In the figurative shadow of Table Mountain, nestled in the basin that contains Cape Town, sat my home away from home. The small hostel painted in bright orange, depicting intermingled faces of the Big Five, screamed with the vibrancy and joy of the African continent, post apartheid.
As the sun beat down it dispersed the last vestiges of a “quickly being forgotten” U.S. winter. An idea, like so many others that bore fruit and became life-long memories, began forming in my mind. Almost due north lay the open wilderness of a fabled and expansive land. An area so mystical, exotic, and controversial that to be so close and not experience it for myself would be a travelers crime, an opportunity lost, and the potential seed for regret.
Plans were made on the spot and within 24 hours I found myself in the company of Jorick, Axel, and Kai, three non-English speaking Germans; all of us excitedly heading in the direction of the great Kalahari; home of the San people, the Kalahari Bushmen.
The Kalahari is a large semi-arid sandy desert that extends approx. 350,000 square miles covering parts of Botswana, Namibia, and South Africa. It contains huge tracts of grazing land that appear following every rainy season. This in turn supports more animals and plants than any other desert. Just the fact that the Kalahari receives consistent annual rainfall makes it an unusual desert ecosystem.
The Kalahari is home to migratory birds and a haven for wild animals including the Big Five; Lions, Leopards, Rhinos, Elephants, and the vengeful Cape Buffalo. Everything else from Giraffes and Zebras to Baboons and Wildebeest have found sanctuary in the savanna of the Kalahari.
Unfortunately the same cannot be said for the San people.
In 1996, the DeBeers Company evaluated the land in Botswana, assessing its potential for precious gem mining; diamonds were discovered. In 1997, the eviction of the San People from their land began in earnest.
In three big clearances, in 1997, 2002 and 2005, virtually all the Bushmen were forced out. Their homes dismantled, school and health facilities closed, the water supply was destroyed, and the San were threatened then trucked away to resettlement camps.
In 2006, after a long legal battle, the Botswana High Court ruled that the eviction of the San People from their land was unlawful. At the same time however, the government granted a permit to the De Beers Diamond Exploration Company allowing them to conduct mining activities within the reserve.
The court did not however, compel the government to provide services, like water, to any San upon their return. The government interpreted this ruling narrowly and did everything it could to make their return impossible, including cementing over the only water bore hole; without it, the Bushmen struggled to find enough water to survive.
At the same time as the San were prevented from accessing drinking water, a tourist camp, leased from the government, began operations. While Bushmen struggled to find enough water to survive, guests enjoyed the pristine wildlife reserve while poolside.
It wasn’t until 2011 that the San people gained legal right to access drinking water inside the reserve through existing bore holes. The presiding judge described the whole episode as ‘a harrowing story of human suffering and despair’.
In 2013 however, the evictions started again. This time the reason stated was to build an access corridor for wildlife. Once again the San took the government to court to prevent the forced evictions from ancestral homelands. Once again the government went ahead and began removing people and placing them in a resettlement camp called Bere.
To further add salt to the wound the attorney representing the San was placed on a visa list; effectively preventing him from entering the country until he obtained a visa.
Prior to this, the attorney Gordon Bennett had represented the San in court three times; suing the government with success on each occasion. He was now refused an entry visa. The Minister of Labor and Home Affairs, the Honorable Edwin Batshu, defended this move as being “in the interest of national security.”
Gem Diamonds, who bought the rights to mine from DeBeers, stated publicly that it contains a diamond deposit worth an estimated $4 billion.
It officially opened in September 2014.
None of this had happened yet as I made my way north to a desert I first read about years earlier. It was The Lost World of the Kalahari; Laurens van der Post’s 1950’s account of his travels in the area.
All I knew at this point was that a safari awaited and I was about to be a participant in one of the worlds great topographical wonders. The sun was blazing down, the sky was big and blue, and tragedy, although in the making, hung unknown like the proverbial second shoe.
Photos provided by Survival International.