Desert Tracking with the Khomani Bushmen

Through watching and tracking some small creature going about its life, you begin to see the way that Nature provides for its every need, and you can begin to feel the Love of the Divine that is inherent in everything in Nature. This is how Nature connects you to the Divine. Oum Gert Khomani San Bushmen

Arnoldt Michaels Return To Origin Leader. This was one of the single greatest, most transformative experiences that I have had to date. In the beginning of this month, Return to Origin has given us the opportunity to visit the Kalahari Desert and to learn directly from the Bushmen who have inhabited Southern Africa for millennia.

One of the things which struck me the most upon our arrival in the Kalahari was that instead of seeing sand and dunes as far as the eye can see; I was instead greeted by rolling hills of yellow grass dotted intermittently with Camelthorn trees. This was definitely not the image of the desert that I had carried in my mind’s eye. I was later to learn that despite Cape Town being subjected to a severe drought, the Kalahari had just experienced one of its wettest summers in years, blessing the landscape with an abundance of life.

Upon our arrival at the bush camp with Oom Isak, our guide and Bushman Elder, and Oom Gert, his older brother, the reality hit me that we were indeed in a desert as I walked on the red sand beneath the hot sun toward our tents around which the grass had been cleared. Due to some unforeseen logistical difficulties we had arrived somewhat later than what had initially been planned, and had to naturally first focus on settling in. I found myself in a somewhat off-balance and agitated state during this time as I realised how different this environment was from any other that I’ve previously been in, and after some introspection I realised that what I was truly craving was for a chance to take some time to connect with the land. This opportunity came in the evening when Oom Isak was finally able to take us out on our first walk upon the land, and as we breached our first dune I was hit by the vastness of the wilderness around us, and in this moment I could feel my spirit open up to connect with this beautiful, primal land.

Like poetry made manifest, we stood with Oom Isak upon a dune overlooking the savanna grass rolling off in every direction while the sun was setting to one side with the waxing moon already starting to cast her soft glow on the other. The birds were all heading back to their nests singing about the day gone by, and one by one the barking geckoes started their nightly calls for the rain. I found myself connecting with this moment and reflecting this powerful transition as I found my soul shifting from the subtle haste and anxiety I’d been carrying while in the city to this state of pure peace and openness inherent in this land.

At this point Oom Isak left us saying that we should simply spend the night listening to the sounds of the desert: to feel what they awaken within us, and to be aware of the messages we receive in our dreams.
Returning to the camp, I was filled with a sense of the magical dream-like quality of the darkening landscape, and my feet that were walking on the soft sand might as easily have been walking in the clouds… and when I woke up the next day, I felt completely at home.

This feeling of being home was strengthened when Oom Isak explained that by surrendering all that is heavy and dark within us to the Earth, we can make room in our hearts for a loving lightness which can carry us up into the air and connect us to the Divine above.

This simple statement has greatly deepened the perspective of my personal relationship with the ground on which I stand, and the sacred reciprocity inherent within this relationship. One cannot take until you have given, and neither can you give if you haven’t previously received. What does an empty hand have to give, and how can you take if your hand is already full?

With this understanding I could now truly feel the Earth in her role as Mother, as she takes in my pain and hurt and replaces it with her kindness and her love. This alone is a gift of immeasurable value. How can I not feel at home when supported by the Mother?

Over the next few days my connection to the land was deepened by continuing the practice of tracking while seeing and feeling the way that the Bushmen do it so naturally and effortlessly. It was not long before I could begin to identify with a child-like excitement the call of the glossy starling, or tell apart the tracks of the various insects that criss-cross the desert’s sandy face, or spot the distinctive entrance of a scorpion’s burrow. All of these, and even especially the various plant and tree species, came to life with the vivid and intimate stories that the Bushmen had to tell about each and every one. I could feel my heart connecting more strongly with the essence of the Kalahari as I connected personally with each of its myriad inhabitants.

