One of the most rare privileges of this world is meeting living legends. In January, I had such a pleasure, working with !Khomani San tribal leader Dawid Kruiper. But it was an experience I came away from elated and at the same time saddened at what is probably soon to be a lost treasure.

Yster Fester

Living on tribal land near Askham in the Kalahari, oom Dawid and his small band precariously balance their ancient Bushman lifestyle with the inevitable push of Western culture. The pressure has ravaged their band. Alcoholism is rife and the people of the tribe have resorted to peddling artefacts next to the road, doing San dances for tourists wearing the traditional !gai loincloth in what !Khwa ttu anthropologist Michael Diaber describes as the “worst form of prostitution” ever.

Over the years, the bushmen have retained much of their ancient and extensive knowledge of the veld. It’s an instinctive sensibility that seems hardly dimmed by time.  But it’s under pressure as years of living away from their ancestral land is now taking its toll. The young bushmen are mostly not interested in retaining the old ways, the older bushmen. They  grow up in towns, not in the veld, and only on rare occasions are taught field craft and hunting. Most of them seem to prefer wearing mirrored shades and hanging around the many bottle stores in the area, music blaring from cell phones.

I have worked with the !Khomani tribe before, photographing oom Dawid in the 90s while they were living at Kagga Kamma in the Ceres Karoo during a resettlement attempt. I also visited them here with the late dream interpreter Rozelle Mazetti, and following Michael’s career from resident Kagga Kamma anthropologist to starting !Kwa ttu a few years ago. It’s a subject close to my heart. With this dwindling treasure in mind, I visited the !Khomani tribe in the heat of January to shoot footage of them in their traditional clothing, recording their tribal tongue and searching for the elusive hoodia gordonii plant with them – the latter discovered by the bushmen centuries ago and used for its appetite suppressant qualities.

After obtaining advice from Michael on how to approach the tribe with suitable sensitivity after so many years of not seeing the Kruipers, I travelled to Askham and met first with Elias “Yster” Fester. I shot some footage of him pretending to be hunting, feeling a bit silly until I heard Yster mumbling away and pointing at the ground. “The steenbok stood around here in the shade, and ate from this bush. And a muskeljaatkat (genet) was chasing a dune rat over here.” At first I assumed he was doing this for my benefit, to add authenticity to the footage (a true professional, he is!), but then discovered he was actually reading spoor. To my eyes, there were slight indentations in the ground, and faint marks on the bush. To his, the signs told of what time of day it happened, and what the animal’s state of mind was, unhurried or pursued. Suddenly my “canned bushman” experience became very real.

We sat down in the hot veld, and my lesson in field craft started. Yster pointed out the tracks to me, explaining signs I could barely follow, indicating a dragging of a hoof indicating the slow, hot progress of a buck at midday, the crisp and finely defined spoor of the dune rat indicating early morning movement over slightly damp soil. He shot with his bow and arrow, showing the effective distance of the arrow (not much more than 20 metres), which meant having to stalk a buck to well within that distance. He indicated, where we sat, how he would have stalked this steenbok, one of the most renowned of alert animals, showing his path from bush to final clump of grass. How long would this take? Several hours, he says, not even blinking.

Because of the lack of effective range, the prey would inevitably only be wounded, necessitating in many cases many hours of running after it. And this is where the hoodia plant became indispensible – rich in moisture, the semi-bitter juice would quench their thirst while suppressing their appetites, allowing them to physically run down the wounded animal without expiring themselves.

My next stop was the 67-year-old Buks Kruiper, brother of the tribal leader. Oom Buks is no more than 5 foot tall, wiry, wily and extremely witty. His tales are tall, in the tradition of bushman storytelling, but nevertheless entertaining. He is experienced in the film industry, having played in several movies and rubbing noses with an Eskimo in a TV commercial. As a tracker, he is renowned and used extensively by Sanparks in tracking cheetahs for research. His popularity however is not shared by the neighbours, coloured subsistence farmers whose land had been largely expropriated and given to the bushmen. It was on one such farm that Oom Buks and I were accosted by the irate female farm owner, accusing him and his tribe of taking away their land. Oom Buks just shook his head, tears in his eyes and speechless in the face of such aggression. I got him away from there as quickly as I could, moving our shoot elsewhere.

Buks Kruiper’s family. He is second from left.

On my final day on shoot, Yster took me back to Askham to meet with Oom Dawid Kruiper. Strangely enough, he remembered me from the shoot we did in the 90s. Sitting with him under a lone camel thorn on a blanket, the heat now a humid 41 degrees, it was like stepping back into African history. The only difference was that we were meeting as fellow human beings, not as the hunter and hunted, the appalling memory of these people being licenced as game that may legally be killed by farmers not far away from my mind. Did we actually do this?

We were now hunting hoodia. And the only place where we would be able to find it, was back in the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, 80km away. The !Khomani have access to a section of the western park where they train youngsters field craft, tracking and hunting. Oom Dawid offered to take us there – he was convinced he saw some hoodia between some dunes. I jumped at the opportunity – I would see part of the Park that is closed to the public, a once-off opportunity sweetened by the fact that I was being guided by the original inhabitants of this land. It does not come any more real, any more authentic.

Yster with the hoodia plant

But it would not be that easy. Did I mention hoodia was elusive? Over the dunes we went, in lion country, with literally one arrow and a bow as protection. I was banking on the fact that I was the youngest and probably the fastest, in case of being chased by lion, but ten minutes into our search for the plants, I was panting badly and dragging my feet and tripod. Lion food, no doubt.

Yster found a plant. It’s spiky, like a cactus, and in springtime carries oddly pink or lilac flowers. Using his arrow head, he cut a section, skinned it and ate the flesh. Inside, it looks like a cucumber – juicy and green. And bitter, apparently. Stupidly, I did not taste it – in hindsight, that would have perfectly rounded this privileged experience. During our shoot, Oom Dawid wandered off into the veld and returned with a carrot-like root, apparently also extremely rare. He was very pleased at finding one, which he uses to prepare medicines. He talks about his preparations, and I quickly realise he is famed for most notably those that, shall we say, rival the effects of Viagra.

Walking the veld with the 76-year-old tribal chief was as intense an experience as I could ever have hoped for. Thankfully, I could record this in sound and motion, as most likely, it would be one of the last such opportunities, as time and reality catch up with their ancient ways.

Full Kalahari footage lightbox here.

Oom Dawid, Yster and I at the hoodia shoot

This behind the scenes post is courtesy of Wordsource Productions.

  1. Roxanne says:

    Fabulous stuff, Jaco. As you say, an honour to spend time in their world! I know Oom Dawid’s community well, having made friends with a tracker there and worked on some clinics in the area, so I know exactly the mix of feelings you mention: awe of their toughness and knowledge of the bush, profound sadness over the drinking and violence that seems to be so much a part of their modern-day life.

  2. Reading your story brought me back to my journey into the Australian bush.
    While many seem to think the grass is greener on that side, the Aborigine people face the same issues are this tribe, and who knows how long their traditional ways will survive.
    We are indeed lucky to have been able not only to experience their ways first hand, but to have captured a small bit of their lives on camera, so that the children of tomorrow will be able to see how these people lived.

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