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The Great Hunters

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Bushmen Hunters in The Kalahari Desert

While hunting in the Kalahari Desert in 1852, Chapman had a number of encounters with the Bushman people. He observed their Stone Age culture with a careful eye, admiring them for their tracking skill and for the strength of their family attachments. They too seem to have got on well with him.

We had abandoned the idea of remaining any longer in this neighbourhood to hunt elephants, finding it useless, as they seemed to have left the country, owing to the smell of those that had been slaughtered, and to the water being tainted with the stench of entrails and garbage which the natives had washed in the pools. Fortunately we now caught a Bushman, who, won over by a present of tobacco and beads, became reconciled to us, and promised, as well as we could understand to conduct us to game.

We travelled by a welltrodden elephant path several hours northeast. Such paths radiate from every vlei or watering place to all points of the compass, each leading to some other vlei, and a careful pursuit of the most beaten track is certain eventually to lead to some permanent water or river. The whole country is intersected with these paths. Our guide took the lead, carrying, according to custom, a fire stick in his hands to warm them and his naked breast against the bitter frost. Every now and then, when the wagons delayed in order that the forest trees might be felled which stood in the way, he deliberately squatted to light a fire and smoke his pipe, or broil some beef.

However, as he was the only friend we had in this wilderness, we were obliged to put up with his ways, and treat him kindly, for fear of his running away and leaving us in the lurch. I could not help admiring this fellow for his fine manly figure, his graceful, composed, and dignified movements, his fine forehead, dangling with shiny corded hair, delicate features, and bright black eyes, and teeth that any European lady might have envied, besides an exquisite little moustache, which gave him quite a military air.

Led by our guide without knowing whither, we could only follow in mute silence, having abandoned in despair all hopes of understanding his gibberish. We merely comprehended by the signs he made that he would bring us to some place, which he should reach when the sun had sunk about 45 o towards the western horizon. At noon, having, with much labour, cleared a path through a dense forest in a heavy sand bult (1) he made signs for us to stop. He turned into a by path, and, following him, I observed that he occasionally examined something which I discovered to be the spoor of Bushmen; having tracked this for half an hour on tiptoe, we both came suddenly to halt. The Bushman, bobbing down, motioned me to do the same. It appeared he had discovered the Bushmen ahead, and, crawling backwards on hands and knees, we returned to the wagons, and, having saddled our horses, some of our party returned, in company with the guide, to speak to them. On our approach they were dreadfully alarmed; the women, taking their children on their backs, fled; while the men, seeing no chance of retreat, adjusting their arrows in their bows, and assuming an attitude of defence, took aim, and would have discharged them at our breasts, but for our guide calling out that we are friends, and had come to kill elephants, not men. In an instant their attitude was changed. They drew their arrows, and stood trembling before us. However, we knew of something possessing a greater charm in dispelling fear than any speeches and protestations we could have made, and, handing them some tobacco, under its magic influence they speedily became reconciled to us. The water here being very muddy, we enlisted some of the band to take our horses to a better water.

Shouldering their spears, they marched off, calling and whistling for the horses and cattle to follow; but these animals exhibiting no symptoms of the intelligence and sagacity they seemed disposed to attribute to them, the Bushmen supposed that the fault lay with them, as not possessing any of the white mans medicine or charms. They gazed with wonder on ourselves, our wagons, and our horses, things that had never been dreamt of in their philosophy(2), and had only heard related as marvelous legends unworthy of belief (3). Having recovered from their panic, a young girl approached our guide, and anointed and sprinkled him with a powder made from a red root, repeating some unintelligible words; this, we were informed, was a usual ceremony, which would act as a charm against Porrah  (4)  doing him injury for having brought so great a surprise on his friends. This ceremony being ended, another girl brought a dish of pounded sweet berries for our guide to eat, and several for ourselves, and, this done, he had to relate the news, which he did, as is usual, in a sort of rhythm consisting of measured sentences, each containing a certain number of syllables, to which the listeners made one and the same antiphonal response. The news related was addressed to the father of the family only, and then the respective parties greeted each other by clapping hands all round. Bushmen do not exchange this greeting until the news has been told, so that it may be understood from the intelligence given whether the errand is peaceful and friendly.  No one dare give any information in the absence of the chief or father of the clan, and Bushmen and other natives never expect it, knowing their customs. In my early travels I have frequently met with young Bushmen who, when asked questions, made me no reply than I dont know. Being better acquainted with their customs, I have never, of later days, asked them for news, but have inquired for their father, to whom I first tell my own news as well as I can, and then get his story. Travellers unaccustomed to their ways are apt to become impatient and uncivil. The preliminary ceremonies being over, the Bushmen indulge in a bout of smoking from a rude clay pipe, which being passed round, each inhales one mouthful. A fit of violent intoxication ensues, the stomach distends, the breast heaves, the eyes turn their whites to view, a quivering motion seizes the whole frame, and they fall back in terrible convulsions. The first time I observed one of these people in this state, not knowing the cause, I turned to inquire from the others, but found they were all in the same state of stupor, one expected, who looked particularly foolish, and smiled at my dismay, though his head was fast bobbing. Presently he rolled over amongst the rest.

