In the Kalahari with the San

More than the lions or the elephants or the hippos—it’s the smell of Africa that I find so intoxicating.

Right now, in November, it’s the smell of the driest dust—grey Kalahari sand so fine you can taste it on your teeth at the end of the day—and the smell of the promise of rain.

Scientifically-speaking, that scent comes from petrichor, when plants emit oil during a dry spell, then release the microscopic beads of oil after the first rain, like a burst of perfume in the air. That, along with geosmin (“Earth smell”) and Ozone make up the dizzying scent of Africa.

From the air, the land is the color of scorched driftwood, with black and ochre spots that mimic a giraffe’s patterned skin. The trees are like dried bristles, poking up from the lifeless ground, and as our little plane descends onto a hard-packed airstrip, I sense that we are landing in the deadest part of our planet.

Tau Pan is in the heart of the Central Kalahari Game Reserve. The air is hot (105 F) and so dry, that even indoors, my freshly-washed T-shirt turns to stiff cardboard in about five minutes.

Nothing can live out here—I am convinced—until an hour later, when driving out to the pan itself (the dried-out heart of a former mudpool) and we see birds: the rufous-naped lark and the fawn-colored lark, who sing and chirp like the happiest creatures in the world.

Then, a lilac-breasted roller breaks the monochromatic landscape in a flash of turquoise and royal blue and lavender pink. It’s unreal that a bird like that can live in a place like this.

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A Lilac-breasted roller flies up to a dead branch in the Kalahari Desert (Photo by Andrew Evans, National Geographic)

But this bone dry desert is very much alive—there are jackals howling back and forth, like teenagers texting on a Friday night. Warthogs abound, a lone giraffe shows up, and there are gemsbok and kudu galore.

And then there are lions—a whole pride, who seem to run this barren splash of empty horizon. They show up like ghosts, in the shade of the bush, or popping up at the watering hole, or prowling across the fire break.

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A scarred black-maned lion at Tau Pan in Botswana’s Kalahari Desert (Photo by Andrew Evans)

One of the males has golden velvet fur, but his nose is all scratched up, and there are three porcupine quills sticking out of his neck, the aftermath of a battle that would have made good television.

In the early light of morning, the lions’ eyes shine a milky yellow, but by noon, the animals have disappeared into the shade. The sun takes over, halting life for a few hours and baking us like a blast furnace.

That humans have survived in this habitat seems absurd, though National Geographic Explorer Wade Davis calls it, “sheer genius.”

Another National Geographic Explorer, Spencer Wells, has shown through his work that not only is every human descended from the family of Africa—but our species only emerged from the continent recently, in the last 50,000 years.

The San (or “bushmen”) who remained in the Kalahari, may very well reflect our earliest tendencies as humans, which is why it is such a privilege to spend time with Voter.

“Voter” is how he calls himself in English. In Setswana, he is Molemisi Tsooqoma, and in his own language, an ancient Khoisan tongue, he is Xarama.

There are over 30 different clicks in Voter’s language, each the equivalent of a separate letter or sound in our language. All of these clicks, and squelches and screeches carry real meaning, and to hear Xarama speak is like listening to every birdcall of the Kalahari all at once.

According to Wade, we only use 31 different sounds in English, whereas the San use over 140.

“These could very well be the sounds of the very first humans making language,” explains Wade. And when I hear Xarama speaking with clicks and gasps and guttural exuberance, I feel like an obsolete version standing next to the more sophisticated model with triple the settings.

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Xarama shows us some “Bushman Love Grass”, used for swaddling infants or starting fire out in the dry desert of the Kalahari (Photo by Andrew Evans, National Geographic)

Perhaps we all made these noises as babies, and then, as we learned the language of our parents, we forgot how to click and cluck. We also forgot how to make fire with two sticks of wood and a bit of “love grass”, or how to make snares from bark and twigs, or how to dig for water tubers in the driest times, or how to keep the lions away at night, or how to heal snakebite with a root of a certain bush, or how to track a steenbok, or how to use the head of a guinea fowl to lure a jackal into camp.

In short, we have forgotten how to survive—and standing out there, in the grey dust of the Kalahari, listening to the lessons from my distant cousin Xarama, I am convinced that this is the real reason we travel.

We travel to remember everything that we forgot.

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Our San guide Xarama creates fire from two sticks and a bit of Bushman Love Grass (Photo by Andrew Evans, National Geographic)

This trip is one of the many ways to travel with National Geographic Expeditions. To learn more about all of our travel programs, click here.