Tourism has come to the Kalahari Desert, but not everyone wants it to, not least some of the Bushmen who live there.
I spent two days in the Central Kalahari Reserve at a beautiful 8-bed lodge called Tau Pan Camp, experiencing this huge natural wonder as a dream come true. I was not disappointed.
The Kalahari Desert is vastly misunderstood, for it is hardly an expanse of sand, nothing like the Sahara or the desolate sands of the Namib just to its west. The reserve itself is just over 20,000 sq. miles, although this is probably only two-thirds of the entire ecological area.
This huge area – about twice the size of Massachusetts – is a magical scrubveld, similar to much of Arizona and New Mexico. Beautiful succulents, innumerable wild flowers, characteristic water-saving tubers and even acacia and baobab trees pepper a certainly very flat landscape.
It is particularly beautiful now, as the intense summer rains begin to end. And the many varieties of grasses draw large amounts of game like oryx, springbok, sassaby and red hartebeest.
And these beautiful, colorful creatures tend to linger at the Kalahari’s many pans, like Tau by which I stayed. These are sometimes massive, sometimes small depression remnants of ancient lakes, which today fill only briefly and then with very shallow pools of water. Some through eons of evaporation become actual salt pans. Others, like Tau, become immense fields of nutrient grasses with the rains that begin in November and last through March.
And not just animals, but remarkable birds are found here. The rains allow the birds to bloom as much as the grasses! I was mesmerized by the many strikingly colorful black khorans displaying, their bright red faces calling love tunes to any nearby lady, quite oblivious to our interest!
But the Kalahari’s marvelous ecology is an on-off one regarding water. Come the end of April, there is often nothing but dust until the new rains in November. But this magical places stores much of the rainy season underground, and occasionally (and more so with help from boreholes) the water is available year-round to the resident Kalahari lions and other predators.
And therein lies the controversy. The Botswana government is waging battle against some of the San (Bushman, click-speaking) people to force them from their traditional lifestyles into community based tourism projects. Part of this battle is the drilling of boreholes to establish permanent colonies of wild animals.
One early morning I was taken by one San, who in English vernacular chose the name “Custom”, into the bush not far from the lodge. There he demonstrated some truly remarkable skills of the desert nomad, including how to snare small game like steenbok, how to extract medicines and poisons from the vegetable bounty that surrounded us, how to start a fire and how to extract pure water from the large turnip-like tuber base of a flimsy little succulent.
Custom, being a part of the tourism industry already, had no qualms about the government’s moves. But as for his relatives? He was equivocal.
There are only two places currently in this massive area for tourists. I stayed at the stunningly beautiful Tan Pan Camp. My life has been in tourism, and I feel when done properly, it contributes as much to the well-being of current peoples as to the preservation of traditional cultures.
What none of us want to see is a degeneration of traditional cultures into the refrigerated housing of current American Indians. Let’s hope the Botswana government and San peoples will find the right way.