The Bushmen of Botswana

Ghanzi, Botswana

Of the few vehicles seen while driving through Namibia, one of the most common were these hardcore overland trucks ferrying travelers from one remote place to the next. This morning, after calling Budget to ask if they planned on picking up my car (they were supposed to do so last night), it was time to test one of these trucks out myself with an 8-day Nomad camping trip through Botswana to Victoria Falls. At the meeting point, there was only a couple from Germany waiting so we weren’t sure if we were in the right place.

Around 8 a.m., this gigantic retrofitted truck roars to the curb. Out jumped this lanky, but completely badass, South African guy wearing a bandana. “I’m Thor,” he said. “You ready to go?”

“Is this our bus?” I asked. “It’s a truck — not a bus,” he replied. “And her name is Marilyn.” So into Marilyn we climbed. There are rows of seats, large windows and a big ice chest. We chucked our bags into a block of lockers in the back and off we went.

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As we passed through the chaotic streets of Windhoek, introductions were made. There were 14 of us in the group, spanning ages, professions and nationalities. Nearly everyone was well traveled. Most of the group had been together since Cape Town, where they had left from 10 days prior.

Our first stop was a supermarket where Thor and Soliwe, our cook, hopped out to stock up. We walked around, changed money to Botswana pulas and turned down several vendors trying to sell us fake Oakley sunglasses. Once the food had been loaded on board, we filled up Marilyn with diesel and set out on the day’s 516 kilometer drive east across the border.

We stopped briefly at a rest area for lunch, which we all pitched in to help prepare and set up. “Have you washed your hands?” one of the Danish women asked me in almost accusatory manner. “Yes,” I replied. “Okay, it’s just because you’re new,” she said.

The drive was long and, even on the tar roads, not very comfortable. Our truck didn’t have the best shocks and even a small bump sent us flying around in our seats. Yet, finally not having to drive — or worry about directions, gas or breaking down — it’s actually quite comfortable watching the landscape race by. Many say that traveling overland by truck is the best (and only) way to see Africa. You truly experience Africa, they say, instead of simply flying over it from one place to the next. We’ll see if that turns out to be the case.

In the late afternoon, we departed Namibia through the Buitepos border crossing and entered Botswana at Mamanu, setting our watches ahead in the process. After some stressful land crossings in Asia, I’d not known what to expect here. But it was generally uneventful — except for the South Korean woman in our group whom the Botswanan officials almost wouldn’t let in because they thought she was from North Korea. Oops.

Looking out the window, the change in Botswana was almost immediate — villages lined the roads while cattle fearlessly wandered. Yet, looks can be deceiving. This country is actually the wealthiest in sub-Saharan Africa. It is home to three of the world’s richest diamond mines and the government has smartly reinvested much of the proceeds in infrastructure, health-care and education. Experts now say that the mines will run dry within the next 5 years leaving Botswana’s future up in the air.

The country has focused on developing its tourism industry, employing a strategy of high income-low impact. For those without the interest or means of paying for fly-in safaris or $600 a night lodges, the options are limited, which was one of the reasons that I’d signed up for this trip with Nomad and was riding on Marilyn.

Nine hours after leaving Windhoek, we arrived in the small town of Ghanzi, where we were staying at Trail Blazers. The sun had already set as the tents were unloaded from the truck. I eyed them with apprehension as the camp manager strolled over. “We have huts available, five U.S. dollars,” she said. “I’ll take one,” I said without hesitation. Night one of my tented camping trip and I’d already taken an upgrade.

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While Suliwe cooked us dinner, we gathered around the campfire for a traditional Bushmen tribal dance. The Bushmen, or San, are indigenous to Botswana and have lived here for 30,000 years. The word San is said to have meant “wild people who can’t farm” — they were nomadic hunter-gatherers, who moved often in search of food and water.

Today, only about 55,000 San remain and 60% of them live in Botswana. Their singing, dancing and traditional dress offered a glimpse of what life was once like here in Africa.

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After an approving round of applause, the elder approached us. “Tobacco,” he said, making a smoking motion. A couple offered up a few cigarettes and the San lit up. It was a picture of contrasts. A 21st century Bushmen, trying desperately to adapt in a modern world.

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Considering the basic cooking facilities, dinner — mashed potatoes and beef chili — was delicious. Either that, or we were starving.

And, after a few beers and a long day on the road, it was time to retire to my Bushmen hut.

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