Mental Mapping

At this juncture, our mentor, Mbali, introduced us to the concept of mental mapping, and assigned us the task of drawing a map of the lay of the land based upon our observations throughout our time spent there. This of course challenged us to truly take note of all the finer details which we might maybe otherwise have blindly passed by. This not only helped us pick up subtle cues as to the way that certain geological features were formed (e.g. the difference between a dune shaped by the wind, or one shaped by the course of a now long-dry river), but also gave us increased insight into the subtle clues left in the tracks of the animals by noticing how their movements are governed by the landscape.

Boom! Suddenly a link was formed between the bigger picture and the smaller details… I could not even begin to describe how much this helped in strengthening my connection even further. Not only this, but we started noting down personal experiences on the map, and now the landscape became an interactive part of our personal stories. It is as if I’ve now started sharing parts of myself with the trees or stones that now stand monument to a memory. The sacred exchange continues between the Inner and Outer Worlds.
Before, after and between these ventures into the dunes we spent most of our time around the bush camp performing all the domestic tasks of hearth and home, with the fire being the natural focal point of all our activities. This was invariably where dinner was cooked, stories were told and tea was had; but one day the fire took on a much deeper role. This was the day that we were visited by a young Bushman artist named Dawid.

Dawid had learned his art from his father, who had also been one of the greatest trackers in their community. Although he used various mediums to express his artistic talent, he had come to visit us to demonstrate the technique employed in carving images into bone for use in necklaces and other decorative jewellery. To start this process, he began by building a fire in which he could heat up the tools he had crafted for this purpose from wire. Watching the way he built the fire, however, was an art form in itself: from the way he gathered and selected the various plants he would use for tinder and wood, to the way he built a moist sand-bank in which to place the iron tools to prevent the heat from reaching his hands. The fire itself became a tribute to Spirit. When he finally demonstrated his work, we sat enthralled at the way he so deftly and quickly carved a perfectly detailed image of a kudu standing amidst tufts of grass on a bone the size of my thumb.

Although I was amazed at the impressive detail of his work, it was not until I myself attempted to carve a simple lizard shape into the more receptive surface of a camelthorn pod that I realised the immense depth of his skill.
After watching Dawid do a few more pieces, and once I felt sufficiently practiced, I decided to apply the technique to the leather flap of my medicine bag.

We had begun working on our medicine bags towards the end of last year under the guidance of another one of our teachers, Shelley Adams, in a cave off the coast of Cape Town that had been inhabited by indigenous peoples in ages past. These serve as symbols of us accepting our personal medicine and acknowledging the duty of bringing this medicine out into the world. I could not think of a better place to complete them than next to this sacred fire amongst the Bushmen in the heart of the Kalahari.

Not all our sojourns beside the fire were necessarily this weighty, however.

Many an evening after dinner, Oom Gert, would have us howling with laughter with one of his many stories of the adventures (and misadventures) of clever Jackal and all the tricks he so loved to play on the other animals, especially King Lion. A certain one, in which Jackal manages to cook himself in his own pot, went down particularly well as we were waiting for our pot to finish cooking on the fire.

Old Oom Gert, however, who normally keeps silent when not telling stories, completely surprised us one day by suddenly speaking of the deep importance that connecting to the natural world through tracking holds for him.
In the simplest words possible he explains that through watching and tracking some small creature going about its life, you begin to see the way that Nature provides for its every need, and you can begin to feel the Love of the Divine that is inherent in everything in Nature. This is how Nature connects you to the Divine.

On our last morning in the Kalahari, at our last fire, we received the blessings of both Oom Gert and Oom Isak on our completed medicine bags, and the medicine that we now carry out into the world. They told us to always carry the spirit of the Kalahari wherever we may go and that whenever we do feel lost in the busy world outside, we can simply turn ourselves inward to that place of peace within ourselves that carries the silent memory of the red desert sands and the wide open skies.

On the bus back, Mbali asked if we could summarise what we have gained from this journey in one word, and the word “Dignity” instantly came to mind even before I could think why…

But after a couple of weeks back in the city, I still stand by it.

After this experience I feel dignified within my own Being. I feel I have gained a sense of the greatness of my Spirit, and thus of the importance of honouring my True Nature by not soiling it with or wasting my potential on anything that would diminish it.

