Etosha National Park is a massive wildlife park that surrounds an enormous salt pan in northern Namibia. Basically a dried-up salt lake, the white salt pan stretches for miles and miles in the middle of the park and gives the park its name, meaning “Great White Place” in the language of the locals.
About 300 kilometers from the Great White Place is the village of a San bushmen community. On our way through northern Namibia, we stopped to camp just outside of this village so we could pay a visit to the local San bushmen. We had learned about the traditional bushmen during our visit to Matobo National Park, but I was disappointed then that we didn’t get to meet any. Today we would get to meet a tribe of modern San, a group that no longer lives as hunter-gatherers, but retains the ethnic features of the traditional bushmen - distinct triangular faces with big foreheads, short in stature with uncommonly large butts.
We were graciously welcomed to the San village by the local San guide, an animated and smiley young woman who spoke English remarkably well. She led us on a trail through the dense bush to a clearing with a hut made of branches and straw, several women sitting on the ground making jewelry, dozens of children playing, and a few men, one of whom showed us how to make fire with two sticks. (I’ve never seen this done in real life and was very impressed.)
The men wore leather loin cloths and the women wore animal skin skirts while most of the young children were naked. The guys in our group joined the male San to make bows and arrows out of wood and bone. Us girls sat down in the dirt with the female San to make necklaces of ostrich egg shell.
It was such a fun time sprawled out on the dirty ground making jewelry just like another one of the San girls. They laughed and gossiped in their native “clicking” language while the kids ran and played around us. They gave me a San name which sounds like “Kwan” – click – “Na.”
I left the village with a meaningful souvenir, the ostrich egg shell necklace I helped my new San friend make for me.
As we trucked it back to our camp, we waved to the San we’d just bonded with who were bidding us goodbye from the side of the road. People who minutes before had been decked in traditional San clothing were now wearing Western clothes of jeans, T-shirts, shorts, dresses, leggings, and button downs. I felt a bit cheated, but at the same time appreciative that the modern San retain their traditions for visitors even if these days they live a more modern life.
These days, San children go to local schools and many learn to speak English. They use money and live in more contemporary housing structures. The modern San preserve parts of their traditional way of life, I think, only for the tourists. I was glad for the visit no matter how simulated. Meeting the bushmen and seeing some of their traditions practiced firsthand – even if only for show – is much more valuable for us visiting Westerners than learning about them from a tour guide or in a museum.
The next day we headed to Etosha for our last game drives of the trip. I was getting wistful that our safari days were coming to an end. That afternoon we saw antelope, impala, kudu, giraffes, zebra, wildebeest, oryx, dik dik, and elephant. On our way back to camp, we even saw a few black rhinos, the member of the Big Five that we’d only seen very far away at the Ngorongoro Crater. (We had trekked for white rhinos, a different species of rhino, in Matobo National Park.)
It was a restless sleep that night due to the mischievous jackals wandering around our campsite, knocking things over and looking for food. They are cute from far away, but they are easy to hate when they are noisily scavenging your campsite in the middle of the night!
Another game drive from one side of the park to the other the next day brought similar sightings of the animals we’d seen the day before and an intense sulphur and ammonia smell that permeated our noses the whole day. It smelled like a zoo of unkempt animals but was actually due to the minerals that remained in the salt pan dominating the park.
The smell was easier to bear when we actually got to view its source, the great white pan of Etosha. It looked like the entire abyss into the horizon was covered in snow – an interesting phenomenon in the middle of the dessert! In fact, it was just a huge, smelly expanse of dried salt water.
Right before we arrived at our next camp on the other side of the park, a lion pride emerged, seven lionesses walking in a line and preparing to hunt while one lazy lion moseyed along behind for protection. We followed them for a while, but the park was closing, so we had to get to camp before we could see them hunt. After the horrible giraffe breakfast we’d seen at Hwange, I was secretly glad we didn’t see the lions viciously killing another animal. Plus, it was still cool to see so many lions together moving from one place to another.
The campsite overlooks a watering hole, which was the prime viewing point for a nighttime black rhino spotting. (Unfortunately, he was hard to see, as the dark grey of his skin blends in perfectly with the murky grey of the dark night.)
Now it is time to sleep to prepare for our drive to camp tomorrow in the rocky shadow of Spitzkoppe, the “Matterhorn of Namibia.”