (a paired lion and lioness). "They have switched from ambling to hunting."
How so? "Because now they are walking apart and, see, their paw prints have become slightly smaller. Their muscles are tensing." Then the trackers stopped where the lion had frozen a little earlier, and looked ahead to the right. They walked 25 paces in that direction.
"Come here," they said. "This is where a buffalo bull meandering along suddenly smelt the lion, stopped and stared at them. Then he bolted away — look at the dig mark in those tracks. The lions bounded after him, but not far. They gave up."
We started tracking eland again, through dry grass. I asked if they were looking for bent stalks. "Not really. Rather at the prints on the grass and on the leaves."
"What prints?" I asked. "Lift up that tuft of grass." We did, and beneath was the cloven-hoof track of the eland, etched clearly in the sand. ‘That is how the eland moves. Click click".
Fire-lighting with two firesticks was hard work, but with cries of "/oah-Khoe!" ("come, fire!") the flame is coaxed into life. Strange how the heat from millennial flames seems more radiant than the usual campfire.
Over six walking trails, four in Makuleke, two in Nyalaland, the masters never did lose any tracks we chose to follow, even when the quarry turned out to be beyond our endurance to find. The fascination was in the twisting journey, not an embodied destination.
We had some knowledgeable people on trail, including accomplished Kruger guides. Their faces said it all. Each tracking episode ended with guest and guide headshakes of stunned appreciation, then handshakes all round.
These are special talents, preserved and practised by a tiny remainder. The show must go on, for history and humanity. It may not: the hunters of old need a deal with the life-seekers of today — a new earth contract.
• Thompson is a freelance trail guide in the wilderness areas of the greater Kruger Park.