Skip to content

Posts from the ‘Africa! (and other places)’ Category

Back to the bush.

Separated by time and space what continues to stick with me are the images I carry in my mind.
Africa has left its marks deep under my skin where only I know to look. But I suppose this is true for all the significant events of my life: working for Nols, the CDT, training my horses, and Nikki They all have left tail-tell sign as indelible as the blood trail of the first elk I shot. I suppose I am not the only one who can read these signs. They must show up on how in how I walk, in the joy in my face as I watch a kudu cow come to drink, her over sized ears swiveling to catch the sounds of my breath. The twinge of sweet pain as we eat our wild game, and the way my horse comes to me when he could walk away. Sun sets and snow fields make me want to cry. Not because they are sad. But because the beauty is too much for one short life to hold. If I am not carful my skin can feel too raw. Emotions and landscapes rip across it leaving road-rash of the mind. But this too can be sweet.
Sharing always seems to help though. So I will leave my images for you to look at. And hopefully if you open your mind up and try to feel with all the fibers you have, you might get the feeling of the soft Africa sand under your toes.. The heat and tang of the Kalahari wind. The grounded human smell of the Xuma and Guta as they tell the story of the past night.

Here is some of the stories I wake to when I come out of dreams.

Walk with me.
I am traveling.

20120513-212017.jpg
Water lily in maun

20120513-212116.jpg
Painted dogs sing to each other.

20120513-212236.jpg
Serda, the orphan liones.

20120513-212426.jpg
The bushmen, feeding .Walking the bridge between the death of the burro and the life of the lion.

20120513-212627.jpg
Jon centering, finding north

20120513-212755.jpg
Should there be two words for water and life?

20120513-212922.jpg

Or is life water?

20120513-213036.jpg
We all need to learn a few stories to pass on.

20120513-213208.jpg
This bushman could teach grandma to suck eggs.

20120513-213330.jpg

Kaden, learning from his elders.

20120513-213458.jpg

Guta explaining a bit of the world.

20120513-213715.jpg
Healing comes from the trance dance. Don’t ask it just works.
Don’t look for logic ,it may turn something beautiful in to something ugly and unrecognizable. (Ingwe paraphrased )

20120513-214116.jpg
Hanama blending with the bush.

20120513-214237.jpg

20120513-214422.jpg
Fritz glows form within as well!

20120513-214557.jpg

A link is formed.

20120513-214709.jpg

20120513-215136.jpg

20120513-215217.jpg

20120513-215423.jpg

20120513-215802.jpg

20120513-215824.jpg

20120513-215905.jpg

20120513-220116.jpg
Thank you for traveling with me in the Kalahari.

Deep Nature Connection

 

wildebeeste bull

         Each morning I would rise early and listen to the bush sounds change from the loud “Brrrruuum” calls of wildebeest bull, to the soft “cheeets” of the shaft-tailed wydas and scolding of grey babblers. The sacred ibis would come off of his night roost on the dead snag and start hunting the shore for any creature that might fit in his long beak.

Robin I and might go tracking while the sun was still low and catch some signs left by the night-animals. We might see that the black-backed jackal was using the same hidden spot behind the buffalo thorn to drink, or see the massive cloven hooves of the giraffe.

       We would meet the Bushmen for a morning session. For this we would walk through the bush, one direction or another. They would show us the stories in the sand: the tracks of a puff adder, the slow walk of the tortoise.  When the time was right, they would show us some sort of Naro traditional technique. If we passed the tracks of a steenbok, Xiago might show us how they would make a snare for this small antelope. Then to make the picture complete, the Naro would act out the scene. One would play the part of the steenbok while the others played the hunters.

            The acting was not just for our enjoyment, although we did like it. The acting puts the hunter in the place of the steenbok, letting him move down the trail—placing his feet like the antelope might. The more the hunter does this, the better he will know what he hunts. So by the time the hunter sets his snare, he already knows the steenbok is caught.

            They teach and lean tracking in the same way. This is not unique to the Bushmen; many great trackers learned to feel how an animal moves by putting themselves in the mind of the game. 

             The Bushmen acted out many of the most important lessons, not only reinforcing the importance in their own bodies, but also making a lasting memory in our minds. I know I will never approach a warthog burrow from the front, now I have seen Guta pretend to be run over by an angry boar.

            The Bushman live in family groups with grandparents, uncles, and aunts.

The children are taught primarily by the grandparents. The grandmothers teach the young-ones how to be safe in the bush—to listen, not just to their elders, but to the whole world. They are taught what the bird sounds mean, to be still and quiet.