I am ready to stand tall and proud, in order to work my medicine and do that which my soul was sent here to do.

Tracking is vital

Lindsay Burch Return To Origin Trainee Leader. I have been tracking non-stop now for a year, only thanks to the experiences afforded and teachings gained through the Return to Origin (RTO) Indigenous Knowledge Leadership Program. Although without ever identifying it I have been tracking since birth. I believe that many others are the same and that this is how we learn to survive and grow into who we want to become. Mind you, it doesn’t always work out so smoothly. This is where the art and tradition of tracking by the San Bushmen is vital in my slow, dreamy awakening. I learnt so much about myself through the most recent journey where I was privileged enough to spend quiet time in the Kalahagdi desert with members of the !Khomani San community. It was the epitome and pure essence of what I’ve discovered thus far in my own tracking journey. Those moments of time spent in the Kalahari Desert will for ever leave me subtly feeling humbled, grateful and a part of nature.

I believe to track means to live consciously; constantly taking note of the obvious and invisible things in my environment. More importantly, I now believe this tracking extends to the spirit world as well as everything else in our universe. We can’t expect to be on track without taking all information into account. This is age old information and thought that has been painted over a million times with many different shades of religion, language and culture. The fact of the matter is that life is simple. We are no different than that of our ancestors from many ages ago, and we can still only control our own daily choices. There is no doubt more information available to those with internet at their fingertips. What we are able to do with this wealth of knowledge is determined by our ability to manifest what we want and need in our lives.

We don’t always know what is best, but our ability to learn and grow, especially from mistakes, is a major key. In order to attract the life you dream of, one first has to “track” the life that has and is still being lived.

Nature's Mirror -Vision Quest


“Something ancient in us bends us toward the origins of the whole thing. We either drown in the splits and confusions of our lives, or we surrender to something greater than ourselves.” Michael Meade

Arnoldt Michaels -Trainee Leader Indigenous Knowledge Program 

Life, death and rebirth…
During this month past, I have had one of the most intense and profoundly defining experiences of my life.
I joined my fellow Return to Origin trainee leaders and our mentor, Mbali Marais, on our second trip to the Cederberg Mountains, where we were to undergo the ancient initiation known as a vision quest.

This would entail each of us spending 48 hours fasting in solitude while being completely immersed in Nature. Vision quests, although under a variety of names, have been undergone by mystics and those seeking insight into their own nature and purpose as well as a deeper understanding of their relationship to their world.
Despite having been given a list of practices to maintain in preparation for this journey, which included regular meditation and fasting, I don’t believe that anything could have prepared me for the reality of this experience.
Already on the drive as we entered the Cederberg, I was immediately reminded of the sacredness of these mountains that I first experienced during our last visit here; recalling our “pilgrimage” as we walked from rock shelter to rock shelter while coming face to face with the rock art, which remained as a reminder of the importance of this land to the Bushmen who once walked here.
The creation of our Death Arrows was one of the first things we had to do upon our arrival within the questing space. We would carry these with us when we went off on our solo journeys, and represented those parts of ourselves which we would leave behind in order to make space for new growth.

We were also encouraged to formulate clear intentions on what we seek to achieve from the experience, specifically focusing on our work with ourselves, with others and with community.
The next two days that I spent on my own would provide more than enough time to reflect on such matters, as I came to realise how slowly time actually passes when I’m not distracted by all the activities which I occupy myself with during my day-to-day life.
Nature’s first lesson for me was the shock of realising how small I really was once I was removed from all the layers of constructed ideas that I’ve built up to form my identity, and left with not much more than the space my body occupied.
Although this was overwhelming at first, I soon came to cherish the freedom that was born from this… without any reason to pretend to be anything other than I am, I could for the first time truly come face to face with my true self and release all the built-up pressure to play out all the roles that I masked myself in, and soon found light-hearted joy in simply being fully present and open to whatever presented itself to me whether triggered by my observations of Nature, or bubbling up from the well of Inspiration within me.

