For the first time in 300 years, Bushmen return to Kruger so that hikers on a wilderness trail may join the continent’s best trackers. By Scott Ramsay
We’re standing somewhere in the Nyalaland wilderness in the northern Kruger National Park. There are two lions around, but we can’t see them. Our group has been following their tracks on the sandy earth. At first it had been easy enough, with plenty of open ground and a rare cool, misty morning. Then the lion spoor disappeared over rocky ground, the mopane trees closed in on us, and the sun came out.
Now the Lowveld heat is beginning to cast its strangling fingers around our necks. We stop and listen. The air is tinged with tension. The possibility of a lion encounter on foot is scary for good reason.
We have grounds for a bit of confidence. First because of our guide Christopher Muthathi. Over the past 20 years he’s taken thousands of people out to walk in what many consider the most beautiful of Kruger’s landscapes. But the big Shangaan man isn’t alone. On this trail, the first of its kind in Kruger, he is joined by two of Africa’s finest trackers.
Their names are /Ui-G/aqo and /Ui-Kxunta, and they are Ju/’hoansi (pronounced roughly “Jukwasi”, but with a click in the middle), a people from the Kalahari of northeastern Namibia. Bushmen or San are the collective names that the rest of the world use to describe the descendants of the first people of Africa, but they prefer to be called by their group names.
The Luvuvhu River cuts a lithe trail through a land of mopane forests, baobabs and sandstone hills. Breeding herds of elephants and grumpy Cape buffaloes are regularly encountered. And, of course, there are lions. As we stand silently in the mopane thicket, the Ju/’hoansi men point at the rocky ground just ahead, not a drop of sweat on their brows. /Ui-G/aqo leads us to a patch of rocks, then points at a few mopane leaves on the ground. That’s all we see but, according to him, the lion tracks are vividly on display. A male and a female. The Ju/’hoansi point out the depressions on the leaves to us. I strain to see them and, yes, sure enough, I can just make out the faint lion tracks.
If Christopher is a seasoned professional, who has honed his craft through years of practice, then /Ui-G/aqo and /Ui-Kxunta are born geniuses. “These men embody the collective wisdom, knowledge and skill of 100,000 years of hunters-gatherers in southern Africa,” explains Clive Thompson, an independent trails guide from Discovery Trails who linked up last year with the two Bushmen in northeastern Namibia to gauge their tracking prowess. Thoroughly impressed, he promptly contacted SANParks and had little difficulty persuading them to invite the Bushmen to demonstrate their skills in the Kruger wilderness.
“With the arrival of /Ui-G/aqo and /Ui-Kxunta, the Bushmen have returned to Kruger to actually walk the land for the first time in probably 300 years,” says Clive. “For millennia before that, their ancestors roamed the Lowveld, as hundreds of their rock paintings in the park attest.”
Bantu people settled in the Lowveld around 1000AD, then European colonial forces pushed in from the south and east in the 1800s. The original Bushmen lost their land and their way of life. Not just in the Lowveld, but across almost the whole subcontinent. Now only remnant populations remain around the Kalahari Basin.
/Ui-G/aqo (or Gideon) and /Ui-Kxunta (or Dawid) live in the sizeable Nyae-Nyae conservancy in Namibia. The Ju/’hoansi are the last of the Bushmen who have meaningful control over some of their historic land and who are legally allowed to hunt using traditional methods and weapons, even if many now don’t. Until the mid 20th century, they were amongst the most isolated of all Bushmen communities.
“/Ui-G/aqo and /Ui-Kxunta have never been taught by anyone. They grew up doing this, surviving by tracking and hunting. It’s in their DNA. They are naturals, the best of the best,”says Clive, as we take a break from tracking lions to sit in the shade of a jackalberry tree. “These men are two of only six accredited indigenous master trackers in southern Africa.” The accreditation was done by the internationally renowned Louis Liebenberg of CyberTracker and is acknowledged by FGASA.
While the rest of us plod along, they seem to float across the earth. Both are in their 50s, but their gait is effortless. They don’t look down at the tracks near their feet. They look 20, 30 metres ahead for tracks and signs. As we follow a seemingly random path of lion tracks, they point out how the lions stopped and lay down. In another place how they came across a lone buffalo, and chased it, unsuccessfully. Through /Ui-G/aqo and /Ui-Kxunta, the lions come alive for us, even though we haven’t seen them.
By midday, temperatures have climbed, and although the two Ju/’hoansi look like they could walk all day, the rest of us are tired and sweaty. As the lions are still on the hunt, moving, we break off the chase and make our way back to our off-road vehicle and to camp. A bare kilometre later we are rewarded by the sight of the male lion prowling just off the road.
Read the full article in the spring 2018 issue of Wild magazine.
Want to walk with Bushmen?
Kruger has excellent guides, but in future guests may also have an opportunity to walk with the sub-continent’s original savanna hunter-gatherers. Following up on this pioneering Nyalaland trail, SANParks will explore further customised wilderness trails involving the Ju/’hoansi master trackers in the Kruger National Park. Since this activity is still in the concept phase, those interested in learning more should contact Vanesssa Strydom at SANParks on [email protected]. For information about the Ju/’hoansi, contact Clive Thompson on [email protected].