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Posted on 2008.08.07 at 10:26
A longer version of this entry, with extensive photography, can be viewed on the “Sites and Sounds” page.

August 1st 2008
Molopo Kalahari Lodge, Northern Cape, South Africa

I’m sitting in the long shadows of the late afternoon sun in the Northern Cape. En route to the Kalahari Desert, we’ve stopped 190 km north of the metropolis of Upington where the tiny propeller plane landed. This is the principal city of the Green Kalahari, located on the banks of the massive Orange River, and we’re staying at Molopo Kalahari Lodge near Askham. Askham is made up of a township, a gas station, a small market, a tuck shop and a liquor store. Molopo Lodge was one of the production bases for the “The Gods Are Crazy” (1981) the famous movie about how a cola bottle changes the lives of a group of Bushmen forever. Reading about the effects of this lodge in an anthropology text, I was disappointed to realize that this place has, in so many ways, changed this area forever. It is reminiscent of the adverse affects of trading posts and their intrusion into First Nations territory and culture in Canada, bringing liquor, processed foods, goods that are tempting but not necessities and creating a consumerist frenzy. I highly recommend Professor Keyan Tomaselli’s book Where Global Contradictions are Sharpest: Research Stories from the Kalahari. Savusa Series, Rozenberg Publishers, Amsterdam 2005, for a highly accessible, well-documented elaborate discussion of this and other relevant occurances.

We’re on a Roots/Routes Journey to Home with Geoff Hyland and heading to a remote Kalahari location in the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park that sprawls across both northern South Africa and Botwsana. 3.7 million hectares in size, this conservation area is an amalgamation of the former South African Kalahari Gemsbok Park and Botswana’s Gemsbok National Park. (In English, gemsbok are called oryx). The Park also borders on Namibia.

This park, home to many species of raptors, black-maned lions found nowhere else, cheetah, leopard and huge herds of gemsbok, springbok, blue wildebeest, red hartebeest and eland, is also the home of the Mier and San people: Africa’s First People, also referred to as the Bushmen. Bushmen is now a term considered politically insensitive but in an odd error in translation, the word that is in current acceptable usage, the San people, translates into English from a Nama word as The Bandit. Saa, in the same language, means “to pick things up/to forage.” Oops.

As we work with Geoff on his exploration of home (predominantly *what* is home) we are moving towards the place where humankind existed tens of millions of years ago. Where do we come from? Who are we? Who are we and *who* is *we*? Geoff is seeking the path to the heart, to his heart. What better place than a lodge called !Xaus which is “heart” in the Bushmen’s language. (The exclamation mark represents a palatal click in the Bushmen language. Otherwise the word is pronounced "Kaus")

We’ll be staying, in the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, at a remote location overlooking a huge dry pan (or dry river bed) with accommodation for 24 people in 12 cabins. Water and electricity are rationed. The food is prepared according to tradition by our hosts, the Mier people. This park is one of the only ones I know of in South Africa that is owned and run by indigenous people on their own land. Though the lodge we are in is owned by non-indigenous people, we will be, in essence, guests of the indigenous population. How does this work?

This part of the gigantic park is divided into segments, called “contract parks”. There are three of these contract parks owned, respectively, by the Mier people, the San/Bushmen and the South African National Parks. Any profit made in any of the three areas is shared and distributed by the Joint Management Board.

An organization called South African San Institute is also involved in the area, training the Bushmen and Mier in traditional skills and trades that have been lost over the years of assimilation and acculturation by the so-called Europeans (ie., the white South Africans) and the black population.
The sand dunes in this part of the world are burnt orange. The vegetation is a dry sage green blended with the colours we in the north would call khaki and…sand colour. My Lomo camera won’t be much use here. This beauty is more gradient and calls for a different type of documenting.

Lions and leopards and raptors, oh my.

August 2 2008
Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, Northern Cape, South Africa

Last night we spent the night at Molopo Kalahari Lodge in…well, there is no town name as there is no town. It’s a stop on the way to the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park. Alas, even in the middle of nowhere on a Friday night, August 1st, payday means lots of drinking and loud music. I cannot quite believe that I didn’t sleep last night because the bar at the Lodge, the only place to buy liquor for miles and miles was so rowdy.