I realised that the boundaries I set are what defines my integrity.
When the time came to return from my solitude, I was surprised by how difficult it was. I felt as if I had seen and been in the real world and now had to return back to a constructed reality.
Thankfully we were welcomed back by Mbali and the others who had stayed in vigil for us throughout our quest, and the sacredness of the experience was honoured and maintained during our next few days of reintegration.
But with death comes rebirth… and I set my intentions with the creation of a Life Arrow for what I would do now that I could show my true face to the world…

I will let go of my dependence on others and be self-reliant by standing at the helm of the ship of my life, but still remain vulnerable enough to trust in others to support me when Life’s storms throw me off course. I will open my heart enough that I can show my true self to others without fear of judgement, so that my eyes will be open enough to see their true selves as well. I will remember and do my part to reawaken the old and true sense of community in which each individual is supported and nourished to become their true selves and to remain within a supportive interdependent relationship with the rest of their community.

These noble intentions have been tried and tested repeatedly since my return to the city, yet despite having fallen multiple times I can keep rising up again in the silent memory of the glimpse of the real world that I’ve been afforded by this beautiful experience… and my duty to myself and others to keep it real too.

Lindsay Burch -Trainee Leader Indigenous Knowledge Program 

“He was following a trail of suspicion and hints, as he continued to seek and meet his enemy face to face, and LOVE him forever more…”
The month of April was filled with growing and discoveries in many aspects of my life. We set out on a Vision Quest in the mountains which was radical in its ability to shift our perspective inwards. It was a precious time of solitude amongst the rocks and wilderness. Dangerous animals slithered and crawled around us innocently watching as our journey into the deep selves unfolded.
It all began months prior with precise preparation. This made me feel excited yet aware of the magnitude of which this particular quest held in the forming of a worthy life. By worthy I mean a life I want to live on a deep spiritual and mental level. At times it feels as if life is a wild bull running through the streets and I am one step ahead of the sharp and angry horns, looking for an open door to move into safety. This is when I feel worn out and lost; desperate for an escape. The contrast for me is when time slows down to a pace where I can feel myself and the world around me more fully. This is when breath and breathing is an exercise of gratitude. This is when the animals bring messages of warning, love and peace and I am able to take the moment to hear and feel the messages. This is a life in tune with my inner and outer nature, and it is so beautiful.
The Vision Quest gave me a taste and picture of nature as it can be for me when the proper time and practices are in place. When food becomes a life blood which feeds our body and soul, and not an indulgence of the mind and emotions. The fasting for two days on water and solution was a gentle awakening to an indigenous being that resides with my bones. This person is strong and true capable of magic and divine creation. This time in nature brought me closer to knowing who I am and why I was brought into this world. It sought to reveal the gifts I hold for myself and the ability I have to share it abundantly with others. It truly was a once in a lifetime experience which was powerful on many levels.
Once again, the challenges arose upon returning to life as it was back home. After many journeys now with return to origin, I was quietly confident with being able to integrate my growth and change back at home. This was taken too lightly in retrospect and I soon found myself lost and physically sick. This has been a common thread for me in the leadership program which once again lead to emotional and mental cracks.
The remedy as it has always been being simple in practice, take the time in nature to integrate the parts of myself and speak my truth always. It seems a lot easier writing it down in black and white now, but it was once more a difficult and painful transition. I feel that my protection of the light which was harnessed and revealed on the life altering journey needs to be protected much more actively. I can only do this by understanding my self and my inner enemy closely and feeding the parts of me that matter most to the one life that I have to live.

“Inside each of us are two wolfs, the Evil one; it is anger envy sorrow regret greed arrogance self-pity guilt resentment inferiority lies false pride superiority and ego. The Good one; it is joy love peace hope serenity humility kindness benevolence empathy generosity truth compassion and faith. Which wolf lives? The one we choose to feed.”

