Published: 28th June 2009
It's my first night at Xaranna, a safari lodge on an island in the Okavango delta. We eat outdoors at a long table, as the shape of a hippo ploughs the moonlit water and tiny reed frogs make their xylophone music.
I find myself watching the face of the guide sitting opposite me. Tight black curls, high smooth cheeks, laughing and avid as he relates how two hyenas mugged an impala off a cheetah. As the story unfolds, his excitement builds, and he morphs into each of the animals in turn. I can smell the ant hill where the cheetah hid her cubs; I can see the plain where the impala cried out.
It's as though the storyteller shape-shifts as he sniffs the air. When he becomes the victorious hyenas - each tearing one side of the impala - it seems his face is covered with blood.
I have come to Botswana to search for the San Bushmen, with Laurens van der Post's unsettling book The Lost World of the Kalahari under my arm. Writing in 1956, Van der Post says most of the Bushmen have been wiped out.
I recall his lyrical description of how the Bushman "seemed to know what it felt like to be an elephant, a lion, an antelope, a steenbok, a lizard, a striped mouse, mantis, baobab tree, yellow-coated cobra or starry-eyed amaryllis... his world was one without secrets between one form and another". Van der Post describes the San people as "gallant, mischievous, unpredictable and defiant", and laments their passing as he journeys through the swamps of the Okavango and into the Kalahari desert. Huh.
The storyteller across the table from me is a Bushman, and anything but wiped out. He introduces himself: Ketshabile "TJ" Thamago.
"You know," teases one of the other guides, "when TJ first came to work here, he thought you had to hit the canoes like donkeys to get them going."
"Yes," retorts TJ, "but when you need some difficult tracking done, who do you ask? Remember how I tracked that python in the sand...? " The story starts up once more.
The Delta is all about light - light flashing off butterfly wings, pied kingfishers and shiny frogs; the hammocks of spiders' webs trailing from reeds; pink lilies opening out to the sun. It's a gorgeous place, and water camps such as Xaranna and Xudum make the most of it, with their terraces, outdoor showers and plunge pools overlooking the emerald swamps.
After four days in these watery paradises, I moved down to the Kalahari. It was here that Van der Post found Bushmen living in loincloths, but you don't see that now. Many have become guides and trackers, like TJ, dressed in smart safari outfits, maintaining their traditions as hunters while working in conservation.
Others live in their own villages. About 100,000 Bushmen remain, and those I met were clever, dignified people, who took pride in their culture.
After the opulence, colour and noise of the Okavango, the Kalahari is all browns, blacks and silence: brown hyenas, black vultures, immense stretches of emptiness. The austere landscape refreshes the overloaded western soul as much as the waters of the delta soothe it.
At Camp Kalahari I meet Cobra, one of the "salt Bushmen", and a group of his friends. My time with them is a revelation. They take me out into the scrub, and within seconds their knowledge has transformed this vacant area into a teeming Wind in the Willows of secret moles and scorpions and porcupines, as they interpret the animals' stories from their tracks or droppings.
The creatures have no secrets. This porcupine had eaten brandy berries; this jackal had eaten grass to make itself sick because it wasn't feeling well. An indentation means a scorpion lives below, and within seconds the boys are calling the scorpion by name - "Corcan, Corcan" - and digging her out. And there she is, yellow, pregnant and angry.
The Bushmen teach me how to set traps for guinea fowl; how to sit when shooting a poisoned arrow; and how to catch a spring hare with a hook on a spear, which you slide into its burrow - the latter was recorded by Van der Post, too. All useful skills if climate change and the end of oil mean we ever return to being Bushmen.
After all, experts tell us all mankind is descended from a group of about 150 African Bushmen who travelled out to populate the world some 50,000 years ago. Thank goodness for their nomadic lifestyle.
I learn which leaves to eat if you want to cure gonorrhoea; which ones to go for if you have malaria; and all about the hoodia plant, which looks like a cactus and suppresses hunger and thirst - in the developed world it is used in a slimming pill. The Bushmen eat the hoodia on hunting trips, and I watch Cobra and his friends dig for its roots, squeezing the bitter liquid into their mouths.
There is a loneliness about the desert, with its outcast male wildebeests etched black on the horizon. The wet season runs roughly from November to April, when there is plenty of game, while the dry season fills the rest of the year, when you can sleep out on the saltpans under the bright stars.
Locals fear going into the pans, for they believe it is a place where people disappear. Indeed, the sparse trees are heavy with black vultures, and the insolent eyes of jackals turn to stare, as if wondering why you're not dead yet. The animals that survive here are the desert oryx, with its elegant horns; the beguiling, shuffling aardwolf, looking for termites; the eagle; the ostrich, the kori bustard, and the diminutive meerkat - only about a foot high, like so many film stars they're surprisingly small in the flesh.
A man from the camp stayed with them during the day so they were accustomed to humans and happy to use me as an anthill, climbing over my knee. We also find the tracks of Kalahari lions in the sand, beautiful and soft, curiously without menace.
"Our senses were totally immersed in sounds and colours... it was as if a great physical burden had been lifted from us," wrote Van der Post. I feel this way, too. And while it has been exhilarating to see lions, elephants and cheetahs, it is also exciting to spend time with our ancestors. I liked our species rather more after getting to know the Bushmen, and finding them, just as Van der Post promised, gallant, mischievous and defiantly clinging to their old ways.
Need to Know
Sally Emerson was a guest of Audley Travel and British Airways.
Travel details: Audley (01993 838000, audleytravel.com) has a 10-night trip from £4,800pp, staying at the Xudum or Xaranna safari camps (andbeyond.com), and Camp Kalahari (unchartedafrica.co.za), with BA flights from Heathrow to Maun (via Johannesburg), meals, drinks and guided activities. Or try Expert frica (020 8232 9777, expertafrica.com) or Scott Dunn (020 8682 5000, scottdunn.com).