When the boys are about 7, the grandfathers start teaching then to hunt.  The aunts and uncles are there to help too, especially if the child needs correcting.  Discipline often fall to the aunt or uncle, and the parents role is to love the child and fill their heads with stories. Stories to inspire the children to be the best person they can be. The Bushmen are too practical to keep something around if it does not work. They have refined these teaching practices over 20,000 years. They still seem very relevant today.

 

Jon learning from the Naro women

 

            These teaching techniques are a large part of what has brought Jon to the Kalahari. Jon has spent his life trying to connect people to nature in a meaningful ways. Jon has started outdoor schools, and teaches and lectures all over the world.

            Jon was taught nature connection from the man who may be the closest thing left to an Apache scout, Tom Brown Jr. He was also mentored by Ingwe, a man who was raised in a hunter-gatherer lifestyle with the Akomba people of Kenya, and by Gilbert Walking Bull, a Sioux elder who was taught the old ways by his grandparents.

             Jon is very connected and aware of what is happing in the world around him, but he has not let that sever his ability to interact with the modern world and people. When you talk to Jon, he is as easy to intact with as anyone else you might meet, perhaps even easier because he is very aware of body language and can alter his style accordingly.

            When not in Africa, Jon spends the rest of the year living in the hills outside of Santa Cruz teaching what he calls Deep Nature Connection.  Deep Nature Connection is what the Naro have. It is knowing bird language; it is knowing how to read tracks; it is knowing what plants are in your area and how they can help you. There is really no closer connection then between you and your food, clothing, and shelter.

            Jon had developed a distance mentoring model that allows him to reach around the world to teach others. So sometimes Jon has to go around the world himself to find those who can help teach him. He has found those teachers in the Naro Bushmen of the Kalahari.

            So, I watched the Bushmen and I watched Jon. I walked in the tracks left by Hanama’s wise feet, felling the shape of his toes with mine. With Guta, I dug out the root-balls of the velvet raisin bush to make walking sticks. Fritz, a younger Bushman, helped me carve a digging stick.

 

Fritz carves on a throwing stick

Every time we stopped for any length of time, the Naro would build a fire. The fire helped straiten and harden the pieces of wood used to make many tools.  The fire also  added a center to the group. Stories and songs flow better when there is a fire to sit near. The fire helped slow time down, and let us be entirely in the moment.

We pass the week in this rhythm, sharing time and space.

The Bushmen have many challenges ahead of them as they try to mix modern and traditional life. There are fewer places where the Naro are allowed to hunt. Without a subsistence life style, the traditional skills seem less important. If no one is paying attention, in a few short years much of this wisdom could be lost.

            The Naro around Grasslands Lodge have been lucky in some ways.They have found that there are people all over the world who are starving for traditional knowledge. The Naro have been able to turn this into a way to make a living in this changing world, and a way to keep the traditional values alive. They have become guides, helping modern people through challenging times by teaching the primitive skills that build a strong bond with the earth. I hope that more people can make the trip to visit the Bushmen and learn from them. I hope that the Bushmen can learn to balance the benefits of the modern world with their traditional values.  I know I will think of them often: Guta, grinning pointing out a gemsbok trail, Xigao playing the part of an antelope, Hannama’s wise face as he squats, while setting spring-hare trap, and the sound of the women’s voices as they sing in the firelight. Now when I close my eyes I can still smell the dry straw of the savannah, feel the heat of the mid-day sun hanging in the north, and hear the red-eyed bulbul scolding a mongoose. Even though I have traveled thousands of miles since leaving Africa, I know the Kalahari will never be too far away.

 

Camel thorn

Song of the Morning

 

 

Day 2:

 I wake in the predawn blackness, light a candle so I can see to dress, and slip out into the still morning. I stand for few moments listening to the morning sounds, then I walk forward quietly—ten steps—stop—listen—look back over both shoulders—then another ten steps.

         

Maybe I am paranoid, but I am trying to immerse my senses in this African morning. I want to know every sound and the meaning of each noise as it changes. I also do not want to give a leopard the idea that I might be an easy meal.

 

As I near the main lodge building, the lions over in the Predator Project cage begin roaring. This is a sound that comes like the crash of a wave. I feel that if I am at all off-balance, I might be swept away. It makes me feel very small and pitifully blind in the dim morning light. The lions rattle the fences and I wonder how well the fences work to hold a 400-pound cat. I slip into a darker shadow of the porch and wait for the dawn. My heart rate rises, I feel very alive and aware of the wonderful fragility of that.