Appalled at the symptoms, I seized one of their tortoise-shells, ran for water, which I dashed unsparingly over them, and on their being restored found that this immoderate use of tobacco had caused them.

Having refreshed ourselves with a hearty breakfast, we started, accompanied by all the Bushmen, and soon falling in with a troop of fine elands, slew five, and also a fine male gemsbok (5)  or oryx, the flesh of which, hastily cut into strips and stored in the wagons, confirmed the attachment of our new friends, who stuck faithfully to us. As we bivouacked in the afternoon on a wide plain, dotted over with single trees and bushes, a description of country called bonk-veld, or eiland-veld (6), some bees were detected darting past to the eastward, and we lay down with our faces near the ground and looking westward, to mark the approach of the swarm above the horizon and discover the course of its flight. This we soon found directed towards a fallen log, about a quarter of a mile to the eastward. Thither we followed them, lying down at intervals of every fifty yards to watch other bees collecting, and be certain of our game; we were rewarded with two gallons of delicious honey, having well feasted on which we lay down happy again and well contented.

The Bushmen, also, having gorged to excess on the luscious prize (7), squatted round a large fire, drawing their knees close up to the chin, and cowering under their only garment, a piece of skin barely sufficient to cover their backs, and hanging on them like a sheet of paper; they did not sleep, however, for more than an hour at a time, walking at intervals to empty and replenish their pots, which they kept boiling at night. With these fellows, as well as other natives, no portion of an animal is lost. To ensure the blood is the first care, and if they have not a vessel to catch up that which is spilt, they scrape it together in a hole in the sand and gravel. The pith of the horns and hoofs are likewise eaten, and the hide is set aside for the last eating, or a portion of it converted into sandals.

We traveled all day under the guidance of these Bushmen, and, having cleared a road with our axes, arrived safely at a number of rather large pools of water. We found numerous spoor of elephants, buffaloes, elands, and lions, and during the night a fine troop of bull elephants drank at one of the pools.

Early on the following morning we sallied forth on the spoor of elephants, accompanied by a number of Bushmen, carrying sacks made out of pieces of elands paunches, and full of water.

As no sport had fallen to our lot for some time, we agreed to pursue this herd, and, if possible, bag the whole lot.  The Bushmen, who had been silent though excited observers, from the boughs of some tall trees, of our mode of warfare with these huge beasts, now, according to custom, threw handfuls of sand in the eyes of the dead elephants, muttering something that might be construed into thanks to the Good Spirit, and a propitiation for future favours. They then strove with emulation for the first plunge of their spears into a carcase, and, having opened a small part to see if the beast was fat, their snake-like eyes sparkling joyfully at the result, they proceeded to cut open and dismember the carcase.


  • A heavy sand bult. (Afrikaans) An area of rising ground. Chapman notes: We find, at intervals, throughout the desert, these long sandy rangers running parallel to each other, and reminding one of the heavy swell of the ocean.
  • Things that had never been dreamt of in their philosophy. No doubt a memory of Hamlets remark to his stoical friend.
  • There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.
  • Hamlet I.5. 166-167
  • Legends unworthy of belief. One Bushman mistook man and horse for a single creature a kind of centaur.
  • Porrah. The evil spirit
  • Gemsbok. (Oryx gazelle). A large antelope, preferring dry country and able to exist on very scanty vegetation. Its straight horns, which are seen as one when the animal is viewed in profile, are believed to have given rise to the legend of the unicorn in the Middle Ages.
  • Bonk-veld or eiland veld. (Afrikaans) Chunky or island country.
  • The luscious prize. Bushmen were great honey collectors. Chapman sometimes passed trees with wooden pegs fixed in the trunks which they scaled to rob the hives.