Angelique Michaels -Trainee Leader Indigenous Knowledge Leadership Program

This has been a month of intensive work. A month constituted of what I perceive to have been a vigorous unearthing of self, of toiling and stripping bear; of pruning back the inessential and with heart, tending to the deeply-rooted and elemental within.
The vision quest that I and my fellow leaders in training embarked on this month is an experience that has etched into my being a narrative that my spirit recognises as intimately mine and yet is so much greater than I am. In some way, I guess the quest has deepened my understanding of the importance of really embodying my reason for being here- the distinctive story inscribed in my bones, and simultaneously recognising its interconnectedness to the narratives of others.
Through what our Mentor Mbali Marais has introduced as Native-American concepts constituting the work with self, with another and the community, and Dagara elemental indigenous technology we have been able to frame and give both thought and heart to the interrelatedness of self and others and the importance of not only assuming authority over the lives we lead, but also the responsibility and commitment toward the greater whole of which we are an inextricable part.
The magnitude and potency of the quest goes beyond and cuts across the words deployed in my attempt to describe it in part because the quest far exceeds the days spent in solitude and even the time spent in the Cedarburg. It is as if the visions, the dreams, and teachings have embedded themselves so deeply into my innermost self that I cannot unlearn or decouple from them. My greatest surprise is that much of what I’ve experienced, thought or worked on out there, has leaked into my dreams, interactions with others and my relationship with myself, without me having to actively apply and make sense of the principles the quest imprinted on me.

The quest itself it would appear continues to work me; gently nudging me to embody all that I am and on occasions with more jarring prods steering me in the direction of my own authenticity. I find myself presently weathering one such an occasion, as I am made aware of the dangers of neglecting the physical structure stressed by my Mentor to be “the vital instrument and only vehicle” with which to experience this world. The mind/body dichotomy is splintered by this fever that has come at a time I felt most strong. My body, disregarded after having served as my truest guide and greatest teacher in the Cedarburg, fervently objects to this neglect and reminds me to value it and recommit to its protection and care. Out there, I learnt to listen to the flesh and bones constituting this body; to the cravings and repulsions, to the desires and aversions expressed through its senses. Through the body, I learnt of my own vulnerability and strength. I was reminded both of my contoured physicality and the blurred boundaries between the elements constituting my inner workings and those that make up the outer world. Out there, for a moment I could feel in my bones, the elemental energies existent in all things; the divinity in the faces of the rocks, the mystery in the trees and the fynbos, the wholesomeness of the land, the healing in the water and the potent messages carried by spider, locust, butterfly, ant and bird. I felt in relationship to time, that I formerly thought I understood, but out there assumed a curious and enigmatic air. I became aware of the rising and setting of the sun and how I felt most vitalised in its setting. I fell in love with the moon; the strings of my heart being pulled longingly with it across the dark and clustered sky.

In some ways it may have appeared that I was alone out there, but in truth, I was possibly less alone than I have ever been; and less lonely than I have ever felt. For I was in uninterrupted communion with the loving guides and ancestors, the elemental energies of the land, the rocks and trees. Without conscious awareness I was in communion with the prayers radiating from the distant home base like waves of protection; in communion with my fellow questers, Lindsay Burch and Arnoldt Michaels and in relationship to my own longings and to the dreams that filled my nights and seeped into my days.
When I close my eyes, I can still catch a glimpse of the last evening before our return; I can still drink in the deep shades of crimson in the sky that night and hear the faint beat of my Mentor’s son’s drum and further up, I imagined at the foot of a crag, one of my brother’s rhythmical raps on his drum and the other’s intricate melody emanating from the Ozark harp. I can feel again in my bones the interconnected distinctness of the moment. The importance of understanding that even in unity and oneness, we all stand apart, on our own journeys, our own quests.

Some days the ache for the wildness and realness of the moments lived in the Cedarburg is incontestable and I feel an anger at the narrow spaces and low ceilings of the so called “reality” to which I am subject. Then I remember the stillness in moments I could hear my own breathing, moments in which it felt as if my heart was both inside and outside of me, moments in which I could hear the deep rumbling of my own soul’s longing and I remember the secret inscribed in my bones; one that, when I am most still, whispers… Blessed be the wholeness in the hollow.