This morning, early, we drove to Twee Rivieren (Two Rivers), one of the official entry points into the Park. They check you in, note your route and where you are staying and detail when you are leaving to ensure you come out as well as go in. Very strict rules. We saw an overland tour vehicle turned back because of leaking diesel fuel and excessive fumes.

We got picked up at Twee Rivieren by one of the people who runs the Lodge where we are staying to do more of Geoff’s Roots/Routes work. In a four wheel drive open vehicle, we did about two hours on gravel roads (and saw rare red Hartebeest, elands, herds of springbok, an even rarer honey badger, gemsbok…) and then another hour and a half over 91 red sand dunes: a roller coaster ride! It was glorious. I am so out of my element and yet, my colouring—from the colour of my hair to the clothes I am wearing—match the environment. I do not blend. I blend. I do not blend. I blend.

Geoff is working with us on his Roots/Routes piece about “What is home/Where is home?” daily and as he has come to realize, home (to quote the adage) is where the heart is and his heart is in a solitary and deep part of Africa. The heart, as he calls it, of Africa is in the places untouched by time. That is why we made this long journey into the depths of the Kalahari Desert.

So here we are, after several days of our creative, emotional and physical journey to the heart of Geoff’s Africa at !Xaus Lodge, an oasis in the midst of nowhere and at the heart of everywhere. It must be in the high thirties celcius even though it’s winter and just going on 5 p.m. Tonight the temperature will likely dip towards the zero mark.

I’m sitting on the wooden deck outside my cottage, looking out at the pan, the dry lake bed that stretches out in front of me. It is huge enough that my digital camera needs three shots to capture it in its entirety. This pan isn’t the usual circular shape: it has a distinct heart shape. We were surprised (and somehow not surprised) to find out that !Xaus Lodge means “Heart Lodge” in the language of the Bushmen. Originally, the word that was used to name the pan translated into English as “diarrhea” and it was only when one of the Bushmen employees looked out at the pan, sighed, and commented on the remote location and said, “The road to one’s heart is never an easy one” that the name !Xaus was chosen.

The Bushmen were almost eradicated by colonizers in Africa, but the ancestors of these particular Bushmen retreated to the heart of the Kalahari where the thought no one would follow as it was too arid and inhospitable for colonizers who were blithely planting trees in gentler areas as they couldn’t handle the new climate/geography.

I don’t think we’ll be bothered by loud music tonight. Maybe lions roaring in the nearby pan as they kill an evening snack.

August 3, 2008

Well, no lions roared last night. But the sound of the local owl screeching all night and pounding with its big old feet on the part of the hut’s roof that is corrugated iron sure terrified the bejeesus out of me for most of the night. I got up this morning, after a couple of early dawn hours of uneasy sleep, to find that Geoff had the own slam into his front door in search of prey. He too almost jumped out of bed at the sound. We mentioned it to our hosts at breakfast and they shrugged and said, “oh yes, the owl. It likes those two huts.”

Maybe tonight I’ll sleep better without worrying that something was going to come in through the drape/screen window and carry me off. I’m kind of embarrassed that I was so freaked out, but hey, I’m a northerner and a city dweller. I know about cockroach behaviour and how to get rid of raccoons.

We spoke today with one of our hosts who shared the history of the Bushmen and the genesis of their settlement in this area. Lots of details to digest. Then we walked with him down the dunes, along the perimeter of the Heart Pan to a small work space that a group of Bushmen use to create crafts out of found objects. Not at all the museumization of the Bushmen that dusty dioramas usually depict. We met Lena, one of the final four Bushmen who is still able to speak their mother tongue, the Nu language. She was using a hot sharp iron poker to create holes in tiny seeds which would then be strung into necklaces and ornaments, and simultaneously cooking a one pot meal over the same fire, adding spices and herbs to the meat and bones simmering slowly. The Nu language has seven clicks in it which are thought to mimic the sounds found in nature. Sitting beside Lena in the red sand, next to the fire, under the noonday sun, I had to remind myself that this is winter in the Kalahari, as it was like sitting in a very dry hot sauna: no sweating, just the feeling of heat coming at you like a brick wall. The sand at some places in the Kalahari is up to 4.5 meters deep and in summer can hit 45 degrees celcius, though a few feet down it cools to 25 degrees.