         

With the coming sun, the lions cease shaking the ground and it becomes easy to believe that the lions are all safe within their enclosure.  I pull out a camp chair and sit to watch the water hole.

         

I hear the sparrow hawk coming before see it. Or more specifically, I hear the silence that surrounds it. The small birds have stopped all their morning noises and hidden in thickets. Then the hawk comes in low and fast over the pond looking for any small bird still unaware and in the open.  There is a scuffle in a shrub on the far side of the water and a few feathers drift down. Soon all the other birds are back at their normal activities knowing the sparrow hawk will not need to eat again soon.  I think of the lions and my own silence in the shadows.

 

Our group assembles. Robin has already been out tracking the sand roads. He tells us of the Jackal tracks he found, Jon tells of the insects that passed his cabin in the night: millipede, dung beetle, and small antelope the size of medium dog—the Duiker.

 

The sand here tells stories to anyone who takes the time to listen.

 

Tapping Beatle Tracks

 

We meet the Naro and head in to the bush. Today, Xigio shows us basic survival skill for the desert dwellers, or what every bushman child by the age of 3 knows. Here, even with our group’s depth of outdoor experience, we may as well be helpless babes for what we do not know. But we learn fast. Xigio show a small plant with opposite leaves, and starts to dig. The soil moves fast, like digging on the beach. Soon he has a large root in his hands the size of cantaloupe. He uses the clean end of his digging stick to chop in to the base making a pulp of the root, then he holds the pulp in his hand and using his thumb as a spout, squeezing out water. I have heard that in some parts of the Kalahari, plants like this might be a bushman’s only water source for months.

 

Xigao and The Bi palnt

 

          Xigio shows us several large, edible roots also dripping with water. Some of these plants tops were so small and sparse looking, it was such a surprise to dig up such a large tuber.

          The Bushmen think of these things as basic skills—things that everyone knows—for us, like tying a shoe. The Naro are surprised that we are so interested. This knowledge that the Bushmen hold is a sign of something greater; it is part of their overall awareness of the surroundings. They truly know every plant, not as a name, but as a friend. They know the strengths and limitations, and how and when to use each.

         

The Bushmen have a skill-set foreign to many of us. The Naro are truly connected the land. You might not notice some of the subtleties just by watching them. As an example: we were talking to Xguta (Gu-ta) about the tracks of a Wildebeest. He was pointing out the age of the tracks, the sex, and may other details. Later, Jon asks Xguta about a specific bird-call he had heard in the distance just as Xguta had started talking. Xguta says—as if it were the most obvious thing in the world—“Oh that? That means there is a mongoose way over there.” He had taken this all in, mid-conversation, and had already made a mental map of the wildlife around us.

    

Xigao Show us how the bushmen track

 

    

This awareness is one of the things I am hoping to learn from the Naro while I am here. I cannot think of any time in my life that increased awareness will not be a helpful.

I tend to think I know my home ground pretty well…but do I really?

 

Are there bird calls I don’t know the meaning of? Are there plants I do not know or only by name? Are there animals whose habits I do not understand?

 

The answer is yes to all of those. It is now time for me to open my ears, eye and nose.

Time to feel everything I can from my than just my hands—use my entire skin. My senses are here, now I just need to use them. Hopefully then, I might know when the leopard stalks near.

The Kalahari

Preface:

This trip to Africa was busy, lazy, long, short, tiring and relaxing. It will take me a bit to convey all I can in blog posts that you might actually want to read. So I will be breaking it up in to several and hopefully you stay interested.

Happy reading!

Jeff

Just in case you were wondering, Africa is a hell of a long way away, and the Air Bus A 380 is a hell of a big airplane!  I felt like one of those small fish that seeks safety in the mouth of the parent fish, then is spit out somewhere else.  Disorienting to say the least! Four flights and two days of travel later I arrived in Manu Botswana, and was met by Jon and Nicole the trip leaders. There I also met Robin, Kyra and her sons who would be on the trip too. We spent a night in Maun, full of strange night sounds. Noises of Bush Babies, Scops Owls, and dog sized Fruit Bats. Then we loaded on yet another plane Kalahari Desert.

The Kalahari is huge 350,000 square miles, as big as Montana Wyoming and Nevada put together! It is also very very flat.  I think I almost saw a hill, but then I realized it was just gopher mound.

