The Last Bushmen

The Last Bushmen

When the first Dutchmen arrived in southern Africa they encountered a yellow-skinned race of hunter-gatherers that spoke in clicks. They called them Bushmen. Thousands of years ago, the click speakers were thought to have populated all of sub-Sahara Africa, but being naturally docile and unwarlike they were gradually rolled back and their population shrunk as they came into contact with other more aggressive human societies. In 1650, the Dutch settlers estimated the Bushman population at 300,000. By the end of the 20th century only 20,000 remained, mostly living in the Kalahari Basin, but even they were fast disappearing. Curious to get to know them before they became extinct, in October 1990 Lucia Kaeppeli and I decided to spend a week living among the last of the Kalahari click-speakers.

The world’s leading Bushman expert was South African paleoanthropologist Phillip Tobias (1925-2012), of the University of Witwatersrand. But the person who had the most contact with the hunter-gatherers of the veld was Izak Barnard, a Transvaal farmer and son of the infamous ivory hunter known as Bvekenya – the “One Who Swaggers”. In 1964, Izak founded Penduka Safaris. Penduka is a Herero greeting which translates as “Did you get up well this morning?” Izak based Penduka on his farm at Delareyville, a town of 1600 people in the North West Province, 174 miles west of Johannesburg, where we went to meet him.

A pioneer in the mobile safari business, Izak’s principal rolling stock was a 1968 International truck. He found the body and chassis at a scrap yard in Windhoek, and transformed them into a double-cab vehicle ideal for off-road travel. That vehicle together with three other Internationals of the hardy 1310 series, all equipped with five-litre V8 engines and four-speed T19 gearboxes, are still ferrying visitors to the outback. Since Izak’s death in 2011, Penduka is run by son Willelm and wife Sally, based at Maun in Botswana.

“Nothing exists on the market that can match these trucks,” Izak told us when we arrived at his farm. As we still had 300 miles to travel that day to reach our destination in central Botswana, he was anxious to get underway. The 3-ton International and trailer had been loaded with 90 gallons of gas, 100 gallons of water, food for a week, most of it stored in a 450-litre freezer, an electricity generator and $800 worth of gifts for the Bushmen – six sacks of corn meal, 300 packets of tobacco, 50 kg of sugar, 144 packs of coffee, 62 packs of tea, 25 kg of salt, 50 bars of soap, six axes and 30 tins of Vaseline for the women.