Iain Wallace visits Deception Valley in the wild and immense Central Kalahari Game Reserve, and learns survival skills from Bushman trackers
Once upon a time there was a mighty river, slap bang in the middle of Botswana. Millions of years ago, it may have flowed into what is now the glittering salt pans of the Makgadikgadi, but today, save for a few old maps, there is very little sign of any water course.
In fact, there is not a single drop of flowing water. All that remains is a valley of blue-clay soil, which, together with the searing heat of the Central Kalahari Game Reserve, creates the impression of a lake. Yes, it’s all a mirage; welcome to Deception Valley.
The illusion can be very real and it must have been heartbreaking for weary travellers arriving for a much-needed drink only to discover nothing before their blistering eyelids but blue-grey clay. The deception is most noticeable from the air, and even today there’s many a seasoned pilot who has been taken in by the effect.
When rain does arrive, the sweet, swaying grasses of the region attract gemsbok and springbok by the thousands, quickly followed by big cats and smaller opportunists such as jackal and the rare brown hyena. For many visitors, however, the real attractions are big African skies, breathtaking landscapes, amber-tinted sunsets, total serenity and, above all, the opportunity to meet the Kalahari Bushmen.
A good place to start is the owner-managed Deception Valley Lodge, set on 150sq km just outside the northern border of the Central Kalahari Game Reserve. It’s a fly-in and -out operation offering eight large chalets, each with a separate lounge, indoor bathtub and outside shower. The open-air lounge and dining area is the focus of the lodge, remaining cool with sofas and daybeds under a high thatched roof. It’s a great place to chill out, and in between gin and tonics you can peer out over the nearby waterhole and watch a steady stream of wildlife also in the process of quenching their thirst.
The lodge presents more flexibility with activities than in the neighbouring national park and, aside from the usual day and night drives, you can look forward to extended walks accompanied by qualified guides and Bushman trackers.
In an ever-changing world, interacting with the Naro Bushmen is undoubtedly one of the major draws. There are some 50 people groups in Botswana’s population of two million-plus, and of the 35,000 Basarwa (also known as San or Bushmen), the elf-like Naro group number a mere 8000. Today, they are faced with encroachment on their land and water resources, and many are finding it increasingly difficult to subsist in their traditional way. In fact, they are no longer nomadic, and at Deception Valley, don’t even pretend to live in the manner of their ancestors. It was very refreshing not to be faced with the usual pseudo cultural activities.
The Naro’s tracking and hunting skills, however, are still very much in evidence, which we saw first-hand when guides Jacobus Slabbert and Braam Badenhorst stirred the camp early for a day-long safari in the dense bush. Our target was the source of an early morning roar and Jacobus was convinced that some female lions were in the vicinity. But finding them in the lush undergrowth was going to be tricky, and Xise, the camp’s diminutive tracker, was going to have to step up to the plate.
As our vehicle criss-crossed the vast reserve, Xise was like the proverbial jack-in-the-box, continually jumping to the ground and looking for evidence of animal movement: the direction of a single blade of grass, the positioning and depth of a hoof print, the gathering of fallen debris in the print, or signs of residential termites that have gathered in the track to rebuild their crushed home. Jacobus explained that the Bushmen can even determine the age of the footstep, the sex and maturity of an animal, when it was in a particular area, its diet and whether it is injured or travelling with others.
After a couple of hours’ searching, the vehicle came to an abrupt halt, and our guide and tracker took their leave for what we presumed was a ‘comfort break’ behind some scrub and thorny bushes. Their rapid return suggested another reason: a pair of snoozing female lions, just 6m away and invisible to our searching eyes.
By mid-afternoon, we were walking; but fortunately, there was no requirement to engage in any hunting excursion. Jacobus explained that the Bushman would spend hours tracking his prey, isolating his target from the herd, then paralysing it with an arrow tipped with a poisonous concoction of beetle larvae, scorpion or spider essence, or snake venom and cactus juice. It takes time for the poison to work its way through the animal’s system, however, and the hunters would often face several more hours’ tracking before their prey fell down.
We stopped for a refreshment by a shepherd’s tree and Xise started digging deep with his bare hands to reveal his very own supply of water — cooling nicely in an ostrich egg, which in times gone by would have supported him during a hunt. So, I hear you ask: how do you get the yolk out of an ostrich egg? Simple really: bore a hole at the tip, insert a splayed twig, whisk, pour out the contents and make scrambled eggs.
As we continued our hike, it became ever more obvious that, far from being a hostile environment, the Kalahari is a life-giving force. Xise pointed out a never-ending treasure trove of tubers, fruits, herbs, barks and flowers, which are used in cooking, medicine and a host of other purposes. The dry roots of the Kalahari currant are made into arrowheads; camelthorn may cure your toothache; velvet raisin berries make a type of beer, buffalo thorn something stronger. My favourite discovery was the young roots of the shepherd’s tree, which are brewed and applied gently to haemorrhoids.
Our weary party returned to the lodge and collapsed in the lounge just in time to watch a young male giraffe spreadeagled at the waterhole. We had asked a hundred questions and been given all the answers, although I was more than puzzled by the claw marks on the leather sofas. But that’s another story…
What to do in the event of poor cellphone coverage:
• Look for termite mounds. An edible fungus called Termitomyces reticulatus grows at the base, and mixed with a few termites will provide valuable protein.
• Seek out the Hoodia gordonii plant, known as Bushman’s hat. Sour and disgusting — but your hunger pangs will soon disappear.
• Search for water in the morning. Dew can be found in plants or rock cavities. Plants such as tsamma melon and gemsbok cucumber are a vital source of water for the Bushman.
• Make a container. Store your water inside an ostrich egg (left) and bury it underground to keep it cool and fresh. Or use a snake instead: slice off the head; peel down the skin, turning it inside out; then reverse the process. Drape it around your neck to cool down.
• Don’t waste your pee. Pour it into your snakeskin. It may save your life.
• Getting there South African Airways, British Airways and Virgin Atlantic all fly to Maun, Botswana’s main hub for safari-goers, with a stopover in Johannesburg. From there, you can fly to the Deception Valley Lodge airstrip with Delta Air. Booking your Botswana adventure through a tour operator is a good idea. The writer travelled as a guest of Footsteps in Africa.
• Where to stay Deception Valley Lodge (doubles from US$1016, all-inclusive) is set in a remote location on the edge of the Central Kalahari Game Reserve. With only eight chalets, sleeping 16 guests, it provides a tranquil experience.
• When to go In summer (September to April), temperatures can reach 35°C. In contrast, in winter (June to August), temperatures hover at around 23°C during the day but can drop to 5°C at night. Each has its appeal, but one of the best times to visit is January to March, when it is at its greenest.
• Health Be sure to check with your GP or local travel clinic which vaccinations you need and buy your anti-malarials well in advance.