The desert is really more of a semi arid Savannah.  I was surprised at how much grass there real was. The soil very fine sand.  It is the sand than makes great trackers and the bushmen are superb. Sandy soil means it is possible and practical to trail game over long distances. The longer one tracks the better one gets. After  20,000 years of living in the Kalahari the skill has truly been refined The bushman can not only tell what animal made the track, but what sex,  what the track maker was doing at the time, head up head down, and whether the animal was nervous or relaxed at the time. Hopefully I will be picking up some of this wisdom.

We flew in a bush plane and arrived at Grasslands Lodge. The lodge was very nice. Too nice for me really. It was tough to be sleeping indoors… Well till the first lions started roaring very near by.. Then inside seemed like a good Idea. We all settled in then went out to spend sometime with the Bushmen.

XiGao

The bushmen of the Kalahari are one of the last in the line of hunter gatherer cultures world wide. Like so many indigenous people, as modern life creeps in traditional knowledge and values get lost. The bushman are somewhat lucky in the fact that the Kalahari is so vast it has taken time for modern world come there way.

Even so,  times are changing. The Naro Bushmen of this area, being adaptable and resourceful people, (you have to be when you might go months with out a real drink of water.) Watched the changing times, the cattle posts, then the tourists come.

The bushmen in cooperation with the owners of Grasslands Lodge, Thought of a new plan. How about teaching tourists the bushmen’s traditional skills?. So a partnership was formed. The bushmen get the benefits of income and maintaining their culture, while visitors get to participate in a life style that is all but gone in most of the world.

Our first encounter with the Naro, They came out of the desert from the north, wearing skins, with babies slung across backs in simple yet affective back packs.

The Naro language is very complex, with several different clicking sounds. Fortunately we had Franz  a Botswanan whose as a childhood was spent with the Naro.

jump rope of sorts

Xigao (pronounced Ka-Kao)  a five foot two Naro man met us with a double thumbs-up and a cle-eioo! greeting.  The bushmen proceeded to show us several traditional games. Then Robin and I joined in, somewhat clumsy at first but then getting better.The bushman thought were great fun with our awkward movements.

After a dance, acting out a wildebeest hunt. We made our plans to meet with the bushmen the following day. We finished up the evening sitting watching the waterhole  As heards of  Wildebeest and Kudu came down to drink. It was a great way to end all that traveling. I finally felt like I had truly arrived.

wildebeest by night

Link To Grasslands Lodge:

(http://www.grasslandlodge.com/)

Africa Bound!

Just in case you thought I wouldn't be bringing enough optics to Africa...


40 hours of travel….. Each way… I must be nuts…..

Or Nuts if I dont!

Over the winter I have been working on my naturalist skills.

Tracking; reading stories in the tracks of animals. Stories like where the animals were going, which way were they looking, were they stressed, excited, or relaxed. I have been also been working on bird language interpretation. Bird language is using the eyes, ears and behavior of the birds to locate other animal activity in the area.

I’m still leaning.  Sometimes I feel like a very slow student. Sometimes , it has been amazing. I have been able to tell that there is a Coopers Hawk sitting in the tree in back by the behavior of the song birds out front.  I have looked at the tracks of one of our dogs and known that she had been looking left with her head up. Very cool.

So who teaches this stuff?  Well, there are a few places out there. I found a man named Jon Young. Jon has been working in outdoor education and mentorship of wilderness skills for over 30 years. He was trained in his boy-hood by  Tom Brown jr. before Tom started his school. I was going to embark on a year-long distance mentorship with Jon.

Then my plans changed. I was given the opportunity to accompany Jon for two weeks in Africa.

The two weeks will be spent with the Naro Bushman of the Kalahari desert.

The Bushmen are the real experts in this field.

The Bushmen lives depend on knowing where the leopards are.  Where the snakes are, and how to trail game. The Bushmen are still living a subsistence life style keeping the old skills alive.

All the first nation people probably practiced these awareness skills. The Apache were renowned for their tracking ability and the ability to evade their enemies. Bird language was an indispensable part of this ability.

I feel so privileged to learn from both Jon and the Bushman, and going to Africa to boot.  I hope to be able to learn some of these skills that were so important to people for tens of thousands of years. I hope to be to pass these skills on to my students in the future. For now I’m on my way.

Expect an update when I get back.

Best wishes Jeff

If you want to lean more about my trip or these awareness skills please visit the following links:

My trip:

http://ecotoursinternational.com/adventure-travel/southern-africa/tracking-in-the-kalahari-desert.php

Jon Young:

http://jonyoung.org/

Wilderness awareness:

http://wildernessawareness.org/