I’m brimming with unrelated pieces of undigested information. I should try to process and contextualize, but everytime I stop to think and look out over the vast Kalahari and the Heart Pan, all I can do is scan the horizon for the next unexpected site.

This afternoon/evening, we’re going out to view sunset on the pan. Last nights shots from the viewing deck were extraordinary, so I can’t begin to anticipate this experience. We also used the Lodge’s 11” Celestron Telescope to view stars. Not just a closer look at Venus (which replaces our North Star as first one up at night!) but Omega Centauri, the Ring Nebula, the rings of Jupiter, the Veil of Stars…unbelievable to look at such things and realize that it’s not a fabrication on a cheesy television show (with all due respect to my beloved Star Trek…).

Enough for now. I want to get back to looking out at nothing. And everything.

August 4, 2008

The sunset overlooking the pan was, as expected, stunning. Visually as well as aurally: the sounds of the animals, the wind through the reeds and grass, the sands shifting. Two of the men from the lodge were with us so that at any given moment there were two sets of eyes scanning ahead and behind us for animal intruders. Of course, it’s us who are the real intruders. From the vehicle on the drive back we saw bok of many sorts, a pale chanting goshawk and a snake eagle stalking its dinner.

This 7 a.m., Myles and Geoff went on a walk through the dunes with a guide and decided to stay behind and watch the sky change colours. The sun was up by 7 a.m., but the sky continued to shift colours for the next ninety minutes. Subtle changes in blues and rose hues. The light moving across the pan, from my bed, gave the red sands varying intensities and the optical illusion of both waves and pools. What I saw as pools was really just the salt residue of water long gone and the red waves were likely shadows across paths created by the two springbok who we keep seeing, uncharacteristically, moving across the expanse.

When the sun warmed the air a bit, I ventured out onto the balcony to sit for a while and looked at the “morning newspaper”…the sand. Every morning the sand shows a record of what went on the night before. I should also add that the owl was much quieter last night. Perhaps he sated his appetite earlier and wasn’t as frustrated.

Among the smaller tracks made by raptors, their prey and the odd jackal were some large paw prints. I wondered if the lions or a leopard had been through camp in the night. The largest of the paw prints disappeared under our deck. Sure enough, when Myles and Geoff returned from their guided walk (we aren’t permitted out on our own), they told me that the staff confirmed a leopard had been around all night. Under our deck. They also said that from before dawn the lions had been roaring nearby.

Does this sound blasé? I assure you it isn’t meant to. Is it less thrilling to hear a lion or see a leopard pawprint then view the animal? Oddly, it is no less exciting. In fact, the voyeur factor is less in effect.

When we were invited to watch the Bushmen preparing seeds and bones and bits of ostrich egg for souvenir jewellery and wall hangings yesterday, I will admit to that discomfort that comes with othering people. At least with the leopard and the lions we let them do what they do and were simply here, on their land.

August 5th
Upington, Northern Cape

In the interest of full disclosure, I will state, uncategorically: the pride of six lions we saw, lazing atop an ochre red sand dune, during the three hour drive back to Twee Rivieren after leaving !Xaus Lodge was more thrilling than the leopard pawprint.

What can I say? It was an unexpected last gift. As was the gift the Bushmen gave me, one of their hangings.

Sitting in a Bed & Breakfast in Upington, the sound of traffic and the smell of a city, familiar to me as breathing out and breathing in, is a reminder of my usual reality. Odd to think how quickly we acclimatized to the quiet of the deep desert and how the silence, at first deafening, soon became a recognizable cacophony of sounds.

Sure don’t miss the owl.

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