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Desert Tracking with the Khomani Bushmen

Mbali Marais
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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.

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