Tag Archives: Tsumkwe

The Ju/’hoansi Bushmen of Tsumkwe

We came across the Ju/’hoansi Bushmen at Graskop quite by chance.  We’d been traveling on the C44 towards Tsumkwe when we were stopped at a veterinary check point.   After exchanging pleasantries with the official on duty for a few minutes, I asked where the best place was to see authentic Bushmen.  He told us to turn off about 700 metres further on and follow the road until we reached a settlement.   Six kilometres later, after negotiating a very sandy track lined with beautiful Mangetti trees and sparse bushveld, we arrived at the settlement, known as the Living Museum of the Ju/’Hoansi San.
This open-air museum was initiated by a Namibian tour guide called Werner Pfeifer in 2004 and was the first of its kind in Namibia.  It is a sustainable way for the Bushmen to earn a living in their harsh and remote environment, whilst promoting tourism and teaching visitors about their hunter-gatherer way of life.  A number of other similar museums have since been established throughout Namibia.
A friendly young lady greeted us and said that she would be our guide once we had chosen the tour that we wanted.  I was keen to see the Ju/’hoansi singing and dancing around a campfire, which incorporated a demonstration of how they go into a trance and contact their ancestors for healing and advice.  We were then taken to a nearby area with grass huts, where we were joined by six other Ju/’hoansi, wearing only animal skins and deep wrinkles.
Our guide spoke perfect English and Afrikaans, and translated for us when we asked questions of the medicine man who clicked away in his native tongue.  What an emotional and exciting time this was for Rob and me.
The tour started with a demonstration of how they start a fire by rubbing two sticks together.  Fires are always lit prior to any ceremonies that are held.  Whilst the sticks were being vigorously rubbed together, the Ju/’hoansi sang and spoke to their ancestors, asking for help with the process.  After an amazingly short time the dry grass was smoking and by blowing softly they coaxed a fire to life.
We were then shown how arrows are made, and how a spear can be shaped using an axe that doubles up as a pipe when the axe-head is removed.  (Apparently rabbit droppings are used as part of the tobacco mixture for their pipes.)  The lightweight arrows are not strong enough to kill the larger animals, so the Ju/’hoansi paint their arrow shafts with poison derived from the larva and pupae of chrysomelid beetles.  Up to ten larvae are applied to the arrow.  The poison is not put on the arrowhead itself in case the arrow maker accidentally poisons himself.
The Ju/’hoansi then showed us their trance dance where they go into an altered state of consciousness and sing and dance around the fire, all the while calling upon their ancestors.  I found the healing part of the dance very similar to Reiki in the way that the medicine man used his hands.  Participation in their activities is encouraged and we were delighted when they asked us if we wanted to come up for healing.  I went first and after placing his hand on my head, the medicine man then took my head between his hands and blew onto my forehead and both cheeks.  He then gathered the bad energy in my body and flung it away into the air, clearing me and my aura.  He did the same for Rob.  What a privilege to be part of such a special ceremony with such a lovely group of indigenous people.
At the end of the proceedings, the medicine man astounded me by picking up a hot coal from the fire and rubbing it in his armpits.  Later I could have kicked myself for not asking why he did this – was it a means of deodorizing his body on a hot day?  And how come he didn’t burn himself?
We purchased a handmade bead necklace that was on sale before bidding these amazing people farewell.  Our biggest regret was that we had such a short time there.  They have a basic campsite under large Mangetti trees (no water available) and offer tours where one can spend time with them tracking animals, gathering food and making snares and crafts – in other words getting to experience their way of life.  We have to go back sometime as we would dearly love to spend time out in the bush with them – but it will have to be in winter as the summer months are unbearably hot.

Off the beaten track – Tsumkwe to Nokaneng

We’ve written before about how our love of birds has taken us all over the country.  We’ve just returned from yet another trip that was moulded around seeing breeding colonies of the strikingly beautiful Carmine bee-eaters and rare African Skimmers.  It all started in June when we attended a travel exposition in Windhoek and discovered a company offering greatly reduced prices if one purchased accommodation at any of their country lodges.   We promptly bought six nights and then looked at where to go to cover previously unchartered territory and new birding experiences.

Tsumkwe Lodge

We were excited to see that they had a lodge at Tsumkwe, on the far north-eastern side of Namibia, in an area that is totally off the beaten track.   They had a second lodge, Namushasha, in that direction, in the Caprivi region, where we have wanted to see the Carmine bee-eaters, so it seemed logical to plot our trip with these two lodges in mind.  Having mentioned our plans to some folks we met at a dinner party, we learned that from Tsumkwe, one could go straight into Botswana through a small and relatively unknown border post at Dobe, and then cut up north to Namushasha, instead of backtracking to the main road and driving all the way across the Caprivi.  This valuable information saved us hundreds of kilometers of traveling and shortened our journey considerably.

Tsumkwe is a remote and tiny village just south of the Khaudum National Park.  It only has one general dealer store and a garage that restocks its fuel supplies once a week, so you have to be careful to carry enough fuel in case they have run out on your arrival.  It is also an area well-known for the few remaining San Bushmen (Ju/’hoansi tribe) who live there, and a number of living museums where Bushmen, dressed traditionally, give the public a glimpse into their lives, ancient spiritual beliefs and how they survive off the land.  These Bushmen will be the subject of an entire blog as we spent a delightful time with them on a very hot Saturday afternoon.

San Bushmen

The lodge at Tsumkwe is quite basic but comfortable, and the food is excellent.  We were amused to see, on entering our chalet that the washbasin, cupboards and dressing table were all made from 44 gallon drums.  How innovative is that!  They also have a campsite.

44 Gallon drum washbasin

With a whole day to explore the area before we left on the next leg of our trip, we decided to visit the Nyae Nyae Pans which are about twenty kilometers from the village.  After rains these pans are filled with birds and animals of every description, but unfortunately for us we were too early to see water so had to content ourselves with photographing Grey-backed sparrowlarks, squirrels and the beautiful scenery.

Grey-backed sparrowlark

From the pans we drove to another landmark of the area, the largest Baobab tree in the region, known as Holboom (hollow tree in Afrikaans).  This tree is absolutely mind-blowing in size – it is difficult to wrap your mind around how old it must be and how it could have a girth like it has.  We had a picnic lunch in its shade and reluctantly dragged ourselves away after having climbed up and into its midst.  It was home to a number of birds and tree squirrels.

Largest Baobab - Holboom

A few meters from Holboom there is another enormous Baobab under which one can camp if arrangements are made with the headman at the village.  An awesome spot to visit, but one needs a 4×4 as the track is very sandy in patches.

We entered Botswana the following day at the Dobe border post.  Short of actually conducting the border formalities on the bonnet of our car, it was probably the smallest and most informal customs and immigration set up we’ve come across.

Dobe border post

No cash changed hands so there were no cross border charges, and after a quick spray of the car wheels to prevent us spreading foot and mouth disease we were on our way along a very sandy and indistinct track to  Nokaneng and then up north to Namushasha on the Kwando River.